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Eddie Adem Adoga“Okemiri, Okemiri how much?” I cried insistently, holding up a sky-blue cotton fabric.
The man’s attention was held by a fellow haggling price with him over a piece of elastic tee-shirt material. The shop was a make-shift one, it was bustling with activities. This was not unusual as Okemiri had just returned from Onitsha with new stuffs. I noticed two unopened bales at the far corner of the shop. Okemiri deals in fabrics of all kinds, most of which are fairly used. The attractions to his business were the nearly rock-bottom prices and uniqueness of stuffs. You could buy a material there and rest assured no one had a similar one in town. The economic hardship of the time made people more resourceful than ever.
“Ehe, it is seventy naira.” Okemiri replied, finally turning in my direction.
I re-examined the material in my hands. The feel was thick, a prove that it will last. It would make a good long sleeve shirt for me. I had earlier hinted Pully the tailor at Akpa Street that I’d be bringing him a material for a shirt.
“Okemiri, leave it for fifty naira now.” I bargained. The man was already busy with another customer. Presently he looked at me and stretched out his hands.
“Bring money.” He intoned with a thick Igbo accent.
I quickly fished out my wallet and gave him the money before he could change his mind. It was a good purchase. Fifty naira plus seventy naira for sewing and I would have a new shirt. Imported ready-made shirts were sold for four hundred naira in the main market. Pully could match and sometimes surpass the foreign craftsmanship.
As I stepped out of Okemiri’s shop into the street, I noticed that the market was already in full swing, yet it was only 10:00am. The foodstuff market, Okemiri’s shop and others businesses within Otukpo rice mill complex developed out of a necessity. They served the multitudes that troop in every day to transact business there. The mill was rumored to be the largest in West Africa, covering an expanse of over ten hectares. It was accessed by two main roads namely: Adoka Street and Rice Mill road, though a network of foot paths from Lokoja, Sabon Gari and Ogwonu Igbaha’apa areas of the town terminated at the mill. The complex dated back to the colonial era when the nation’s economy was agro driven. The huge sandstone-pillared halls built on the land were enough tell-tales of this. The oil boom of the seventies had taken its toll on agro allied businesses in the country. But somehow the activities at Otukpo rice mill were not deterred. Rice was a staple food consumed by all across the nation. Benue State farmers ranked among the top producers of the crop in Nigeria. Otukpo’s strategic location along the East /North Federal Highway made it well accessible by foodstuff merchants.
A loud blare of horn jolted me. I looked back and saw a Mercedes Benz 911 lorry bearing towards me. I quickly made way for it to pass. Brother’s Transport was boldly emblazoned on the body. The vehicle was loaded with sacks of harvested rice. A look at the crusted yellowish-grey mud on the tyres suggested the goods had come from Agatu, a major rice producing community in Idoma Land. It was common sight to see great numbers of Lorries laden with rice come in from Agatu everyday and same carrying building materials such as cement, corrugated iron roofing sheets, wheel-barrows, and of course Agatu men back home by evening.
Lorry owners in Otukpo were among the wealthiest people. These men lived in stately houses with their families and were mostly referred to by their transport business names. Nothing Is New, owned by Chief Ogbodo Ede, had the largest fleet. There are other names like More Days more Hope, Achenche, God’s Time Is The Best, Psalm 23, Chief D.E. Enenche and so on. The Otukpo rice mill was the hub of their businesses. Unprocessed rice were brought in from the villages, processed and transported to other parts of the country. Their drivers and cargo boys were fulfilled in their many travels. They came back with spurious tales of distant lands, sometimes introducing new practices inculcated.
I veered off the main street that traversed the entire rice mill, firstly to avoid the crowded road and secondly to make a detour to hall five where Abu my secondary school classmate, was. In the vast open spaces between the halls were laid a great number of mats woven from fan palm fronds. I learnt an entire community in Akpa was responsible for its production. On the mat were spread parboiled rice for sun drying. Young men wielding long tee shaped sticks were stirring the grains. I remember my first day at the mill; it was shocking to find people walking atop the husked grains on the mat as if they were walking on carpet. I expected the owners to rain invectives on the trespassers but no one was bothered. It was not considered an infringement. Spaced at a reasonable distance to each other were huge vats made of steel pan, balanced on hearths of roaring fire. Women were mostly employed here. A thick aroma of boiling rice and smoke from burning firewood hung in the air. Truck-loads of firewood are supplied and consumed everyday at the mill. Otukpo is situated in the wooded guinea savannah belt of the continent; this source of fuel was readily available. I noticed a great pile of logs which seemed to have spent a season at the edge of the perimeter. A couple of young men, their bulging muscles glistening with sweat in the mid morning sun, were splitting the logs. Thick metal rods shaped like pins were embedded in the wood and they took turns hitting the head with sledge hammer. I was reliably informed that these men drew a good wage for their work. The mill was indeed a beehive of activities; mechanics, tinkers, cobblers, food mongers were in good business. A Deeper Life Bible Church was located on the premises as if to remind faithfuls that God was the provider of rice among other things.
Hall five was now in sight. I took a turn in order to avoid a school pickup van rearing up to where some bags of rice stood. The chaffs hit my legs before I saw where they came from. The old woman was full of apologies, still holding the winnowing tray in her hands. I couldn’t complain, as I ought to have seen her. Other old women were seated on a mat, manually picking rice grains from a mixture of stones and charcoal. It was a slow task that required a great deal of patience. These women, all grey in age had all the time; they were at liberty to glean for grains. At the end of the day a rewarding measure or two were salvaged and sold to provide for their needs. For them the rice mill was not only a source of income but a place to keep each other’s company and be rid of loneliness.
Hall five was built no different from the other halls. It is an oblong structure supported by pillars of stones. The corrugated iron roof is set high on wooden rafters. The building was designed only with utility in mind. Big diesel and electric powered machines lined the hall. Some are dehuskers, while others stone separators. As I walked down the aisle, I noticed a big stack of husked rice beside Abu’s machine. Today was certainly a busy day, I could see. I decided to just say hi and allow him to work. The machine was actually Abu’s uncle’s. The boys when on vacation, took turns to man the business and by doing so save money for their schooling.
“Oyi, how you dey now?” I greeted.
“I dey O.” Abu replied, he was powdered with rice dust.
“Eddie, How you dey?” Abu’s cousin Kenny greeted from the far end dragging a bag of rice to their huller.
“Fine O.” I replied. “I just dey pass, I been go obtain material from Okemiri. I go see una later.”
I eased my self out through a door that led to the Adoka street exit. The road was blocked; a lorry loaded with rice, probably heading to eastern Nigeria was parked. I could hear the owner of the goods pleading with the local government revenue officers. Every lorry load that leaves the mill must make payment to the government and are receipted for. I hear that some corrupt officials sometimes convert this money to private use. But by and large revenues still accrue to the government, considering the volume of traffic that passes everyday.
As I let myself through the pedestrian gate, I turned around to take a look at the mill and noticed a mountain of rice husk at the extreme end of the expanse. This is the waste product of the industry. It looked like a desert sand dune. I was told it is a raw material for the glass industry, I doubted if this had ever been tapped. Its local use as fuel for stove and floor covering for poultry had done little to deplete the supply.
I rubbed my jaw unconsciously and was startled at the stubbles I felt. I was supposed to be beardless as at 1993! I was standing by the Adoka street gate alright, but it was 2008! There was no lorry load of rice parked at the gate. I looked back and behold! Three quarter of the mill was overgrown with grasses. Minimal human activities were going on. Hall five was a silent as a haunted house; most of its roof had been blown off. The doors and windows were boarded. In the rice parboiling area, only two vats were on fire, others littered about in disuse. The young men who once splinted wood were gone, and so also the old women. A hall facing the main road had a few doors opened. I could make out the shape of my secondary school teacher who had resigned his teaching appointment to trade during the hey-days of the mill, seated dejectedly. He looked beaten. Okemiri’s shop was no more. The once boisterous market now harbored only a few women selling vegetables. The famous Otukpo rice mill had become a ghost town.
I recalled seeing a lorry of the Brother’s Transport fleet grounded in a mechanic shed, all tyres were gone. The once proud lorry was covered with layers of dust.
I lifted up my hands to wipe my already misty eyes with the cuff of the Indonesian shirt I bought for one thousand five hundred naira. I was informed Pully no longer sews shirts. He is often seen riding Okada to supplement his income. A whole industry had collapsed taking with it all the lives it had supported. What a shame! But why did it happen? The answer came quickly. The Nigerian Government threw open the country’s borders and allowed foreign rice from Asia flooded our markets and homes. I wept and wept and wept.
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