“Binarau, fene be ma owou bo dou o, Sister, the flames are up again,” Timi said pointing to the sky.
“Yes, I dey see am, waka fast,” Preye replied pulling him along with one hand, while holding a basket of fish on her head with the other.
The flames appeared often with its reddish orange waves stretching to the sky like thicker versions of fireworks. Many a time, it engulfed the entire community with a blackish smoke accompanied by a choky aura. It was like those used by the chief priest to make sacrifices for community cleansing, the ones the pastor used to illustrate the intensity of hell and concluded the community needed to make their ways right with God rather than be cleansed.
Whenever she saw them, the words of Mr Ebetebiri, her chemistry teacher came back fresh to her memory playing itself like the sound of the town Crier’s gong. This flaring is hazardous to human existence. I tell you, one day it will wipe all of us away and we’ll become fossil fuels as well. Maybe, that’s when the government will reconsider and listen to our plea. I tell you, this is sheer danger and wickedness to humanity,” he’ll always say. He spoke these same words like a memory verse anytime he saw the flames in the village square, whenever he discussed with his colleagues under the mango tree close to the school’s gate and most especially every time he came into the classroom to teach organic chemistry.
Times had gradually changed in the community, a once vibrant land filled with industrious farmers, fishers and traders suddenly reduced to a shadow of its original self. The productive ground that once flourished richly during harvest, now produced a skeleton of what is expected. “The invaders” as Tonye, her elder brother, calls them, have not only destroyed their land but have polluted their rivers as well with the oily substance, they call crude.
Preye often thought that “the crude” was indeed crude as it had no mercy on the sea creatures. Fishermen complained daily of their poor catch and the degree of lifelessness amongst the fishes. The people constantly prayed for the rains to come, gathered in to buckets and drums strategically arranged like on a chessboard, so as to have water for domestic use. The recent increase in child mortality as a result of cholera flashed in her mind. Even Timi had suffered from it. Most parents had to forcefully stop their children from playing and drinking from the river.
As they approached home, Timi ran ahead to hug their mother who was preparing plantain porridge for dinner, in the kitchen made with planks few steps away from the main house.
“beinbai fou be tubara ke mu ma, how was today’s sales,?” She asked Preye who was dropping the basket of fish from her head.
“Fine o! Better pass yesterday own,” she replied and pulled a bench closer to sit.
From a distance, they could hear voices, shouting and singing with fierce tones. Few minutes later, Tonye and a couple of young adults appeared, standing some blocks away, with placards above their heads. On it were written, ‘Leave Our Land Invaders’, ‘Government Intervene Now’, ‘Develop Our Land or Leave’, they had been using these same placards for all their protests.
“We’ll keep protesting until these invaders leave our land,” even from afar Tonye’s voice was loud and distinct, cutting into the tranquillity, as he addressed the other boys who replied with roaring yells of solidarity. They spent some time whispering among themselves. Preye guessed they were discussing their next line of action, as they’ve done over the past one month.
After dismissing the other boys, Tonye walked straight to the kitchen to greet their mother, embraced Timi and ignored Preye because he knew she had her reservations towards their protest.
“How today protest go nah?” Their mother asked while she stirred the porridge which seem to have a consistency as thick as a custard.
“E go well o! We reach their rig gate today,” Tonye replied with pride in his voice.
“Na so I hear. Na wetin everybody dey talk about today for market,” she said with a broad smile on her face and her eyes filled with admiration over the hero her son was becoming.
“Brother, me I think all these protests are too risky and it’s not even solving the problem,” Preye said as she drops a cup of water in front of him.
“What do you know? Don’t you know keeping quiet is a bigger risk? So we should just sit down, cross our hands and watch these invaders destroy our land totally! Abeg, Preye no just make me vex this night,” he replied.
“Brother, no vex. But the engineer said it’s our state government and chiefs we should blame and not the oil companies,” Preye said
“Which engineer? Was it our chiefs that told them to come and mess up our land?” Tonye said with his eyebrows raised in disgust.
“No but they pay them well and instead of them to use the money to develop our land, they pocket it,” Preye said, imploring his sense of judgement.
“Paying the cheifs still doesn’t justify the level of harm their companies have caused and how much can they pay to renew our land sef?” Tonye said. He paused for a while, “hope say you never start to dey open your legs for that engineer like all those cheap girls?”
“Ah ah, no nah,” Preye replied
“You better no try am cause if I hear am, I go beat craze commot for your head,” he said as he drank gulps of water from the stainless cup before walking in to the house.
Preye, in silence, thought of Engineer Kehinde who she met one of the market days and had gotten fond of. He had volunteered to teach her physics. Although, she knew, it was a strategy to draw her closer. She had managed to maintain a healthy distance not just for the fear of what Tonye, her brother, would do but also for the fear that he might be married, only claiming to be single in order to have a village toy to play with for the duration of his stay. Most of the engineers did this. Just recently, it was rumoured that two girls had gotten pregnant for an engineer who was married with two children. Though, Pere, her best friend saw it as a means of meeting her needs and getting her share of the oil money.
Preye, pondered if it was really true that these people were truly invaders and had brought more harm than good to their land, Oloibiri.
Even her father had developed lung infection due to the constant inhaling of the fumes, which Engineer Kehinde said was a result of ‘gas flaring’. He had said it was done to remove the unwanted gas from the crude oil. He had also said that the oil companies had compensated the leaders of the community with huge sums of money for the health hazards and land degradation but the leaders were selfish and would never inform the people about it neither invest it in the community. She wished she could make Tonye understand that their leaders were also part of the problem. He would never agree, she knew, because he only viewed things from one angle.
Nevertheless, she had come to a firm conclusion that the discovery of oil in her community has been more of a curse than a blessing and federal government cared less so long as it paid the country’s bills. She wondered who’s actions were best and who to stand with, the Mr Ebetebiri’s endless well constructive grammatical complains about the problem, or Tonye’s bull by the horn approach, or Engineer Kehinde’s blame on the chiefs, or maybe Pere’s sap all that you can from the rich womanizing engineers. This dilemma is one she had got to take a stand, at least for her father who laid on the sick bed. Maybe a stand against environmental pollution, at least for the once clear whitish blue sky with well calved clouds and the smell of freshness, safe for breathing, free from the choky fumes that travelled distance far.
Written by: Jennifer Chioma Amadi