By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
About two weeks ago, we started a WhatsApp group called ‘Memories of Sapele! As the name suggests, it is a group created to help us relive memories of how and where we grew up. And this was not too long ago. Sapele where the Post Office, football clubs and a big township stadium, the General Hospital, jokes and ‘yabis’, the Ethiope River, ECN, AT&P, night life, schools and after-school lessons all gave us an inroad into life! There were bad guys in town- the notorious Sapele boma boys! But not all of us were boma boys! They came and melted into oblivion. The town had a character. We were ‘Safarians’ and anywhere we met, the Sapele spirit predominated! Sapele!
The group platform took off slowly and gradually became a bomb especially as members of the platform started sharing experiences from that ancient town. Bomb? Yes. The bomb of pleasant memories! Not a divisive bomb. The infective joy of a reunion was palpable. We all shared experiences about our childhood in the idyllic town that was Sapele. We talked about education then and now, about truancy, throwing stones at almond or guava fruits without permission from the owner, playing football at Police Barracks and escapades in our youth. Some of the things which some of us did! It’s amazing how we can still recall with clarity what we did when we were 8, 9, or 10 years old. We talked about how degenerate the town had become different from what it was in our time. We also asked for suggestions about how to develop the town. Some older ones shared experiences that were before our time. Like the names of hotels that were in vogue in the 1960s which disappeared when we ‘took over’ the town, or some names that made no sense to us! We were surprised that such guys once reigned in the town.
Why is the past always sweeter in memory than the present even when financial or social circumstances are better? We recall our childhood often with nostalgia, when our parents were alive and took all the decisions. Timothy Kenny writes that ‘each time you access a memory, it is changed slightly. Over time the emotions attached to a memory can be changed positively or negatively. This can be caused by the emotional state you are in when you access the memory as well as coming to the memory with a new perspective that changes what the content means to you! In our case, we swam into the past because the Sapele of today couldn’t have given us the springboard that we enjoyed in those years!
Nostalgia on its own is not profitable. A romance with history is important only to the extent that it will be of use to the contemporary world. Reports from Sapele about security are frightening. Was this the same Sapele we grew up in? What has led to inter-cult killings in Sapele? It is true that some Sapele-born friends still live in Sapele. They have confirmed the seriousness of the situation. For we know that often stories of kidnappings when reported could be exaggerated. I remember once during a six-week stay in the US I read reports in Nigerian newspapers that scared me about traveling from Murtala Mohammed Airport to University of Lagos. The impression given by the newspapers was that I could be robbed. The same city I left a few weeks before!
But the Sapele story is not an exaggeration. The lives of young people are being wasted in vendetta acts. No discernible pattern perhaps. But the death of any human being through violence must be condemned. The Police have not been able to put a stop. It is not clear whether they think it should stop. Sad that this has gone on for over two years! How many lives will Sapele lose to senseless violence before the firm intervention of the law?
But Sapele was a great town to be in in the 1960s through the 70s and 80s. We never bothered about anybody’s ethnic origins. Sapele was a mini-Nigeria. We had all ethnic groups actively present in the town. Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Edo, Itsekiri kids and parents lived together with the Okpe-Urhobo owners of the town. Some ethnic groups indeed had their quarters. We had Hausa quarters on Hausa road just as we had Ibo road and Yoruba road. There were boundaries- religious, ethnic, social- but these boundaries were no barriers to mutual coexistence. I remember that in the aftermath of the civil war Ibo Road was changed to Okpe road.
Although there was no real government presence in terms of investments, the town was strong in private investments. UAC had its presence through the AT&P, African Timber and Plywood, a company which provided employment and livelihood for hundreds of families. In a way, with the hooting call-to-duty of AT&P siren, that company controlled the town. It was a symbol of the majestic power of the UAC. We waited for the 7.30am siren, the 12nidnight and the 10pm blaring. It signaled the beginning of a shift. It also warned us about what time of day it was. It gave time and meaning to our lives. But AT&P soon collapsed and all we have left is its carcass.
The Sapele story is the story of Nigeria. I suppose this can also be said for some other cities in the country. Missed and wasted opportunities. Hopes raised hopes dashed. Decayed infrastructure. Hopelessness among the youths. The rise of ethnic animosities. Now, circumstances have compelled the Okpe to restate and reaffirm their ownership of the land. That was taken for granted before. Indeed, it never came up. If we are therefore drawing attention to Sapele, it is because we are drawing attention to the plight of Nigeria. As old as Sapele is, there is no tertiary institution in the town. Sapele Technical College which used to be Government Trade Centre could become a polytechnic. The key thing is to give life again to the coastal town of Sapele, if possible by restoring the port and increasing government presence through development of infrastructure and security!