Inside the Creeks, Hell and Heaven Side By Side

19 Dec 2012

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After spending three days in the creeks of the Niger Delta communities of Ogbia, Nembe and Okoroba in Bayelsa State,

Adeola Akinremi reports that not all is gloomy in the creeks

Ozigbo Wemi, 60, wears his life jacket in front of his house in Nembe and then heads to work. He struts into the street corner leading to the community health centre and finally arrives at the Nembe mainland jetty. This is yet another promising day. “Important people are coming to the creek today. It will be a good business, I can tell you there will be traffic on the waterways,” he says.

Ozigbo operates his speedboat, crossing the waterways of Nembe, Ogbia and Okoroba communities in Bayelsa State. “I also do a long stretch to Port Harcourt,” he says.

“Port Harcourt is about two hours journey and it cost about N2,000 per passenger.”  There are four speedboats in his fleet, but he drives the third boat in the fleet of Ozigbo Express.

Ozigbo has been a boat driver for some years, but the toil of those years he says has become the reward of today.  “In the creek, all is not gloomy at all. Poverty is still there, staring us in the face, but things are changing. If you are a boat driver, for instance, you can build a modern brick house you find in the city centre here. Some of us even have houses in the capital, Yenagoa,” he enthuses.

Ozigbo is among the growing population of the relatively affluent with modern houses in the creek. “The boat business is a good business. I have four speedboats. I operate on charter, so I don’t really wait in line at the jetties. I am driving the boat I bought in 2007, while I hire out the others to the oil companies like Shell, Agip and some other smaller ones. It costs N10,000 per day and that brings N300,000 every month on each boat.”

On average, Ozigbo makes N800,000 a month from his boats business. In the creeks, the construction of a boat costs about N250,000 and the engine at the cost of  N800,000, but Ozigbo says, “even those speedboat drivers who wait at the jetties for passengers are rich.”

For a journey of about 45 minutes from Nembe to Ogbia, a passenger pays a one-way fare of N1,500 and a speedboat carries about 10 passengers on average.  “The total money any boat driver goes home with everyday is no less than N10,000, but when there is an event or a festive season you can make much more,” he says.

On every street of Nembe Bassambri/Ogbolomabiri, one of the oil rich Niger Delta communities that is popular for its poverty and neglect, there are beautiful mansions, just as a nest of discolored houses and bamboo sheds that once made the headlines and brought the global attention to the squalid lives of the oil rich communities, are still here.

Dark-skinned, tall and slender, 25-year-old Timipre Diamond is a house cleaner in Nembe. “This is what I do to support myself and my parents,” says Diamond in a gentle voice. She cleans the marble houses and hotels in Nembe to keep them in good condition. For her work in the hotels, she gets N5,000 a month.  “I clean the hotel rooms when there are guests, so it is not an everyday job,” she volunteers.

Diamond agrees that the boat drivers are the lords of the creeks. “They own these modern houses. They have houses in Yenagoa and each of them has more than one wife too.”

For the boat drivers, the only enemies they have are the sea pirates.  Though the waterways are patrolled regularly by the Joint Task Force (JTF) – a military operation set up by the government to protect lives in the creeks – the sea pirates still pose a threat to lives on the waterways inside the creeks. For instance, last month, Diamond says, “One of our chiefs was kidnapped by sea pirates. Some people going to Ogbia were also dispossessed of their money. At least I know those who lost as much as N100,000 to the thieves during the last encounter with the thieves on the waterway.”

Now, Ozigbo pulls his boat to a stop at the jetty and Isaac, his able seaman (an apprentice at driving the boat) ties the boat to the base of the gangway at the jetty. But exactly where he stops, a woman is bathing her child in the dirty water that makes Ozigbo a rich man.

Once out of the jetty area, there is the Oborie Moon Lodge sitting at the edge of a street called School. Oborie opens only at sundown and its inhabitants provide services to clients such as sex workers.

Tamuna, a prostitute at Oborie Moon Lodge, claims those in the house are not prostitutes. “We are providing services as sex workers. We are patronised by both male and female clients. We serve whoever needs us best and we don’t go out of our way to force anyone into the house. When you people come to the creeks there must be those who need to relax and we just take care of that.”

She talks about HIV/AIDS too. “I know about AIDS. I have heard about it. I can tell you those who come here know too. I can’t tell who amongst us is a carrier or not. I once went to the health centre over there and I tested negative. What is important is mutual interest. We use condoms and we do it naturally. We need the money and they need our bodies, so it is all about mutual interest.”

In Okoroba, the creek bubbles with the sound of music because an important event is going on in the community. The most influential son of the community is home to bury his father. The mud and thatched roof bamboo houses are getting electricity for the first time.  Okoroba, Nembe and Ogbia have not been connected to the national grid for electricity supply. They rely on generating sets to supply them electricity daily.

In Nembe, electricity is shared per compound. A compound is made up of about 25 to 30 houses. “We have just a 45 KVA generator to power the community and it was given to us by Shell. Now, it is so weak and we get electricity compound by compound. A compound may see electricity only once in a week,” says Ketembe Judith, a secondary school student.

Unlike Nembe, the rich are not that many in Okoroba. The few modern brick houses there were built by a man in the government who has become their eyes and voice everywhere. “The house here and the library over there is a gift to the community by just one man. May be more will come and that is why we pray he remains in government,” says Morris Theodolor.

He points to the direction of the single mansion in the community and says, “When he comes here, that is where he stays and we always look forward to his coming because such days are different days here.”

Surrounded by water without a single road, Nembe and Okoroba share different attributes from Ogbia. The cost of living in both communities is expensive because everything arrives in the communities through the waterways and the charges are usually high. The risk to lives is very high too, but they boats hardly capsize.

Diamond, the cleaner of Nembe marble houses says, “One day I will be rich too and move to the other side to live in one of the modern brick houses in Nembe Community.”

Surely, she has the pedestal to do just that. She is a recipient of a N30,000 starters’ pack for a skill acquisition programme she attended.  The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and Shell provided her with the lifeline. Today, she sits in a hairdressing saloon of her own, beats her chest and says: “I will be rich.”

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