Prof Cyril Orji casts a nostalgic look at life in Coal Camp Enugu in his growing up years, with ‘Gentleman’ Mike Ejeagha as an entertainment icon.

By Cyril Orji

Cyril was an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Florida International University, Miami, Florida, from where he went on to work in industry and eventually retired as a research scientist. Now a grandfather, he lives with his wife in New Jersey, United States.

It wasn’t long ago I was wondering with a friend if “Gentleman” Mike Ejeagha was still alive. Thank goodness he is.

A strong old man

Yeah, I was a little boy in Chukwuani Street, Coal Camp Enugu, and Mike was living a street away at Abagana Street.

His younger brother, my namesake Cy (Cyril Ejeagha) was a photographer. He had one of the best photo studios in Coal Camp. It was called “Cy Pictures.” If my recollection is correct, that was at 29 or 31 Calabar Street. Although it’s over half a century ago, I can still see in my mind’s eyes all the buildings around that area in Calabar Street. Directly opposite the building housing Mike’s studio was a building owned by a well known family — the Ogbutor family. My elder sister was a friend to one of the Ogbutor girls.

Mike’s yard, as a multi-tenant building was commonly referred to, and the Ogbutor yard were at the intersection of Calabar street and Goldsmith Avenue. This intersection was popular because a public tap (“public pump” as we called it) was also located there. Although there was another “public pump” at Abagana Street and Goldsmith Avenue, the tap near “Cy pictures” was more popular because it gave us the excuse to spend time watching pictures at “Cy Pictures.”

Photographers of Coal Camp

By the way, the only photo studio that compared with “Cy Pictures” or was slightly ahead of it, was “Paragon Photos” at, I believe, 14 Agbani Road, also in Coal Camp. No one who lived in Coal Camp during this period would wonder where 14 Agbani Road was. This huge commercial building not only housed “Paragon Photos,” it also housed “Super Wireless Radio” — the best electronics store in town.

Coal Camp, like Manhattan NY

Coal Camp was designed by the colonial masters and had the grid layout of Manhattan New York. It has three parallel avenues running down what I can best picture as from North to South with a number of intersecting streets running from East to West.

The primary avenue is Agbani Road. We used to think the road started at Agbani, a small town near Enugu. In the Coal City, Agbani Road runs through Awkunanaw, a suburb of Enugu, cuts through west of Uwani with the prominent landmark “Esso Filling” (petrol) station at the junction of Agbani Road and Ziks Avenue. In reality, Agbani Road began from Gariki and Uno Okpete and ends at Coal Camp. It pierces through Coal Camp from Ogbunike Street and exits after Mission Avenue and Clerks’ Quarters.

At Clerks’ Quarters, one veers right to Mgbemene Street crossing “Mmiri Ani” (a small stream) to C.I.C Enugu and Psychiatric Hospital headed then by the highly respected psychiatrist, Dr. Izuora. Alternatively, one could veer left to continue onto the Ogbete main market and up the hill to the Central Police Station (CPS).

The “Main Roads” of Coal Camp

As kids living life in Coal Camp Enugu, we colloquially referred to Agbani Road as “First Main Road.” The other two avenues are Goldsmith Avenue or “Second Main Road” and a very short “Third Main Road” which actually did not run the entire length of Coal Camp. If it had a formal name, it would have skipped me. But I recall clearly that it did not go beyond Taylor Avenue because beyond that was St. Peter’s CMS Primary School which started at about Eke Street and stretched all the way to Mission Avenue before St. Patrick’s Catholic Primary School kicked in.

In retrospect and given Western exposure one might wonder why Taylor Avenue and Mission Avenue weren’t Taylor Street and Mission Street respectively. These two run parallel to the other East West streets — Chukwuani, Abagana, etc. and perpendicular to the three major avenues — First, Second and Third Main Roads.

Tragedy Strikes

But we’re talking about Gentleman Mike Ejiagha.
Mike had a young pretty wife. Her name was Chibuzor. I knew her very well and can still imagine her face in my mind’s eyes.

Sadly, Chibuzor died very young. If my recollection is correct, Chibuzor died during childbirth.

Everyone heard of this tragedy, given Mike’s profession as a musician. He was a celebrity of sorts in Coal Camp. It’s safe to say that his family wasn’t as private as any other family living life in Coal Camp Enugu. Consequently, his love for his young and beautiful wife was well known.

Nwanyi Mma

Mike loved his wife Chibuzor so much that when she died, many never believed Mike would survive her death. But by God’s grace, Mike was able to let out his sorrow and pain through his music. In memory of Chibuzor, Mike released what could have been a Platinum single “Nwanyi Mma,” (Beautiful woman or beautiful wife.)
I have searched the internet and still unable to find this single. I’ll continue my search.

Nevertheless, for those old enough, this is my best reconstruction of “Nwayi Mma.” (I may probably be way off but the melody remains in my mind.)

Nwanyi mma aghalu nwa ya o, nwe solu egwu gi-ta we naa …Beautiful woman has left her child and died with guitar music.
Emesie oga afu nu’ya o, emesie oga afu nu’ya Eventually she’ll meet the child, she’ll meet the child.
Chibuzor nwa nnem ghalubaChibuzor, my love, bye bye.

It was a sorrowful love song for the ages.

Mike’s Hometown in Wartime

Mike is from Owa-Imezi. I know that area very well. Especially towards the tail end of the civil war, Owa-Imezi became a strategic commercial town between the Biafran side and the Nigerian soldiers in Enugu. Towards the end of the war, the popular Owa-Imezi market called “Orie Owa” (Owa market that held every native week on Orie) became a key market for “Afia attack.” (Attack market.)

“Orie Owa” transformed into middlemarket between Nigeria and Biafra. The traders in “Orie Owa” knew the “safe” roads to sneak into Enugu and buy merchandise from the Nigerian side which they sold to those coming from the Biafran side, notably from Nnewi, Otu Ocha, etc.

Akuko n’Egwu

After the war, Mike, like the rest of us, returned to life in Coal Camp Enugu. If my recollection is correct, Mike couldn’t afford the musical instruments he had before the war. It’s safe to assume he lost most of them during the war.

Presumably, the one thing he didn’t lose was his beloved guitar. With this one onstrument, Mike started “Akuko ne Egwu” — telling “Stories in Song.” My late elder brother, Dr. A. S. Orji, with one of his good friends, Mr. Enebe (or something close to that) were among the first chorus singers for Mike after the war. The war had just ended and everybody was struggling to get going.

My late brother and many others who went to sing for Mike did not know how to play any musical instruments. But that was okay. Mike had his guitar and the others learned how to sing and clap in harmony.

Mike was such a musical genius that he knew how to make it simple for his new apostles. In my opinion, Mike’s “Akuko ne Egwu” was just perfect for the time. “Akuko” is the Igbo word for “a story,” while “Egwu” is “music.” So Mike started telling stories piggybacked on his guitar.

The one exciting thing is that these were stories people could relate to. There were no complex and advanced musical instruments. It was simply Mike and his guitar, probably a simple drum and maybe two bamboo sticks hitting each other. The result was a story people enjoyed floating on Mike’s guitar. If my recollection serves me right, this was when Mike sang that “Egwu onye agbaghi n’ukwu, okwe n’isi” (music that can’t be danced to with one’s legs, one nods to with the head.”)

Ejeagha’s Oeuvre

I neither have the space nor the ability to attempt a review of Mike’s work. He is such a legend.

The tortoise, a very small animal, maintains a powerful presence in Igbo folklore. And Mike Ejeagha’s music and stories often bring this legendary character to life. Even when the tortoise is not the central character, there is always something to learn from Mike’s stories.

Many of his classics seem to make the blood in one’s veins run faster. Some of these classics include “Ome Ka Agu” (One that behaves like a lion), “Enyi Ga Achi” — also referred to by a longer name that depicts the storyline — “Ka Esi Le Onye Isi Oche” (How the chairman of the occasion was sold), “Onye Ori Utaba” (The tobacco thief), “Udo Ka Nma” (Peace is preferred) and so many others.

There is always something to learn in each “akuko n’egwu.” Every parent always finds a fitting message for a child. And that is one reason Mike’s music always brings a family together. Consider one of the classics, “Ka Esi Le Onye Isi Oche” (How the chairman was sold). Among many lessons in the story, one that is hard to miss is the warning to beware of the friends you make. This beautiful story dramatizes how careless and too trusting the elephant was towards his friend, the tortoise — a much smaller animal.

The Princess and the Elephant

How the Chairman was sold

The story was of a beautiful princess who would not marry until a suitor brought an elephant that she would ride on. The little tortoise deceived the elephant and handed him to the king. He told the elephant that the king had an occasion that he invited the elephant to chair. Little did the elephant know of the tortoise’s real intention. The elephant fell for this lie. Incidentally, the tortoise claimed he was also invited to the event.

On the road to the event, the tortoise couldn’t keep pace with the elephant. The elephant could have simply left the tortoise. But unaware of the bad intentions of the tortoise, the elephant agreed to allow the tortoise to ride on the elephant’s back. In addition, the elephant allowed the tortoise to mount the elephant’s back using a rope. On their arrival at the king’s palace, with the rope around the elephant’s neck, the tortoise simply handed over the rope to the king presenting the elephant as a gift to the king. He thus satisfied the key requirement set by the princess for suitors.

Beyond Life in Coal Camp

Appreciated through the generations

“Akuko n’egwu’ remains very popular among the Igbo especially that generation that relates to the stories told in the music.

But as time progressed, many of those who backed up Mike immediately after the war left life in Coal Camp Enugu. For example, my brother moved on, entering the University of Nigeria Nsukka. His friend, Mr. Enebe who was also a Grade 2 teacher at that time, also moved on. But surely, others moved in to take their place and Mike most likely ended up with a more stable and professional group.

On my part, I went back to school to complete my secondary education. And from that time on, I followed Gentleman Mike only casually. At that time, people of my age were drawn to a different genre of Nigerian music featuring The Wings, The Hygrades, The Funkees, Ofege, etc.

As an aside, I was a fan of the Hygrades created and led by another Enugu-based guitarist and producer Goddy Oku.” In 1965, Goddy Oku was a Class 5 student at Government Comprehensive Secondary School, Port Harcourt. I was in Class 1 at that time and both of us were in Kennedy House. It was during the West African School Certificate (WASC) examination and I still recall vividly the day a few of us ran to tell Goddy that the French examination had started. Goddy was busy playing his guitar near the lawn tennis court overlooking the creek at the backend of Kennedy House.

Happy birthday, Mike

I am excited to learn that Gentleman Mike is 92 years young today. May God continue to guide and guard him. This piece may not come his way, but he should remain rest assured that Coal Camp will always love him.

Happy birthday Gentleman Mike.

Life in Coal Camp Enugu with Mike Ejeagha

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