Stories of positive AVP interactions!
African Trust Fund
Five hundred dollars and no more! I might spend two hundred in Kenya and the rest in Nigeria. I would be hosted by a family in Kenya and short of souvenirs, should have little need to spend. I would take three in traveler's checks and two in cash. My decision was based on two main factors: one, I should keep spending down; two, I should be careful not to lose money. Practical thinking.
I was going to Africa, my first trip to the continent. The trip had started when I read about Ijaw and Itsekeri women's ten-day occupation of the Escravos oil processing plant in the Delta region of Nigeria. Their story came to me on the fourth day of their occupation in my local paper, and on the latter and following days of the occupation in the Corpwatch and Common Dreams websites. I was especially engaged when I heard on NPR's Nightly Business Report that the women were using a culturally appropriate shame tactic to persuade their oil hungry adversaries. They were threatening to take their clothes off. Subsequently, I was reminded that the Alternatives to Violence Project International Conference would take place in Lagos, Nigeria.
I put two and two together and got a budget with five hundred for spending. A shame tactic is what we Quaker women need to stop our government's impending war with Iraq. Ours seems slightly more complicated in that our adversaries have identified an enemy removed from our midst, that of terrorist and alleged terrorist supporter, Saddam Hussein. Beneath the confusion, however, the issues are the same: too many people want to make money by whatever means necessary. All of us want to fuel our travels with cheap oil. Some of us want dividends from oil company stocks. Some of us want the tax revenue drawn from companies who pump oil from within our national boundaries. All, while some of us want to improve the standard of living for the least of humanity!
Actually, I put three thousand dollars together and won myself an opportunity to improve the standard of living for Ijaw and Itsekeri people. A long time, dedicated participant in AVP, I could go to the international conference and visit the tribe’s people afterwards. I would include my friend, Mutheu, from Kenya whom I trained in AVP last year, and who assisted me with teaching especially challenging ghetto children for several months in Philadelphia. I only needed the backing of my enthusiastic mom, who promised to kick in what I could not raise. Within three weeks I had shots, airline tickets, and half my anticipated expenses covered by local and national AVP organizations along with promises of a $500 grant. The rest was credit card worthy.
It was no small accident that the World Forum on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa coincided exactly with my trip. Rather than read about the glaring differences between developed and underdeveloped countries, I saw it for myself. In Kenya I was hosted by the upper middle class, educated, and employed in the ranks of management. I enjoyed email capability, refrigeration, TV news, and warm water showers there, but washed clothes by hand, drank water purified for all by boiling, and baked on a charcoal stove. My host's half-acre compound was gated and guarded by German Shepards who were trained to be vicious to all but their master. Outside their neighborhood collection of university families was a wholly different standard of living.
In Nigeria, like in Kenya, upwards of 90 percent of the people live on less than $1 per day. Most travel on foot, others on bicycles, some on donkey drawn carts. Transportation occurs on roads in vast need of repair, devoid of road signs or traffic signals. Mass transport is provided by fleets of small passenger vans into which as many as two dozen people are regularly packed. Those who prefer less crowded conditions can hop a small motorcycle. In urban areas, cars, buses, and motorbikes compete at intersections for advancement in time consuming, and bumper and knee scraping traffic jams.
The building material of choice and necessity for most people in both countries is corrugated tin. From heights one can see acres and acres of rusting tin roofs, organized in rows or clumps, each supported by concrete or wood structures, each spanning at best 500 square feet. A few bare light bulbs, burning charcoal stoves, and kerosene lamps light enclaves at night. Goods are exchanged in markets and along the roads. Men, women, and children carry large tubs of merchandise ranging from bags of water to wristwatches in containers balanced on top of their heads. One cannot escape their solicitation when sitting in a traffic jam. In rural areas, people carry big plastic water jugs and huge bags of potatoes, yams, and corn strapped to bodies and bikes. Tall grasses are cut, dried, tied together and transported to markets for thatched roofs.
I saw many an Easter dress on poor little girls in Kenya. The dresses had obviously been chosen for their bright colors and lace, but had become tattered and dirty. Most in Kenya wore western style clothing, new and used, an indication, says Mutheu, of the undue influence of the West on Africans who suffer confused identity and eroded pride. Small bus owners tag their vehicles with names and pasted images of rappers and other pop music stars from the West (subsidized perhaps by the advertising effect). In contrast, Nigerians wear distinctive clothing marked by fresh bright colors, loose fits, hats and headdresses. Lagos vehicles more often advertise Christian beliefs and motifs. Fleets of trucks display paintings of Jesus and references to bible verses.
Both Kenya and Nigeria experienced violent struggles for political independence from Great Britain in the 1960's. The people are anxious to establish real democracies, absent of the threat of military coups and governmental corruption. Both countries are scheduled for presidential elections within the next year. Kenyans are working on a new constitution that would remove some vestiges of colonialism. The current president in Nigeria is being threatened with impeachment. Christian missionaries have had a great impact on both countries. The largest national population of Quakers can be found in Kenya. Almost every other denomination can be found in both countries, with a predominance of Pentecostal churches in Nigeria. A minority, Muslims, are in evidence everywhere, somewhat by virtue of dress, more so by the entrancing musical calls to worship that punctuate the sound waves on schedule by day and by night.
But, I'm getting ahead of my story. Whoops! Having missed two trains by just one minute I'd hired a taxi to get me to the airport on time. That was $87 already spent. Thank goodness I could draw an extra $100 from an ATM, well worth the daunting $1.50 surcharge. It was at about this time, however, that I began to realize that I would not be able to fall back an ATM or VISA card in Africa.
By the time I reached Nigeria, I had already struggled with tipping Kenyan waiters, wanting to balance my cultural norms with theirs, and calculating terms of shillings into dollars and back again. The shock of being cash bound was wholly manifested when I went to pay conference fees in Lagos. They would not take my travelers checks, insisted on full fees for both me and Mutheu even though I'd been given permission to pay reduced fees. I'd already learned from an American attendee in the know, that the conference was in financial trouble. The Nigerian administrator, Iyke Chiemeka, promised we'd settle later.
The 7th International AVP conference was rich and transformative. I enjoyed folks from India, Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, Canada, Liberia, Kenya, and Nigeria. We learned about each other, each other's projects, new exercises, and old problems. The Nigerians were present in large and impressive numbers. Sponsored by the Red Cross, their project had produced over 100 facilitators in four years since inception. While administered in conjunction with the Prisoner Rehabilitation And Welfare Project, none of the Nigerian workshops have yet been done in prison. Administrators are paid to organize. They complain that workshops are expensive to run. People, they say, will participate only if you rent a nice hotel assembly room, pay their transportation costs, and feed them. When I suggested searching out free space and asking participants to supply transportation and food, I learned that things are just not done that way in Nigeria.
Even the Nigerian hotel at which I observed an AVP workshop afforded one working toilet out of three, and this one with no toilet seat or tissue. The guest lodging at University of Lagos provided seat and toilet, warm water in the tub, but no shower. Buckets substitute for washing machines. As in Kenya, it seemed to me that Nigerian people spend their entire lives working and not thinking of anything different. Their warmth, courtesy, gentleness, quickness to laugh and to forgive was endearing. I observed school boy friends holding hands in Kenya, men and women doing the same in Nigeria. My hosts at the International Conference were especially kind and good. "Anointed" Annene (her AVP adjective name) literally took me around by the hand to make me feel comfortable. "Nice" Nnenda graciously shared her family home when we needed an overnight. "Perfect" Peterx provided a copy of his paper on the nature of violence.
The only reasons I felt I should distrust anyone had to do with the special attention I seemed to get because of being from the USA. Men, especially, were eager to make my acquaintance, tell me of their struggles, and ask for a favor such as a job in the States. On such man was a student in political science at University of Lagos. At the AVP conference this individual was especially attentive to our octogenarian who struggled less with her cane because of his help. By the end of the three-day conference, all the pieces had miraculously fallen into place for a delegation of 5 to go with me to the Delta state to deliver proclamations honoring Ijaw and Itsekeri women. I'd asked a fellow American for a loan to cover conference costs, and felt confident that my $360 remaining bankroll was enough. He volunteered to take the four of us women in the delegation to a "bank" to change dollars to naira. Driving to the "bank" at 6 o'clock at night down jammed narrow streets of Lagos was an adventure. Waiting for him at a restaurant franchise called "Mr. Biggs," under the watchful eyes of four security guards (who later expected to be tipped) began to make banking feel unsavory. He returned saying he could get 135 naira for each dollar. This was certainly better than the 80 naira per dollar that one of us had gotten for travelers checks at the airport. We proceeded to the parking lot where a half dozen teen boys, scooting around with tiny withered legs propped up on their skateboards, begged for money. We bargained with the "bankers," a group of eight men who threatened more than once to walk away. We could only trade cash and only at a rate of 130 naira per dollar.
I stood back from the banking transactions. I have trouble calculating correctly under pressure. I trusted him to make a fair deal. When our younger two delegates confidently took and counted the lumps of small bills (200 naira each) I was further reassured. We dumped our claim into the hands of our senior delegate. But, that evening after spending only on dinner and food for the Delta trip, we counted and found we were short over 14,000 naira, about $100. I couldn't blame anyone. We chose not to dwell on it. The individual had been gracious throughout. He'd arranged to visit two of us when he comes to the US in November. Why would he want to jeopardize the invitations? But then, maybe he could not trust that we would follow through on our invitations and this was the best he could get. I've decided to risk suffering the shame that comes in my culture from being duped more than once and will host him.
We'd been given estimates for our trip to Warri ranging from 3 to 12 hours. The more favorable estimates came from Voke, the Nigerian in our 6 person delegation. His presence on the trip was another of the miracles. Voke is Yoruba, one of several tribes in the Delta State. His enthusiasm for our mission catapulted us forward. Meanwhile, Iyke, who felt responsible for our well being in his country, contracted a cab to carry us all to Warri. He estimated costs in the realm of 14,000 naira. We later learned we would need 24,000 to cover the whole trip.
The tension around whether we would have enough cash to cover expenses was superceded only by the tension about whether we would arrive in time. What should have been a four hour trip turned into eight because of series of gaping potholes in the road about every five miles. These holes could devour a truck and slowed everyone down to a near stop. There were a couple of seemingly official tollbooths staffed by women. There were many more unofficial tolls taken by police armed with rifles and machine guns pulling drivers over for allegedly for searches and more likely for extortion. We were waved over, but, seemingly let go as soon as they saw "oweebos" in the car. I got nervous about time when we stopped to make copies of the proclamations in Benin, a sizable town. While waiting for the others, Mary Kay, Mutheu, and I took in the surroundings. A sign astride stuffed furniture read, "sales girl wanted." We laughed at the thought Mary Kay about sitting down comfortably on the job under a sign that read, "What's good enough for oweebo, is good enough for me."
Voke called ahead to arrange for the press to meet us in Warri. He and many other Nigerians carried cell phones, which serve to boost communication in the many areas where there are no landlines for phones. The down side of using cell phones is that you have to pay for your usage time in advance, kind of like buying a phone card. Voke was about to run out of usage time and struggled to explain our mission succinctly. Meanwhile, it had begun to rain, and rain, and rain. The main street in Warri was flooded when we arrived. I consulted the group about whether they were willing to make the boat trip to the Ijaw island in the driving rain. We were all willing to suffer that little bit.
We, included 22 year old Antonio, a charming student from Brazil. Mutheu represented Kenya. Mary Kay, Jane and I represented the USA. I wanted us to be represented in the press as foreign dignitaries. We met the press wearing not exactly dignified AVP t-shirts in a pavilion occupied by a church school group. I talked to the teacher and children, later singing with them, as Voke talked to the press. This government sponsored press corps wanted us to pay 20,000 naira for their coverage. I was disappointed, but had to agree with everyone else that amount was outrageous (about $250). We could have refused just on principle. I guess this is the way things work in Nigeria.
By now it was 4pm, dark and rainy. At the boat yard Voke went alone to get a boat. If the proprietors knew they were bargaining with "Oweebo's," white people, the price would be higher. But, Voke didn't like the price he got and came back to the car followed by several men. They wanted 12,000 niara, 5,000 more than we had planned on. I said we'd pay 6,000. They turned away. Over the several minutes we bargained it had gotten darker and some of us are nervous about boating in the elements. Someone suggested that we split up. Mary Kay and Jane would go back to Lagos in time for flights to the US the next evening. Voke, Mutheu, Antonio, and I would stay to visit the women in the morning. I was clear right away, that we should not split up. We took the ride for 10,000 naira.
And what a ride! Strategically placed in the boat for balance, we were fifty feet off the dock when Voke remembered the gift we'd left behind in the car. "The cola nuts!" These were the red and white, the kind used in ceremonies. We would need them to make a proper impression on the chief. Our driver, who would wait in town for us, hurried to retrieve the nuts surrounded by several townsmen who were curious about our mission. We disembarked again. There was barely enough light to see the small villages along the shoreline, marked by thatched roofs and bamboo. When it rained hard again, we covered up in one large sheet of plastic. At this and banging by big waves, Antonio called out nervously, "Why didn't you give us life jackets?" Mary Kay blithely replied, "What do we need those for? We've got our AVP t-shirts... just pull the tags and they will inflate."
The boat trip would take almost twice the usual 45 minutes. Along what seemed a circuitous route we waved at many a canoe being paddled by women out in the pouring rain. In a narrow waterway, surrounded by trees roots exposed above the river bottom with branches overhead, our boat motor choked. For about two minutes the driver tried and tried again to restart the engine. I was quietly praying, when Antonio exclaimed, "Wait for the best!" He was trying to quote from the AVP mandala on Transforming Power. "Don't you mean 'expect'?" said Mary Kay. "Expect the best," said Antonio, and immediately the motor restarted.
We arrived at the Ijaw village, just south of the Chevron Texaco Escravos plant, drenched and full of anticipation. The village, however, was not that of the poor, underprivileged people I'd seen living in slum conditions in Lagos, nor that of the poor living in bamboo huts along the shore. We were escorted by our boatmen, and then village men, along a 300 foot cement pier, and down a slippery ramp into an adjacent cabin. The sign outside read "...Mariners' Union....” Inside we were sat on stuffed couches and were grilled by three young men, probably of the "youth corps" sent out to check us out. They wore western clothes and spoke English. The leader, Patrick, had an intimidating effect as he stated repeatedly that it was very late in the day (about 7pm by now). It would have been courteous to come when the tribe could properly receive us. And, what were we doing here anyway? If we'd come with good will, we would be welcome. If we'd come with lies, we would not be welcome.
Several of us apologized profusely. We were each asked our names and where we were from. Interestingly, Patrick overlooked the only African woman in our delegation as he interrogated us one after another, another racist and sexist experience for Mutheu in her travels with me. When he repeated his doubts based on our timing, Mary Kay stated firmly, "We had two choices: One, to not come at all; two, to come when we did." That was so satisfactory that we were then offered "something soft." Three sodas and three beers were brought to us by a woman dressed in western clothes who could speak English. But it was with the entrance of a man wearing a Muslim style caftan that broke all the tension. He was wearing rubber flip-flops, which slid down the entry ramp to the front door. The man landed in the room on his rear. The Ijaw men expressed sympathy by responding chorus like with the word I'd so often heard in Lagos traffic jams, "soorrry." So, here was the same warmth and forgiving nature I'd seen elsewhere in Africa. I was at ease, and reminded the men that we were here to see the women. The chief had been consulted. He would bring the women together.
We were escorted under umbrellas along dirt paths amongst what appeared to be concrete houses of about twice the average size for urban poor. The destination was a large community center, one room, with white plastic armchairs for the people on one end, a few on the side for us, and a few at the other slightly higher end for the chief and his escorts. The women were mostly young, in teens or twenties, more than half with infants, and many of them pregnant. They were dressed mostly in bright colors and garb characteristic of African culture. Their facial expressions remained distant, uncommitted, but with a hint of excitement. It was not until we were introduced, at which point, I bowed with hands pressed together, an Eastern gesture, that the women smiled a little and tittered a little nervously.
Voke knew what to do! He attained a plate on which he arranged the cola nuts aside a 500 naira bill and a 100 naira bill (the amounts did not matter). He presented our offering. The chief spoke through an interpreter (even when he spoke to the women, but not when he spoke to the men of his tribe). Voke explained that we'd come from a conference on alternatives to violence. We'd come to honor the women for their use of nonviolence to deal with the oil companies. We wished to deliver our gifts. The chief responded by saying that we'd come so late they'd been unable to give us proper hospitality. Voke indicated we'd had sufficient hospitality. The chief said that if we'd come with good intentions we were welcome.
Jane, our senior, an Episcopal priest and a Quaker (who had led us in prayer at the start of our auto and boat trips and during the flood in Warri) presented our proclamations. The first was to the Ijaw and Itsekeri women. For their nonviolent peacemaking actions we brought our respect and appreciation. Next Jane read a copy of the proclamation written for Chevron Texaco, recognizing the important step they've taken towards transformation in the quality of life of the Ijaw and Itsekeri by cooperating. Finally, she read a proclamation for the government of Nigeria, urging them to ensure that the tribes get the concessions promised them, including the hiring of local people at decent wages by international standards, the clean up of pollution, compensatory damages paid by improving the infrastructure of the region, providing potable water, building roads, schools, hospitals, electricity and sewage facilities.
Next I took center stage. I spoke of my leading to come there, about how there were people reading about them all over the world. I lamented that the privilege of being able to visit was all mine. There was, however, something that we have in common. It is the oil companies that are causing people in my country much concern. Because of them, we might be going to war in the Middle East. I believe that all problems should be resolved nonviolently. They had set an example for all the world to see. I was honored to be among them.
I presented gifts, slightly damaged by the rain. First was a poster picture of Lucretia Mott, a woman of my faith tradition, typeset with her words, "Any great change must expect opposition, as it shakes the very foundation of privilege." I presented an AVP t-shirt and brochure, a Susan B. Anthony coin, and Sackajewa coins, along with a postcard of Mary Dyer, a few bottles of body lotion and artwork from my friends. I explained that the persons represented by these gifts were examples of strong women, some who had used nonviolent means to win equal rights for all women, and others to win the right to worship as they desired for all. In all of our struggles, I said, we can count on a higher power, and it is the power of love.
Mary Kay read a proclamation signed by just our delegation, paying tribute to the Ijaw Women's Association for resolving conflict nonviolently, in the manner of Quakers. Antonio spoke of greetings from the people of Brazil, and Mutheu spoke as a proud African sister from Kenya.
When we finished, representatives for the women asked to speak. When the chief asked them to sit down, they refused so determinedly that he conceded. One woman spoke of starvation. Another woman related the tribe's struggles with bad water, sick children, and no medical care. Finally, a woman asked what it was they were to do with the proclamations. I explained that women from AVP Nigeria would hold a press conference and present the proclamations to the Itsekeri, oil companies, and government. Jane explained that while we would try to support them from afar, this was their struggle. We could not struggle for them. It would benefit them to stay organized, to expect to be in the struggle for a long time, and to be very persistent.
My last words to them as a group were to suggest that they pray in the struggle. And pray, they would. Indeed, right away. One of them repeated my word "pray," in English, and I knew they wanted to pray with us. We held hands together in a circle. Jane prayed to "the Creator," and went on, without interpretation. I was dismayed that the women were not getting the meaning of Jane's words. Having asked that Jane finish in the names of all the great spiritual masters, I was further dismayed when she finished only in the name of Jesus (out of habit, she said later). But, upon hearing the familiar name of Jesus, all the women shouted, "ameena!" I was about as happy about that common denominator for us, as I had been about the English language legacy of the British colonialists. But, I was happy! I was rewarded when one of the women who had spoken to us asked me if she could show me her new baby, a beautiful child, perhaps days old. And, I'd accomplished the goal of smiling into the faces of these courageous women.
It wasn't over yet. The chief gave a brief speech about their struggle, mirroring that of the women. He then insisted that we should stay for the night, as it was still raining quite heavily and very dark. Our boat drivers did not want to stay. Voke arranged with them to do so for an extra 1000 naira. At one point the chief was talking directly to the men assembled on the far side of the center. This was not interpreted for us. The women were following the exchange carefully, sometimes laughing at the chief's words. At one point when only the men laughed, the women looked angry as if that laugh had been at their expense.
A picture taking frenzy started by the request of the chief to have a picture taken with Antonio. I called for women who had actually been in the great contest with Chevron Texaco. About eight very young women stepped forward with older ones behind. I asked if they had ever been frightened, tired, or hungry. No, none of them had. I asked about their relations with the Itsekeri, at which they offered no response, and it felt like the conversation was over.
I was to learn later how great is the antipathy between the Ijaw and Itsekeri. There are Itsekeri on the mainland who are relatively well educated and well off. They had been battling each other even before the incursion of the oil companies 40 years ago. The Tribes had a 1997 boundary dispute over oil that led to a 3 year full fledged war. Within the past year there has been a 20 boat gun battle between the tribes. Associated Press reported that thousands have been killed due to ethnic violence over oil fomented in part by the oil companies which offer scant jobs. The report quotes a spokesperson for the Ijaw Youth Council as warning that they would burn down Chevron oil facilities and attack Itsekeri villages. The men had been using kidnapping and extortion to get their perceived rewards from the pumping of the oil. Authorities at the Escravos plant are afraid of them all. Only a few oil companies were left in the region because of the violence.
We were taken to the home of the African Zion church minister's family. There were pictures of the minister dressed in silk embroidered priestly robes throughout the house. He was in town for the night. I was literally shocked when we walked in the door and faced a modern entertainment center stocked with color TV, VCR, and large stereo unit. There were American pop music videos playing on the TV. A dozen plus tribespersons had come in ahead of us and were already glued to the TV. I said loudly, "I don't want to watch this. I don't think it's healthy." Of course they didn't know what I was saying. So, in order to be respectful and to turn a negative into a positive, I got up and started dancing, inviting two older women to dance with me. One of them mimicked my every move, and smiled broadly. In retrospect I believe we were taken to this particular house because of the flush toilet and three extra bedrooms it offered and out of respect for what they thought was our lifestyle, as a gesture of good will.
It was almost impossible to communicate. I tried asking questions about the Itsekeri again and got a story about how the night before a woman had lost her newborn in a complicated delivery for which they had no medical expertise. I took to playing with the children, including one darling 2 year old named "Gift." She and another girl child seemed healthy. The minister's wife (very young and attractive) was mother to two boys who had runny noses and coughs, like many other children we'd observed in the community center. We were treated to a "special" meal of bread, sardines, and tea. Wishing that the dozen or so neighbors would leave, we learned that they were socially obligated to stay until we went to bed. We were awakened at 5 am the next morning by hauntingly beautiful melodies superimposed on one another in a slightly discordant, but harmonious way by two men who continued for at least ten minutes.
As we walked in the dark to the pier, I was approached by a young man named Martin, who had been at the side of the chief the night before. He explained that their electricity was made possible by a generator for which they had to supply the diesel fuel. He asked me, as if wanted to know they would not be forgotten, "If you come back to Nigeria, will you come back here to see us?" I assured him I would.
The boat trip back to Warri was quiet and serene. We never saw the village in daylight. In contrast, we could see the lights of burning gas atop tall stacks on every horizon, bloating out the stars. We could see the electrical lights of the Escravos plant perhaps a quarter mile away, just across from the Ijaw island. Small processing plants and stacks dotted the landscape downriver, and then a couple of ports occupied by oil freighters. The contrast of village canoes with the giant ships was reminiscent of David and Goliath.
Our cab driver was happy to see us having heard nothing of our whereabouts. I overpaid the boat owner by mistake, forgetting that we had bargained down. He was a young, handsome man with whom I had already established friendly rapport. When he realized he'd gotten more than expected, he thanked me, saying he would have a good time with the money tonight, gesturing with his hand as if drinking. "You need to share this," I said sternly but with a smile.
If my colleagues were angry that I'd paid too much, they made little of it. I think we were all still spellbound by the excitement of the fairy tale like adventure. We left Voke at his sister's in Warri. While taking breakfast at her house, I figured we had just enough to pay the cab driver without cashing my traveler's checks. I calculated how much we had spent (about $600), and disbursed all of my traveler's checks to even up what we had put in. Between that and a splash of hot water in the bathroom, we were very refreshed.
We'd miss Voke on the trip back to Lagos. We wondered at the dead animals including what looked like dried bats or flying squirrels and gators hanging for sale at makeshift stores along rural roadway. After a rest we began recalling the events of the last 24 hours. Each of us recalled different things, each offering a different perspective on the event. We laughed alot! Our attention turned to roadside buildings and passing vehicles, marked and perhaps protected by biblical referents, including: God is Above, God's Favour Psalm 128, God Leads Psalm 23, Blessing Primary and Secondary School, Divine Glow Hospital, God is Good Motors, God is Able Furniture Store, Fishers of Men Charismatic Church. Even our bread wrapper was labeled, "Ola Jeu," meaning by the grace of God. A sticker on the window of the cab read "Satan is in trouble." I'd known the Anglican Church was present here, and Pentecostals, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic. I noticed an Bahai enclave, and a Hare Krishna Temple.
I realize now that we failed to give official thanks to our Creator on the way home. We did, however draw on our driver's bible, reading many of the verses touted by passing trucks and buses. It was Nehemiah 8:10 that made a big impression on us all: "Then he said to them, 'Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.'". We had eaten of the privilege required to make such a trip, drunk of the sweet interdependence among us and the faith that we should be on this journey, and finally we had left portions of faith with the Ijaw who had not been prepared for us. I am certain that our trip was holy. I will not be grieved for ourselves or the Ijaw, as we have the joy of the Creator, if we but look for it.
As for money...I have little but enough. As for justice we all have too little. I need to put this story in perspective. International oil companies are taking natural resources from Nigeria, the largest oil producing country in Africa and 6th largest in the world. It is highly likely that corrupt governing officials are taking from the revenue stream before it reaches the Nigerian people. Ijaw and Itsekeri have learned about another way of life from the incursion of expatriates onto their land. With the pollution of their fishing waters, they have no choice but to adopt that way of life. Ijaw men have the means to leave the island more often than the women. The women need to leave the island for safe deliveries of endless babies. The oil companies gain by creating competition between tribes, redirecting hostilities away from the processing plants.
Those of us in the West who use oil products helped make this mess. I've stopped using a car, preferring public transportation to having one more noise and air polluting, steel, slow-to-degrade vehicle on the roads, but did not hesitate to use a fuel guzzling airplane when the opportunity arose to go to Africa. How do I resolve the conflict? From one perspective, the Ijaw are better off because the oil companies came. Had they not come, the tribes people might still be fishing today, warring with the Itsekeri over fishing rights, and dying prematurely because of unsanitary conditions. Had they not come, the Ijaw women might be better resigned to living, dying and giving birth on the island (just as they may well be resigned to female circumcision like in other Nigerian tribes). There is no doubt oil companies have brought the women knowledge of new possibilities for themselves.
In any case, it is what it is! This trip, my answer to a spiritual call, was part of the resolution. It let Ijaw men know that some of us glorify nonviolence. Our visit engendered a sense of pride in the Ijaw women. The trip gave AVP Nigeria an inroad for doing workshops with members of both warring tribes, and even, perhaps, with officials of the oil companies. It gave AVP Nigeria a chance to take a political stance on behalf of nonviolence. Now Nigerian women in AVP have positive ties with Ijaw and Itsekeri women. In time the tribes may join together in their mutual struggle for justice from the government and oil officials.
It seems that assessing what is fair for the oil companies to pay for their booty, is something I have to leave to those most closely affected to decide. Every transaction is an opportunity to establish what is fair and just. If the price is not already set, the process can be exhausting as were most of our transactions along the trip. If the people of the Niger delta think it is not fair for them to live without toilets, medical care, and even washing machines, they must determine so and struggle for it. What is not fair, in my opinion, is to use violence to get what they think they need. Pollution and war are never fair, for they spoil the sanctity of life and the bounty of the earth for us all.
Is it exploitation when companies negotiate a good deal on pumping oil? Is it exploitation to pay $180 for two full days of driver and cab for our group of six that would have cost more than three times that in the US? Should people pay according to their means?...
I may not be able to set prices, but I can choose speak up when I think companies have negotiated an unfair deal. I must speak up if companies have used violence to gain advantage. I can choose to share my savings with those less able than myself. I must insist that as a nation, my country, the United States of America must not use violence of any kind to gain advantage. It is with this belief that I protest against the impending war against Iraq. It is the example of the Ijaw women and the joy of the Spirit, that give me strength!
©2002 Charles Oropallo
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