By Patrick Dele Cole
ABOVE is a photograph of Chief Obafemi Awolowo with naked children. People have all kinds of reactions to Nigerians being naked in 1952 – get over it; in most parts of Nigeria, at that time, being naked was common. I started primary school in Enugu in 1946.
We lived at the General Hospital Quarters, at the General Hospital, next to the colliery quarters, the Nigeria Police and the Enugu Prison – all in Agbani.
St. Bartholomew’s School was in Asata – a distance of about five kilometres from my house. I left home at 6.00 am to walk to school through a slightly shorter course – walking to school by following the railway track.
Agbani, Ogbete, Asata, Uwani are Enugu districts surrounded by villages of the various ethnic groups who brought in food items to the Ogbete market daily. On my way to school and back, it was common to see boys and girls and women naked carrying foodstuff, firewood, fruits, etc, to the markets. In 1946, the District Officer published an order banning naked people from coming into Enugu – that is markets and various parts of the town.
I went to school with a small tin box made by the tinker near the market. Whenever it rained, I took off my clothes, stowed them in my school tin box and continued my journey either to or from school. This was what every schoolchild did. We could not allow our clothes to be wet, because that was the only uniform we had, which we washed every weekend.
To see a naked woman and a baby hanging on her while sucking milk was a common sight. Some of the women would bring their merchandise to the house. At other times, customers would buy oil – a special delicious oil for eating yam – mmanu akagbe(I believe the Itsekiri have a similar palm oil – epo orun )- which was very popular.
With the anti-nudity ordinance, the women would normally be carrying the basket of yams or large pots or tins of palm oil on their heads, but with a balancer – aju – between their heads and the baggage – thus steadying the load.
That aju was a strip of cloth rolled tight and placed on the woman’s head before the load. It gave a perfect balance. On getting to the edge of the town near the market, they put down the load, unfurled the aju, which was originally a handwoven strip of cloth. This they tied to their waist and went to market. I saw no brassieres and the wrapper was the original mini-long before Millicent Small thought about singing lollipop.
In 1954, I started secondary school at Baptist High School. My father was then working at Amalgamated Tin Mines of Nigeria, ATMN, in Barakin Ladi, Bukuru and environs. He used to teach morse code and trained many people in it – they ended up at the telegraph office sending off telegrams in Post and Telegraph, P & T.
He believed that he had to live in a town with railways. He swore by them and hardly went anywhere by road except driving in the axis of Bukuru, Barkin-Ladi and Jos. So when I was on holiday, he would telegram me to proceed by train from Port Harcourt to Jos. He would have made arrangements with the Nigeria Railways station manager, to my great annoyance and embarrassment. My name would be blasted on the Nigerian Railway.
I would then leave my friends for the Station Manager’s office, put on the train with instructions to guards, inspectors, etc., to look after me for the 36-hour trip to Jos. Most of my friends would drop off at Aba, Uzuakoli or Enugu.
My mother, on the other hand, swore that the only way to travel was via the Daily Times. From Port Harcourt, I would go to Onitsha and from there to Lagos to be picked up by relatives at the Daily Times depot. The railway trip passed several areas in present day Ebonyi, Kogi, Benue and Plateau.
In nearly all these places from 1952-57, people came to hail the train as it sped along. Most people on these routes were naked or scantily clothed, jumping and hailing “train! train!!” More people were clothed as we approached Kafanchan, but once we passed it, people were unabashedly naked.
Quite a lot of people in Enugu and environs filed their teeth, which conjured up nightmare hallucinations in my head, especially given the stories of these parts. In Enugu there were stories of Abanidi-Egu. (The night is frightful). These were horror, blood-curdling stories of the people of the area. It may well be that these were stories to keep a young precocious boy on the straight and narrow.
Bukuru and Barakin Ladi were mining towns like Udi, Emenike and indeed most of Enugu. ATMN, like the Nigerian Coal Corporation, built the roads, houses, supplied water and electricity to Jos, Barkin Ladi and Bukuru. I remember that the houses had fireplaces because the area could get cold.
Travelling in Nigeria in those days helped to enforce the geography lessons we learned at school – how Nigeria had aluminium, manganese, columbite, gold, etc, that we grew rubber, cocoa, kola nuts, sorghum, corn, cotton, sugar, etc. Most interesting in the geography book was the maps which described parts of the present day Kwara, Zamfara, Kebbi as “wild and uninhabited”. Another book described it as “unknown”.
Midnight jingoistic coup
After Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s debacle in Western Nigeria, where Chief Awolowo in a midnight jingoistic coup, wrenched power from him, he returned to Eastern Nigeria and removed Prof. Eyo Ita to become the Premier.
The most pressing problem was the high cost of bride price among the Igbo and, of course, attempts by the Premier to finance the African Continental Bank. Igbo men simply could not afford to get married. Zik instituted a bride price ceiling of 12 shillings and six pence. The Igbo could once again marry so long as the bride price did not exceed the government ceiling.
Incidentally, many people blame Zik for ousting Prof Eyo Ita. I do not. The East was the only region where the Premier, Prof Eyo Ita, did not come from the ethnically dominant group. Even the Mayor of Enugu was from the North!
My family believed in the unity school idea. So, my third son, I sent to Government Secondary School in Minna. He went fully decked with all the requirements of the boarding school – cutlery, provisions, shirts, underwear, socks, shoes, canvas, etc. He did not know anybody and neither did we.
Before two weeks he called to say that almost everything he went with had been stolen, that he was on his last pair of underwear, the other five having been stolen. He said he had washed his last pair and could not put it out to dry. Instead, he slept holding his underwear just outside his mosquito net.
When he woke up, someone had stolen the wet pant and singlet from his sleeping hand! We took him out of the school and put him at the staff school of UNILAG! Till today he is still particular about his underwear as are all his children.