THE MISGUIDED OPINION ABOUT THE OGONI PEOPLE
[Part 1 is available here]
The euphoria that heralded the final day of camp melted when I picked my posting letter – I had been posted to Gokana LGA; one of the local government area that houses the Ogoni people. Just two days earlier, a friend who was currently serving there prayed, that I should not be posted there. Apparently, the heavens heard the exact opposite.
A Local Government-sponsored bus was sent to convey new Corps members from the NYSC Camp to their Place of Assignment, and my friend came with the bus. We had a brief chat where she advised me to go home and ruminate over it, before accepting the offer. I mulled over this for three weeks and settled to remain in my LGA – a decision that ensure that my integrity remained intact.
As I prepared to resume in Gokana, my father’s friend, who accommodated me for those three weeks gave me his words “You know I worked with Shell for 30 years. I visited Bodo, Mogho and a couple of other places in Ogoni. The Ogoni people are wicked – very wicked set of people. Be careful and stay away from their girls. May God see you through”
I arrived at Mogho, Gokana on Dec 13. After the necessary documentation at the Community Secondary School, Mogho, I returned home to resume after the Christmas and New Year celebrations. The Ogoni people are a highly marginalized and impoverished breed. Many of the children who walk around the streets in oversized T-shirt remind me of pictures from war-torn Sierra Leone as captured by the lens of the international media. Children, between the ages of 5-8, playing football stark naked under the rain was not an unusual sight. In Mogho, Bomu and a couple of other communities, the Corpers’ lodges were the major source of pipe-borne water for those communities. Just a handful others had boreholes in their houses.
It is palpable to imagine that an oil-rich community which should be in the class of Aberdeen could be mistaken for war-torn Sierra Leone. Despite the fact that substantial production of oil and gas has been halted for over a decade, by the recalcitrant Ogoni people who ordered Shell out of their lands due to the oil spillage and environmental degradation with little compensation, the people still suffer the damaging impact. I made a trip to some of their rivers and you would see oil floating on their river – the same one where they harvest fishes from. However, Shell alone cannot be blamed, as pipeline vandalisation further exacerbates the problem.
At night, the villagers usually locally refine crude oil, emitting thick black smoke into the atmosphere. Once, this was done in the afternoon, and even the sun couldn’t penetrate the thick smoke.
While interacting with members of the communities, I learnt that Shell crude oil pipelines still run through the communities, hence Shell is still responsible to the community as part of her Corporate Social Responsibility. The oil giant is responsible for the WAEC fees of hundreds of students in the schools. Shell also doles out huge sums of money to the Chiefs for development of the communities.
Many claim, more often than not, that this money is shared by the elites and never used for its purpose.
During my visit, I witnessed Communal unrest in Kpor and Bodo communities. In Kpor, the youths alleged that Shell has disbursed a huge sum of money to the community Chief for development. They opined that, knowing how selfish their Chief is, and rather than have him embezzle the money; the money should be shared equally among all families in the community. However, the Chief publicly denied that the disbursement of the money as alleged by the youths.
Amid protests to demand for recognition and compensation for the pollution of their environment, they have been painted as barbaric – this is far from the truth.
I taught Mathematics to the SS2 Class of 2014/15 Session, with arms A and B. The student population is at 150, though you hardly see 70 students in school, except during the 3rd term promotional examination – One in which everyone gets promoted to the next class regardless of their performance. In no time, I built a good relationship with the students. Seeing the poor quality of education they received in previous classes, I offered free evening classes on Mondays and Wednesdays to fast-track the learning process, focusing on what their teachers failed to teach in previous classes – to lay a good foundation, without which my efforts during the usual classes will result in futility. It was unfortunate that many of them knew zilch in Mathematics. I remember when I taught one group Pythagoras Theorem under five minutes and almost the whole class unanimously said “Is that all? That simple?”
Computer classes followed on Friday, as I introduced them to the Computer (Laptop) and the basic Microsoft packages. An average of thirty people turned up daily for the tutorial classes throughout the holiday period. A colleague and I, also renovated a block of classrooms and with funds from our donors, set up a Reference library as they had none.
Invites to lunch with their families, gifts – coconuts, yams and fruits, started pouring in. Spending time with them during holiday, I got a peek into their lives. They took me on fishing trips and excursions round their community and adjoining ones. They told me tales of their past, the oppression from the community chiefs amongst others. They even told me how they would send me my share of their N600,000 – a compensation Shell had just paid every indigene of another community, Bodo, for environmental degradation, when theirs arrived.
The icing on the cake came a night to my departure. The new yams had just been harvested. Seven of them, all boys, came around for the usual chit-chat. Next thing they said “Sir, let us prepare you our local soup”. After over two hours of work, “kpon sa-ep”, a local soup made from water leaves and garnished with fish and oysters was ready; pepper soup was simmering in another pot, and two very large bowls of pounded yam was ready for consumption. I invited other Corps members, a little over 12 turned up and we consumed the first round to our fill. The chefs and I went for the second round and washed it down with a bottle of wine. It was the happiest mood I had seen them in – in like forever.
While the Ogoni people could be volatile towards themselves, as witnessed during the elections and other mild cult clashes, they are very accommodating towards strangers. Strangers can defy their traditions, and go scot-free. It is said that strangers bring good tidings; hence, they hold their strangers in high esteem.
Parting with my students was amidst tears. A day after I bid the community farewell, a woman who benefitted from my free tutorial brought me tubers of yam that she just harvested – The new Corpers made merry of them. A student who learnt I was still in Port Harcourt brought me tubers of yam, all the way from the village. He bought me a T-shirt too – I was stunned beyond words. Did I mention I got a set of glass wares too?
Since I left their community till today, a day hardly passes without a call or chat from the lovely Ogoni people. Discard the misguided opinion about the Ogoni people, they are a cheerful and warm people. They have been, are, and will continually have a place in my heart.