Writing in Obiaje

I was born and raised in Enugu, Ogui to be exact. In Enugu, the sand is fine and littered with pebbles of all shapes and sizes, it is also the color of clay and is notorious for coating your feet with its reddish brown tint. My childhood home was tucked at the end of a winding street named after my great-grandfather and was home to my grandfather’s printing press. Obiaje Printing Press was a cavernous room with multiple machines. The room, which looked like it was being held up by metal poles covered in remnants of hot glue, was always littered with thin slices of paper that fell after being butchered off the edges of campaign flyers for local politicians or calendars commemorating golden jubilees.

The printing press printed everything that could possibly be printed. The man in charge was a small man I called Uncle Obi, his skin was the color of roasted peanuts and his wiry glasses seemed to rest permanently on his nose. In a dark blue apron tied across his chest, he took orders, adjusted measurements and heaped stacks of paper into the cumbersome looking machines. Uncle Ifeanyi was his apprentice, his walk was a clumsy gait and he forgoed the apron for cargo shorts. Uncle Ifeanyi’s rosary always hung around his neck and he spent most of his days inserting pictures of a silky haired, blue eyed Jesus into wooden frames and gluing them shut.

I spent my evenings after school in the printing press, unsuccessfully scraping wads of glue from the metal poles and practicing my cursive on scrap sheets of paper. I learned words like Opus Dei from reading pages of the programs from local churches before they were bound and I wrapped my notebooks from school with pages of old newspapers emblazoned with headlines detailing the passing of the First Lady of Nigeria. Amidst the whirring of the machines, I sat tucked away in a corner with my head burrowed into a book while the caustic smell of glue hung in the air.

Before I knew I wanted to write, I read my way out of the printing press and into high school in Lagos. At 14, with one year left in high school, I found Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun. Published by the independent publishing house, Kachifo, the book had been out for three years before I found it and its mustard yellow and lime green cover had become a staple in Nigerian airports across the country. As I thumbed through the book, I recognized that Adichie’s pre-Biafra Enugu was uncannily similar to the Enugu I grew up in. I returned to the printing press that summer, book in tow and my pen poised to write about Enugu like Adichie had.

As a child, I watched all kinds of literature being produced around me, but the thought that I could write my own didn’t register until I encountered Adichie. In the two month holiday, I wrote about the filmy cassava peelings called Abacha that I ate as a snack, I wrote about my neighbor who operated a fully functioning convenience store out of her one-bedroom apartment, and I wrote about the printing press. These were all stories of my Enugu, stories that I felt that I had been given permission to write because I read Adichie’s story.

It is not surprising that after that summer I decided that I wanted to become a writer. I was convinced that someday, I would write books about Enugu, and although I have not become the kind of writer that I wanted to be when I was younger, the lesson I learned that summer has guided me all these years.

People often talk about the transformative power of representation and that summer, I experienced it. By reading Adichie, I experienced what happens when you are told that your stories matter and you are given permission to write those stories. I experienced what happens when you encounter yourself on the page.

*Cover image by Jide Odukoya

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