The atmosphere was noisy, sitting with his grandchildren playing and running around the room. However, spirits are lifted for Pa Michael Onoghemuovwe, the sole survivor of a 16-member Urhobo cultural group that hosted people of various ethnicities in the Western Region, Lagos and other major cities across Nigeria from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s.
Onoghemuovwe, who later joined the Nigeria Railway Corporation in Lagos in 1956, will clock 100 years on April 15.
He is one of the founding fathers of the Urhobo Community Union, which later changed into the Urhobo Development Union (UPU) in Ikorodu today.
Born on April 15, 1923 in Ugboroke community, Uvwie near Effurun, Warri, Michael was one of the 21 children of his late father. His mother, who was named after the neighbors of Uwhrughelli, Agbarho in the present day Ughelli North LGA, had 14 children (12 boys and two girls).
At an early stage in his life, Pa Michael Onoghemuovwe was married to a woman from Isoko, but she later divorced him because he was poor.
“I married another woman a few years later, in 1965, and we had our first child, a boy. I named him Godgift. Surprisingly, the woman called soon after the divorce, claiming that I was not rich enough,’ he said.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967, Onoghemuovwe married Lady Margaret, whose father Kokori and mother hail from Uwheru, all of present day Delta State.
Margaret gave birth to nine children, but lost two. Among the survivors are six women and one man, who is the last in the family.
Pa Michael Onoghemuovwe started his elementary education at Oka Memorial Primary School, Uwhrughelli, Agbarho in 1939 but dropped out early after the death of his father.
As he crossed the border, the young Michael was engaged in slave labor, carrying loads to traffic women in and around Warri.
“I didn’t sleep at that point,” Warri recalls of the first days, speaking to the Guardian. “I moved from one place to another, helping people to do all kinds of menial jobs just to feed.”
As part of the struggle to survive, Onoghemuovwe soon became an expert in drumming, one of the menial jobs some young men did to support themselves in the early days.
He has become so popular in the business of helping the killer that all the traders are helping him to steal his services.
Onoghemuovwe became so popular as a Rubber Tapper that he was brought to different places in the Warri Metropolis, including an Itsekiri dominated area called Kpemushale, where he was introduced to the king by some Ogoni rubber traders from the Rivers States. He then moved from Kpemushale to Sapele and other places in the Western Region, serving rubber traders.
His life took another turn while he was in Warri, when he joined the Ori Moko Boxing Club, where he practiced the art of self-defense. He rose and became a light boxer.
While trying to strike a balance between being a striker and a boxer, Onoghemuovwe and his childhood friend, Isaac Abolo, had a close relationship with hunger.
He remembers: “Isaac and I were introduced to a man who took us to the next village with a rubber band. I will not say the name of the village. Everything went well until one day, when he sold us to the head of the village, who was looking for some young people to sacrifice to his gods.
Now the day was fixed for the sacrifices, but the daughter of the head of the castle, Tyrus, was not quite comfortable. she began to cry. Isaac and to save us, Tyrus was pleased to search out the secrets for us, but with a warning, so that grace might slip away for us.
“Soon two men came into our room. My friend, Isaac, was a superior boxer. He was a thin boxer in Warri at that time. Isaac suggested that we beat two men, but I said nothing. We had to add prudence. We pretended to be drunk, the water on the floor of the sitting room, which forced the two men to move into the room. The trick also saved us in the middle of the night when the killers were looking for us. We ran into the bush and later found our way to Agbassa in Warri.
Onoghemuovwe continues: “At that time, Agbassa was home to many giants in Warri. The messenger of our escape from the hands of the slain in the next village soon wandered round Agbassa. By 7.00 the next day all the giants of Agbassa had assembled. The son of Esi Igbudu and the daughter of Ori Moko (a boxer) led the group to the village. Before 8.30 am, we were already in the village talking war songs. We went straight to the house of the man who sold us, but he refused. The village head also denied ever sending the killers after us. They asked us to name the person who leaked the information to us, but we refused. And so it came to pass that we ventured into that town and ended our business. Until today I have refused to reveal the name of the village to my children because humanity has taken over everything,” he recalled.
Back in Warri, driving Onoghemuovwe to continued safety.
However, in 1952, James Ofou Onome, a native of Agbarho, made a business trip for Onoghemuovwe and his friend, Isaac, to Lagos.
Their first port of call was Ogodogbo, a place behind Lucky Fibre, along the Ijebu-Ode road in Ikorodu.
“After four years at Ogodogbo, Onipanu, I moved to Rubber Sound, and later to Anthony Village, in 1956. Anthony Village I joined Bobby Benson as an apprentice mechanic. But I soon stopped working due to hunger,” he said.
Later that year (1956), Onoghemuovwe joined the Nigeria Railway Corporation as a Fitter and Plumber, where he retired after many years.
Before he left Warri for Lacupolis, Pa Onoghemuovwe had formed a dance group called the Urhobo Cultures Group. He did not have 16 members. Onoghemuovwe was so good at the reception that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) invited him and his family to perform at a ceremony in Ikoyi.
Onoghemuovwe said: “A few weeks after our performance in Ikoyi, some Americans from Badagry came to us. They wanted to marry us to America, but I declined the offer. Two things turned me to the invitation. First, the school is out, second, the boys and girls in our cultural group Let them flee America, and the people will hold me, or send me to prison for their sins. So it happened that I came down with offers from the Americans.”
Pa Onoghemuovwe, who has four graduates among his children, is now Okarorho (the oldest in Ugboroke community in Uvwie Local Govt. Area near Effur) in Delta state. His people want him back home.
Pa Onoghemuovwe, former chairman of UPU, Ikorodu branch, is now one of the patrons of the union.
Last year, Pa Onoghemuovwe was part of the UPU delegation to the palace of the Oba of Ikorodu, His Royal Majesty, Oba Kabiru Adewale Sotobi.
During the visit, the UPU delegation which included some notable leaders such as Chief Christopher Obriki (President, UPU, Ikorodu), Chief Fidel Odia (Chairman, UPU, Ikeja branch), Chief Philip Edemete (UPU, Ikorodu branch), Chief Joseph Odia (Chairman, UPU , Abeokuta branch), Peter Akpona (vice president, UPU, Ikorodu and secretary, Ikeja branch), Chief Sam Otiko, Engr. John Erusi (Secretary, UPU, Ikorodu) and Mrs. Cecilia David (Chairlady, UPU, Ikorodu), briefed the Monarch on how the Urhobos, the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, had lived peacefully in Ikorodu for several decades.
“Oba was so excited when the Master of Ceremonies announced that I was celebrating my first 100-year birthday. He took pictures of me and my wife,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pa Onoghemuovwe advised the young generation on their lifestyle so that their eating habits remain healthy for a long time.
“I have one wife, and this gives me joy and peace of mind. If you take two wives, as in most cases, you will doubly punish your husband. Someday you will return home from work to meet your two wives, who are fighting about little things. At this point, I have no appetite to eat, even if it is set at the best table.But this is not to say that having one wife is the solution to staying healthy and longer.
“Having one wife is like being a semi-bachelor. That’s why I say that there are some women who willingly starve their husbands of food and love, because they know that they don’t have another wife to run. Not because, like adults who are married, so you need sex to stay healthy.
“Besides marriage, another thing I do to keep my body healthy is to stay away from the loss of drunkenness. I take ogogoro (a local trap made from palm wine). My favorite food is banga soup (a local delicacy prepared from the juice of palm fruits) and starch (extracted from cassava). I also eat a lot of unripe plantains with hibiscus. I do not eat any soup prepared with Maggi. But we use crab because it contains many nutrients that are good for the body. Do not eat rice.
Pa Onoghemuovwe advised the youth to always be kind to each other, regardless of tribe and religion. “You never know what tomorrow will bring. I told you the story of how I divorced two wives before I married because I felt I was rich enough. After some years they came back and begged me, but I told them that they could not marry two wives.
“The people are kind to each other. Perhaps, if I had not been nice to my friend Isaac and Tyro, those evil murderers in the village would have sacrificed us to their gods many years ago.
Also, the younger generations must emphasize themselves over things they have no control over. I am sure that some men must have complained when my wife Margaret gave birth to six daughters. But lastly we had a male, and lastly born. that is the work of God. Now I plan to fly home to meet my people. The money isn’t there, but I don’t need to pressure myself. I believe God will make a way. People should take care of themselves tomorrow,” advised Pa Onoghemuovwe.