Nigeria's first oil rig in Oloibiri

Emmanuel Addeh writes on the rich cultural and tourism potential of Bayelsa State which when explored could be a major revenue earner for the state

Many people would be shocked to know that the Ijaw language, which is mostly indigenous to Bayelsa, is not monolithic.

In essence, what that means is that all the Ijaw people found mainly in Bayelsa and to some extent in Delta, Rivers, Ondo, Edo and Akwa Ibom States do not speak a single dialect devoid of variations, as many erroneously believe.

Generally speaking, this is just one of the misconceptions of some Nigerians relating to the Ijaw culture or people who have Izon, Nembe, Ogbia and Epie-Atissa as the four most spoken Ijaw dialects. Other Ijaw dialects include Tamu, Mein, Jobu, Oyariri and Tarakiri.

Bayelsa lies almost entirely below sea level with a maze of meandering creeks and mangrove swamps, flowing into the Atlantic Ocean via the major rivers such as San Bartholomew, Brass, Nun, Ramos, Santa Barbara, St. Nicholas, Sangana, Fishtown, Ikebiri Creek, Middleton, Digatoro Creek, Pennington and Dobo.

The major towns in Bayelsa State are Yenagoa, Amasoma, Sagbama, Obi, Kauama, Oloibiri, Ogbia, Oporama, Koluama, Brass, and Opokuma.

Aside the rich culture, the Ijaw people of Bayelsa are reputed to have beautiful landscapes, climate, lifestyle, arts, tourist attractions and some of the most delicious delicacies in the Niger Delta region.

Engaged mainly in fishing, farming, palm oil milling, lumbering, palm wine tapping, local gin brewing, trading and exchange of locally made goods, and to a lesser extent, carving and weaving. The Ijaw people of Bayelsa pride themselves as good harvesters of natural resources from the seas, oceans, creeks and lakes.

Though that notion may have been blighted by the discovery of oil and gas resources in the state which have succeeded in dealing a devastating blow on the pristine nature of the land and waters of the Ijaw people, nevertheless, they have continued to explore their God-given resources aside the black gold.

On personal beliefs, with still pockets of traditional African religion worshippers in the state, Christianity remains the most widely practiced religion in the area which reportedly produces between 30 to 40 per cent of Nigeria’s oil export.

In arts, the Ijaw people are involved in carving mainly canoes, boats and coral beads, using shells from sea animals to create crafts for fashion, and decorative purposes.

Indeed, the people of Bayelsa and the Ijaw people in general have many foods and delicacies that are localised, but also very much relished by other parts of the country.

For instance, the popular boli and fish, which is mainly roasted plantain, ripe or unripe, served with barbequed fish in palm oil peppered stew is said to be indigenous to the Ijaw people, though fast becoming accepted nationally.

The fact that this favourite delicacy is fast eluding the reach of the masses, due to its skyrocketing price even as a unit now sells for as high as N150 and a slice of fish for an additional N120, has not prevented many people in the state to regard it as a ready “life-saver” when hunger knocks.

So also is the polofiyai, a traditional Bayelsa recipe, served with pounded yam, comprising periwinkles, plantains, dried fish, and scented leaves in palm oil and onion base.

Then, there’s Kekefiyai , a pottage made with chopped unripe plantain, fish , sea food, bush meat and palm oil, Opuru Fulo, made with lots of lobsters with condiments of smoked fish or fresh fish, spices and eaten with starch, yam, rice or plantain.

Aside the delicacies mentioned, Banga soup, a typical Izon meal derived from palm fruits, with the juice extracted with such condiments as fish, Izon spices and served with a variety of grains, eba, starch made from the extracted yam flour is also enjoyed by the people.

So also is pepper soup, highly spicy water-based soup, taken across Nigeria which is claimed to have originated from the Ijaw people, usually served with plantain, yam or rice.

And there is Gbe, the grub from the raffia palm tree beetle, eaten raw, dried or pickled in palm oil and several seafood which litter most parts of the state of just less than two million inhabitants, going by the 2006 national census.

Away from food, about three quarters of Bayelsa’s total area is surrounded by water, with a beautiful coastline through which there are many rivers and creeks flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.

In fact, it is widely believed that the Edumanom Forest Reserve in the state remains the last known site for Chimpanzees in the Niger Delta and then the many beautiful beaches.

With its aquatic splendour, entertaining cultural festivals, traditional masquerades and enthralling dances, historical and colonial relics, Bayelsa is home to the historical relics of the Akassa slave transit camps and tunnel, the colonial cemetery at Akassa and Brass where the graves of some colonial masters are located.

There are also natural sandy beaches especially in Agge, in Ekeremor Local Government and Twon Brass in Brass Local Government, natural mangrove forests, rivers, creeks, lakes, swamp and green terrains are some of the tourist attractions.

In Agge, located between Bayelsa and Delta states, the Palm Beach is reputed for being a long stretch of tides which intermittently flush on the shores and suitable for surfing and many other tourist activities. So, also are the Okpoama, Akassa, Deiama, Odioma beaches.

There are also lakes in Okao Toru-Orua, Lake Effi and Oxbow lake which when explored could be major revenue earners for the state.

For instance, the Lake Okao Toru Orua is said to harbour abundance of fishes, crocodiles, several exotic birds and wildlife, with the forest of Lake Okoa characterised by wild monkeys.
Accessing the lake is mainly through Yenagoa and another journey of between 25 to 30 minutes through the bush part, it was learnt.

Museums, mausoleums, statues, edifices and monuments, including the Christopher Iwowari Monument in Bassambiri, Oloibiri Oil Museum, where oil was first discovered in 1956, the Mungo Park Residence, Akassa Slave Tunnel, Akassa LightHouse and Ogidigan Deity are also memorable sights to behold.

Other beautiful tourist attractions include the Peace Park in Yenagoa, with cultural festivals spanning each of the eight local government councils.

The white man’s graves in Town Brass and Akassa are said to be cemeteries containing the graves of Europeans who died during the Anglo-Nembe battle, popularly called the Akassa War of 1895, or others who died of diseases like malaria as a result of mosquito bites.

Some of the graves are said to have existed for centuries and give a vivid imagination of what happened during the colonial era.

Many of those whose graves can still be accessed in the area include Capt. Abraham Fred, Harold Barclay, who was then a military Commander, George Taylor, a lieutenant in the army, Capt. Fredrick Leigh-Lye and several others as engraved in the ancient sepulchers.

Nigeria’s First Oil Well, Oloibiri in Oloibiri Town, is a monument on the road junction where is sited the first crude oil well, ever drilled in Nigeria when oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1956.

The oil well, 12,008 feet deep, marked the beginning of Nigeria’s economic base shift from agriculture to oil and gas with just over 5000 barrels per day at the time.

The Ox-Bow Lake offers boat rides, swimming and relaxation, while the Mungo Park Residence, named after the explorer Mungo Park, who discovered the source of the River, remains a beautiful relic.
It was the divisional headquarters of the colonial rulers of Brass Division. The old building has been preserved and refurbished as a monument for historical tourism. The wood and brick building remains strong, weathering decades of storms.

Akassa Slave Transit Camp and Tunnel, the transit camp found in Ogbokiri, Brass near Akassa in Brass LGA, is the spot where slaves were camped and later transported to the New World (America and Caribbean) through the Atlantic Ocean.

The grim-looking houses built of iron and brick where slaves were chained as they awaited shipment to the Americas still stand to show the horrific slave trade era.

Akassa Forest is one of the major forest reserves of the Niger Delta region for bird watching with over 69 species of birds recorded.

Other places that might interest first time visitors to the state include the Agricultural Palm Beach in Ekeremor LGA, the Odi Holiday Resort in Kolo Kuma/Opokuma, Ossiama Fish Lake in Southern Ijaw.
So also is Koluama Holiday Resort in Southern Ijaw, Okpoama beach in Brass, Isaac Adaka Boro Monument at Kaiama in Kolokuma/Opokuma.

So, with all these natural goldmines, what is the role of the state government to make sure that like most forward-looking parts of the world, the Ijaw culture is preserved and indeed draw the attention of the world.
Secondly, how can these resources be put to the best use with a view to making them a major source of income.
For a start the state government noted that it began with the creation of the Ministry of Culture and Ijaw National Affairs as a way of resuscitating and promoting the Ijaw culture.

Governor Seriake Dickson says that the establishment of the Ijaw House, the completion of the Ijaw Heroes Memorial Park, institution of the Ijaw Film Project, among others are ways that he is ensuring that the Ijaw culture is enriched.

On how the state could generate revenue from tourism, he adds, “it is in realisation of this fact that we created the Bayelsa Tourism Development Agency to harness the tourism potential and diversify the state economy.
“We have also established the school of tourism and hospitality to train quality manpower to man state-owned hotels with high level of professionalism.

“ The world over, tourism is becoming the largest and fastest growing industry and Bayelsa State with its unique aquatic splendour, beautiful vegetation, fascinating culture and history, offers an extraordinary array of tourism opportunities,“ he posits.

According to him, various festivals in the state have also been upgraded to international repute to attract tourists from all over the world.

“Tourism has been accepted as a special purpose machine to diversify the economy of Bayelsa State and take the attention away from oil and gas”, he notes.

However, it is believed that if the state government sees through its plans to urgently diversify its economy, Bayelsa might just be on its way to becoming one of the few model states in the country to have succeeded through tourism.

And not a few are of the opinion that it has to be now. As the Ijaw proverb puts it, “a man with fire in his hands, has no time for pleasantries.“