Five communities in Ugheli South Local Government Area of Delta State are being ravaged by death due to inaccessible roads that would link them to the outside world. In some of the areas, the men are afraid to make love to their wives for fear of the trauma of delivery. Assistant Editor, SEUN AKIOYE, who visited the area, reports on how safe delivery is not a guarantee for pregnant women.
COMMUNITIES WHERE HUSBANDS ARE AFRAID TO TOUCH THEIR WIVES…
BAD things happen to the pregnant women and children in Esaba community. Many of them die either at home while being treated by the village herbalist or in the canoe on the Esaba-Owahwa River, which flows into Forcados tributary of the River Niger. But of these two violent means of exiting the earth, death inside a dugout canoe, on a hyacinth-infested river, is the most dreaded. That was where Ogheneyoma Makaba died in March 2015. He was six years old.
His father Francis remembered it all. He was a good boy, his father’s favourite because “he was always asking after my wellbeing; he was also an only son,” Francis said. And he loved to play football; someday the father reckoned, his son might become one of those rags-to-riches stories, instead he became history. The day he died, the sickness came suddenly and wasted no time in killing him.
“He was not sick previously. I had gone to the farm and on my return, he was feeling hot; so, we gave him some medication. That night about 11pm, he went to sleep and we even played together. Around 2am, his sickness returned and we decided to rush him to the hospital in Warri; we could not use the road, so we had to put him in a canoe. He died in the canoe,” Francis said.
Francis is not the only mourning father in Esaba. Kingsley Clark is also mourning the death of his daughter who died on April 17, 2015. Clark’s pregnant wife, Beatrice, went into labour in the night, a bad time in Esaba. “My wife went into labour in the night and because we could not get her to the hospital, we had to settle for an herbalist to take the delivery,” Clark told The Nation.
That decision proved to be fatal. A baby girl was born and complications occurred; mother and child were put in a canoe on the way to the hospital in Warri, again the baby died in the canoe; she never even got a name, nor the chance to live.
For the people of Esaba, in Ugheli South Local Government Area of Delta State, life could not have been more cruel. Esaba, with a population of about 6,000 people with half of them resident outside the community, is located 15 kilometres southeast of Warri, is one of the 10 settlements of Owahwa in the Ughievwen section of the Urhobo nation.
It lies on the Southbank of the Esaba-Owahwa River which serves as its main source of water. The land itself is a tropical rainforest on the northern border of Ijaw swamps of the Niger Delta; the land is conducive for farming, and thus the people follow after the profession of farming and fishing.
Ordinarily, Esaba should be blessed. The land is fertile and the river has abundant fishes. Also just four kilometres away is Otorogun gas plant, operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and reputed to be the largest in West Africa, producing 500MMscfd of gas.
Today, Esaba has been brought to her kneels by poverty and government’s neglect; death prowls around the community and a simple injury may prove fatal. In Esaba, it is not taken for granted that the pregnant would be delivered safely or that the child would live. Life is lived on the edge; it is a constant reminder that death is just around the corner and all the woes of the community is blamed on only one thing: lack of access road.
A ROAD TO HELL
There are two roads that lead to Esaba and both begin from Ukperhren, one is on land and the other on water. But the road on land from the beginning was a road that never existed. Miller Abedi, 80 years, who is the oldest man in Esaba, said he has never seen any motorable road to the community.
“We have never had any road here, even though if the government had helped us we would have been able to drive into this community. Since I was young, we have always been suffering because of the road and it has continued till today. Government has just forgotten about us here despite all our pleas,” Abedi said.
Accessing Esaba is an undertaking that would try the soul of the hardest of men. Usually, in the absence of the road, residents are compelled to use the Esaba River which is usually not reliable. On the day The Nation visited the community, about a quarter of the river was infested with water hyacinth, forcing everyone back to the road.
It was a journey no one would willingly undertake. The over five-kilometer road is a marshland, totally impassable to vehicles and humans quickly get stuck in it. For about five kilometres, one would have to traverse what the locals have termed the “devils road,” falling down and getting stuck in the mud repeatedly.
The access road has been the bane of all the problems of Esaba and the Owahwa island communities. The road, which spans from Ekrota, Ukperhren, Esaba, Otutuama, Ophorigbala and Iwhreogun is important for the social economic development of the communities. The executive chairman of Esaba community, Comrade Sane Peter Darah, said government has been promising to fix the road since 1980. “They know the way here when it is election time; we have always voted for the government in power but what do we get in return? This road leads to three local governments of Ugheli south, Udu and Burutu, yet the government abandoned us,” he fumed.
In frustration, the community decided to build the road through manual labour; in July 2015, a levy was raised and youths between 15 and 25 years were levied N2,000 while all the adults paid N20,000. The money came in trickles and work began. “We were dredging sand using crude instruments; we did the drainage channels, an indigene invented a dredger using water pump and pipes,” Darah said.
These brave efforts yielded little fruit as less than two kilometres have been dredged. It has also consumed at least N2, 000,000 and when the funds ran out, work also stopped. “It is very painful that our little efforts have made no big difference. That is why the government has to come in and help,” Darah concluded.
The state of the road has been blamed for all the misfortunes in Esaba. For instance, some teachers posted to the community primary school were said to have stopped coming, while those who still do come very late.
Francis believes the road killed his son. “If the road was good, I would have used my motorcycle and my son would have been alive today. It is a great pain for me even to talk about now,” he moaned.
Death is just around the corner
•The Esaba health center
The people of Esaba, determined not to be defeated, decided to solve their major health problems by building a clinic in 2008. The community rented a residential building for a monthly fee of N5,000, which was converted into a hospital. The local government posted a nurse there.
To keep the clinic open, the community levied every household to pay the monthly rent and other expenses. The clinic is hardly anything of substance but for the desperate people of Esaba, it was a life saver and for seven years, it was the only wall standing between the villagers and death.
But it was not only Esaba community that benefitted from the clinic, the surrounding communities of Otutuama, Ophorigbala, Iwhreogun and Otitiri also benefited. Then, everything went to hell. In February 2015, the matron of the clinic died unexpectedly and, according to Darah, the community had sent entreaties to the local government for a new nurse but has been rebuffed.
The death of the matron led to the closure of the clinic and while the community awaits a new nurse from the government, the body bag mounts. Both the old and young, pregnant women and nursing mothers all became casualties.
Thirty-year-old Elohor Siakpere is one of the prominent women in Esaba. She is the woman leader and the village hairdresser. On July 19the 2015, her labour pangs began; it was her fifth child. “The labour pains started in the night and in the morning we entered the canoe and went to Warri,” Elohor said. She was lucky to have made the journey on the river, but her luck ran out in Ukperhren.
“I got on a motorcycle that would take me to Warri, but because the road was bad, we kept falling off the motorcycle. It was a painful experience for a woman in labour to enter a canoe and also fall off the motorbike many times, it was like I was going to die,” she said.
Elohor survived her ordeal. But more bad news awaited her. In the hospital, doctors said she had lost the baby and an operation was conducted to evacuate the fetus. Since then, the picture of the child she couldn’t have has remained, haunting and driving her mad.
•ELOHOR AND HER SURVIVING CHILDREN
Elohor was lucky to be alive. In August 2015, pregnant Mrs. Dora Oritsheju, a resident of Otutuama, was not that lucky. She died with her baby, again in the canoe, on her way to the hospital. The death of Mrs. Onojirhayie Waka was most painful. On September 29, 2015, while leaving her house, she slumped; neighbours rushed to her aid and an herbalist was sent for. After one hour of battling for her life, she died, right in the hands of the herbalist.
The people bemoan the lack of health care in Esaba and other communities. According to Darah, since the hospital was shut down, over 50 children have been born in all the communities. The process involves dragging the woman in labour to the canoe and taking her to the general hospital in Warri over the river and unmotorable roads. “Many of them give birth in the canoe; some of the children die. In all, we have lost about five children because they could not access healthcare on time. The clinic here saved our lives; we plead that the government should send us a nurse fast before we all die,” he pleaded.
Elohor said the greatest problem facing the women is the road which made pregnancy less enjoyable and labour a deadly affair.” That is our problem,” she started in a low voice. “We don’t have antenatal and from the beginning to the end of pregnancy, it is problems. The only problem is the road, it prevents workers from coming here and also the residents from accessing the rest of the world,” she said.
The situation has forced the people to reorder their lives; husbands are afraid of going into their wives for fear of endangering their lives if they become pregnant. Fear rules the community as a small injury may prove fatal. “Since the nurse died, we have made adjustments to child bearing, we are afraid to even make love, we are afraid of any injury,” Madaki said.
But the herbalists have profited from the absence of government healthcare, with disastrous consequences for the people. In Esaba, shrines dedicated to gods abound everywhere. “Since the nurse died, many people have been patronising the herbalists either for health care or for child bearing,” a resident said.
•PATIENCE ETETE…vowed to give birth at home
One of those likely to patronise traditional birth attendants is Etete Patience. The 40-year-old is in the last trimester of her ninth pregnancy. The delivery date is not looking too good as she would have to be transported in a dugout canoe to the Otujere. “I am not looking forward to that day,” she said.
She has a good reason, her house is far from the riverside and the peril of the journey to Otujere may put her life and that of the baby in jeopardy. That was how Elohor lost her baby and almost her life. “I want to give birth here, in my house,” Etete said, a frown playing on her face, it was a firm decision to patronise the village herbalist despite its dangers; she would rather face that uncertainty than a grueling journey on the river.
If education is expensive, try ignorance
The people of Esaba did not take education for granted; the Emoghwe Primary School was established in 1957 and for many years remained a mud school. Today, the school is roofed and plastered and modestly kept clean. There are over 200 children in the school and facilities are beginning to be overstretched.
There is no secondary school in the five communities of Owahwa; the closest secondary school is Adadja Secondary School in Emadadja. Though only about 10 kilometres away, Emadadja is not for the faint-hearted as students would cross the river and traverse a difficult and almost impossible mud ridden road to school.
It was 3pm and activities were high at the Esaba riverbank. On the river, one could see some canoes being paddled by school children rowing gently towards the shore. In one of them, Samson Ogheneremo, Benson Ayorome and Otor Christabel talked excitedly. They are Senior Secondary three students of Adadja Secondary school.
Directly across the river, about 20 students had just wadded through the muddy road, their legs were kneel deep in mud and on getting to the river as if on cue, they all jumped into the water and began to wash their feet.
“This is the way we go every day; we would trek the muddy road and when we get to Ukperhren, we wash our feet and on coming back we do the same. It is a difficult journey but we have to go to school, if the road is good, it would make it easier,” one of the students named Benjamin said.
For majority of the students who could not afford the fare for the canoe, they simply wait for the community raft which can contain at least 10 people at a time. It is operated free of charge by the community. To pull the raft, a rope has been tied at both ends of the river; the rider would pull at the rope, slowly drawing the raft to its intended destination. As long as the rope remains intact, all lives would be saved, but if the rope snaps, one’s survival would depend on his swimming skills.
“We are used to living like this,” Christabel said. She is a rugged woman who wears low cut hair and unafraid to speak her mind. “We can never drown on the raft because it is strong and all of us can swim,” she said. Now preparing for her West Africa Senior School Certificate (WASSC) examination, Christabel and her friends have little time for rigorous study; neither do they hope to come out of the examination in flying colours.
But despite the hard and impossible conditions under which the people live, they cling tenaciously to their culture and ways of life. The women in addition to farming are experts bamboo cane weavers. One could see by the bank of the river, their expert hands cutting the bamboo which would then be made into fish trap and other utensils. In the evenings, they gather at the various beer joints to drink away the day’s sorrow and fashion out a solution to the myriad of problems confronting them. If a general assembly is to be called in the community town hall, a flute, made from cow horn known locally as the Ogbon is blown by one of the youths. The ogbon resembles the horn used in the Middle East. It is heard in every corner of the community and a signal that something important is about to be discussed.
Communities like Esaba, located in the oil rich Delta State, are a habitual reminder of the enormous work needed to be done by the government of Nigeria to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At least more than half of the 17 goals are lacking in Esaba and other communities.
In spite of the government, the community has devised a self-sufficient way of coping with every situation through direct labour and taxes. “That is how we have been living; we tax ourselves and live as a community. But how much can poor fishermen do by themselves, that is why we need the government,” Darah said.
In the air, the smell of death pervades the community. No one is sure where the death knell would sound. Etete looked out of the corner of her eyes and gave a weary smile. Any moment, she would fall into labour and if that happens in the night, she already knows what to do. “I will stay here in my house and give birth,” she repeated, with a fervent obstinacy.