Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Nigerian Independence Day, Onitsha 1960

Helen and I had just arrived in Nigeria  in late September of 1960.  We stayed in Lagos very briefly where we got our necessary papers, bought a small car, then spent a few days in the “Ford Flats” at the University of Ibadan where we met various fellow academic visitors, finally driving our new vehicle from Ibadan  in Western Nigeria to Onitsha in the East.  After a brief search for housing, we moved into our upstairs rental flat on the southern edge of Onitsha Inland Town (enu-onicha).  When October First 1960 arrived, still settling in, we had this delightful moment below, seeing schoolchildren from Metropolitan Grammar School passing down Ugwuna0bamkpa Road on their way to join the Independence Day celebrations.  They saw us standing  out on our balcony, and stopped for a while, chanting at us in celebration (presuming, I suppose, that we were British citizens whose 60-year reign over the town was now ending, so their chanting may have been somewhat jeering in tone).  We cheered too,  and waved back at them, regarding ourselves as part of the New Order, not of the old.

Students on Ugwunaobamkpa Road, October 1, 1960

We then drove to Onitsha Sports Stadium where the Independence Celebration was to be held.  I should say here that I had great difficulty learning to use my camera in the  African tropica sun, and indeed never really mastered my photographic tasks.  We would mail exposed film to England for processing, so had to wait weeks to see the results of our work.  All of the photos I took at the stadium were grossly over-exposed, and  so I have had to Photoshop all of them drastically in order to provide the rather poor images you will see here.  We also knew almost nobody in town at this point, so we blundered into the stadium after some of the dancing groups had already arrived.  The first images in the sequence order I recorded were these of an Oraifite Town women’s dancing group (sponsored by the Onitsha Branch of Oraifite Improvement Union):


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Another group I photographed was this group of young men dancers, representing the Onitsha branch of another Ndi-Igbo town’s  Improvement Union.

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Having grown up mostly in the small-town American west, I had personally known very few black people, but after this close-up experience in the Onitsha Sports Stadium, any unconscious stereotypes I might have carried from childhood regarding the appearance of people of African descent were utterly demolished on this day.  Standing in this massive crowd of thousands was a revelation for me, one I have carried with me all of my subsequent life.  (I remember thinking, “Every one of them is absolutely unique!”)

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The main portion of the celebration was relatively brief.  The Obi of Onitsha arrived in a limousine, stood on a high platform, and spoke briefly to the crowd over loudspeakers.  Then other officials joined him and also gave very brief addresses.




I ventured out onto the field at one point, following the lead of some other photographers.  Along the east flank of the stadium a long shading arbor had been set up which accommodated various parties allocated elite social standing.  I did not venture to walk along the line on this day.  The white-robed figures standing at far right were leaders of a local church.




Then commenced the parading of a large array of local schoolgirls, all in uniform, marching past the reviewing stand.


Ranks of Onitsha schoolboys followed suit. striding in a much more formal, militant way.


A group of women danced.  I failed to identify them, and this photo is probably out of sequence. Several of the set may be.  Things happened so fast the first few days we were in Onitsha that many events were poorly recorded.


A contingent of local Muslim representatives appeared at one point. (They typically joined local celebrations as a compact, unified group.)


I managed to capture a glimpse of a particularly striking woman along with two red-capped chiefs, as the crowd began to disperse at the end of the ritual process.


For a detailed visual tour of Onitsha as it appeared  to us  during our stay there from 1960 to 1962, go to Chapter Two of this volume, “The ‘New Nigeria’ 1960-62” and travel about the city.   Most of the images you will see are considerably better in quality than these sorry efforts just presented above, and more are available in all of the pages and chapters  of A Mighty Tree website than most readers will ever have the patience to consult.

At Home After the Celebrations October First, 1960

Here I have decided to indulge myself and tell about our late evening after these pictures were taken.  First I must say something about the upstairs flat we had rented at 24 Mba Road.  This building was owned by Albert (Ozomma) Erokwu, where he lived downstairs with his wife Merci and their three children.  We had been in the  upstairs flat only two or three days, but by then we knew that the “running water”  provided in it actually ran only occasionally (and it seemed, unpredictably.  Apparently a tree had fallen over the water pipe somewhere in the Inland Town, partially but not entirely disabling it, so that it would run from time to time depending on amounts  being used elsewhere.  We had already learned to leave the bathtub turned on with the drain-plug in place so we would catch water whenever it decided to run.

When we returned to our flat the evening after the Celebration photographed above, we climbed up our stairway to hear a roar emerging from our rooms.  We didn’t ask what that was, since at our front door we could see inside substantial water filling the entire floor, every room now several inches deep and filling!  Horrified, we seized a broom and began trying to remove the water through the front and back doors.  Our shouts aroused the three children downstairs, who came up and immediately began helping us deal with the problem.  One of them thought to grab empty drawers from a chest and use these to scoop up water.  Together we eventually got the job done (and the floors nicely cleaned, by the way) and I crept downstairs to survey the damage in the flat below.  The Erokwu children’s grandmother was there, and to our relief she appeared entirely  unaware there had been any problem.  I saw a couple of tiny wet spots in the corner ceiling of the downstairs living room, but that was all.  This, I realized, was one well-constructed cement-block house (see a view of it here below).  All while we were scooping out the water I was anticipating imminent floor collapse.  Now at least we knew we occupied a sturdy house.  (We also recognized our folly in leaving the faucet open:  most other residents of the Inland Town no doubt attended the many festivities occurring in the Waterside, so water use inland had plummeted, and hence our bathtub received a continual supply in full force.)


We threw most of the water out the front door, located behind and slightly left of where Helen is standing in the photo.

Soon thereafter, a relative of Ozomma Erokwu escorted us to the office of the Onitsha Water Works, still occupied by an Expatriate official who, perhaps taking note of the obviously distressed “European”-looking couple standing before him, saw to it that the offending tree trunk was promptly removed, and we never had water problems in the building afterward.

This building survived the Biafra Civil War of 1967-70, though the hipped roof was blown off during that time (replaced by a slanting one, as we saw during our subsequent visit to Onitsha in 1992).






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