To read Onyeka Onwenu’s autobiography is to be a fly on the wall completely absorbed in multilayered intimate conversations with her about a thoroughly fascinating life.
It transports the reader from the joys of a relatively privileged childhood in pre-Civil War Port Harcourt to the traumatic death of her father in a car crash before her fifth birthday, to her mother’s experience of widowhood and the ugly transformation of previously containable extended family relationships once the breadwinner had passed. Life became hard overnight.
She recounted the privations of war as a teenager and the daily exposure to danger, disease, hunger and death, but also the steely resolve of a people determined to bear their suffering with equanimity. Life had to go on, even when a good meal consisted of foraged vegetables, rats and lizards.
The aftermath of the war did not bring much relief, especially with the forced sale of the family house in Port Harcourt as an “Abandoned Property”. The street named after her father was also renamed in an attempt to edit a people out of the history of that city. You can tell that that experience still rankles.
A constant, in between these stories, is the energising power of the memories of her father’s love. This love, always remembered in the present, became her inspiration and the catalyst for her talent and endeavors in her future undertakings. It is also a story about family, especially the blessing of wise and supportive grandparents, with an infectious strong work ethic and a virtuous moral code.
Her mother was a partner of sorts, a sounding board and collaborator much more than a parent. Theirs evolved into a truly special relationship and one that even included creative collaboration.
She did not shy away from the dysfunctions endemic to family life, and her courage and humanity in tackling them are masterful. There is a sense of a search for meaning, balance, understanding and acceptance, rather than criticism and condemnation. The highs were high, and the lows as low as intimate betrayal can get.
In a sense, it is also a book of tributes. It appreciates those who left their indelible footprints on her life. They include her nuclear family members, especially her eldest sister Zoe Dibugwu, and mentors such as Alhaji Maitama Sule and Ambassador Wali. These tributes also reflected the zeitgeist of the times. As such, they are intertwined with Nigeria’s turbulent history and features certain interesting roles she played as a journalist and as a singer-activist advancing women’s rights and political inclusion in collaboration with like-minded others.
Her story could be summed up as the miracle of exponentiation, where the alchemy of talent and diligence produces excellence. Such prodigious talent most often attracts envy. Perhaps we instinctually covet what we do not have, that is, what we are incapable of, no matter our own talents.
As she has proven, for those who chart their own course, stay focused, persevere, and excel, the rewards are unparalleled. Necessary baggage of her phenomenal success no doubt was having to deal with animosity, sometimes manifest, but most times concealed and venomous.
Her journalism and music careers made her a public figure locally and internationally. The accolades attracted the twin impostors of jealousy and envy, as well as virulent gossip and controversies. Barely concealed hatreds surfaced from within and without. Many of the anecdotes exploring these bruising experiences are piercingly insightful, with pithy quotable lines approximating the koans of Zen Master Hakuin. Read them slowly, and then again!
Her foray into politics was fraught, and her observations about the marginalization of women in Nigerian politics, especially in the Igbo speaking the Southeastern States, are revealing. She experienced the sublime and the slimy in Nigeria’s murky politics.
Appointed Director-General of the National Centre for Women Development by the Goodluck Jonathan administration, she set about trying to transform that parastatal with some remarkable successes, but also with predictable opposition. She captured the rot in our public institutions largely due to the intrusion of primordial politics at the expense of competence and transparency.
In this role, we see her as a fierce, fearless and consistent advocate for women’s rights, and a courageous fighter determined to make a difference. The quiet sacrifices and deep personal commitments that she made in this area are simply astonishing, even to the extent of sacrificially dipping into her lean personal financial resources at that time!
Her personal life was generally treated with candor, but also due to respect for those who may otherwise be impacted, especially her children. It is however impossible not to ruffle a few feathers, and this book may evoke some bile in a few persons portrayed in an unflattering light. Perhaps, that is what we must look forward to in an authentic story. No life is complete without the good, the bad and the ugly.
Recounting a particularly special relationship that did not make it to the altar was a jolting surprise. Read the Romeo-Juliet love notes in the final chapter. Enough said.
Onyeka is fully Nigerian and proudly Igbo. Her life speaks to the complementarity of these identities. She married a Yoruba Muslim and counts two prominent northern leaders as her mentors. She is an Igbo cultural icon in her own right and a global citizen whose contributions to the creative commons will remain indelible. Her education, career, music, feminist advocacy, politics and business have given her a unique perspective on life, one from which every leader can extract meaningful lessons.
One consistent theme runs through her adult life. In 1996 she became a born again Christian. She returns to this experience, and her subsequent spiritual transformation and development, every so often. Evidently, it is her North Star. May she continue to travel straight and true under its guidance.