BY: Celestine Mel (18.05.2019)
The thought of a pregnant woman in labor, falling and drowning to death with the unborn, from a makeshift bridge in the course of trying to give birth, or a poor child washed away into eternal grave in the deep of the river at Ikot Akpan, Essien Udim LGA of Akwa Ibom State drove a drivel through my conscience.
I was mortified. Miffed. Sad. Angry. Perplexed. I felt like throwing punches. I waded through miles of sand dunes that strenuously dragged our motorcycle in an unending tug-of-war as if to ensure that our mission to expose the underbelly of the criminal neglect of this government-forsaken community is aborted. I felt adrenaline rush in my veins, asking me to get ready for a mission like no other; the right adrenaline.
We started the trip in a Toyota RAV4 SUV against advices from family and friends. They rightly predicted that a trip by car to “Ikot Akpan” bridge is mission impossible. As soon as we came off the Nsong Eto market junction – 5 minutes from my start, where every semblance of civilization ends – I was confronted by gorges and gullies that looked like craters from an earthquake. All roads from Nsong Eto Market through Midim Atan, Nto Udo, Ikot Uboh and Ikot Akpan are simply impassable. I abandoned the car by the road side, for a motorcycle ride as was initially advised. We wafted through St. Paul’s Primary School Midim Atan – my alma matter – which has degenerated beyond believe. I could see the decayed and fallen classrooms from afar. I could sense that children still attended classes barefooted, as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. I saw in them a big story for the world, but I could not spare a moment because I needed to see things for myself at “Idim Ikot Akpan” (as the river is fondly called), where a locally fabricated makeshift bridge across the Qua Iboe River that links that part of Essien Udim LGA to Etim Ekpo LGA in Akwa Ibom State fell into the water since 2009 and remains submerged and abandoned by successive governments at all levels.
Through the winding roads, school children in blue-and-white were milling past, heading to St. Paul’s. We first attempted to pass through Midim Atan Village. At Anwa Udom – the village square – the ‘road’ (for want of a better name to describe this bush track) literally emptied into a big gully, causing pedestrians and bicycles to plough through a farmland to connect back. It is impassable by motorcycles and certainly, not cars. I recall that in the 1990s, I used to visit my elder sister married across the river through this route. Not anymore this time. So, we made a detour.
Passing through Nto Udo village – the alternative route – was as herculean as climbing the Kilimanjaro. But we made it to the riverside. The dirt road has been thoroughly dug-in by erosion, creating a fearsome surreal feeling of being surrounded by tall washed-out walls that threaten to collapse on passers-bye. My minder, who is the community chairman of the 5 villages of Midim – Udo Peter – held back nothing from me. He narrated the ordeal that this community has been through in the last 10 years as a result of the fallen bridge and derelict roads. He said the river has consumed at least 5 school children who drowned on their way to school. He narrated how a pregnant woman who was being rushed to hospital in labor, fell into the river and drowned to death – herself and the unborn. He said that the community wrote to the LGA and Akwa Ibom State governments for succor, to no avail. He said they even invited the local chapter Chairmen of the two major political parties – APC and PDP to lobby for help. Nothing came out, except empty promises.
After waiting fruitlessly for government intervention for 6 years, the community in 2015 decided to rebuild the bridge by itself. It exploited the skills of indigenes who had experience in building houses. The community levied every adult member to buy cement and iron rods, while local volunteer builders set out to ‘engineer’ a bridge. Younger energetic men ‘dived’ to excavate gravel and sand from the river-bed for the project. Women cooked to feed all the laborers. Everyone got involved.
For 6 months, they toiled and labored. Pillar after pillar could not stand the water current. Each pillar was washed away as soon as it got erected. The people simply had no skill enough to build a bridge. But they never gave up for, their lives depended on this bridge. On the 5th attempt, someone suggested that they should rather stand the supporting pillar on top of the fallen bridge to ‘defeat’ the water-current menace. They did. It worked. They cast concrete on top and it stood.
I witnessed first-hand as bicycles, pedestrians and motorcycles lined up to cross this contraption of a bridge that measures 2 feet wide and 10 feet long. Nobody knows the strength of materials used, the state of the fallen bridge that it stands on, and indeed, anything more than the fact that one can hop across it, with the heart in the mouth. I personally stood on the slab with trepidation. It seemed as if the water under was calling me, begging me to come. I felt exposed and in imminent danger of death. The tiny strand of concrete has no supportive railings on both sides. The concrete shook menacingly to the rhythm of my footsteps as I paced fearfully across, trying to take pictures. The water below looked squeaky-clean. I could see as far as the river bed, dozens of feet deep. I could spot different fish species moving freely in their natural habitat. The greenery of the surroundings presented a spectacle that I would relish forever. Everywhere felt virgin, fresh, green and peaceful. In the middle of my photoshoot, I hit one of the crude leftover iron spikes and stumbled. My minders pulled me back by the hands and saved me from plunging into the deep below. I was lucky. I survived.
Several other victims of this forgotten community have not been so lucky. They have died in the river for the flimsiest of reasons like going to school, going to market, going to hospital or going to Church. Their bodies – if ever recovered by local divers- are buried in the far end of the river bank. I was told it is taboo to bury people who drown, away from the river. If you die in the river, your remains are buried by the riverside. It is that simple. And horrible.
Every mission across the river is a potential ‘last mission’. Paradoxically, most life-support institutions including Mercy Hospital – Abak, Urua Mkpoho Eto Market – Ika, Christ Faith Church Headquarters – Etim Ekpo, St. Augustine’s Secondary School – Urua Inyang all lie a few miles across the river. These are places the community must visit in order to survive.
I found stunted livelihoods, grinding ‘in-your-face, poverty, sordid stories of avoidable maternal mortality, unusually high illiteracy rate, lack of basic infrastructure, un-motorable roads and a generally sub human standard of living in this mission. Tellingly, Essien Udim is the home LGA to the immediate-past governor of Akwa Ibom, who was reputed to have built an El Dorado at home. My mission to Midim Ikot Akpan River exposed yet again, the façade of the celebrated “uncommon transformation”.
As I made to depart, I decided in my heart to bring the plight of this forgotten community to the attention of the world. It is inexcusable that Akwa Ibom State, which consistently receives the highest monthly federal allocation among the 36 States in Nigeria in the last 20 years, ‘boasts’ of a community so poor; so deprived. Intervention agencies such as the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) seem to have been hijacked by primordial pecuniary interests opposed to the founding ideals that necessitated their existence hence, unable to respond to a situation this dire. I was told that the community played host to countless delegations from NDDC that left with promises, but failed to lift a needle after. The community narrated how each NDDC delegation was welcomed with gifts, pounded-yam and white soup meals, live goats with other enticing hospitality offers to elicit favorable response that never materialized.
I wish this message would reach the Chairman of Essien Udim LG Council – Mr. Raphael Isobara, His Excellency Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State, the Management of NDDC, the Minister of Works, Power and Housing, His Excellency President Mohammadu Buhari, Her Excellency Mrs. Aisha Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo or indeed anybody or agency of influence out there, who can cause light to shine on members of this community, and change the situation for good. The thought of a pregnant woman in labor, falling and drowning with the unborn, from a makeshift bridge in the course of trying to give birth, or a poor child washed away into eternal grave in the deep of the river at Ikot Akpan, in the course of pursuing education should seer the soul and conscience of every human being alive, to act. How many more shall die?
**Celestine Mel, a Chartered Banker / IT Projects Specialist writes from Abuja – Nigeria. Follow on Facebook: celestine.mel; @melfication on
twitter; email: [email protected]