Bikeloads of Wood: A Visit to the Niger Delta

The towns of Abraka and Warri are located in the Niger
Delta, and are two of the sites of our study in
Nigeria. Both towns have seen much conflict and
violence over the past decade, all related to
ownership and rights to oil. Armed youths, teens and
twenty-somethings, representing the many ethnic tribes
carry out assaults on each other, vying to take
control of an oil field or to show that they have
control over a particular area. It is not a rare
occasion for the groups to also seize an oil pumping
station and hold the oil workers hostage. Kidnappings
of foreign nationals were popular for a while, but
have been less commonplace of late. The military has
been sent in from time-to-time, almost always leading
to intense fighting and the loss of lives.

Against this backdrop of recent history, we set out
mid-morning to get a first hand look at the region
that was going to comprise the majority of our
methanol-fueled stove study. The sun was hot and the
air muggy. After a breakfast of rice, plantain and
moi-moi, we turned left off the Asaba-Benin highway
and headed south to Abraka.

In Abraka, we stopped into a few homes to assess
current cooking practices. Most homes were using
kerosene stoves, the walls and ceiling above the
cooking area blackened by the sooty residue of burning
kerosene. This evidence of a dirty fuel was a perfect
icebreaker for us to explain the benefits of
clean-burning methanol and what our project was aiming
to do. All the households were interested and wanted
to be participants.

Due to our late start and the need for us to make it
further south to Warri, we had to quickly leave
Abraka. Making it to Warri with ample time to see the
area and check out a few homes, and with enough time
to return to Asaba, a two and a half hour drive back
north, before evening arrived was crucial. We did not
want to be on the road anytime near dark, as armed
robberies do occur, a risk few people want to take in
Nigeria.

Off to Warri we went. Warri is a place of legend in
many international circles. Warri is considered
lawless, a place to go only if you have to, the center
of the oil-conflict, the town where the military has
been sent in more than once. It is not a stretch to
compare it to the more infamous towns of America’s
Wild West, not in appearance, but rather in its
reputation.

We rolled into town a little after noon. Out lead
surveyor met us by the roadside and directed us to a
government-planned housing development that looked a
lot like military housing on U.S. bases. Again, we
met with some homeowners. Again, more kerosene stoves
were in use.

In Nigeria, kerosene is referred to as “killersene”
because of its dangerous tendency to explode when
lighting or while burning in the stoves. Many severe
burns and deaths occur annually.

Keeping an eye on the watch, we decided to call it a
day and head back. Due to our lack of time, we were
not able to visit the more remote villages. If we
would have, we would have seen homes where people cook
predominantly on woodstoves. Firewood is the primary
cooking fuel in Nigeria.

By 2:30, we were driving back to Asaba. Along the way
we saw many women pushing bikes along the roadside.
They were pushing old, rusted beach cruiser-like
bikes. They were not riding them because the bikes
were stacked full with wood. On a little metal grid
over the back tire that many city-commuters in the
U.S. and Europe use to carry their briefcases was a
stack of firewood at least 3 feet high and probably
weighing around 20 pounds. Tied to the cross bar
between the handlebars and the seat was another stack
of wood. This wood was thicker than the wood on the
back. It is fair to call them small logs. I would
guess that this stack weighed around 40 pounds, at
least. Mile after mile, women and girls were seen
pushing bikes stacked with wood weighing half their
body weight or more, up and down hills on journeys
that likely started hours before.

Our project’s mission is found in the women pushing
those bikes. We were inspired to work harder to
ensure success, not for us, but for the lives of
Nigeria’s poor.

(written 11 December 2005)

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