It was fun at first sight.
The first time I set eyes on Toni Kanayo Onwordi, famously known as Toni Kan, I found fun oozing from his every pore.
He blazed into the Lagos writing circle with uncommon confidence that was at once assured and very questing.
He was like the leader of the Jos Brigade, graduates out of the University of Jos, notably Helon Habila, David Njoku, Peter Okwoche, Peju Akande and Ralph Bruce who came primed to seize literature in Lagos by the jugular.
He carried himself with a familiar cool that endeared him to compatriots much older than him such as my good self.
It was just as a matter of course that I served as the official reviewer at the launch of his first novel, Ballad of Rage.
The poetic offering by Toni Kan in Songs of Absence and Despair showcased him as an all-rounder.
In his building of bonds as per the collective of writers he linked me up with his friend Jude Dibia, author of the groundbreaking novel Walking with Shadows.
I remember once telling him that they should change the name of the romance magazine, Hints, which he edited with so much gusto to “Mints” because they were minting fictions as opposed to the true-life stories they advertised the magazine to be covering.
His short story collection, Nights of the Creaking Bed, became an instant bestseller, and it is still in so much demand.
Toni Kan’s presence in Lagos admitted all comers such that he was in no time given the title of “Mayor of Lagos” by the cognoscenti.
He captured the heights and depths of Lagos in his novel, The Carnivorous City, featuring the ill-fated Lagos big boy, Sabato Rabato, who goes missing.
With his partner, Peju Akande, Toni Kan has written the memoirs of some of the notable potentates across Nigeria.
Doing good work with Toni has always been fun, like taking a trip with him to the seedy underbelly of Lagos known as Makoko.
The trip to Makoko started out as a mystery. There was Toni Kan’s text message when he was the newly-minted brand ambassador of Samsung Note5 that I should keep the evening of a certain Friday free for an engagement.
Further text and email messages informed me that I should get to MRS filling station at the Adekunle end of Yaba, Lagos by 5.30 PM for the trip to the Makoko floating school for the screening of the award-winning documentary Dear Mandela.
As Toni Kan and his personable partner Peju Akande drove into the filling station we made small jokes about Toni now being a Samsung Ambassador and having a ready Personal Assistant (PA) in Peju Akande (PA), for as it stands, a PA is a PA!
We drove through a crowded narrow road in Toni’s jeep until we could move no more. Some urchins around directed us to where we boarded the ill-assorted canoes manned by youths who could speak neither English nor Yoruba. Their language was Egun, but somehow we managed to communicate. At N50 per head we took to the canoes not bothering about life-jackets or insurance.
The waters were dirty black in the narrow estuary leading to the broadness of the cleaner ocean as the masses of Makoko waved at us, wondering at the strangers in their midst.
We got off the canoes and climbed the wooden staircase into the floating school, a three-storied structure built atop the lagoon.
My knowledge of Makoko before Toni Kan brought me there only emanated from just looking down at the shacks and boats and stilts from the heights of the Third Mainland Bridge.
It was in solidarity with Makoko residents against forced eviction that we made the trip to watch the documentary Dear Mandela, a film that won the coveted Best South African Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival.
Toni Kan fights for the good causes but he makes it look like fun.
The son of a college principal from Ibusa in present-day Delta State, Toni Kan had to attend a handful of different primary schools because of the frequent transfers of his father.
He was an introvert who hardly ever played any sport as he preferred reading books.
A brilliant student, he was science-based even as he had read all the recommended literature texts and always scored the highest marks in the subject.
His intent was to study medicine in the university but would not take the alternative offer of Biochemistry until an uncle steered him to literary studies at the University of Jos where he ended up trumping all.
There is the irony of many Lagos big boys being quite unrecognized back home in their villages and towns but Toni Kan towers even more in his native Ibusa, Delta State as I beheld the carnivalesque funeral of his beloved mother, Mrs. Patricia Oyibo Onwordi, last year in Ibusa.
Toni Kan can take tragedy stoically in his stride, a typical example being when he lost his elder brother Charles to cancer in 2009.
Toni Kan’s daughter, Awele, and the son, Chuka, are truly chips off the old block, to borrow the old cliché, because they always asked to use my computer anytime they were in my old Lagos office!
Toni Kan is that one writer who is at home with business, advertising, public relations and big money, which is why as the quintessential poor poet I remain the longest-involved columnist-cum-contributor to his webzine!
Let the world rise to toast to the great health of the thinker-tanker Toni Kan who strikes fifty on Friday, June 11, in this year of Our Lord!
- Maxim Uzoatu is a journalist and poet.