It is he who wears the shoe that knows where it pinches.
I am overjoyed at the commencement of the cleanup of Ogoniland and hopefully, by extension, the rest of the Niger Delta. It is long overdue. Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for agitating for it, along with many others. Lawsuits have been fought and won over this thorny issue. However, government after government has passed up this responsibility and the situation continues to deteriorate.
It is easy to ignore, especially if you do not come from or live in the Niger Delta. If your source of drinking water is not a polluted stream and you don’t rely on farming the empty soil to feed yourself and your family. It is of no consequence, if you do not like fish, or if when you occasionally have to eat fish, it has not been scooped up from ponds slick with grease- floating carcasses coated with a thick layer of slime. You of course, enjoy the cod and salmon- casualties of the chronic overfishing of our oceans. There is no time for the fish that thrive in the brackish waters of the mangrove swamps.
Why would you care? Your protein intake does not depend on how many toxic fish corpses you can pick and clean. You can afford freshly slaughtered beef, mutton, pork and many other exotic cuts of meat with unpronounceable names. You have ready access to plant protein- there’s soya and tofu and beans and several other legumes.
You couldn’t care less about it when you are not one of many thousands, similarly matched for age and sex, without a hope of the next meal, whose means of livelihood has been snatched from their weary fingers and like the fish of their mangrove waters, drowned in the ponds and rivers thick with grime.
You could live in the middle of this mess and not realize it. I did. For eight long years.
I was born in a village in South East Nigeria. My home is in the rainforest, not the mangrove swamp. When I was about 5 years of age though, we moved South to Calabar, a town near the coast, part of the alluvial plain that the Niger carved as its Delta trickled into the Atlantic. But here, the Niger’s tributaries were too small to compare to her main river – the great Cross river, which too had its own children and grandchildren as it snaked its way into the sea. Here the raffia palm grew thick and splendid. The fish roamed wild and plentiful. The air was fresh and smelled faintly of salt and the sea. It was easy to forget the rest of the Delta. The rest of it that was laboring under the curse of oil.
Here, there was oil, but it was locked away in one province. The province at the border with Cameroon and the mighty ocean. If there were headaches, those headaches were good ones. Like when to rise to meet the market in good tide and have time enough to prepare those rich vegetable stews that drew praise from far and near. How to convince the sons and brothers to close the kegs of raffia palm wine and return home at evening. How to reclaim land from the swamps maybe or catch bigger fish in the traps. It was like a world away. And I was just a child.
As time trudged on as it always does, it was time to move again. This time it was to a town close to my home in the forests of the South East. However, 2 hours South of her was Portharcourt- capital of the oil-rich Rivers State. I was a student. I disliked fish. I didn’t travel much, there was no time for such. I was ignorant of the world in general. So I didn’t care. I didn’t see the Niger Delta’s plight.
Fast forward a few years later. I have seen the world beyond my native shores and have heard countless narratives about the Niger Delta. It hasn’t hit me until now. How much the land has been abused. How relentlessly she has been raped- continuously and serially by company and government alike.
I drove to Portharcourt last year. It was a tough trip. It was raining – it rains almost everyday down in the South. So the roads were messy and my car was witness. The following day, my host told me I had been welcomed by Portharcourt mud. I didn’t understand, even though he explained to me that Portharcourt mud was black and tenacious, unlike the red laterite mud that filled the potholes and untarred roads in the rainforests where I came from.
I knew from high school Geography that the soil in the alluvial plains was supposed to be a silty dark loam rich in sediments and nutrients from upstream. So I caught onto the colour and envied the people with rich dark soil. I didnt understand till a few weeks ago.
My brother drove to Portharcourt and unlike me, he did not wash out the mud from the wheels and sides of the vehicle while he was there. The car is back, but he has gone. Gone to attend to some other pressing matters. It fell on me then to wash the car and make it presentable enough to go to work with. Needless to say, it was difficult work. But I finally learned the secret of Portharcourt mud.
I used more detergent than I have ever used before, risking the sparkle of my car paint, but the black spock-marks would not go away. I dug the dirt-spots into my fingers and under my nails. Then I looked closely. Yes, there was the dark grain of the alluvial soil in there, but it was basically suspended in a thick film of oily grease. The soil- the so called Portharcourt mud was crude oil with a few grains of sand and silt swimming in it. And oh how much detergent was spent, trying to get the car to a semblance of the white it used to be before. I have the remnants of the oily streaks from where the Portharcourt mud refused to let go of my car and I understand it now. What the years of riots and fighting have been about all along.
This region feeds the nation literally. The crude oil beneath their ground is our only export commodity. And the country is structured with her lips firmly anchored on the single nipple of petroleum flowing freely from the breast of the Niger Delta. This crude oil and the money it generates is what circulates throughout the whole country. It is what pays prince and pauper alike. It is what lines the pockets of our fattest politicians in misappropriations, theft, embezzlement, budget manipulations and others too numerous to mention. Oil wells are the favorite currency of the political class- bandied back and forth between them in exchange for favours, appointments, sometimes even for betting sport.
What happens to the region then? Her people watch daily while their land, communal and ancestral, is snatched away and given to foreigners. Did I mention that all of the land within this country’s borders belongs to the government by law? So one day a man wakes up to piss in his backyard only to discover that his hut is no longer his. Money is offered, paltry compensation, which he cannot refuse anyway or he will leave the land empty handed. The land his grandfather walked on is walled off from his descendants forever and large metal beams plough into the soil in search of black gold. If it ended here, it would still be pathetic, but less so. This man goes to find another piece of land, hopefully not infested with the curse of oil, to plant his life and family again. He hopes to grow what he cannot buy, to fish the rivers and the creeks for sustenance as his father and grandfather and great-grandfather did before him. But that is a lofty dream.
Sanctioned by the government, the companies pollute the land, the air and the sea with reckless impunity. They after all pass on part of their proceeds to the government. The government- the great avatar of all people Nigerian, stares blankly on ahead. The coins are still warm, the notes still crisp, from where they have been minted.
During a trip to Portharcourt not too long ago, I went to the pier at one of the inland waterways that feeds a larger meshwork of rivers and creeks before they empty into the Atlantic. From the other bank, you can see the walls of the old museum and a little farther down, the zoo. A bridge ran across it, separating the old part of the city from the new. I learnt a few things too then. I had always fantasized about taking a boat trip, but as I walked onto the stationary barge on the shore, my leather flip-flops, which we called “palms” kept sticking to the ground. The Portharcourt mud was like glue- thick, sticky and a shiny black. It spoilt the mood for me, or rather set the stage for a rather nasty experience.
After stepping onto the ferry, at first I was fine, until I started to take in the scene around me. In the distance, little waves lapped at the mud. They left a new layer of slick as they washed back some of the old. The water was dark and murky, strewn to no end with bits of dirt and plastic. Next to the boat, one egret flew around in circles, fishing for lunch. It was no longer white. Many different shades of grime had defaced what was once a uniform coat of white feathers. After some minutes, it broke the water’s surface and emerged with a bright piece of plastic in its beak. A disappointed shake of its little head and it continued its search, this time, wading around the shore and sifting through the shifting murk. After another few minutes, it launched in and came up with a fish- a small one, not much larger than my thumb. I was quite happy for the bird, all of its efforts has paid off. But as it bobbed its head up and down to throw and catch bits of the fish to swallow, I noticed that this fish wasn’t squirming like a live one would. The bird of course, didn’t care. This was better than plastic anyway.
All this while, I had been focused on the drama of the egret and hadn’t noticed the rippling of the water, as it raced towards and away from the edges of the barge. When the little bird had swallowed its meal and I took my eyes off it and noticed this effect, waves of nausea and vertigo washed over me. I shut my eyes very tightly. I couldn’t tell if I was nauseous from the ripples closing in around me or the dirt and grime or the unnatural murkiness of the water or a combination of all of it, but I was sick to my stomach of all of this.
As I washed the Portharcourt mud from off my car, I could feel the nausea and dizziness surround me once again. And I wondered, how could crops grow from something so sticky, so filthy. How could children drink water that had touched this soil. How could fishes survive the oily film that spread out from the mud as I splashed it with water. I wondered how did this happen. I wondered how this could have been going on all this while and I had remained oblivious. I wondered if the future would be any different for the unfortunate inhabitants of the Niger Delta, trapped within the cursed compass of their oil wells. As I stood there, choking on bile and trying not to fall down from lightheadedness, I made a silent prayer of thanks that I didn’t have to see this every day. It would only happen if I went to Portharcourt or if someone else did and brought back some mud as souvenir.