Trip to Owai (August 2011)

This last weekend I went to the village of Owai to hold an educational workshop and propose the signing of bylaws. The bylaws basically commit the community to restrict hunting of primates, illegal logging, use of traps for hunting and poisoning of streams (a popular method of fishing). We have run these workshops in the other communities and Owai was the final one. We are excited to work with Owai because they are the most undeveloped and some of the heaviest users of the forest. In fact, just last week our patrol found two Owaimen with seven drill (large ground dwelling primate).

The journey to Owai is very long. It is about three to four hours with most of the journey on eroded dirt roads. The fact we are in rainy season makes the roads all the more difficult and several of the hills requires passengers to get off the motorcycle and walk. We have two patrol officers from Owai and they have a bike so I tagged along with them. I had visited Owai a few times before and the times were all too rushed. We decided we would go on Saturday and come back Monday, giving us time to plan and execute the workshop. My main employee and our education officer, Mike, was going to meet us there as he was spending time in Calabar.
We arrived on Sunday and greeted the Chiefs informing them of our intentions. They were in the middle of a meeting but allowed us to come in and wait. Apparently a very prominent elderly lady had died and her burial was being held that night. This conflicted with a scheduled annual meeting of all the Iko speaking communities in Iko Ekperem that same day. The annual meeting was very important but the higher Chiefs had to stay to deal with the burial so they were deciding who to send. When they were through they greeted us and replied that the workshop would be no problem They suggested we use one of the churches and hold the meeting after church at about one o’clock. We agreed and began to inform people of the meeting.
Ideally we would like to invite anyone to the meeting but our budget restricts such approach. We needed to provide soda and food for all the participants and this can get expensive awfully fast. Our approach was to take two members from all the prominent groups, such as womens group, hunters group, churches, etc. We explained to the group leader that they were to send two representatives from each group and those people would later return to the groups and inform them of the contents of the meeting. Because Owai is quite small this took a short amount of time and we even manged to speak to the preacher at the church who gave us permission to use the church as the venue.
Getting people to agree to a meeting and getting them to attend are two different things but we did what we could do that day. It was nice there was a burial because it ensured the community would be a bit more active and there would be something to do in the evening. After we were done finding all the groups I went with our patrol officers to meet their wives and family, something very customary for visitors. I also settled into the place I would be staying. One of our patrol, John, was letting me stay in his house. His house is a two room mud hut that is actually quite charming. The only downside was that there was no toilet so I had to go crap in the bushes, which doesn’t bother me in theory but dodging land mines of poop and getting swarmed by mosquitoes is somewhat uncomfortable.
In the evening time I found myself at the burial and it was enjoyable. It was a little awkward because when I would dance there would be a massive crowd just staring at me. At this point I know some of the popular dances and the people were obviously shocked to see me dance atigee (one of the most popular dances). I remembered when I first came to Iko Esai and people behaved in a similar way and it allowed me to reflect on how comfortable I was in Iko Esai. My thoughts were disturbed by a nearby commotion and the entire burial running to witness what was happening. I joined the masses and was surprised to see a fight. Two men were holding another man who was receiving blows from a small group. I asked what was happening and they said the man was caught stealing money from a woman and that a beating is the first part of the punishment. The next day they would ‘naked’ the man and parade him around the village. Now I don’t like to think that I find happiness in others sorrow nor do I yearn to see a naked man but I won’t lie; the idea of seeing this man’s punishment was hilarious and exciting. I told John that I wanted to see the naked’ing and he said not to worry, they would take the man out with a bell and beat a metal basin to make everyone aware. This was all so exciting I could hardly focus on our workshop.
The next day we showed up for our workshop and apparently the man who we spoke with the day before was not in charge and the church was not happy about hosting us. We ended up having to move to a different church but luckily local people aren’t very punctual so we moved the venue and just waited in the town square for people to pass and informed them of the venue change. The workshop itself was a success and the group representatives agreed on the bylaws and invited us next weekend to sign them. There was a very funny moment when a man came in late and as he entered he noticed a baby goat in the doorway. Without breaking stride he picked up the goat with one hand and threw it out the door. This caused me to laugh and I soon totally lost my composure. Everyone asked what was so funny so I explained and of course no one understood what was so funny. This caused me to laugh even harder though I soon got myself together.
After the workshop I hung out on the main road and met some new people. It was important for me to know the Owai people and vice versa. Since we have not worked with them before it was important that we have a good relationship and understanding from the beginning. As promised I soon heard the bell and banging of a basin. The crowd gathered and watched as the now shamed naked man held his head low and privates in hand. A small procession of people announced what his crimes were and they proceeded to walk pretty much the entire village. They also randomly instructed him to dance, much to the crowds delight. I was later informed that if you steal a goat or a chicken they will tie a rope around your neck and you will have to follow the animal, naked of course. Personally, I think this is an awesome justice system.
The story would normally end there but I had to get home on Monday. The rainy season chose that day to display it’s character and we attempted to wait it out. At about 3 it became apparent the rain would not stop so we loaded up the bike and took off in the rain. The journey was my worst yet. We had to ford several flooded rivers Vietnam style with our bags on our head and then lifting up the motorcycle to drain it. The first hour was just pouring and I began to get very cold. When we hit the 40 minute stretch of highway the rain subsided but the increased speed of the bike numbed my hands and feet. We stopped at the junction connecting the main road to our shit road and asked for fuel. They were out. Now normally I would think to look for another place but my driver disagreed and thought we could make it. Okay, whatever, this was obviously a situation where Nigeria held me in the palm of its hand or firmly by the balls. So we continued on. The road to Iko Esai is really terrible and it was apparent they recently had some big rain. We reached a hill that is basically a steep slick of clay and mud and as we were halfway up the tire caught something and we toppled over. Luckily we were moving at about 3km/hour and I jumped off the back of the bike before we totally went over. This would have been lucky had I not been wearing flip flops and jumping onto a slick of clay. Instead of laying on my side with the bike on top of me( as the two others were), I began a slip and slide down the muddy hill side. My flip flops burst and my feet were numb so I helplessly rolled down. We were all covered in mud and when we made it to the top of the hill we realized the front brake lever broke off during the fall. I laughed at the absurdity of the entire situation and got back on the bike. About twenty minutes later the bike ran out of gas. We were sill a good distance from the nearest village and it was getting dark. The driver insisted he could lay the bike on its side and get some fuel to drain down into the engine. Sure enough he got the bike started again and took off. John and I began to walk and within 10 minutes we saw the driver, yet again out of fuel. We all began the slow, wet, muddy and dark trek to the nearest village. On the bright side the trek helped warm up my body and the mud covering me protected me from the swarm of insects. We trekked for 45 minutes and finally reached the village, bought some fuel and embarked on the 30 minute journey to Iko Esai. Amazingly we made it with no other problems and arrived at 9 o’clock, at which point I headed straight for my bed.



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