In 1994, I was a new, middle-aged American bride living in my husband’s home of Cote d’Ivoire. I had arrived in August and by November I was student at the University of Abidjan’s French language program for non-French speakers. At that time, Liberia’s civil war was in full rage and many Liberians had taken refuge in Abidjan. Some were lucky enough to receive United Nations scholarships which enabled them to take French language courses at the University of Abidjan as well. They became my peers, my friends and my refuge from the callousness of Francophones. They were also my point of entry into Liberian history, Liberian-American history, factional fighting, changing alliances and the delicious joy of rice with palava sauce.
During my brief stint as a formal student in this university, I had many introductions, by my classmates who came from all over English-speaking Africa, to their ambitions, to their struggles and the struggles and successes of their home countries. Though I had had a long history with Nigerians back home, through literature, friendships and as a child when my grandmother hosted a couple-Gabriel and Martini- during the Biafra War, I had never known about the Ogoni people of Nigeria, the Niger Delta and the environmental degradation oil companies like Shell had unleashed. It was Boma, a young man and classmate from the Niger Delta oil region of Nigeria, who so passionately articulated the history of this region and the unchecked abuses it sustained at the hands of big, Western oil companies with the complicity of the Nigerian government.
Over grilled corn or plantain, under fruit trees I listened to Boma and learned of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other equally courageous people and whole communities who challenged the environmental, economic and political abuses perpetrated in their homeland. It was this time I became a short wave radio fiend and listened throughout the day to the BBC’s African service. I could hear interviews with Mr. Saro-Wiwa and follow his campaigns. He became a hero for me on this African sojourn.
In November of 1995, I was still in Cote d’Ivoire, pregnant with my first child, who was due at the end of that month. I was in love with my life and my family and my new country. I cannot describe the devastation and sense of disbelief I physically felt when I heard on Nov. 10, 1995 that the Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian government with the complicity of Shell Oil.
As Americans, we have seen firsthand, with our recent experience with the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, what shameless and rapacious behaviors these oil companies display. Well, know that the people of the Niger Delta region have been experiencing this for decades and nothing has been done. Know that this is happening and raise your concerns.
Ed Kashi is a phenomenal photojournalist. The photo above is his and here is a link to an interview he gave concerning his project in the Niger Delta.Below is my poem inspired by Ken Saro-Wiwa and the simple fact that the personal is the political. Here in my poem is a couple on a lovers’ chase , whose every movement is met by some apparatus associated with the oil extraction activity.
A Chase Through the Niger Delta
For Ken Saro-Wiwa By Octavia McBride-AhebeeWhen my feet pound the damp earth
distancing themselves from the fears of the day
as my toes collect mineral wealth
and ancestors’ blessings,
the hope of the world
because I am chased by a lover
in whose mouth sprouts mango-colored hibiscus,
our blissful flight is still broken,
overthrown by surface pipes,
snaking conduits of slick poison,
fallen piñatas full of slippery promises
lined in fire and incessant flares
with fury and inflamed detachment
the tops of our crop’s heads
drowning our stomachs in greasy blackness
stuffing our chest with soot and oil’s disdain
is how a pair of lovers
whose day began unspoiled
fueled by the thrill of a dreamy chase
became uninspired and polluted.-the end-