At the first gesture of the fading sun, I relocated from the six feet long foyer of my father’s aging bungalow to the shade of an elderly mango tree that blocked the scorch of sunlight from the skin. In the fragrance of the Christmas season, sitting under the mango tree whose age could tell the story of my birth, was my daily recourse. The mango tree radiated a mystery to me as it has always stood there from my days as an innocent infant to this time when gray hairs have sprouted all over my head and set to displace the youthfulness in my curly black hair. Around the tree is an array of younger kolanut, coconut and palm trees whose luxuriant branches and leaves provide a huge circle of natural umbrella for us.
As I delighted in the pleasure of this natural space and air, I suddenly noticed my aunt, Omanyibe, whose dry, harmattan-molested feet wobbled towards me in an uncertain manner. After two days among my people, we had expended much of the pleasantries that we could share for the months that I was away in Abuja. So what subject-matter did Aunt Omanyibe want to raise with me? I held my breath in anxiety as I imagined why she came for me that afternoon. She looked away, shyness oozing out from her head to toes as she made an appeal that shook me from my leisurely sensation.
Here there is no micro-credit facility for farmers, no extension services, no anchor borrowers facility, no improved seeds, no subsidized fertilizers, no pesticides, no dams, no support of inputs of any sort.
Throwing her face to a corner and gazing beyond the peak of the trees, Omanyibe said, “I have some firewood for Aunty Oyata. Kindly help take them to her because she has no firewood to cook with this season.”
I looked up at Aunt Omanyibe. My throat choked, my veins choked with anger, my face choked with surprise, and my tongue choked in the austerity of words to use in responding to her weird request. Aunty Oyata is the eldest surviving woman among my late father’s siblings. Now in her 80s, we cherish her and made sacrifices that would alter any of her regrets for living as she ages on. She lives in Ugbamaka-Igah, a village that is four kilometers away from our village, Ogene-Igah. Aunty Omanyibe’s act of gathering firewood for Aunty Oyata was kind. But for her to cultivate the idea and summon the courage to ask me to convey them to Ugbamaka-Igah in my relatively brand new jeep took me by surprise. Firewood in my jeep? I felt like spitting into my aunt’s face, but I suppressed my anger and shockingly found another finger to the subject-matter.
“Why would you fetch firewood from Ogene-Igah and transport them to Aunty Oyata at Ugbamaka-Igah,” I asked her in place of a definite response to her request.
“Firewood is very expensive in Ugbamaka-Igah,” Aunty Omanyibe began, throwing a sad smile at me. “There is pressure on the forest as firewood has become a money spinner, and those who put their hands in all pies cannot resist the thriving business. You can’t saunter into anyone’s farmland to hew firewood or pick abandoned firewood, as you used to know it. If you can’t find them on your farm, then you have to buy. Aunty Oyata is too old to go to the farm, and there is no youthful child with her to assist in fetching the wood. She keeps pleading with me to help. I’ve fetched some but I can’t carry them on my head from here to Ugbamaka-Igah. Worse still, the cost of transporting them by taxi can equate the value of the firewood.”
“How much would a pack of firewood cost?” I enquired.
Using her hands to measure and emphasize how expensive the firewood could be, Aunty Omanyibe said a pack of about three feet would cost N500.00. In the rural setting where it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for old, tired folks to access the Naira, N500.00 is too high a price to pay for firewood that would be burnt out in an earthen oven in two days of cooking. In a twinkle on an eye, I compared the price that peasants pay for firewood with what I pay in Abuja to fill a 25kg cylinder of cooking gas. We refill the cylinder with N4,500.00 and use it for an average of six weeks. Over the same period, my mother and aunts in rural communities in Kogi State would have burnt firewood worth N11,250.00! Instantly, I was caught up in a new realm of the realization that the days when life in rural areas was natural, simple, economical and pleasurable have disappeared with the wind.
Not only about firewood
After this encounter with Aunty Omanyibe I was initiated into a new world where I noticed a pile of firewood at random on footpaths that wound through farms from family houses to the express road that runs through the village. It’s a new trade that our ancestors would have dismissed as a very lazy way of earning a living. In this cash-strapped society, shame cannot stand the way of money, as it would be instantly thrown overboard. Desperate for money, the people hold tenaciously to any idea, short of criminality, that could produce paper currency.
In the 10 days that I lived among my people, I tasted the thorny and stony life they live. Firewood is expensive, but the price of water is unreasonably exorbitant in my village. With access to borehole water in Abuja, I hardly exchange Naira notes for it. But in Ogene-Igah, every cup of water that we drank to quench thirst and every basin used for laundry drained the pocket. For one, the natural and free source of water is a spring encased in a huge forest that is five miles away from the village. As the narrow, snaky road to the river is riddled with stones, shrubs and snares, it takes more than an hour on foot to get to the brook to fetch a basin of water and return to the village. Motorcyclists who could fetch water in 25 litter jerry cans are discouraged from making the journey as the horrific road pose as a peril to their vehicles. As a borehole dug by a son-of-the –soil malfunctions regularly, the villagers purchase every drop of water they use from a vendor who sells a 25 litre of water for N50. And the outrageous aspect of it is that, sachet (pure) water is more expensive in my village than it is in Abuja. While a bag of 20 sachets sells for N100 in Abuja, in my village it is sold for N120.
Also, electricity may still be a several years away from the people in spite of the fact that the sights of a barren electricity transformer, electricity poles planted at intervals, and high tension wires spread in the air overhead across the village taunt the people from daybreak to nightfall. These empty signs and symbols of electricity have been there for over four years, waiting for steps that would fill the emptiness foisted upon the community by the shameless political class. While in Abuja I pay an average of N8,000 every month to recharge my pre-paid electricity meter, in the village, I spent N1,400 on a daily basis in order to fuel my petite generator to power our house from dusk to midnight. The scarcity of petrol worsened the situation, as a litre of petrol sold for N350, without which I could not recharge my handsets and ‘Chinese’ rechargeable lamps for use when the fuel in the generator was exhausted at night. At this rate for the 10 days I spent in the village, my children could not switch on the old television from morning to evening. They rolled and bathed in the red dust that requires scarce funds to wash off their Christmas clothes.
The consequence of the immoral cost of petrol in our district is an unthinkable high cost of transportation. In Abuja, a motorcyclist could charge his passenger N100 for a five kilometer ride, but in Olamaboro Local Government Area of Kogi State, it would cost three times that amount. From Okpo, the headquarters of Olamaboro LGA, to Ikeje is about five kilometres. Motorcyclists charge peasants as much as N400.00 for it, and if the journey stretches to two or three more villages separated by less than a kilometer each, the passenger is charged up to N600.00 for the ride. Here buses are absent and it is hopeless to wait for taxis that may never fly past. Therefore, motorcyclists are Lords.
Here there is neither government nor governance:
In this community there is hardly any functional government hospital. The General Hospital at Okpo is overwhelmed by weeds. It’s building, furniture and facilities are in shambles, leaving only the mortuary as its active section because peasants die on a daily basis from common ailments due poor medical counsel and the lack of pharmaceutical drugs. The mortuary is, therefore, the hospital’s source of Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) as widows, widowers and orphans of the dead paid N1,000 on a daily basis to secure corpses while they hunt for cash to give the dead a befitting burial. This atmosphere is a fertile weather for quack medical personnel who milk the people dry and quicken the sick’s journey to their graves, while fake and expired drugs are handed out to peasants at double the prices of genuine ones at patent medicine stores manned by unbaked or poorly baked pharmacists.
Again, as an irony, the cost of some foodstuff is taller in Kogi State than it is in Abuja. On my way home, I purchased 10 tubers of fat yams for N3,500.00. But in Okpo, five tubers cost N2,000.00. As an acclaimed agrarian state, the cost of food items should be cheaper in the North-Central State, but here there is no micro-credit facility for farmers, no extension services, no anchor borrowers facility, no improved seeds, no subsidized fertilizers, no pesticides, no dams, no support of inputs of any sort. The people are abandoned by the political class, but the fraudulent tax collectors do not fail to extort them at the local markets. To compound the situation, governance is absent in the part of the state, as the folks have no support from government in the battle against kidnappers, highway robbers, farm thieves, and destructive herders who damage crops on farms. No rural feeder roads. Schools are epileptic. No medical facilities. Poor mobile telephone facility.
The people are caught in dilemma because there is a narrow stream of income for them due to the lack of industries and stimulating economic activities. To access funds from government coffers, they depend on the earnings of local government council employees and teachers under the Universal Basic Education scheme. Unfortunately, this category of civil servants are owed salaries for over a dozen months, hundreds of them framed as ghosts so they are sacked from Kogi State payroll, while those who thank the benevolent spirit that has seen them through the turbulent staff screening process and have remained as government employees are paid disappointing fractions of their salaries. With limited opportunities and the lack of incentives to farmers, the people are encircled in penury, as corrupt politicians, who are as hard as nails, bask in the vanity of stolen wealth. No wonder even unskilled youths have migrated in droves to urban centres.