Onyeka Onwenu: A daughter’s undying love

Onyeka Onwenu’s photograph on her autobiography, left, and her photograph with her father, Hon. Dixon Kanu Onwenu

Onyeka Onwenu now

By Sylvester Asoya

Onyeka Onwenu is a good example of feminine strength.

I was introduced to this remarkable woman by Azuh Arinze, my brother and friend many years ago. Afterwards, I interviewed her a few times as a reporter. What strikes you most when you meet Onyeka, is her firmness. Then two more things: her courage and abilities, including her ability to engage and promote new perspectives. But our earlier encounters did not in any way, prepare me for My Father’s Daughter, her gripping autobiographical account; a definitive work of many parts.

This provocative and unusual first-person narrative reveals everything. Onyeka writes with engaging clarity and in My Father’s Daughter, she is unsparing.

Sylvester Asoya

In the book’s preliminary statement, the author states her mission and scope. She also prepares the reader for a “scary” but exciting reading journey. “In this book, I have been extremely open as never before”, she writes. But beyond the scare, this strange autobiography is electrifying and a great book of love; “a father’s love. Love found, lost, and then found again”, she reveals. The author reminisces on her special relationship with Hon. Dixon Kanu Onwenu, her famous father who was the centre of her joy. Today, that “love affair” that began at birth shows no signs of strain yet, even with the loss of the principal partner. 

Onyeka adores her father. She is not only fascinated by her father’s good looks, intellect, good nature and influence but also for the fact that D.K. Onwenu found good in everyone. So, in Onyeka, her father lives. Their encounter as father and daughter was short but memorable, that is why it still resonates.

To assist the reader, Onyeka describes this never-ending love in the book’s opening pages. “Papa loved me and I knew it. I do not doubt that he and I were soul-mates. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, my father and I must have been in each other’s lives for ages. There was a certain joy that I felt deep inside me when I was around him and I could tell that he also felt the same way. He had a busy schedule, so I waited for him to return at odd hours when he would share his meals with me. I ate chunks of meat from his soup as he happily watched and I had eggs as well…he also shared his beer which I drank from a teacup with a spoon. Nothing really mattered, except that we shared company like friends. One day, without warning, everything changed. Death came through a road accident and severed the chord between us”, she recalls.

No doubt, Onyeka is truly her father’s daughter. However, it is important to note that they share a lot in common. As a matter of fact, they share interests, points of view and beliefs especially with regard to education, elocution, politics, creativity, public service, confidence and courage.

Frequently, she tells the reader about her father the teacher, the principal and a school administrator who was a mentor to many people. D.K. Onwenu was also an influential politician, a philanthropist, a community leader, a defender and lover of his family.

In this astounding book, Onyeka, a veteran of many battles, takes on everybody and everything. She writes about her parents: the first day they met and the extraordinary love they shared. My Father’s Daughter also contains graphic images of her roots, birth, childhood, the Civil War, teenage years, adulthood, going to America, her pains, career and life.

In this work, culture also runs deep beyond what is known to the average Igbo who is unfamiliar with tradition. The author takes the reader on an interesting journey to the rich Igbo cultural heritage; and Onyeka discusses her peoples’ cultural practices from a position of strength. She provides useful perspectives on issues around the concept of extended family, inheritance law, communality, the spirit world, widowhood, generosity, food, friendship and values. In her narrative, she writes about early lessons, the most fascinating for me is her realization early in life, that all that glitters is not gold. Her background and experiences also taught her that opportunities and the good life are fleeting.

In My Father’s Daughter, love is a major theme, and it comes with many layers and flavours. But there is also suffering. According to the author, her family’s biggest pain points are: loss of an extraordinary and irreplaceable father, the pain of losing friends and relatives during the war, early loss of her innocence and childhood on account of the war, disappointments from unlikely quarters, the horrors of the war and the loss of their family house in Port Harcourt under the Abandoned Properties saga after Nigeria-Biafra war.

There are also minor themes around motherhood, feminine strength, courage, vision and relationships. For women, Onyeka makes a case and draws attention to the misunderstanding of feminism, an ideological movement that favours social equality between the sexes. She is a feminist and she has no apologies. “I am a feminist because I am a woman who is blessed, talented, hardworking, and imbued with strong belief that I can contribute my quota to make the world a better place. I have the drive and focus to be successful in whatever I chose to do. I have the conviction, confidence and passion to succeed. I do not allow rejection to weigh me down. I love the person I was created to be, and I am grateful to God Who made it so. Being a woman does not make me a weaker sex. I do not have to apologize for my strength of character and my ability to rise from my fall. As mothers and nurturers, breadwinners and bread-bakers, we have the capacity to take on multiple roles. Do I believe that a woman’s place is in the home? Yes I do. I also believe that her place is everywhere and anywhere she wants to be—at home, in the office, at the marketplace or on a public podium”, she writes in a rather audacious manner.

In a way, My Father’s Daughter also speaks to the reader about a woman’s strength, the importance of good education, good breeding, values and a good family name.

For lovers of politics, there is no dull moment. The book brings up-close, Nigeria’s toxic politics and the brazen expression of arrogance of power by some characters in our public space. With her experience, she reveals the rot in Nigeria’s public sector and the challenge of fixing a dysfunctional system.

Reading through Onyeka’s book, it is possible to believe that the deadly demons troubling Nigeria have quadrupled since the Second Republic when she returned from the United States of America. So, she addresses the issue of lack of purpose and vision in politics. Her position as the writer and presenter of a BBC/NTA documentary, Nigeria: A Squandering of Riches offered her interesting perspectives which gave her a better understanding of the country.

My Father’s Daughter is revealing, emotional, decisive, bold, retrospective and frank, exactly what to expect from somebody like Onyeka who is not likely to blame anything or anyone else for her mistakes. The author also shows class: unassailable descriptive power, good writing skills, a sense of history, excellent chronology, a great overview of her personality and almost everything that makes a memoir interesting. Above all, this work is astounding because it is free of restrictions.

Now, with My Father’s Daughter, Onyeka has added authorship to diplomacy, broadcasting, music, activism, acting and her other interests.

I am in no doubt that this autobiography is not an official act of the author to proclaim herself blameless. I know she acknowledges her faults and the fact that she is not without blame, like any human being. After all, her detractors say she is arrogant and cantankerous. This is also another view, and her critics are entitled to their opinions.

One of the noticeable weaknesses of My Father’s Daughter

is the prevalence of too many revelations. The author reveals too much. She opens a can of worms in an unprecedented manner; she also shares unneeded secrets with the reader. In fact, in this book, there are no boundaries; old wounds and ugly encounters are in the open. The author consciously refuses to hide from the discomfort of disclosures. That, in itself is heroism. My suspicion is that the unchecked revelations are meant to heal. Perhaps, this is healing in a special way; to recall and feel those pains of the past, again and again. There are also minor typographic errors but they do not in any way, diminish this moving story of an authentic African woman who lives life on her terms and without apologies.

Certainly, My Father’s Daughter is in a class by itself. It is a narrative for everyday and everyone.

-Sylvester Asoya, a journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos