Onyeka Onwenu’s My Father’s Daughter: A portrait that will ruffle feathers – Olukorede S. Yishau

In the prologue of Onyeka Onwenu’s book, ‘My Father’s Daughter’, she tells of a day she hid from her father because she had without permission eaten a corn he bought for an expensive amount at a church bazaar. Like a sinner, she hid from her father on his return. This was a father who would not eat without her. This was a father who refused to even sit down without being sure of where his daughter was. She eventually emerged from hiding and confessed her sin.

“Promise me you will never hide from me again, no matter what,” was the end of the whole saga. 

With this beginning, written in alluring language, Onyeka opens the window into an amazing life with its ups and downs. 

Imagine a father with which you had such a bond dying at 40 when you were just about five years. 

The circumstances of his death are the stuff Nollywood movie of old was made of: The house in which he lived with his family in Port Harcourt was sold to his neighbour while he was yet to complete his; the neighbour wanted him out by all means; and a day after a major hullabaloo with fetish dimension, he had an accident and became history! 

On the day he was being conveyed home for burial, the truck conveying him suddenly stopped working on a bridge over Imo River and his sister was made to come down and plead with his remains for the truck to start. Plea did not do the magic, she had to threaten to abandon his body there before the truck roared back to life. 

Onyeka tells this story straight from the heart and it is unarguably the most emotional part of the book. A shining star in education and politics of the time vanished like a candle in the wind. He was to be sworn in as Minister of Education in January 1957. His best friend, Mazi Mbonu Ojike of the ‘Boycott the Boycottables’ fame, also died about the same time.

“I was almost five when Papa died, but everything that happened remains etched in my mind. Through the mist from the harmattan haze, I could make out the faces of the many people who had come to bid him farewell. They were all crying inconsolably. Uncle Charles was devastated. He had to be held by four dimkpas or remarkably strong men, but even they could not,” she recalls.

The death was very personal for Onyeka because this was the only one who treated him special, now she had to be one of the horde. Her special slot was gone forever. 

For a man who was good to people in his lifetime, you would expect that his family would receive widespread support, but instead his widow got marriage proposal and offers for his property.  His brother, Charles, also felt it was his right to take over the widow. She and the kids had to be sneaked out of their hometown for her to escape his claws, but he eventually found his way to Port Harcourt and sold a property belonging to the diseased and insisting he did no wrong. The popular, Dr Sam Mbakwe, who was governor of Imo State, was another beneficiary who didn’t stand by his family, but he made up with Onyeka before his death. 

An angel in human form, however, gave them free shelter showing that the earth still harbours some good people. Onyeka’s mum took to various means of making money and ensured her kids and others staying with the family were catered for, even Charles’ children. 

Let me sound a warning: If you are expecting a tell-it-all biography, you will be disappointed because Onyeka exercised her right to her privacy. She gives details of her troubled marriage to the father of Tijani and Ibrahim, who later changed his name to Abraham but she refuses to mention her ex-husband’s full name. The best we are allowed to know is his middle name: Ibrahim. But, the other details she volunteered will make you understand her better.

Her exercise of right to privacy also extends to the existence of a childhood lover; she kept his name and the information available is not  enough to decode who he is. This, in no way, takes away from the joy that reading this book is. This part of the book reads like a romantic thriller. It is laced with emotions. The excerpts from the letters from this man who touched her deeply are the stuff good writing is made of.

The book also shows what Onyeka feels about dignitaries who are either dead or alive. We know her take on the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was murdered by the Sani Abacha regime; she shares her view of Mr. Ben Bruce, who was a senator until last year; Onyeka also gives insight into what she thinks of Ovation publisher Dele Momodu, the late MKO Abiola, the late Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the late Gani Fawehinmi, President Muhammadu Buahri,  UBA chairman Tony Elumelu and many others. 

Onyeka also gives the details of her battle over the GRA, Ikeja-based Unity Centre. Her cousin, the daughter of her mother’s sister who once advised her to abandon Tijani’s dad at a trying period and hook a rich man with her beauty and status, is at the centre of the drama that has not ended.

Of course, she did not skip the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, which saw her family fleeing Port Harcourt for the East. The account is heart-rending and drips with poetic prose. 

Her narration of her first encounter with the late Afrobeat maestro Fela on Falolu Street in Surulere, Lagos is surreal. She had run into Fela and he had invited her to his nightclub. Their second encounter was less dramatic; Fela proposed marriage. She turned him down under the watchful eyes of his dancer-wives who were looking at her with scorn. 

The ‘salacious’ details of her experience with the late Sonny Okosuns make for an interesting read and raise questions about the harassment women face in almost every sphere of life.

The book also affords Onyeka the opportunity to retell her story regarding the pro-Abacha one-million-man march. She writes about how she was contacted for a pro-Super Eagles event and how she protested when it appeared in the media that the event was not what it was painted to be and how Abacha’s Chief Security Officer Major Hamza Al- Mustapha called her to allay her fears. It took years for her to shake off the bad label from the event.

Her years in the United States also find copious space in this book. Her music career, her time in broadcasting, her time in PMAN and so on are lit for better understanding and appreciation.

This is a book that may ruffle feathers. What will the take of the Okosuns be? What will the father of Tijani and Abraham feel? What will the Saro-Wiwas say? What will Fela’s women think of her take on them? What about the newspaper publisher who wrote ‘thrash’ about the father of her children? It will be interesting to hear the views of Ben Bruce, the Tony Okoroji-led Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) and the leadership of the Performing Musicians Employers Association of Nigeria (PMAN) on the book. Equally interesting will be the reaction of her brother, Richard, whose first son she raised up to the university level. Her recollection of what he did after their mother’s death is ‘dirty’ and reinforces the need for the marginalisation of women in Igboland to be addressed.

For me, this book is long in coming. It gives more insights into other facets of the Onyeka persona. Even with the exercise of her right to privacy, it is the first time she has been this open about her life. It is an absorbing dream of a book and an unwavering portrait of the musician, broadcaster, journalist and entrepreneur told in a moving and profound language. 

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