In the Igbo language, Ikemefuna means ‘may my strength not be lost.’ That was the name aptly given to my late grandfather, Raymond Okafor, a man whom I greatly admire and whose exemplary life I strive to emulate. At the tender age of 20, as the story goes, he trekked hundreds of miles from his ancestral village of Umuaji Ngbagbuowa in southeastern Nigeria to the bustling commercial city of Onitsha, where he set up a thriving furniture business. Hence, he was affectionately known as Papa Onitsha.
Left to Right: Papa Onitsha in traditional wear, Papa and Mama Onitsha, Papa Onitsha shaking mom’s hand at her graduation, Papa Onitsha carrying me and Kosiso at our baptism, with my siblings Chidubem and Kosiso, my last photo with Papa Onitsha
“He built the first zinc house in all of Umuaji,” my mother often reminds my two siblings and I, beaming with pride. In a village filled with thatched roofs and makeshift buildings, Papa Onitsha envisioned a modern aesthetic of architecture, a multi-story house with a zinc roof, and turned it into a reality. At a time when education was seen a priority for males, he insisted that my mother receive the best education possible, sending her to a top grammar school and later to the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He instilled in her the importance of hard work and tenacity, values she has subsequently instilled in me and my siblings.
In some ways, Papa Onitsha’s long, treacherous journey in the 1950s was a foreshadowing of my own family’s journey to America. By a serendipitous miracle, my mother won a visa lottery out of thousands of applicants, and my family immigrated to the United States in 2001. I still vividly remember the night we left Nigeria even though I was only nine years old. Arriving at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos, we said our final goodbyes to my uncle, Anayo, and boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam. It was the first time I had ever flown in an airplane. We made our way to Los Angeles, where we began our new lives.
It would be nine long years before we saw Papa Onitsha again. In 2010, my mom, my siblings, Chidubem and Kosiso, and I visited Nigeria for the first time since we moved to America. I like to say that those ten days in Nigeria were more eventful than the previous five years of my life. From escaping two kidnapping attempts to getting food poisoning, we experienced a series of unfortunate events. But reconnecting with loved ones whom I hadn’t seen in almost a decade made it all worthwhile. Seeing the faces of old friends, now all grownup, was priceless.
A street in Enugu
A typical bus in Enugu. The city is home to many traders and small business owners.
Construction workers toiling away by a residential complex.
School children walking home in my hometown, Enugu, where Papa Onitsha lived from 1999 to 2015.
Gas Station in Enugu
Taxis in Enugu
Driving from the capital, Abuja, to my hometown of Enugu, I realized just how beautiful my country was. It was almost like I was discovering it for the first time! There were enormous hills dotted with thick shrubs; miles of red earth were surrounded by lush greenery. The intersection of Nigeria’s two largest rivers, River Niger and River Benue, was a site to bold!
Confluence of the Rivers Niger and Benue. © Melita Dennett
Upon arriving in Enugu, we found that Papa Onitsha’s health was deteriorating. His diabetes was at times unmanageable, requiring prolonged hospitalizations. But seeing his daughter and grandchildren for the first time in so long gave him so much joy you wouldn’t even know he was sick. We had so much to catch up on! Papa Onitsha, in his usual witty fashion, told us stories of the old days when he used to sell furniture in Onitsha. It was almost as if we had only been apart for nine days, not nine years.
Inside my grandparents new house in Enugu, just down the street from my childhood home.
The last time I saw Papa Onitsha was in 2014, during my family’s second visit to Nigeria. His health had deteriorated so badly that he was unable to stand for more than a few seconds. But he was still his witty, cheerful self, telling stories and jokes. That’s one of the qualities I admire about him: his ability to make those around him laugh even in difficult circumstances.
Papa Onitsha passed away on November 17, 2015, exactly 14 years after we moved to America. His funeral the next month, in keeping with Igbo tradition, was a celebration of life. There was a performance of traditional Ikorodo dance. Music filled the streets. People from far off places came to pay their respects. Even my former elementary school teacher, whom I hadn’t talked to in 10 years, came to the occasion. Passerby stopped to witness the farewell to one of Umuaji’s greatest sons. The occasion also marked the first time my entire immediate family had visited Nigeria at the same time.
The funeral gets under way. Hordes of people came to pay their respects.
Dancers perform the traditional Ikorodo dance at the funeral.
Musicians play traditional igbo instruments – Igba, Ichaka, Ogene, among others.
My brother shows off his dance moves. Funerals are a celebration in Igbo culture so there is a lot of dancing and singing.
Ikemefuna, thank you for the incredible example you set for us, the stories you told, and the happiness you brought to our lives. Thank you for keeping me anchored to my Igbo heritage. Thank you for teaching me to see the bright side of life. You will never be forgotten.