Stories of positive AVP interactions!

REPORT ON THE
7TH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON
ALTERNATIVES TO VIOLENCE PROJECT

LAGOS, NIGERIA
September 1-4, 2002

and the
ADDITIONAL TRIP TO THE DELTA REGION
TO VISIT THE WOMEN
WHO SUCCESSFULLY PROTESTED
AGAINST CHEVRON OIL CO.

September 5-6, 2002

by Jane Foraker-Thompson

I was fortunate to be able to attend the International AVP Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria this year. I was going to Senegal to visit a son and his wife and children anyway, so I added this on to my itinerary. Many people warned me against going to Nigeria, as it is known as the most dangerous of African countries for foreigners to visit, due to its high crime rate, and the many stories of foreigners getting ripped off, robbed, or having to pay bribes everywhere from the airport, the taxis, and the police in order to just get things done. The US State Department advises Americans not to go to Nigeria. Being my usual stubborn self, I went anyway. After all, we were to be hosted by the Nigerian AVP group, and I was sure they would do their best to see that none of us AVPers coming from other countries would have any negative experiences. I was not disappointed. Each one of us were met at the airport, in spite of the fact that usually incoming people must come outside the! airport in order to meet anyone. None of us knew this, so we would have been very perplexed if no one had come inside the airport to meet us. Somehow, the AVP conference chair, Iyke Chiemkeka, was able to get past this restriction. AVP people were allowed to come inside the airport to meet the incoming guests.  

The Conference was held at the University of Lagos campus, where we were all put up in dorms near the conference meeting rooms and the dining hall. If any of us wanted to go off campus, to go to the open air market to shop, or to church, or to hear music, we were always accompanied by other Nigerians and were provided a car and driver. We were told that the campus was chosen as the Conference site, even though it was not as nice as some of the hotels, but it was safer for visitors.  Indeed, we could wander around the large campus and find cyber cafes, a bar, and small eating establishments in safety, both night and day. That would not have been safe off campus, especially if any of us owebos (white people) had tried to do these things by ourselves, unaccompanied by Nigerians.

The AVP Conference was billed as beginning on Sept. 1 and ending on Sept. 4, 2002. So I arrived the afternoon of the lst, to find that the lst was just a gathering day. But I did meet several people who had attended the conference that had occurred the previous week, who were staying to attend the AVP Conference. That evening, I met two people who were going to become significant for me: Kaki Sjogren, a Quaker from Philadelphia, and Mutheu Mbondo, a young woman from Kenya, who had done graduate studies in Philadelphia where she and Kaki had become friends. They had come to the AVP conference with the intent of trying to take a trip after the AVP Conference was over to meet with the women who had successfully protested against Chevron earlier in the summer.

But back to the AVP Conference.  There were people there from the UK, Canada, Australia, India, USA, Brazil, Kenya, Liberia, and our hosts, Nigeria. Reports of greeting were read from New Zealand, Uganda, Rwanda. There were the usual speeches of welcome during an opening ceremony. The Conference honored Ellen Flanders, from New York, who is one of the original AVP members from the 1970's, and who came to the conference in spite of having to use a cane, and sometimes a walker, to get around. She told us about some of the first AVP workshops and what they learned from them, and then how AVP materials developed, based on experience, and how the organization changed. During the day we had sessions on role plays and various leadership issues. The entire second day of the Conference was spent on sight-seeing. We went by bus, van and car, and met at a historical museum which was quite interesting and informative; then to the town of Badagry, a historical slave-trading site! and also the lace where the first Christian missionary landed (British) and built a home and school. We had both lunch and dinner on the road, and stopped at the Whispering Palms resort for some refreshment and a play put on by some young adults who had traveled with us for the day. The third day we again had sessions on how to approach conflict resolution, forgiveness exercises, demonstration exercises and brainstorms to be used in second level workshops, a session on light and livelies, and finally a general session on the politics of AVP in an international context and the differences between AVP groups across the globe.  We spent some time discussing how to continue organizationally and some pre-planning for the 2004 International AVP Conference which will be held in New Zealand.

The Nigerian folk who hosted us did a magnificent job in making arrangements and seeing to everyone's needs, while very subtly keeping us safe from harm. This is all the more remarkable when we learned that AVP was introduced into Nigeria just two years ago, and that it has grown so fast that now they have more than 100 facilitators of workshops!

Kaki and Mutheu were able to muster enough interest in the trip to the Delta region to meet the women who had demonstrated against Chevron so that a team of six people came together: Kaki Sjogren, USA; Mutheu Mbondo, Kenya; Antonio Carlos Gomes, Brazil; Mary Kay Jou, USA; Voke Ighorodje, Nigeria; and myself, Jane Foraker-Thompson, USA. This was Kaki's brainstorm, and she had come with the idea of writing some proclamations and had brought some small gifts such as US coins with Susan B. Anthony and Sakajawea on them, and some posters of Quaker women who had led the drive for US women to get the vote nationally. Several of us worked on writing the proclamations, then I typed them up and got them copied. We got the proclamations typed up in time to present them to the AVP Conference, which gave their approval and many members there signed the proclamations that we would take with us.

Voke is a young Nigerian man, in his thirties, who came from the Delta area, where several minority tribes live. Voke knew the history and filled us in on important information about the political and economic background of what has been going on in the Delta area over the past forty years between the international oil companies and the tribes that live there. He could speak Yoruba, which is the main language spoken in Lagos, but could also speak the local languages spoken in the Delta area. We learned that only the people who were lucky enough to get an education could speak English. Everyone else speaks only the local African languages. Voke knew the area and gave us an idea what we would be facing. For instance, the main town in the Delta area is the town of Warri. From there on, we would have to travel by boat. Without his knowledge, our trip would have been a failure. Our destination was the Island of Escravos in the Delta area.

The AVP Conference lasted September 1st, Sunday to September 4th, Wednesday. At 7 am on Thursday, Sept. 5th, the Escravos team met and was ready to load our baggage, food and water, and ourselves into a rented station wagon complete with a driver. Amazingly, we got off on time. The highway was good in places, but had potholes several feet deep and wide in other places. It took us all day to get to  Warri, arriving about 5 p.m. We were met by some local reporters who had been alerted that we were coming, but they wanted us to pay them 20,000 Naira before they would cover the story. We refused both on principle, but also because we didn't have that kind of money. All of us were running low on funds and all of us were scheduled to leave Nigeria by the weekend. We had pooled our resources in order to make the trip to Escravos. So we said goodbye to the reporters, and drove to the boat dock to negotiate for a ride to Escravos. The only problem was it had begun raining an! d the boats were small, open, wooden boats with no covers, powered by outboard motor. Voke did the bargaining for us, and we finally ended up hiring a boat crew of two. They weren't happy about taking us at that time. By now it was 5:30, pounding rain, and the trip would take one and a half hours to get there. They made us promise that we would come back the same evening, and we agreed. Our driver, Christopho, agreed to wait for us in Warri, with the car. We had already paid him half the fee for driving us down there. So, at 5:30 pm, in the rain, we piled into the wood boat, with no life jackets. When the rain got really heavy, we pulled an old tarp over us. But we were soaked to the skin anyway. The trip was one of traveling along "water roads" weaving in and out between islands, deltas, past huge oil tankers, occasional oil extraction and refining areas. Otherwise, it was beautiful scenery with mangrove trees growing up to and into the water, villages along the way where t! he huts were built on stilts in the water; the houses made of reeds with thatched roofs. We passed both men and women in narrower wooden fishing boats, usually only one or two people per boat. We must have been a very strange site to them, a mixture of white and black people in a little wooden boat, waving at them in a friendly manner, through the rain. After it had turned dark, the outboard motor began to sputter. The boatman tried to get it going, and it died. He tried and tried, but it wouldn't start. It was dark, and we were in a narrow water way lined by mangrove trees. We had no means of communication and no one knew we were there. We could be stuck there overnight, or for days. I began to pray. Others did too. Finally, the young man from Brazil said outloud a saying that we teach in Alternatives to Violence. It's part of Transforming Power.  He said: "Expect the best." Suddenly, the outboard motor started up again and we proceeded on our way.

We arrived about 7 p.m. in the driving rain, docking at a pier where there was a boat house.  Several men at the boat house met us and wanted to know who we were and what our purpose was for coming there.  When our intentions of support and congratulations for the women who had demonstrated against Chevron were announced, we were allowed to stay. They gave us some drinks and radioed to someone on the island that there was this strange collection of people there who wanted to meet the women demonstrators and the youth. In half an hour, some people arrived to escort us from the boat house to someplace on the island. It was still raining and by now quite dark. Each of us was escorted by someone who had an umbrella. We had no idea where we were going. We slogged along in the mud and the water puddles. Finally we came to our destination.

It turned out that we had been brought to the Palace of the King, of the Kingdom of Gbaramatu! [In many African countries, there are still chiefs of tribes, and there are some kingdoms still remaining. An African king reigns over several chiefs of several tribes. These exist as informal, but real structures underneath the formally acknowledged national governments that are either elected or dictatorships.] The village had come out to meet us and the king presided over a two hour ceremony in which he greeted us, we presented him with Kola nuts, and then we were allowed to state our purpose in coming. We congratulated the women on successful non-violent demonstrations against the multi-national oil companies (Chevron, Shell, a French company, etc.). They had asked for some recognition of rights for compensation for the exploitation of their land by the oil companies, which had badly polluted both the land and sea so that they can no longer farm or fish for a living. We present! ed them with proclamations and gifts.

Since Nigeria has suffered under a series of military dictatorships since liberation from British colonialism, which have received huge bribes from the oil companies to allow them to operate without regulation, the people have not benefited at all from the oil companies. We were told that when the men demonstrated against the oil companies, they were shot. When the male youth demonstrated against the oil companies, they were shot. So the women said: "Stay home. We are women. They will not shoot us. We will go and ask for just compensation." The international news media made light of what they were doing. These people have no schools, no medical facilities, and they are literally dying from the pollution.  They have no potable water, no clean food. It takes a one and a half hour boat ride for them to get from  Warri on the mainland to the Island of Escravos, and the fuel to operate the boats.  The oil companies have built no roads or bridges, put in no means of! obtaining clean water, and have played off one mainland tribe off against all the other tribes. Those who live on the islands in the Delta cannot afford to take the boat ride from their homes to the mainland for either education or medical care. So they stay there, and they die. The oil companies have been taking out billions of dollars of oil from the Nigerian Delta region for over forty years, with no compensation for the people who live there. It has been pure exploitation. That is why we thought it was important for some of us to go to Escravos and offer our support, not just for the women, but for the whole community whom they represented in their demonstrations at Chevron.

We presented some proclamations of support to the women, and the community. They thanked us profusely, and so did the king, the men and the youth present. We presented some small gifts to the women that Kaki had brought, and let them know that they had international support with people watching, to encourage Chevron and the other oil companies follow through with some of their promises. After the ceremony was over, there was much celebration, hand-shaking and picture-taking. Even the king wanted his picture taken with us.  Since it had taken us all day to get there, from 7 am to 5:30 pm to get to Warri, then 1 1/2 hours by boat to Escravos, we arrived late in the day. The hour was late, and the king wanted to end the meeting. But the women weren't finished having their say. When the two women who were standing up front waiting to speak were essentially told to wrap it up, all the other young women stood up behind them and made it clear that they weren't leaving until th! ey were heard. They spoke of starvation and no medical care, and babies dying. When they asked what they were to do with the pieces of paper we had given them, we suggested they keep copies and give copies to the oil companies and their own government representatives. We also mentioned other ways of doing non-violent work at bringing attention to their cause, such as getting publicity, writing and visiting their government officials, and being constant and determined and not giving up. Finally, the ceremony was over about 9 p.m. A flurry of picture taking followed, with different people wanting to have their pictures taken with us. Even the king wanted his picture taken with us!

We had planned to return that evening to Warri and stay overnite there. But the King and his advisors said that it was too dangerous to travel at night, and, as we were now their guests, they could not let us travel back on the water roads in the dark. They arranged for us to stay overnight in the home of the wealthiest family in the village. There were six members of our team that traveled to Escravos in support of the women: three US women, one woman from Kenya, a man from Brazil, and a man from Nigeria. Two boatmen had brought us to Escravos, in pouring rain, in a wooden boat not more than three feet wide and about twelve feet long, with no cover, and no life jackets. They were now part of our party. All eight of us were taken to this home, fed a late dinner about 10 pm (they shared with us what meager fare they had), and the party continued until about midnight. When during this informal time, I asked the young women (through an interpreter) what they wanted most, they s! aid without hesitation: "Education!" The youth said the same thing. We had to talk through interpreters, because they only spoke their local language. Only educated people in Nigeria speak English. The next thing they want most is medical care. They said a woman gave birth the night before we came and the baby died, because there was no doctor or midwife there to help. They said that happens all the time. During our two-hour ceremony at the king's palace, I heard babies coughing continually. Being a mother and grandmother, I noticed that sound, and knew there was a lot of ill health in the community.

We finally got to bed about midnight. We took off our wet clothes, hoping they would dry over night, and slept between native cloth. We arose at 5 am, because we needed to get going early, as two in our party had planes to catch from Lagos later in the day. We were at the boat dock by 5:30. It was still dark, but the first hint of light was coming up over the water and the islands lined with mangrove trees. Fortunately, the rain had finally stopped. We could see the glare of light from the gas stacks that were burning bright here and there on various islands where they were extracting oil and doing some refining. The burning gas lit up the skies further. Some people were at the pier to thank us again for coming and to send us off.

We arrived at Warri about 7 am, and then drove the treacherous drive on pock-marked roads back to Lagos, arriving there about 3 pm. Lagos is the fifth largest city in the world, but has inadequate streets to hold all the traffic, so it took another two hours to get to the airport. But we made our flights on time, especially since they were delayed (a la African time). I returned to Senegal, where I had been visiting my son and daughter-in-law, and two grandsons, who live there. Senegal is growing rapidly, modernizing, and making progress, whereas Nigeria once was somewhat developed, at least in the larger cities, but the infra-structure is deteriorating and decaying and they are going backwards. Quite a contrast between two West African countries. The AVP team that went to Escravos had touched the people in the village of Opruasa and they have touched us. Now it seems we have some moral obligation not to let the hope die that we encouraged them to keep alive. May the Creator! of all guide us, inspire us, teach us, and keep us faithful.

2002 Charles Oropallo
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