There was a certain grace with which we approached life. There was this tenacity that defined one’s Onitshaness. On my part, I was a mummy’s boy, locked up most of the time behind the burglary from where I peeped like a prisoner. I still remember those Saturday and Sunday afternoons when I had to stand at the window struggling to catch a view of other kids while they rallied behind the round leather in delightful frenzy. I who was left behind with the instruction to read till Mama arrives would leave my books to enjoy a version of the round leather game I had invented with bottle corks as players and an object from a cassette tape as a ball.

The few times I was allowed to come out, I was a meek churcheous boy exuding the innocence of the dove. Street credibility eluded me. Those things, the can-do attitude with which Onitsha boys were known were not immediately noticeable. Despite my domineering personality, my childhood demeanors kept me underrated.

One day, I was chosen to play with the boys. But that singular opportunity was dented by the heavy hand that landed on my back that Saturday afternoon when the game was just beginning. I turned to roar, it was my Sister – the one whom I dreaded most. Chinwa had a way of taming whichever character I would display. She took me home where I received proper beating enough to keep me away from the field for a period of time.

Fast forward to many years later, this churcheous lad remained churcheous, at least, in appearance. While mates enjoyed the freedom of adolescence and the break-free poise that came with it, such activities as the Block Rosary Crusade held a very deep meaning for me. But do you blame me? I was averse to the real rugged aura that accompanied the Onitsha boy of my era. Those activities that made you a real “nwa Otu”. I missed plays in the gutters and distant streets. Nwangene was only a fairy tale for me. During the reign of the Bakassi Boys, I’ve not known where Ochanja-Roundabout was – the popular abbatoir of the “boys in red”. All I knew about them were what the popular Nollywood flicks of the time said. ISAKABA was one of those. I remember sneaking into our neighbour’s to catch a glimpse of it. Tales were told of how macheté turned red if one was guilty. But that was just one of the few things that childhood held for me. I lived very close to the popular Upper Iweka but experienced nothing of its famed lawlessness. Street brawls were unfamiliar to me. The few I witnessed weren’t as bloody as I envisaged.

As I grew older, I started sneaking out of the house to playgrounds. On one of those evenings when I should be at the Block Rosary center reciting the “Ekene Maria” even when my little mind was yet to comprehend how a virgin conceived and gave birth while still retaining her virginity, I chose to go and play football. I was caught by one of our leaders, that bald-headed one that taught us songs with his froggy voice on 7 different keys. I received the trashing of my life that day. My buttocks beheld fire.

But Onitsha has a way of affecting you even when you aren’t a full street boy. My primary school was a middle class one. The best in Onitsha during our era. I cannot tell for now. Most of the pupils were adjudged “umu mummy”. Competitions both academic and social were won back to back. Yours sincerely was a prominent mention back in the days. I attended a boarding house, an all boys’ one where I perceived, saw and felt ruggedity. That supposed home of the humble was a scintillating paradox. Both values and vices were learnt in equal measure with the vices sometimes surpassing the values. One of the vices would have damaged me for the rest of life if I was not shown the way out.

Life became interesting when I saw the gates of a co-educational school for the first time. Various culture shocks greeted me. Vagina heroism (apologies Immanuel James) was a popular rhetoric. While the boys reeled out tales of their conquest of the vagina, girls openly narrated coded stories of their prowess in penis science. Ours was a literal Gomorrah especially the senior classes. The tales, as absurd as they sounded, were both funny and witty for me. While my innocence frowned at the dexterity with which such tales were told, a part of me found the stories fascinating and secretly yearned for such adventure, a yearning I am yet to fulfill; a burden of choice I have placed on myself. It was in this school that I witnessed brawls akin to that of the Klitchko brothers, only that they were taken notches higher. Broken bottles were used as facial designers while locker woods flew from one corner to the other.

The years I spent at that school were my real birth into Onitsha. I may not have lived in some parts of Fegge or Okpoko – those areas regarded as the real ghetto but Woliwo brought Onitsha and its lessons home. Onitsha shaped me to learn resilience. Wisdom was taught in the streets. Defiant optimism was grown. Knowledge was gotten more outside the classroom than inside it. As my life’s journey continues, I cherish more my childhood memories of Onitsha. And as with most Onitsha boys, now that I am away from that city in search of a better life, reminiscences have become my consolation.

You have memories about the city that nurtured you? Please share.


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