Cut from civilisation by water
•Tales from Alison-Madueke’s Yanaka community
Anytime the glamorous Petroleum Minister, Mrs Diezani Allison-Madueke, wishes to visit her ancestral home in Yanaka, Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, she has to do it through a local canoe.
There are no vehicles in Yanaka, a rustic and poor community lying close to the developing capital city. This is because there is no road to Yanaka. Also, there is no road to Belebebiri I and II, Omodubiri and Ekolo, the other impoverished communities that share boundaries with Yanaka.
Perhaps, there would have been a road linking the communities to Yenagoa if a bridge had been constructed by the government. Only a water channel separates the communities from Yenagoa.
Belebebiri, the first of the communities, is just a stone thrown from Yenagoa. It is located behind the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) and accessed through the popular Hospital Road in Yenagoa.
Typical of a suffering and smiling condition, the people of the communities have devised a means to eke out a living from their adversities. Following the lack of a link bridge, canoe paddling is the common business and it is reserved for women alone. Women, mostly aged ones, own locally-made canoes and use them to cross people over to the river banks.
Morning, especially on weekdays, is a busy period for the canoe paddlers. Like a typical rush hour, civil servants and other workers living in the communities, including owners of businesses in Yenagoa, besiege the Bebelebiri river bank to board canoes to the capital city.
They also cluster the FMC axis of the bank while returning to their communities in the evening. The paddlers grapple with the water which on rare cases become turbulent as they struggle to sail their passenger-filled canoes safely to the river bank.
Angelina Koki is one of the canoe paddlers. She is a 65-year-old widow and has been catering for her household with proceeds from the strenuous occupation.
Sitting at the edge of her long canoe and forcing out a smile, she says: “I’m a ferry paddler, I work here everyday and we pull the paddle stick on this water until 2pm.”
According to Koki, the business is organised with a roaster. While some women work from morning till afternoon, others take over till night. Koki goes home everyday with N1000 some days and N500 sometimes.
“Sometimes we get N1000 and at other times, it’s N500. The boat can carry eight passengers at a time, and we collect N10 to and fro from each passenger. But, if it is a chatter, it becomes N50.
“We most times do this so as to render assistance to the passengers but still we don’t get enough passengers. And it’s from this money I take care of my children, so there is no money because we buy garri with this money.
“We get this money little by little and use it to pay for our children’s school fees. I don’t have any other husband again. I am a widow, so, I use this little money I get to fend for my family,” she says.
Apart from her seven children whom Koki feeds, clothes and pays their school fees, the woman is a grandmother. “One of my daughters gave birth in my house so I automatically became the breadwinner of the home,” she said.
On how she learnt canoe paddling, she said: “ I’m an Ijaw woman, swimming is in my blood. I started when I was small. That was how I found it easy in doing this job. Sometimes the water hyacinth which we call “lagua” covers the surface of the water. This problem makes paddling very difficult.
Though she confesses disliking the job, she has no choice. She will readily abandon the job if she sees a better one. She believes she overworks herself for a little gain.
“I need a job. I love to be a salary earner that is receiving salary at the end of the month because we work but we don’t see the money”, she laments.
To Sarah Binipramine, her surname has enabled her to survive the hardship of canoe paddling. According to her, Binipramine when transliterated means “I’m not dying but I have long life”. In fact, she is determined to live longer despite the unfriendly nature of her environment.
The 45-year-old woman laments that her lack of education forces her into her present business. “I did not go to school. I don’t have anything to do. That’s why I’m doing this business”, she says.
Lamenting the hazards of her job, she adds: “This work is very tasking. We work under the rain and in the sun. Supposing I saw something else doing, I would have changed to another job.”
Canoe paddling, according to her, is more difficult to cope with as a nursing mother.
“It’s not easy if I must confess. I can’t say since I’m working, I won’t give birth. If it is possible to do so, I don’t really mind,” she laments.
Binipramine is not also happy with the little money each passenger pays for her service. Passengers to her are not in short supply. She says: “The problem is that the payment is very little because N10 is what we collect when the passengers are complete in the boat but if not we collect N50.”
Like Koki, Binipramine knows her trade by virtue of her tribe. “I came from the water and as a typical Ijaw woman, it’s our nature to learn how to swim and also pull a boat from our childhood. I didn’t learn it from anyone. I grew up with it”, she says.
Apart from Koki and Binipramine, paddling canoe puts food on the table of Mrs. Agnes Tombra who since her childhood has known aquatic life. Tombra proudly identifies herself as a boat rider, saying: “This is what I do to sustain my family.”
She further explains: “I was given birth to in this community. I grew up here. In fact, I and my family reside here. Yenegoa is very close to me but I choose to remain here since I am not educated.
“This is the only job an uneducated person like me can get but if the government can give me other job, I wil be forever grateful”.
In fact, paddling canoes has some negative impacts on the health of the women. Tombra says the occupation has forced her to age faster.
“I was younger than this initially but since I have to do this for the sake of my family, l am becoming older day by day. It has also affected my health having regular body aches.
“Coming in contact with cold water everyday affects the blood. So, this is also an issue. Secondly, the money we get from this is very small. It is not encouraging but I have no option because am not educated,”she says.
Jobs for mothers alone
The job of crossing passengers to the river banks through canoes is done only by women. In fact, not just women but mothers. It has become a taboo for men to be found in the midst of women doing similar job.
Indeed, canoe paddling in Belebebiri is a custom culturally reserved for mothers. It is so by convention. The men are allowed to drive the speedboats. The women belong to a union and they are expected to register before joining the business.
Everybody confirms it. Koki says it is neither a job for men nor for boys. “The business is solely for women because there is a boat paddler union so if you pay you enter so if you meet the head of this water side, you register and become a member.
“Young boys cannot do this because it’s very difficult to row. The union is only meant for women. Since it is meant for mothers, men are not allowed into the union, rather, they drive the speedboat”, she explains.
Also, Binipramine, a mother of four children, whose husband is jobless, admits that men are not allowed to do the business.
“I feed my four children and husband with this. This job is solely meant for women since it is part of our tradition. Men must not be found in women business,” she says.
Communities demand for a bridge
Despite exploiting an opportunity afforded by lack of a bridge to make a living, the women and members of the communities are not comfortable with the development. They need a bridge to bring development to their communities.
The communities are far from development despite their closeness to the state capital. They are more like settlements, rustic, outlandish and lacking basic amenities. Residents leave in hut-like houses in inclement conditions especially when it rains. Following lack of bridge, residents who own vehicles park them in Yenagoa before crossing over to their communities.
Tombra says she will be happy if the government decides to construct a bridge to link their communities. She recalls that the government promised to build a bridge in the area.
“I will be very happy for the sake of my children and the community if government fulfills this long promise. It means there is hope for our children because this will bring good opportunities for our children and the community at large,” she says.
Also, Cynthia Ozoro, who lives in the community, pleads with the government to link the communities with a bridge. She believes that a bridge is what the communities need to develop. Besides, Ozoro is not a good swimmer. She is always scared any time she travels on canoe.
“The government should build a bridge across this community because this will bring about massive development. There will be job and everything will be fine.
“I am not a good swimmer. I am always scared when l am traveling on this water but I have to cross this water to meet my daily needs.
“I am so scared mostly when l am carrying my baby. I have heard of so many casualties on this river but any time I travel I really thank God,” she says.
She also believes that the women will find an alternative means of livelihood if eventually the bridge is constructed.
“For the women what they are doing is like an employment because they use this in taking care of their family.
“But if they cross this bridge now, they will look for an alternative. Government should please construct a bridge for us so that I and my family can survive,” she says.
Speaking on the issues, the Chairman of Community Development Committee, Belebebiri II, Mr. Nicholas Ewere, says the communities are in dire need of development.
He says: “These communities need development. We are still in need of the government because their presence is not found anywhere around this area. We have other three communities that surround Belebebiri II.
“All of them are still in the same level. In fact, we all are in need and desperately in need. We need grassroot development in every side.
“This little water is demarcating us from Yenagoa. So, we are in need of a bridge. The only area we are begging the government is to do something; at least if this bridge is constructed we are okay.”
He blames the woes of the community on lack of a short bridge. He says there are no schools, clinics and other basic amenities in the area. He admits that Allison-Madueke hails from Yanaka.
“She is from Yanaka community. This place is just behind Belebebiri II. When you take a walk, it is not up to 25 minutes so we are all one because everybody from the other four communities go through this ‘bridgeless’ road,” she says.
On whether Mrs alison-Madueke has assisted the communities to alleviate their suffering, he says: “From my own understanding, I learnt that she is giving out this money for contracts but those who grab this money divert it into their own personal pockets.
“I am not blaming her because she cannot be there and close her eyes seeing her people suffering. I just believe that she is doing something. The problem is the people she gives this money for this contract.
“But she should be mindful when giving money. She should give this money to a successful contractor.
“I am using this opportunity to let the government know that what is happening in this place is not supposed to be of this nature because in this village we have civil servants, military people and in the morning when these peole will be going to work, they meet hazard endangering there lives.
“Some in the cause of crossing to the other side, at times their canoes capsize and we record many casualties every year. So, if there is a bridge, such things won’t happen.”