Owai is one of the three villages we are currently working with. Owai is the most undeveloped, remote and isolated of the the communities and it represents an extreme in rural forest dependent villages. Owai is near to Iko Esai but there is no road connecting them through the forest. It requires a 3-4 hour motorcycle journey (see map below). Going from Iko Esai to Ibogo(or Akpet central on map) takes about an hour to an hour and a half. Then you are on a somewhat decent, though frightening, road to Uyanga. This takes about 40 minutes on a motorcycle. Then you go back on dirt road through Ojor, Ifumpka and then on to Owai (labeled Awai Ifumpka on the map). That trip is slightly longer than the hour to hour and half journey from Esai to Ibogo. Because of the length of the journey we tend to spend at least one night in Owai.
Owai is a great community. There are probably 500-1000 people there, I’d lean more towards the 500. There is no electricity, all the water is gathered from a nearby stream (no boreholes) and the majority of people use open toilets. In fact, directly behind where I stay when I spend the night in Owai is a shit pile.
You can kinda see in this picture; there is a house out of the frame to the left, about 5 meters back it starts to become a brownish pile of refuse, litter and shit. People will just go to the opposite side of the shit pile, minding their step in the mine field of course and just go right there. The alternative is the “traditional toilet” (no picture available at the moment, thank jah) which is something like a plank(2×2?) elevated about two feet that you balance on and crap on one side of it. I always wrap my hands in toilet paper when I use that one; there is no way I’m not using hands to balance on the plank as a loss of balance would result in a catastrophic drop into poop. I was once on the traditional toilet and someone approached through the bushes (they are built in somewhat isolated area). They yelled in their dialect and asked if I was a women, to which I replied no. They said “okay” and kept coming. I was a bit like..”what?” but then he just hopped on the plank with me. There was no way I was letting this happen but before I knew it there was yet another gentlemen joining us. Now it had reached absurdity. The plank was at full capacity and I was literally rubbing elbows with these guys as they casually greeted me with the typical Nigerian greeting, “well done”. This was one of those times I would cite as “uncomfortable cultural moments”.
The people in Owai are heavily dependent on the forest and agriculture. The main crops are cassava, plantain, banana, cocoa and maize. During the day time there is almost no one in the village as everyone has “gone to farm”. Owai boasts a primary school, beautiful health center(without a doctor or any staff of course) and that’s about it.
I was the first person from my organization to begin working with the community of Owai. When I first went there in June/July of last year they were skeptical. Their community is adjacent to the Cross River State National park and the park had promised them capacity building, alternative livelihood projects and infrastructure development but in the end presented them with nothing. When I look back on it now I can’t believe how far we have come. I have a great relationship with the Chiefs’ council, members of all the main groups(hunters group, womans group, youth group) and they truly appreciate our work. It is the most humbling feeling to have these people thank me for my work and to see their lives improve. After I implemented snail farming with 15 snail farmers they presented me with two goats, an honor usually for dignitaries or a dowry. We are building a small office there as I believe they have great potential for the future. I’ve assisted in creating a local community based organization, getting them formally registered with the government, training them on grant writing and now they’ve written a proposal for…a three unit pit toilet! When I presented them with the funds they thanked me profusely and I was reminded why I am doing the work that I do. It’s worth all the corn cobs, shit mine fields and rough bike rides to even serve as a conduit between the undeveloped rural areas of the world and developing countries (in this case the money is coming from a conservation organization in France). These people are so disconnected from the outside world and they’re are ignored by politicians, deceived by outside natural resource exploitation companies and isolated from the basic services of piped water and medical facilities. Since we’ve worked with Iko Esai for over ten years there is a sense of jadedness and ungratefulness that can be extremely frustrating to deal with but in Owai the enthusiasm is fresh and their attitude is positive.
For more on Owai, see July Entry “Trip to Owai”.