For a year and three months, Veronica Aloy Khenom worked tirelessly on her okra and cassava farm, just adjacent her home in Gokana, one of four local government areas in Ogoniland. One bright afternoon towards the end of January, she returned to finally gather the produce. But what she met was disappointing—though unsurprising.
Since constant spilling of oil has taken a great toll on the quality of soil in her community, making it less and less fertile, Veronica’s harvests have dropped in both size and quantity, despite the use of fertilisers. And she is no novice when it comes to farming. She learnt the work from her mother several decades ago and has since used it to sustain herself, feed her family, and sponsor her children’s education.
“Before the spill, when we farm sometimes, if it is okra, we can get four or five basins from one plot of land. But now, you will toil hard before you get one,” she laments.
“You can see the cassava now. Before, we used to train our children with cassava, but look at it now. And this is harvest from all the farm,” the mother of four says as she points at empty sacks on the floor.
“In the past, today would have been our happiest day because we would have got money. But with this, you won’t get anything. Even if you try to sell this, nobody will buy because it is too small. The harvest is very poor.”
This has been the lot of Veronica for years and now she is considering a career shift to trading, which appears to be more profitable. Her children, one in JSS3, one in SS1, and the eldest, studying Surveyor and Geometrics at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), are all out of school due to financial constraints.
Kadi Aloy Khenom, 14, who hopes to become a naval officer, makes up for lectures missed by visiting her friends after school hours to learn from them.
“I hope to help the orphans when I grow,” she enthuses. “I won’t allow them to come the way I came—as in they won’t suffer these kinds of things. I have to give them a scholarship so that they can become something in the future.”
Besides the occasional produce harvested from their mum’s farm, the family’s only other source of livelihood is irregular writing gigs secured by the husband, a retired journalist. Aloy Khenom, who has worked with Sun Ray and Concord Newspaper, is often moved to tears by the thought of his children’s educational challenges.
“That is my greatest concern,” he mutters, wiping tears from his left eye. “I am not always happy. Once a journalist, my colleague, came wanting to grant me an interview on this situation. What I did was put it into writing, because I don’t like talking about their condition.”
“Sometimes we will be in the house, they won’t know I am in my room lamenting,” he narrates tearfully. “I peep and look at them. Peep and look. They won’t know I’m lamenting—crying sometimes. It’s only them. They are my only problem. As for me, forget about the goodies of life. I’ve conquered that.”
“Only the children; their school,” he adds as he blows his nose with the help of a white handkerchief.
The Aloy Khenoms are just one in hundreds of thousands of families in Ogoniland who have agrarian lifestyles and depend primarily on farming and fishing for a living. Communities where, in the past, the farmlands were lush and the fruits and roots blossomed have today become wastelands. Communities, where fish could previously be collected barehanded from rivers, have now become too polluted and dead to fishing.
“We are a people whose measure of economy is farming and fishing,” says Mene Steven Bari-ara Kpea, the paramount ruler of Mogho community. “But presently we are completely wiped out of that God-given gift. We are no longer farming, we are no longer fishing because of the pollution.”
Ogoniland, a vast community covering close to 1000 square kilometres in Rivers State, has been a hub of crude oil-related operations since the 1950s, and for many years has suffered from monumental pollution as a result oil spills and fire outbreaks.
In 2011, after it was commissioned by the federal government, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published what it called the Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. It is a first-of-its-kind scientific study of the damages that contains operational guidance for repairing them.
The study found that pollution by petroleum hydrocarbons is extensive in land areas and groundwater in Ogoniland. The pollution has led to the shrivelling of mangroves and killing of vegetation. Plants generally show signs of stress and yields are lower in impacted areas, the report said.
Floating layers of oil were found in surface waters, fish had deserted polluted areas in search of cleaner water, and community members were exposed to hydrocarbon emissions through air and drinking water.
“Hydrocarbon contamination was found in water taken from 28 wells in 10 communities adjacent to contaminated sites,” UNEP reported. “At seven wells, the samples are at least 1000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard.”
In June 2016, the federal government finally flagged off the proposed cleanup and promised to set up the institutional framework necessary to drive the report’s implementation. Six months later, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) was reestablished to implement the UNEP recommendations.
The situation has, however, not improved eight years since the report’s publication and three since the cleanup’s launch. Among several other problems, people in Ogoniland often lament the unclean state of the water available for drinking. One resident of Goi community said the water always has tastes of salt and oil, but the villagers have no choice but to drink since there are no alternative sources.
Residents have reported constant visits to hospitals due to excess purging, prolonged urination, stomach biting and so on. “Normally we go to Bodo City General Hospital twice a month,” one resident discloses.
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