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Destination Enugu: Of Hills and History

Barbara Wanjala takes a road trip to Enugu and finds herself immersed in Nigerian literary history.

To get to Enugu, my travel companions and I go by road. It is a long way from Lagos, more than 500km to the south-east. We leave in the morning and arrive at night. All along the way, there are displays of religious fervour. Huge billboards are emblazoned with the faces of pastors, and on the back of vehicles both private and public, there are declarations such as:  

“My redeemer liveth.” 

“Safety is of the Lord.” 

“Don’t try me. My God is an all-consuming fire.” 

Ohusu is a pit stop along the Lagos Express Road in Edo State. Many drivers stop here for lunch. Restaurants lure potential customers with long lists of local fare: “We prepare delicious meals like Banga Soup, Egusi Soup, Stew, Owo Soup, Pounded Yam, Eba, Starch, Cemo, Wheat, Fufu, Rice, Fresh Fish, Dried Fish, Bush Meat, Cow Meat, Kpomo, Chicken, Turkey.” 

We get out of our vehicle for a break. Immediately, we are surrounded by women carrying trays of tangerines on their heads. “300 naira for all of this.” “500 naira for all of this.” They are very persistent. We purchase some very sweet tangerines. Nourished, we get back on the road. 

Enugu is a long way from Lagos

Enugu is a long way from Lagos

Edo State

Somewhere further along, still in Edo State, we stop for a little bit of vehicle maintenance. We get out to stretch our legs. While walking around, we encounter a woman running a shop. She lets us sit on her bench. She is big and beautiful. She wears red lipstick and smudged eye pencil. She sits on a chair outside the shop, eating rice and drinking water from a plastic bag as she shouts across the street, conversing with people on the road. 

A man pops in for cigarettes. He is drunk already. “I am the Chairman,” he says, his long, dark fingers playing with the pendant that dangles on his chest. He points around. “I am the Chairman of all this place. You understand? Call me Chairman.” The woman measures half a plastic glass of an amber-coloured liquid and offers it to Chairman. He sits down on the concrete floor and begins to hold forth.

Another man comes and joins us. He is tall and bald. He tells Chairman that my friend looks like Wole Soyinka (a Nigerian playwright, political activist and Nobel Prize Laureate). We laugh. Chairman wants more cigarettes. He is seated on the bench besides us now. He interrogates us in slurred pidgin. “Where are you from? Are you students? Are you a couple?” Repairs are finished, our vehicle is ready. We extricate ourselves from Chairman and his endless curiosity and head back. 

Delta to Anambra

In Asaba, the capital of Delta State, we cross the massive Niger River. I have only heard about the river in primary school, so I am quite impressed when I see it with my own eyes. I take a bad picture of it through the window. The steel bridge obscures my view. 

We leave Delta State. We are now in Anambra State. We drive through Onitsha, the historic port and market city in south-eastern Nigeria. I have heard of Onitsha market literature, whose prodigious output from the late 1940s to 1960s included titles such as Drunkards Believe Bar is Heaven, Why Some Rich Men Have No Trust in Some Girls, How to Get a Lady in Love.

“It started with soldiers coming back from the First World War,” I am told. “They had fought in India and other places. They brought back printing presses and started printing pamphlets. This is how it all started.” (I am told as well that the birth of Nollywood – although it is disputed – occurred in Onitsha with the film Living in Bondage in 1992. Today, Enugu is a popular filming destination for Nollywood movies.) 

Nightfall. More mud road, more checkpoints, slight drizzle.  

The Igbo Okoroshi mask, one of the messengers of the water deity Owu, who performs during the annual one month New Yam festival known as Oma.

The Igbo Okoroshi mask, one of the messengers of the water deity Owu, who performs during the annual one month New Yam festival known as Oma.

We Arrive In Enugu

Enugu, or 042, as the cool kids call it (for its telephone code). We have arrived. 

Enugu was briefly the capital of a country: during the Nigeria-Biafra War that took place between 1967 and 1970, it was declared the capital of the Republic of Biafra. The renowned writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was born in Enugu, tells the story of the Biafran war in her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. The book inspired a film adaptation.  

Enugu, which is located at the foot of the Udi Plateau, is nicknamed the Coal City. Coal deposits were discovered there in 1909. The mining of black gold led to the city’s growth: it obtained city status in 1917.  However, after the war, mining activities declined. We climb up the scenic Milken Hill, named for the British engineer who designed the first road up the hill when coal was found.  

In her first novel Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda writes that the road to Enugu from Nsukka smells of hills and history.  We go north to Nsukka to the University of Nigeria campus where Chimamanda grew up, and where Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature whose novel Things Fall Apart led to a Nigerian literary renaissance, taught and lived. Thus the trip becomes a literary pilgrimage of sorts.  

Numerous online reviews cite Enugu State as one of Nigeria’s safest states to live in and to visit. So for lovers of literature, history and nature, this is definitely a worthwhile destination when in Nigeria. 

Sometimes, the journey itself is the experience. This is something I realised as my travel companions and I escaped from the hustle and bustle of Lagos and found ourselves immersed in Enugu’s rich history and beautiful geography. 

Fresh vegetables are plentiful at the market (Photo by Jorge Fernández/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Fresh vegetables are plentiful at the market (Photo by Jorge Fernández/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Essentials

Language: Nigerian English (pidgin) is spoken widely. 

Currency: The naira is the national currency. 

Visas: Visitors to Nigeria require a visa unless they come from a visa-exempt country. In November 2019 President Buhari announced that African nationals will receive a visa, on arrival, in 2020. 

Food: Try Okpa made from Bambara nut flour, as well as Abacha, an African salad made from cassava flakes. 

Festivals: Festivals abound but by far the most important one is the New Yam Festival, where newly-harvested yams are presented to God and the ancestors. It is held between August and October.   

Shopping: There are numerous markets in the city. Check out the Ogbete Main Market for a large variety of goods and services at affordable prices. 

Getting Around: Domestic flights are available. Routes are plied by minivans, taxis and bikes. Ride-hailing apps are catching on.  

Getting There

Fly SAA flies daily to Lagos from Johannesburg. Visit flysaa.com 

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