By Azuka Onwuka
In Nnewi, motorcycle is called “machine.” That name would make one to wonder if other machines are tools! When the bicycle, motorcycle and motor car came to Nnewi at their respective times, Nnewi people tried three of them and decided to embrace the motorcycle more than the other two for so many reasons. They are pragmatic people. The bicycle took so much energy to ride, especially on hills or rough terrains.
Driving a car in Anambra State, especially in a city like Nnewi, is not easy because of the high number of motorcycles on the road as well as the narrowness of the roads. You have to drive patiently and cautiously to avoid knocking down some motorcycle riders. They cruise around like a kaleidoscope of butterflies, calmly and confidently, unperturbed by the hooting of car horns. And most of them are private riders of motorcycle rather than commercial riders. Unlike in other states where cars are seen as the primary owners of the road, with motorcycles and pedestrians seen as secondary owners, motorcycles basically own the roads in Nnewi, while cars and pedestrians are secondary users.
Men, women, boys, girls ride the motorcycle. It is rare to find an Nnewi family where there is no motorcycle. Nnewi people and their love for the motorcycle is a relationship made in heaven.
In Nnewi, motorcycle is called “machine.” That name would make one to wonder if other machines are tools! When the bicycle, motorcycle and motor car came to Nnewi at their respective times, Nnewi people tried three of them and decided to embrace the motorcycle more than the other two for so many reasons. They are pragmatic people. The bicycle took so much energy to ride, especially on hills or rough terrains. It also made one to sweat profusely. If one was dressed for an event, it was not good to arrive there sweating like a goat ready to be used for the New Yam festival. The bicycle was also slow for a business-minded people to whom time was money. There were also fears that the bicycle caused hernia.
The car was good but expensive and not easy to fuel and maintain. Not everybody could afford it. Smooth roads were few and far between in Nnewi. Until 1988, only one government-constructed road ran through Nnewi. That was the old Onitsha-Owerri Road with a spur at the Nnewi roundabout towards Nnobi, Ekwulobia and Umunze. That road was referred to as “Main Road,” because it was the only one. Later, some illustrious indigenes of the Nnewi began to construct some inner roads as their contribution towards the growth and development of their town.
There was also one roundabout in Nnewi. It was and is still at the centre of Nnewi and simply called Roundabout. When the second Federal Government road arrived in Nnewi in 1988 (Oba-Nnewi-Okigwe Road), it ran right through the Onitsha-Owerri Road at a right angle and caused many accidents and deaths. The local government chairman then, Dr DBA Ofomata, installed a traffic light at the intersection of the two roads. It was the only traffic light in Nnewi. That spot is called Traffic Light till today, even though there has been no traffic light there for about 20 years now.
Therefore, what was the need of driving a car through rough terrains with potholes and gullies? It made no sense to the Nnewi mind. Consequently, even those who had cars also bought motorbikes for their day-to-day movements within the town.
The motorbike was moderately easier to buy and maintain. It consumed relatively low petrol. It could even pass through footpaths unlike the car. It could easily navigate through rough and hilly terrains. It was fast and required no energy like the bicycle.
Interestingly, after the Nigerian Civil War, Nnewi had created the biggest motorcycle market in the country in addition to having a big motor vehicle market. The city manufactures motorcycles. It assembles motorcycles. It imports motorcycles. Buyers from all parts of Nigeria and other African countries come to Nnewi to buy motorcycles or spare of motorcycles. Some of the big names in Nigeria like Chief Innocent Chukwuma, Chief Executive Officer of Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited, started as sellers of motorcycle spare parts in Nkwo Nnewi market. That is why it is not good thinking for any Anambra State governor to ban the use of commercial motorcycles in any part of the state simply because other governors are doing it. How can you join outsiders to ban the product you manufacture and sell? Who has ever banned motor cars or aeroplanes because they are used for robbery or because they are involved in regular accidents? Well, that is a story for another day.
Back to Nnewi and the motorcycle. There are two types of motorcycle: the regular motorcycle used mainly by men for commercial operations and the one called “ladies’ machine” or “ladies”. The ladies’ motorcycle does not have its petrol tank in front of the rider like a crossbar. Its tank is under the seat. Because of that, it is convenient for women and girls wearing skirts or with wrappers round their waist to use it. Even though it is popular with women, men also use it, especially to differentiate themselves from commercial motorcycle riders popularly called okada.
These “ladies’ machines” continue to come in beautiful designs that make the riders feel cool. Men and women of all ages use them. Boys and girls use them. I began to ride that type of motorcycle before I learnt how to ride a bicycle, because my mother had one. I was less than 10 years old then.
The possession of a motorcycle by virtually every woman empowers women immensely. They don’t need to wait for someone to give them a lift. Their movement is never dependent upon the goodwill of another person. Once they have somewhere to go to, they mount their motorbike and go and also return at their convenience. Therefore, when the umunna or big family are going for a burial or marriage ceremony within the town or even in a neighbouring town, and a bus is hired to take the family there, those who have their own motorcycles and cars don’t need to wait for others to gather before the bus can take off. They will leave their home or office at their own time, arrive the venue at their own time, and also leave the venue when they wish.
Some secondary students ride to school on their motorbikes. Unlike in other cities where girls may feel it is infra dig to ride a motorbike, in Nnewi, it is a thing of pride for a girl to have access to a motorbike she can ride at her convenience. And when girls ride the bike, they do so with some “effizzy” or panache. They make it look as if it is a Rolls Royce!
Interestingly, it is rare to hear that a private user of motorcycle in Nnewi has an accident. People ride their motorcycle for decades with no accident. The first reason is that they take their time to learn how to ride the motorcycle. The second reason is that they are very careful while riding and never in a hurry. On the other hand, most commercial riders don’t learn how to ride a bike; they assume that adults don’t need to learn how to ride motorbikes. And they are always in a hurry to make as much money as possible. Therefore, they ride recklessly and place themselves and their passengers in danger, filling orthopaedic wards with patients.
If you are driving a car in Nnewi, you must be careful about the motorcyclists. They have a right to the narrow roads of Nnewi and Anambra State as you do. Many of those motorcycle riders have cars and houses. Unlike in other states where car owners may feel that they are better than a motorcycle owner, such does not apply to Nnewi. You cannot know people’s financial status or educational status by their use of motorcycle or otherwise. In Nnewi, the motorcycle is just for convenience in mobility and not a status symbol.
Azuka Onwuka is a Public Affairs Analyst.