When I think about my roots and the land of my fathers and mothers, it’s Onu miri Umunanwiri that strikes my mind. The Imo river passes through my town and separates us from ndi Ngwa- ndi n’eri anu madu (oburo mu kwuru). Some of the villages are blessed to have their own beaches, mine is one. The river has sustained us since the dawn of time, we took our palm oil, palm kernels and other palm products to Opobo by canoe, my grandfather even participated in the oil trade before he left for Lagos to find his fortune at the Nigerian Railways.
The same river had been the primary source of water for the town with Iyi Imo providing the water for household needs and Girigiri Nwa Njoku-a spring that has its source at the Imo river, providing drinking water. As a child I remember sitting at the verandah of our house in the morning and watching people on their way to and from the river, most of them envied us for living close to the river and I envied them because I had never even gone to the river.
The first time I went to the river, I went with my dad. I was seven or eight and it was Christmas day. He told me how the river had once been the lifeblood of our town, the missionaries had come through the river bringing with them the church and the schools. The post office, hospital, primary and secondary schools as well as the cathedral of the diocese of Mbaise are all clustered on the road to the river, the center of the town- Ife (yes, there’s an Ife in Imo state) is also on that road to the river.
After washing the clothes, my dad swam. I would have been less shocked if he’d sprouted an extra head, he swam very well. I wondered about all the other things that my father could do that I did not even know about, maybe he could even fly!
I’ve gone back to the river several times since then, I’d even fetched water from the river. The water went to my maternal grandmother because the first time a child fetches water from the river, the water goes to the godparents or grandparents. Seeing the river always gave me a certain peace and tranquillity, I always imagined that the spirits of my ancestors were there and approved of the person I’d become. I’d always imagined shocking my children at that river, I’m not sure what I’d do but I’m still thinking about it. Swimming is definitely not in the plan.
Last Sunday, I headed for the river with my aunty Chioma with five little boys trailing us. My grandmother had been buried two days earlier and I was desperate for some comfort especially the one that connects me with the past, present and future. I had no idea that I was headed for heartbreak.
The first sign was the foul smell that I couldn’t quite place the components, then the river itself looked like a faded picture, a poor facsimile of the place that lit my thoughts and dreams. My Iyi Imo is dying, Onu miri Umunanwiri has been desecrated and it weeps.
There’s a machine that sits in the middle of the river, connected to it are a series of pipes and the last one ends on the shore where it pumps a slurry of sand and water. Sand has been mined from the river for generations but not like this. The amount of sand that would have been mined in a year is now mined in less than a week, the mining is indiscriminate because the machine cannot differentiate between sand and fish and plankton, it just sucks up what’s beneath it. Everything comes to the shore and the putrid smell of dead sea animals coats the air.
Not even Michael Phelps can swim in that water now, two months ago a young man from another town came to the Iyi to have his bath. His body was rejected by the river two days later. I just stood there, heartsick and shaken by this abomination that has caused desolation. I wanted to weep like Rachel, I did not want to be consoled.
There are different types of people in this world- the ones who dream and write, the ones who sit and plot, the ones who reach and grab and the ones who walk and ask why. My aunty Chioma is of the latter group. This was her first visit to the river but she knew the picture was horribly skewed. A young man who eventually became dazzled by her (she’s the kind of woman who can never be a wall flower) explained the new business model to her. The tipper drivers pay the machine owner a certain sum and then three men load sand into the big truck and are each paid a measly five hundred naira each. Five hundred naira for a back breaking job that takes hours, these are men with wives and children.
Some people would call this “development”, what would you call it?
I don’t want to think of the ecological implications, we battle with erosion already and that demon is smoking weed. My heart bleeds, I wish I could stop this destruction of my heritage. I don’t know where to start, may my ancestors guide me.
PS… I’m still a Christian.