Yesterday, I was in Onitsha. Inside a shop in the Main Market, we were following the development from the community radio, Sapiensa Fm. Then, the inferno was raging and there was still no news of any casualty. As a stranger beside me was thanking God for protecting the lives of the people, another rudely replied him with these words: ‘So you think that people whose source of livelihood were totally damaged are still living?’
No one countered him, silence instantly took over.
His statement reminded me of the things I witnessed as a child. Growing up in that city, I have lost counts of the number of fire outbreak in the local markets. I have seen men that slept as kings and woke up wretched. We have many ‘Former Rich Men’ in Onitsha that owe their woes to inferno. The most memorable was when Main Market was consumed at night – that was in the 90s.
That dreadful midnight, the whole town became awake. From our windows, we saw the mountain formed by smoke. The adults locked us inside as they assembled to deliberate on the way forward. When they came back, they recited the same old saying: ‘Thank God, it happened at night. No one was killed.’
The day later came, and we found out that the fire has already killed people it wanted to kill.
In those days, banks were very unstable; hence, men stored their money in an Iron safe. We heard that most of them, when they discovered that nothing was spared of their goods, opened the safe to see their money intact. But when they touched that which their eyes could see, the notes dissolved into ashes. Onitsha mourned in the morning. The broken among them walked into River Niger and what was left of their body floated days later.
The strong swore to remain alive but life was never the same again. ‘Big men’ started scraping with their teeth, the bark of the tree. Many, as the case always is, found enough money to start a new life – this time in their remote villages.
That fire of the midnight did not kill anybody – we can add, directly.
Apart from the few years I have stayed in Abuja, Onitsha is the only world I know. Of every 10 relatives of mine, 8 live in that city. There are many things about Onitsha strangers do not know. Onitsha is not like Lagos that is positioned at the mouth of the sea, and there is no estate or industry anywhere in that little town that belongs to the Federal Government. Onitsha is built every day with feeble hands – stone on top stone; the sweats of the young men serve as water. People suffer in Onitsha and only murmur their grievances. Of all that inflict the people, fire is the most devastating.
I still do not know what is difficult in being pro-active. Every successive government from the days of Zik watched helplessly as people’s source of livelihood is extinguished. I weep for Ochanja Market. I weep for lives that were not spared.
Funny enough, the second biggest River in the whole continent is just less than 3 kilometers away from the scene.