Day 13: Into Ogoniland…
Up early for the drive to Bebor School.
It's in Rivers State and my 4th state since I got here. Bebor is in Bodo City and at the centre of Ogoniland.
The Ogonis have been hugely affected by the oil industry and have a particular disaffection for Shell: in 2015 the Ogonis in this area settled out of court with Shell when their land was devastated by several oil spills alleged to come from a pipeline owned by the Anglo Dutch company.
Interestingly, whilst I've been here, 2 more communities have won the right to sue Shell in London, the Ogale community and Bille Kingdom.
It's difficult to convey the impact that this polluting industry has here: nearly three quarters of people here live below the poverty line.
Smallholdings provide much needed food and income, without it quite simply people go hungry. Without money children can't go to school and it's a vicious circle that keeps people in poverty. It's an easy word to say but not easy to convey what absolute poverty looks like. In places this country is beautiful, the natural environment is simply stunning and breathtaking. The contrast between my natural surroundings and the man made interventions I witness are incredible. At times I feel like I'm in a post-apocalyptic world except it isn't.
I look at the 40-50 year old Peugeot cars and Mercedes trucks’ belching out who knows what toxic gases, and it's easy to think everything is broken. I will admit to having moments of feeling completely overwhelmed by the need here: it's everything, water, roads, homes, power, waste- the lot. But then I see the spirit of the people, their resilience and ingenuity.
That truck is limping along, the car on half the cylinders it was built to run, but amongst it people make do, they mend and mend and mend. I not saying it should be this way forever, far from it. I'm just struck by the scale: I've read recently that over 60% of this country lives below the poverty line: that's 100,000,000 people. Where do you start?
Well…we start by helping who we can. For us that means getting as many as possible of the next generation out of poverty and getting them into school. Our scholarships our 100% funded by the generosity of our supporters. Can you help?
At least the roads are good on the drive to Bodo City.
Numerous checkpoints along the way. We're stopped many times but a friendly conversation moves us along quite quickly. We're asked time and again "what can you give me for standing out in the sun?" and my response "just my thanks and a smile" seems to amuse them greatly.
Finally we arrive at Bebor: greeted with singing, drumming and traditional dancing. I like this school and it feels an integral part of the community. They make water available from their borehole, provide training for local women teaching them sewing and catering to help them generate income.
Some of the parents attend our welcome and accompany us around the school. This is a happy place, content in its surroundings and our generous welcome is well intended.
Later, the less formal interactions with the children is great- they ask lots of really good (and sometimes hard!) questions which I answer as best I can.
Later we get a tour of the school and visit the local land that will house the snail and fish farms we will construct. These will help the school to become more sustainable: protein is in short supply following the pollution here. Income will help the school provide places to the most vulnerable disadvantaged children in this area. Longer term they want to build a secondary school alongside the facility.
In fact the head teacher, Moses Lezor has a big vision and big plans and we want to help him achieve them.
Our final visit is to the Chair of Local Government. He's the politician who delivers on the ground and in the community. It's another big deal: we've never been afforded this level of access before so meeting him has benefits for Moses. The chair also benefits as the will be publicised in the local community and probably confers a level of status on our host.
Another long, hot day. The drive back is hot but I notice that I'm aware of woodsmoke again- there's less traffic on these roads and I don't miss the pollution!
We pass lots of petrol stations on the way back: all are locked due to a fuel shortage.
It's crazy: black market petrol is being sold in all manner of containers big and small at every road junction we pass. I estimate the containers vary from a litre to 10 litres and ask our driver the cost- it's about 4 times the official price and climbing every day. What is certain is that is a risky way to transport petrol and am reminded of an article I read this week about a fatal incident in Lagos.
It's madness that there can be a shortage of fuel in this, one of the largest oil producing countries in the world, and I'm here in the region that provides it.
Even greater madness that fuel can be bought and sold in such a dangerous way…