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The many names and Odyssey of “Okrika-wake-up.” By Mazi Nnamdi Nwigwe

Why is “Okrika-wake-up” so-called? Not many people can say precisely why the popular second hand clothes are given a name that alludes to a section of creek-domiciled Igbo-speaking group in today’s Rivers State.

The mythology of the name, as told by those who say they know, is traceable to the Merchant Vessel (MV) – cum-passenger sea-faring days of the 1950’s up till Nigeria’s Independence in 1960 and beyond.

In those days two popular sea-faring vessels sailed along the West African coast-line all the way from Apapa (Lagos) in Nigeria to Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

They were known as “MV Aureol” and “MV Apapa” and carried goods and passengers to and from Liverpool and berthed at Freetown in Serra Leone, Monrovia in Liberia, Burthust in The Gambia; Sekondi/Takoradi, Accra/Tema (both in Ghana), Apapa/Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Calabar (in Nigeria) and Victoria, (in English-speaking Cameroon which was part of Eastern Nigeria until 1959).

Nearly all the pioneer Nigerian professionals who studied in England travelled by sea, using one of the boat liners which took nearly two weeks to make the journey.

Relations, friends and the ubiquitous Town Unions of Nd’lgbo saw off their sons and daughters to the ports, and on their return, after successfully completing their studies, were received with fanfare at the ports where dancing groups came to felicitate with the illustrious heroes.

The question of the used or second hand clothes arose from the crew members of the boats who went ashore when their vessels anchored at the seaports.

The Okrika Beachhead was probably a popular meeting point for the crewmen with the locals with whom they exchanged presents. The sailors and the ship stewards easily dispensed with their used wearing apparel which they gave to their new found friends.

Some recipients of such dresses sold those that either were not their sizes or may have attracted a buyer ready to pay handsomely for it them.

According to the folklore, trade soon began on the Okrika Beach as the people looked forward to the arrival of “MV Apapa” or “MV Aureol” from whose crew members they bought used but high quality dresses.

Hence the name “Okrika Wake Up” was tagged to the merchandise as the trade slowly expanded inland and other parts of the country.

In Yorubaland, it is called “Okirika” with an intonation that is typically Yoruba.

But it was in Igbo land interior that the dress acquired many sobriquets.

Because of the comparative cheapness of the clothes, some people called them “onye uwa kpojue igbe,” meaning, met the poor man fill his box’

The thick over coats and other types of winter dresses that give wearers much heat in our tropical climate were promptly baptized “Uguru shut up.” Uguru is the Igbo word for Harmattan.

There certainly were good suits, shirts and trousers that eventually began to land as the sea men took to the trade in earnest.

Those elegant ones in which the wearer posed were called “Ogom kawa, a nam’ege,” which translates into ‘My in-law speak on, I am listening.’

Even the sound of bales of the clothes as they are thrown down from the transport lorries in the market square elicited a name that was simply onomatopoeic, “gwom nisi ahia.”

The second hand clothes obviously have local names in the various countries where they are sold.

For instance, in Ghana, where the people had the misconception that it was dead people’s clothes that were imported into their country, the clothes are called “Broni wee wuo” which simply means ‘the white man is dead.’

In modern times, nobody calls it “Okrika wake up” again.

When you hear “Bend down boutique,” it actually refers to the second hand clothes business.

The third rate grade of the contents of a bale are heaped on the ground at the market and those who wish to buy invariably bend down to make their selections.

The first and second grade categories are handled with more respect as traders go out of their way to launder the dresses, iron them and place them on hangers for sale.

The more ingenious entrepreneurs open real boutiques where both new and top grade second hand clothes and accessories are laid out meticulously in decent packets and sold at high prices.

The more discriminating customers go to such boutiques to buy and flaunt their quality dresses.

At a time in Nigeria, the trade in second hand clothes acquired some notoriety as smugglers found it a good cover.

Clever operators from Abiriba and Ohafia parts of the present Abia State, travelled overseas ostensibly to trade in second hand dresses.

Inside the bales were included contrabands adroitly packed in such a way as not to give away the camouflage.

Among the smuggled items were good quality Gin, Brandy and Whisky which the colonial authorities banned in order to protect British products.

Good as the alcohol drinks were, they were declared illicit because they did not pass through the customs and as such the appropriate duty or excise taxes were not paid.

In post civil war Nigeria, the second hand clothes featured mightily in the political and economic debates over the reintegration of the war weary Easterners who fought on Biafra side.

The second hand clothes trade was mainly undertaken by the people of the East, particularly Nd’lgbo, before the war.

At the end of the war, Nigeria’s Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Finance, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who doubled also as Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, petulantly banned the importation of the Second Hand Clothes into Nigeria.

Surely it was undignifying to have to wear used clothes from abroad. But a different meaning was given to that action of Chief Awolowo who many Igbo citizens hated with passion.

During the war, Awolowo was quoted as saying that “starvation” was a “legitimate weapon of war.”

The heartless remark was made at a time starvation was taking a high toll of lives of infants and children in the Biafran-held areas and the international community pleaded with Nigerian authorities to allow mercy flights to deliver food into Biafra.

So when Awolowo proscribed the importation of “Okrika” and stockfish, the two main merchandise items dominated by Nd’lgbo, it was seen as the continuation of the war “by other means.”

The trade flourished however in spite and despite the ban as it only opened fresh smuggling routes.

When General Olusegun Obasanjo announced the lifting of ban on politics on October 1, 1978, Chief Awolowo led other politicians in forming a new party and carrying his campaigns across the country.

When he visited the Igbo major commercial town of Aba he provocatively condemned again the business of trading in second hand clothes and stockfish, a popular delicacy, which he said tasted like “saw dust,” promising he would ban them.

That act of poor timing and lack of tact was all that the accommodating crowd in Aba Sports Stadium needed to turn to a mob. And like a mob, they hurled abuses and brickbats at the great Awo who had to be spirited away to safety.

But his campaign helicopter was not so lucky. Some rascals threw missiles that cracked the chopper’s wind screen, thus rendering it no more airworthy.

Thanks to the ill-advised ranting against the people’s major source of occupation, the “Okrika” second hand clothes trade, the Chief had to return by road to his Ibadan/lkenne base.

 

 

 

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