By Nnimmo Bassey
Why is storytelling so central to African social ecology? Without asking this question we have a tendency to consign stories to moonlight tales, as merely ways of passing time before children fall asleep. That would make stories communal lullabies. Some may even compare them to certain books that people pick up knowing they would nod off before they even figure out whether the book was held right side up. Stories can also be seen as tools for coercion, to scare children and get them to fall in line with societal norms.
Stilt roots stories go beyond entertainment. They are tools to awaken communal memories, influence people’s perceptions and fire up their imagination and propel action. Stilts. Roots. Stories. Some of the most instructive stories about the Niger Delta are works of poetry and fiction. The Call of the River Nun by Gabriel Okara is one of such lyrical collections. Elechi Amadi’s The Great Ponds echoed the conflicts over fishing grounds that was a major issue between two neighbouring communities, a source of conflict that would still occur today if there were fishes to haggle over. The Great Ponds show clearly that needless bloodshed over natural resources can be avoided and conflicts can be resolved through dialogue. That book covers the influenza pandemic of 1918 which provides a parallel to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Helon Habila’s Oil and Water draws the reader into the complex situation of ecological devastation, shady oil deals and violence in the Niger Delta especially in the heydays of militancy.
Travelers in the creeks of the Niger Delta and on the coastline of the Gulf of Guinea cannot escape the enticing and, at the same time, reassuring stilt roots of the mangroves forests. The dramatic stilts hold up the verdant capes above the swamps and creeks. They form thick canopies over the watery routes, providing home for a assortment of birds, reptiles and an assortment of other creatures. The roots do not only hold the trees in place, they also hold the soil from being dragged off by the tide. Mangroves are excellent for shoreline protection. In the Niger Delta they are king in the chicoco soils.
In addition, they provide spawning ground for fishes and also host and protect the juveniles. They provide sheltered spaces for learning the rudiments of fishing. As the mangrove seeds float on our waters seeking soils in which to take root, so do stories inspired by the stilt roots float in our minds seeking in whom to light the fires of inspiration and bring about the birth of big ideas.
To the fishers, the distance rowed from home can be measured by how receded the mangroves become as the paddles pull against the waves. On return, as the stilt roots loomed bigger, so were the stories of the expedition waiting to be told. And so also the stories brewed at home while they were away. At home and between the stilt roots, women briskly pick periwinkles, scallops, mudskippers and others.
With at least 6.5 million fishers in Nigeria, we can be sure that there are as many stories each passing day. The 853km Atlantic coastline hosts stories of fisheries and clashes with polluting industrial installations, notable of the petroleum industry.
In the past, there were stories of exploits, of fishes too big for one person to lift out of the water. Today, there are stories of nights wasted casting nets in crude oil coated waters. There are stories of fishers getting home to dinner made with imported fish. The stories of celebrations are replaced by stories of tragedies.
The sad stories have been crafted by over six decades of oil spills that have literally suffocated the stilt roots. The mangroves breathe through the pores on the stilt roots in low tide and hold their breath in high tide. When their pores get clogged by crude oil, they hold their breath for longer than they can bear and get drowned in the murky waters. Then there is the cutting of the mangroves to make way for urbanization, industrial installations or for use as a veritable energy source. As a child, I never cease to be fascinated by such wet wood making such exquisite sparking fires.
Stilt Roots Stories provide a space for citizen scientists to sit in canoes with scenic scientists, students, government officials, civil society groups and the media on a learning expedition. This is one way to humanize the science of energy production, climate change and livelihoods protection. The stories framed around stilt roots draw the creative energy towards cultural tools for shifting power lines. Stories shape our visions and aspirations. They are the guard rails of our culture and are widely used to check behaviour, educate and moderate destructive or antisocial tendencies.
Stilt roots stories is the vehicle for leadership from below. They provide opportunities for fishers and mangrove dependent communities to seek restoration of their ecosystems, revitalize and revalidate their socio-cultural systems and push for harmonious relationship by all individuals and sectors with Mother Earth. With the impetus from below, we foresee an emerging leadership from between the stilt roots, a shift of power modes and a halt to ecocide in aquatic ecosystems.