“Owerri-pitality”! That’s the latest addition to my dictionary of vocabularies. This is courtesy of the one and only “Okosisi”, the amiable and indefatigable Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Administration) of my host university in Imo State. “Okosisi”, a Septuagenarian from his all-white but clean and well-trimmed hair, very affable and homely in character, is everyone’s delight, any day. A reverend gentleman and professor with academic bias for applied languages, such a terminology from him was not unexpected. “Owerri-pitality” is another word for the peculiar- according to him, an unrivalled kind of- hospitality that the heartland of the Igbos offers.
The Igbos were known for being great wordsmiths. The forebears before and after independence were intellectual giants, who prized high-sounding vocabs and according to oral history, who mesmerized the English colonial lords at home and abroad, getting them to seek out definitions in known and unknown dictionaries. We have heard fables of what Mbadiwe (a name the Yorubas have fondly defined as “mba-di-iwe”, meaning “I would have become books”) did in London at a time when he conjured a sentence that the British hosts never could crack: “a broken bottle has no mmekwatarism”, Mbadiwe was quoted to have said.
It is not surprising that I would hear of Owerri-pitality in the heart of the men of books. After all, even the names of the great Igbo leaders of yore, when comically contextualized in Yoruba, bore semblance with intellectualism: Azikiwe (“Asi-ki-iwe”: luck of books), Mbakwe (Mba-ka-iwe: I should have read books”), and so forth. Okosisi, the IMSU iroko simply brought back the good old days of Igbo ingenuity in academic circles. He had “warned” that we were in for a terrific time as we would be blown away by the enormity of Owerri hospitality: “Owerri-pitality”. I looked forward to the fun. Did I get it?
The Owerri-pitality was of mixed grill. From the Sam Mbakwe “International” Airport, to the very heart of Owerri- Port Harcourt Road, Bank Road, Okigwe Road, Wederer (I am not sure I got the spelling right), Commissioners Quarters area, etc., the smily face of the “Owelle”, Sir Rochas Okorocha’s portraits on massive billboards dot the entire landscape of the beautiful city. One important thing is that truly, Owerri is beautiful, and if there is any other better adjective to describe it, I would gladly appreciate that you qualify it more succinctly for me. The aesthetics is either complemented or engendered by the well-laid out estates, magnificent hotels and splendiferous and well-built structures all over the city. I am not sure which is more beautiful and expensive: Enugu or Owerri. By the way, Owerri was the last official capital of defunct Biafra Republic, and as such nothing short of a good foundation in town planning is expected. Enugu was the first capital before it was leveled and taken by the federal forces in October 1967.
Back to the Owelle. The portraits seem to be pointing to the submission that Owerri-pitality is unique. The Governor is willing to offer smiles here and there, free of charge, on those uncountable billboards. You will find him everywhere and if care is not taken, you will likely have no other thoughts for the day than the images of the Governor in mind, and you are more likely going to sleep to dream of the people’s governor. And when you wake up, you will unconsciously retort to a last remark in the dream, muttering: “Yes, Your Excellency!”
I was curious to find out what the hospitality is all about. It was not my first time in that blessed city of Ndigbo. But the “warning” and assurances that the people were different set my mind in the search mode. I found out that an average Owerri person, on the street, bus, “Keke” or in your neighbourhood would greet you in a very polite manner. The people are friendly and respectful. The ladies are bright and beautiful- they can be mistaken for half-castes or Beyoncé’s half sisters. The men do not behave like the average Igbo man you find in Lagos. Those in Owerri are not loud and they mind their business.
Now I know that Lagos has a rival in “Keke Marwa”. If I am not mistaking, Owerri’s symbol is the “Keke”. They are in their thousands, oozing out their fumes and choking every passenger- another dimension of Owerri-pitality. I had no alternative to Keke. I was condemned to hop in and out of it all through my nine days in that city. The beautiful thing however is that you could “chatter” (commandeer) it to any destination for only 200 or 300 naira. On your first day as JJC, you would likely pay as much as 400 naira or 500 naira, which is often the case with “mugus” who are yet to understand the “order of things”.
Interestingly, Owerri roads, as beautiful as they appear, have natural “checkpoints” everywhere: potholes (call them gullies). I considered these to be a kind way of slowing down speeding or potentially over-speeding vehicles. Potholes exist where they least are expected to be. The rains pour and the motorists wish they had canoes to paddle their way out. Another thing is that the drainages, well constructed, do not empty their wastes. Water is locked in them perpetually and this is noticeable in all the drainages in the city, even in the areas for the biggest. The drainage system in Owerri seems cursed by a “dibia”- they simply do not work! This, however is a blessing in disguise for Keke riders, who are seen parking by the sides of the drainages to scoop water from them and “clean up” their machines for work the next day. This is another dimension of how Owerri is nice and magnanimous to its own people.
On a serious note, beyond all these side attractions, Owerri is a pleasurable place to be- life is easy and sweet. But you must have the money to buy it. Owerri indigenes pride their town as a place where you come to spend the money and get the best life can offer. This cannot be truer. “Offe-Owerri” is as “sweet” as sugar and you can make it an afternoon meal for whole nine days. But it costs N1, 600, per plate and if that is multiplied by nine, what you have is enough to buy a flight ticket to return home. You spend all on “Offe-Owerri”, or “Oha” or bitter-leaf soup, then what you see on those large billboards will no longer be Okorocha smiling, but crying for you. You might have to be dignified in your obvious pitiable state by pretending to be trekking for Saraki or Dogara. But is it not worth it? To trek to Lagos and have all the time in the world to reflect and fantasize on all the life beauties that Owerri-pitality has in nine days, offered you.
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