Uwemedimo, born of Nigerian father and a British mother, is a lecturer in Film Studies at the Roehampton University (University of Roehampton), in the United Kingdom (UK). He was a consultant to SDN, when we visited the Gbaramatu kingdom. He is the current head of the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP), a different non-governmental organization doing serious work in the Niger Delta region. Both Croft and Uwemedimo, had over the years shown genuine interests to the peaceful resolution of the Niger Delta issues, and development of the region. At Okerenkoko, while talking with the tortured poor women, Michael and Joseph were deeply depressed. I participated in their meeting briefly, and later moved around the destroyed community to pick empty bullet shells used in the attack and took pictures of the area. I was unhappy, like Michael and Joseph. I had seen such a naked show of unnecessary military force several times in various Niger Delta communities, and other parts of Nigeria. The women we met were not in any way members of MEND or their supporters, but were the real victims. While we were in the community, I wrote an eleven-line threnody poem, called “Air Raids in the Mangrove Swamps” for the poor Okerenkoko women and children, who suffered during the attack.
The poem’s sad couplet reads: “In bare-footed skin/She led the columns of other victims/Into the shadow of the mangrove mantle/At the backwoods of Okerenkoko/Her palms burned with pains beside the bullet riddled roofs and wasted walls/Wandering in the un-faded memories of the rented years/In tattered attires they chanted the sorrowful songs of their vicious vortex/And scolded the years of yell/They sought for a re-union with truce/As they live in pains of another air raid/And clash on the swamps of swan.”
On that Saturday, the nineteenth of April, Two Thousand and Fourteen, I walked round the Okerenkoko community again. The weather over it was showing serious signs of sadness. “The bullet riddled roofs and wasted walls” are still there. The community had not been rebuilt. Apart from three or four bed-room bungalows said to have been built by Tompolo for members of his families, most of the affected houses have been abandoned. They are overgrown with weeds. After my walk, I was terribly hungry, so I entered a small nearby restaurant to have my lunch. The restaurant is run by a fifty-eight-year-old Madam, Gold Mademi, chairperson of the Amatelemo-gbo (meaning in Ijaw, Help build community), a women’s association.
Gold is the mother of eight children and four grandchildren. Her restaurant, built of low quality woods and corroded corrugated iron sheets, during sunny days generates heat and on rainy days the roof leaks. The restaurant is less than half a kilometer to the first jetty. Part of it is used as the restaurant, and the other section is used as a store for selling other items, while another part of it is a living room. Though I was uncomfortable with the poor state of the building I had garri with banga soup.
Banga soup is another unique delicacy of the Western Delta people, including the Ijaws. The delicacy is mostly made from the yellow water extracted from the thoroughly washed boiled fresh palm fruits (banga). Madam Gold garnished the soup with beef meat. I didn’t want to eat such meat in a supposedly fishing community, like Okerenkoko. I went out of the restaurant to buy some fried tilapia, which an eight-year-old girl displayed it on a stainless tray. The girl was hawking it from one part of the community to another, crying in her native Ijaw language, appealing for the residents to buy. I used the fried fish to replace the meat in the soup. It was really delicious. After the meal, I spoke with Madam Gold. She lamented about the last attack, and the failure of the state government, who promised to rebuild “--- the bullets riddled roofs and wasted walls.” She was one of the women Michael and Joseph interviewed during their visit.
Around one thirty p.m. I walked back to the jetty to enter another boat to Oporoza. The weather was becoming angrier. I had beckoned on a boat, which was cruising to Kurutie, but there was no tarpaulin to cover me if the threatening rain eventually fell. I waited for about six minutes. A commercial boat dropping off a passenger at the jetty arrived. There were nine passengers on it. The majority of the passengers were women with children strapped to their backs, and about three men. In the boat was a tall, dark man with a new black t-shirt on, with the inscription, “Look, but don’t touch my t-shirt police.” The man was drunk, and was talking about anything around us. I sat closer to him. As the boat was about to take off, he threw a scornful look at my pair of my discolored jeans’ trousers, and t-shirt on me, and shouted, “Why are you looking at my face, they send you to kill me like you have been killing people? Can’t you greet me, your senior?” Some passengers whispered a few words in the typical Warri Pidgin English in condemnation of what he said against me. Stench of Sapele Water from his mouth nearly made me drunk. I smiled, and said, “I am sorry, officer, good day Sir”. He was happy, and said further, “Is okay, don’t think too much, and don’t kill yourself for those stupid women running after you, including the ones in this boat. I can see you are a good person.” A spontaneous laughter from other passengers ran through the boat like a thunder strike. I laughed too.
Our boat cruised close to the shore of the permanent site of NIMASA’s Maritime University at Okerenkoko community, where construction work was going on. We had spent eight minutes sailing, we passed by Camp Five on the left, when dark clouds started descending from the atmosphere. Camp Five was Tompolo’s camp for coordinating, training, and deployment of his militia fighters around the Western Delta, and other places. It is located at the back of the Kurutie community. After he accepted the Presidential amnesty, he handed over the place to JTF soldiers who now occupy it. We were heading to Kurutie when the heavy rain started pounding us like bombs. I pleaded with the boat driver to stop at Kurutie, which temporarily host the Maritime University, so that we could wait until the rain subsided.
He refused, and kept sailing on. The drunken man asked me why did I want them to stop at Kurutie, and I had explained why to him. He advised me not to fear mere rainfall, and that Egbesu (the Ijaw god of war) is with us. I laughed. We had spent about six minutes away from Kurutie when the rain and thunder increased its tempo of strikes against us. Other passengers started complaining about the weather, especially those carrying little kids. The driver later stopped at the Kunukunuma community. We spent about fifteen minutes there and when the rain decreased, we started our journey again. We were approaching the Ubafan community when the man shouted again, “it is fish oooo,” pointing at a small dried piece of bamboo stick dancing on the water surface. The boat driver decelerated the engine. As our boat moved closer to the object, the man dipped his right hand into the water, and dragged out the bamboo piece with a medium-size live catfish. An unknown fisher folk had deployed that bamboo stick tied to a fishing line, and at the end, a fish hook with an earthworm as bait. I guess when the fish swallowed the bait with the hook, it hanged on by the throat. The fish was in a bid to escape when it was brought out of the water. The man was happy, and said he would use it for ‘pepper soup’ when he gets home. Poor unknown fisher folk(s) lost their materials and fish, to us.
We passed by the Inikorogha and Azama communities before getting to Oproza (Oporoza), the traditional headquarters of the Gbaramata people. Along the waterways from Kunukunuma to Oporoza, patches of crude oil were floating on the water table, and some stained the roots of the mangrove trees pointing to the river. There were young men, old women, and girls fishing in the polluted water. As we stopped at the Oporoza main jetty, the man dipped his fish in the polluted water, and used his right hand to collect some drops of water to wash his face, and shouted again in his native Ijaw language, “we are here in Oporoza, land of the spirits.”
A long concrete jetty leads from the Oporozawater's edge to the town. At the beginning of the jetty was a dark- blue tarpaulin shelter constructed in a rectangular form, to provide protection from rain and sun to users who are mostly passengers. The tarpaulin protection has rail handles, and on the tarpaulin it is written, “Provided by the European Union.” It was part of projects done by Niger Delta Professionals for Development (NIPRODEV) (now Leadership Initiatives for Transformation and Empowerment (Lite-Africa) in conjunction with ‘Search for Common Ground,’ (SFCG). Lite-Africa is a Warri-based, non-governmental organization run by Joel Bisini, an ex-banker, and a conflict expert from the Ijaw exclave, and SFCG is an American organization with offices in Nigeria. The EU funded the project under its stabilization instrument.
I walked through the Oporoza main jetty into the town I had visited several times, too, like Okerenkoko. At the jetty I met a short, plump dark-complexioned man. He wore a milk-coloured trouser and a red-t-shirt on it with the imprint, “This is the world.” He had a small transistor radio, which I believe must be made in China, in his left hand with a plastic basket in his right hand, which contained all sorts of medicine tablets. The man is a wandering patent medicine seller. He requested to speak to me, and I granted him an audience.
He told me in a low tone, “I have man power tablets (sex enhancement medicines) for you. If you take it, you can meet your woman even ten times.” I thanked him politely, and said, “I don’t want it,” and had never used it before, and wouldn’t use it until I die.
The man comes from one of the ethnic groups in Delta State. He wasn’t an Ijaw. He claimed that a lot of young men had been buying it, and it was based on their requests he was selling that, in addition to other medicines with him. The use of sex enhancers, such as Viagra is becoming commonplace even in rural communities in Nigeria I have visited. It is a real a problem among young men, especially. Some older men use it, too.
I got to the community when the ebbed tide was returning. A spreading mudflat lay beneath the jetty path. On both sides of the mudflats were restless mudskippers, purple hairy mangrove, and fiddler crabs clapping their hands. Perhaps, that was their way of welcoming me to their habitat. On the left side of the jetty rail was the office of the “Escraves Ship Pilot Nigeria.” Waste disposal and management is a major problem in Oporoza. Wastes are indiscriminately dumped at the foot of the jetty, and left to decay. It releases an invasive odour at the waterfronts, and the wind threw it into the town.
In an article under the title, “Traditions of Origin,” in page eighty-two of the book, “The Land and People of Bayelsa State; Central Niger Delta”(nineteen ninety), which was edited by Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, it was advanced that, “The traditions of origin of the Gbaran (Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa State) are best taken along with those of the Gbaramatu, Arogbo, Kabo, and Kumbo. These would suggest an original point of departure from Gbaran town, in the Apoi Creek, westwards to Oproza (Oporoza) on the Escravos, and an eastward rebound from there, through Kabo/Kumbo and Kolokuma territory to Okotiama in the Taylor creek (Gbarantoru).”
Again, E.J. Alagoa, E.A. Kowei, B.J. Owei and J.B. Dunu co-authored an article, “ The Western Delta Limit,” published in the eight hundred and forty-nine page book, ‘The Izon of the Niger Delta,’ ( date of publication of the book not stated). The authors posit sadly in page four hundred and twenty-two, “It is not possible to provide dates for Gbaramatu history. The material objects- the cannon, anchor, and bronzes – may, in time, provide evidence for a chronology. The traditions do not provide lists of any description, and no genealogies. The only chronology applicable would be a comparative one. Since the Arogbo ( in the present-day Ondo State, in western Nigeria) migrated from Oproza, and since the Arogbo “King-list” suggests foundation in the early eighteenth century, it would be reasonable to conclude that the Gbaramatu settled in the Escravos area before the eighteenth century”.
Some have argued that Oproza (Oporoza) means ‘salt town,’ while others have said Oproza (Oproza) means ‘sword protect.’ Godwin K. Bebenimibo, a retired Superintendent of police and the Ogeh-Gbaran III, King of the Gbaramatu kingdom, whose palace was bombed during the last JTF attack, died five years after the attack. His palace has not been rebuilt. Instead, a new palace is under construction at a different site. I was told that they left the old bombarded palace as a reminder of that attack. Since the death of the third monarch of Gbaramtu (Godwin K. Bebenimibo) who hailed from the Kunukunuma community, Patani Heavens has been appointed as the new regent by the council of chiefs, pending the coronation of another king (Ogeh-Gbaran IV). Heavens’ birthplace is Okerenkoko.
The Gbaramatu kingship is rotational and not hereditary. Each monarch occupies the palace for a period of four years and abdicates. The first and second ones came from Oproza(Oporoza). The fourth Gbaramatu monarch (the Ogbeh Gbran IV) will come from Benikurukuru. The nine original communities (Azama, Benikurukuru, Inikorogha, Kurutie, Kunukunuma, Okerenkoko, Oproza (Oporoza), Ogoba and Opuede) produce the king on rotational basis.
Under these original communities are several new communities and settlements which have emerged, and I am sure more will emerge as the population grows.
As I sailed back to my base the following day to get prepared for my next trip to another corner of the still troubled Nigeria, I began to talk to myself; I just wish I have the power to rebuild the destroyed communities in the region and beyond.
Naagbanton lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital.