An oil spill occurred in Bodo, Rivers State in 2008. Nigerian regulations stress that 24 hours after a spill there should be a clean-up. But in this case oil issued non-stop until the leak was halted weeks after, exposing the inhabitants to the full impact of toxins. Very soon the locals began to fall ill, and they point to the spill, saying that they had eaten fish harvested from it. The mortalities began to rise resulting in an epic number of funerals, a ‘festival of funerals’. However, the results of Professor R.N.P Nwankwoala’s 2005 laboratory experiment involving rats, may seem to suggest that there is a link between oil pollution and declining health among locals living near contaminated sites. On the other hand, individuals can become hypertensive, or infertile and may develop cancers in areas where there are no oil spills. You don’t need an oil spill to become infertile. Making four trips to Bodo, interviewing medical doctors, toxicologists, environmentalists, mortuary attendants, coffin makers, grave diggers, fishermen, farmers, scholars, sick locals, and drawing from various documents including the UNEP 2011 report, this investigation X-rays the possibility of a link between the 2008 oil spill and the preponderance of deaths and funerals in this Niger Delta creek.
A child is born. Five months later its abdomen begins to swell. It dies. Not far off, a carpet of black oil covers the extensive riverside, like a giant wreath, overflowing…. Dead plants and transformed waters define the horizon as far as the eye can see. An unpleasant odour hangs in the air. Like would be the case of an open-air space, there are no birds flying overhead. It is difficult to spot an insect. A quick check does not reveal any insect, or crawling forms in the earth. The scene that catches the eye is a haunting apocalyptic one. A sorry state of what manmade damage can render upon a once pristine ecosystem. A mangrove forest that was full of health and served as a sanctuary for monkeys, crocodiles, crabs, fish and various exciting species has no more life. Boys play within black oily waters. They giggle and crack jokes, and beckon to another waiting at the shore to come and have fun in the dark stagnant waters.
Welcome to Bodo, in Rivers State, Nigeria’s Niger Delta, a haven whose serenity was cut short by an environmental calamity. An abortion of sorts within the ecosystem, which expelled crabs, periwinkles, fish, earthworms, mudskippers, fishermen, even farmers.
In 2008 there were two major oil spills in this community which had a population of 69,000 at the time, according to figures from the Nigeria National Bureau of Statistics. The Bodo spill is the second largest in the whole world, only surpassed by the Gulf of Mexico spill of 2010. During the spill, oil gushed out for four weeks non-stop from a Shell Petroleum Development Company pipeline. As a fallout of this, the fortunes of the people of this fishing and farming community changed. The once green and lively creek became a shadow of its former self. The situation in Bodo may be likened to the Minamata disease in Japan. In 1956 there was industrial pollution in Minamata city when methylmercury, a heavy metal, was dumped in the ocean by a chemical plant. People ate the contaminated fish and developed cancers and sicknesses. Records indicate that nine hundred people died as a result of Minamata disease. It took more than a decade from the moment the first deaths occurred, before a connection was established between the many illnesses in Minamata and the dumping of mercury by the plant.
We find Daniel Viggle, a fisherman in Bodo, tending to his nets. He says the aftermath is evident. He laments “Early in the morning if you are in Bodo, you can distinguish the odour, and there is soot hanging in the air. If you sneeze here, you will notice a black colour. Rainwater too is black, when collected in a basin. A car parked outside will turn black by morning.”
He continues with the gloomy narrative: “The zinc roofs of houses have all turned dark, and this lends a sober complexion to the community”.
She is referred to as “periwinkle company”, a charming salute to her success in the periwinkle trade. Monica Koroba is the petite leader of all the women groups who pick or harvest periwinkles in Bodo, and there are about 40 of them. Periwinkles are a species of small edible sea snails, often dark in colour with a shell, and a delicacy in the local community.
But life around her has changed. She describes the dwindling sales “I made lots of money from periwinkles by direct harvest, now I have to buy and sell periwinkles. In addition, I no longer have a strong body. The spring water is polluted, and we drink it and this has made us sick.” She explains that numerous medicinal plants which used to flourish in the mangrove forest are no longer available.
The devastation is total. “Since the oil spill, nothing we put in the ground will grow,” says Beatrice Vimong, 62, a farmer, signalling to her left and right.
“An average Ogoni person, including a Bodo man and woman, lives in a polluted environment. If you are living in this kind of environment, it means that your entire life is poisoned,” adds Dumnamene Fyneface, Activist and Executive Director, Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre.
A 2016 news report titled “Strange ailments in N-Delta: ‘Oil pollution deforming, killing Ogoni babies” draws attention to issues of infertility and microcephaly –a condition in which the head is smaller than normal. Miscarriages and poor vision have also been manifesting in the population of Bodo, says the report.
Dr. Mesua Nwibari who holds a PhD in Hydrobiology & Fisheries, highlights the dangers of living near a contaminated site “Drinking of benzene contaminated water causes cancer in humans. Eating of hydrocarbons contaminated aquatic foods also causes cancer. Consumption of aquatic foods containing heavy metals causes cancer, mental retardation, alteration of chromosomes (mutagenic), miscarriages and stillbirths (teratogenic), organic damages affecting kidneys, liver, lungs, skin.”
“A lot of these conditions can be airborne as well as water borne. When there are deposits in the lungs, the body tries to manage them. In the process of the body trying to manage them, it can become another kind of cell, which is the cancer cell. In the long run Bodo will have high prevalence of cancer of the lungs,” says Dr Amadi Solomon of the Alpha Succor Foundation, Port Harcourt who in 2018 was part of a medical outreach to Ogoniland.
On water borne diseases, he explains “The individual can be predisposed to intestinal cancer. When these oils are absorbed, they can now go into the system and cause damage, depending on where it is deposited. But most times it affects the kidneys, and the liver. Sometimes, it gets to the kidney and then damages the flow of fluid and you then have elevated blood pressure, and the kidney now collapses. It can also deposit in the brain and cause some form of electrical abnormalities and can easily lead to seizures, as well as some form of mental illness.”
Professor Ben Naanen of the Department of History and International Studies, University of Port Harcourt, reflects on the impact of the Bodo oil spill “Right now, we have the symptoms and the speculations, very strong speculations, about the relationship between the high mortality rate and pollution, the hydrocarbon pollution in the area. It is strong, including the view that the oil spill is affecting births, pregnancies, and causing miscarriages. The doctors who have worked in the area have expressed concern about the birth defects, and impact on pregnancy. We have received verbal reports from doctors on the issue.”
He stresses “One thing that’s very prevalent in the area is extreme poverty, and this contributes to the high mortality rate which is linked to the pollution. The greatest medicine you have in the world is the food you eat, but poverty is so high in the area and people are not feeding well. So, if any little thing comes along, the people drop dead. If you are drinking polluted water and you don’t have access to medication, you can die. Sometimes people don’t have money to buy paracetamol. Money to buy paracetamol has made a lot of difference between life and death in Bodo. Pollution combined with extreme poverty is actually killing the Ogoni people. The mortality rate is extreme, and so the mortality rate, the many funerals they referred to, is reasonable.”
Positioning the matter in wider social context, he states “There is no single federal government presence in Ogoni. Once you cross into Ogoni, there is not one single federal government presence, nothing, absolutely nothing and this has been going on for a long time.”
Mr. Edie Winika, formerly of Shell, explains “The HIV prevalence rate is highest within the Bodo/Gokana axis, when compared with other parts of the state. Again, in Bodo we do not have a culture of doing autopsies. This is a huge gap in investigating mortality rates. If it is an area where we do autopsies, medically speaking we will begin to know what’s killing them.” One hundred and twenty thousand naira (N120,000) ($334.2) is the cost if a family wishes to have an autopsy done, an amount only very few can afford.
A 2012 report published in Ogoni News indicates that Gokana local government of Rivers State, has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the state with 19.8 per cent. The report attributed this situation to the low patronage of antenatal care services, lack of sexually transmitted infection services (STI) and cultural factors.
David Vareba, Head, Human Rights and Democratisation, Centre for Environment Human Rights and Democracy (CEHRD) argues “Nobody has done a health impact assessment within Ogoniland to say in future, in the middle term, or in the short term, this is what people who are inhaling these things are vulnerable to. All we see is that suddenly the funerals have become so regular, every week. It wasn’t like this before. Funerals are very common in Bodo.”
Owunari Georgewill, a professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Port Harcourt, speaks on his study of oil spill sites “In fact, we have done an analysis of occurrence of cancers, and we have compared oil spill areas with areas that are not known to have oil spills. We discovered cancers of GIT, of the endometrium (of the ovary), all of these were more common in areas where oil spills were found. Benzene Arene oxide, which is carcinogenic, can be linked to incidents of cancers. Not only that, irritations of the GIT, respiratory tract, cough and so on are common in these areas where there were oil spills.”
Dr.Nubari Nabie, Medical Doctor and Head, Health and Community Development, Centre for Environment Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), draws attention to a 2005 experiment involving rats, using crude oil from an oil spill site in Bayelsa State, by late Professor R.N.P. Nwankwoala and Professor Onwunari Georgewill. There was a test group, and a control group. “After a period, it was discovered that the rats fed on cassava contaminated with spill were weak. They looked as though they were aged, while the ones in the other group still looked fresh and had gained weight. The others were shrunken.”
“The investigation also examined testosterone, the hormonal substance responsible for fertility. The outcome pointed to a decline in gonotrophic hormones. The sex hormones in one group were less, as opposed to those in the other group. Normally, an experimental test is done either on rats or rabbits, because we are of the same class of organism. It is believed that we have the same system, even if we are higher mammals. It was observed that symptoms observed in the test rats, were similar to the symptoms observed among individuals in the community with uncleaned oil spill.”
The General Hospital Bodo, as well as the Gokana General Hospital ,Terabor both lack facilities for fertility, lung, kidney and cancer tests. Tests for any of these conditions have to be done at Port Harcourt, which lies 50 kilometres away.
Dr. Dumene Loole, who works at the Dumkil Medical Centre Bodo, makes an observation “There has been a higher incidence of itching among the locals. But I have not been able to link it to anything here. The complaint has been higher than it was previously.”
Paul Bazia, Press Officer, Rivers State Ministry of Health comments on renovation work ongoing at the Bodo General Hospital “We are doing a total renovation of the Bodo General hospital. We have finished with the physical infrastructure, the buildings and the theatre. We are working on the internal roads and the landscaping of the hospital.”
He adds “For the time being the doctors and medical personnel there are taking care of outpatients. We cannot shut down the hospital one hundred per cent.”
Dr Lebatan Ndegwe, a medical doctor with special interest in Environmental Epidemiology, says while discussing oil pollution and its possible impact on human health “There are a lot of other things that play out in disease or debility type conditions. No condition has been linked to exposure to petroleum and its derivatives. There is none. There may be an association between the exposure and the dominance of particular ailments. You may find there are other causatives, age of the human being, where he lives, there may be confounders. You may find other things that have a relationship between petroleum and the ailments, or the reason why an individual developed an ailment. There’s no study that has shown that such disease was caused by exposure to petroleum.”
He draws attention to the disturbing situation “Between 20 – 30% of our people go to Western style hospitals. You also need to know who the people are, how they look at health, what are their attitudes to health? Where do they go when they are ill? Chronic illnesses and debility are not the ones they take to hospitals. They tend to want to manage them, the way they manage most of their illnesses. You need to follow up to find out what nature of association it is, because without petroleum people will still have stillbirths, headaches, fevers. People will still have all these ailments. What are the other things that can mimic petroleum exposure in their lives? We need to account for all these in a proper designed method to be able to come to that conclusion.”
Gregory Pronem is the chairman of Bodo City Fishermen’s Association, which regulates the activities of fishermen in Bodo, and extends credit to the group for the purchase of nets, canoes and outboard engines.
He narrates the effects of the oil spill on his eyesight ‘Since 2015 I began to experience heat in the eyes and then my eyesight began to decline’. Simeon Visanga, Chairman, Bodo council of chiefs, adds “A lot of people are experiencing eye problems and are losing vision.”
Reverend Abel Agbulu, one time Parish Priest of St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Bodo between 2010 and 2017, recalls his time in the community.
“Before I came to work in this community, I didn’t need lenses to even read. But after a while, I began to notice deterioration in my sight. It didn’t take long to connect that to the environment. In Bodo, the water wasn’t decent. You could see grease on the surface of the water. The water was polluted, the air was polluted, and my health was failing. I use myself as an example, and I could now associate with the seemingly sickly people.”
Pronem says, like the Reverend above, that his eyesight has declined ‘If I don’t use reading classes, I can’t see or read perfectly.’
Besides the health effects, the oil spill triggered migration of fishermen to Douala “Oil pollution affected our health and business. People began to leave for neighbouring states like Bayelsa and Delta, as well as to Doula in Cameroon.”
The True Tragedy published by Amnesty International (2011, p. 60), a work which examines the Bodo spill, states ‘Those who used to rely on fishing for a living have lost their incomes and livelihoods. Farmers say their harvests are smaller than before. Overall, people in Bodo are now much less able to grow their own food or catch fish. With their livelihoods destroyed and food prices rising, many can’t afford to buy nutritious food.’
The report adds ‘Bodo used to be a serene rural community, locally known as the fish basket of Gokana (the local government area). Traditionally, making a living from fishing and farming for several hundred years, local people were proud of their creek. In August 2008, all this changed. Most of the fish in Bodo creek died or moved away from the pollution. People who depended on fishing faced immediate problems: “Initially, we were still going out fishing, but the catch was less and less, one man explained. “So, we finally stopped. The few fish that could be caught smelled and tasted of crude oil. People began to worry about the health implications of eating locally caught fish.” (p.15).
Dr Nwibari, who also conducted research on the health of the Bodo creek in 2010, says “The population of the fish fauna was drastically reduced either by massive death or migration. These include mudskippers, crabs, periwinkles, oysters, earthworms, bivalves, mangroves, nippa palms. The beautiful green vegetation for which the Bodo creek environment is known is history, thereby affecting the nutrient cycles, especially in the cases of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.”
Pronem narrates: “I went to Douala because our fish economy had collapsed, and I was there for 7 years. I came back in 2015 when I heard Shell, the company responsible for the oil spill, had decided to compensate Bodo indigenous people for the oil spill”. In compliance with an out of court settlement, Shell paid the sum of 55 Million Pounds as compensation to 15,603 Bodo families in 2014/2015.
Bodo is the leader in the whole fish trade in a large part of the state. The city is the chief supplier of fish in Ogoniland, a 1,050-kilometre kingdom of the Ogoni people in Rivers State, with the largest creek and fishing spots. There are 2,300 fishermen in Bodo, according to records from Bodo City Fishermen’s Association. Bayelsa, Cross River and Delta are other neighbouring fish producing states in the region.
The oil spill dealt a blow on many livelihoods: it affected people’s fortunes.
Pronem recalls that formerly, one boat would return with between 10 to 15 basins of fish.
“Now, fisherfolk find it difficult to fill one basin,” he laments.
One basin of fish costs N40,000(USD 111) while 15 basins will fetch quite a lot of money (USD1,665). It is possible to earn N 400,000 (USD 1,114) on a good day.’
Because of the predicament they faced, many fishermen who originally migrated from Bodo remained in Douala, where some have become destitute.
“There are many economic exiles from Bodo, who have since relocated to Port Harcourt because the Bodo environment is poisoned. It has become so difficult to make a living there. He explains “When you open the fish, the stomach is oily, meaning the fish is contaminated. People are eating the fish, I eat it too. There is nothing else we can eat. When you are hungry, what can you do? We eat Giaanoor, our local name for polluted fish.”
Charity Tanen, a fish trader tells me “Eighty percent of our people eat the polluted fish. Many of us drink water from the wells, and the well water smells like kerosene. It has a bitter taste.” Investigations revealed that people in Bodo have discontinued the use of wells and rely on boreholes for drinking water. Boreholes which were not dug deep enough, were found to be yielding petroleum. These were immediately abandoned, and fresh ones had to be dug.
Many fishermen have been forced to seek alternative sources of income. Some now engage in carrying blocks at construction sites, menial jobs for which they are paid daily, says Pronem. It is a predicament that has sent at least 100 fishermen into carrying blocks at construction sites within Bodo, for which each worker is paid N1500 ($4.17) for a day’s work. Prior to the 2008 oil spill, Pronem says a fisherman would return from a day’s fishing trip with N400,000 (USD1,114) worth of fish.
The situation is also threatening to degenerate to desertification, as several fishermen who were edged out by the prevailing circumstance have turned to the fire wood trade. He says “Today, many cut and sell fire wood. They earn N12,000 ($33.4) daily. They undertake a three-hour trip by boat to Opobo to get fire wood.”
Investigations showed that some of the locals go to the General Hospital, as well as Gokana Hospital,Terabor for treatment. But it is difficult to get exact numbers of the sick, because the doctors at both hospitals declined to speak and referred this reporter to Port Harcourt. Many of the sick go to traditional healers, or they go to the numerous churches in the neighbourhood.
Dr. Nabie who has worked in Bodo, points out “Once there is an oil spill, one thing that is certain is that there are releases of volatile organic compounds, one of which is benzene and toluene, and high levels of the latter could possibly damage the liver and the kidney. Benzene and toluene are actually toxic. They have lethal health effects on many parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, the brain, skin, the gonads, which has to do with reproductive functions. A lot of them came down with chronic respiratory tract infections, which is due to the accumulation of dust in the lungs.”
He continues “In Bodo there is established general skin irritation. People have undue skin rashes, dermatitis, and skin infections abound. Young men and women are progressively ageing faster. You see a youth of 30 looking like someone in his 50s”.
According to him “These facts are evidence based and common experience of those living within Bodo over this period. My research was based on both prospective and retrospective studies of health data within and around Bodo, the Zonal Hospital Bori, Gokana General Hospital, Terabor , General Hospital Bodo, and all the health centres within Gokana communities. I took an inventory of common presentation of illnesses among the Bodo community within the period of the spill and tracked the medical outpatient record of these communities. I consulted the doctors in these facilities and interviewed them on common complaints in addition to the record. The documentations were basically cough, catarrh, chest pain, weakness of the body, male infertility and increased dizziness.” His conclusions are based on close contact he had with medical doctors and patients in Gokana, over a three-year period spanning 2010-2013. During the period he was able to confirm 20-25 cases of male infertility among patients who came to his clinic at Kana.
This is the creek of infertility: infertility in humans, in water, birds as well as in the soil have been documented. For instance, in The True Tragedy (2011), Emmanuel Kuru states “I don’t think anything will grow there in the next 20 years,” … “Nothing planted will grow. The land is wasted. Oil kills everything.” (p.16).
While explaining that the Rhizophora- a tropical mangrove species, as well as red mangroves were badly destroyed in Bodo as a fall out of the spill, Dr. Nwibari states “Oil spills harm aquatic life and water bodies in various ways. In areas where there are high oil spills, they smother the aquatic life as they cover the surface of the water, preventing aquatic life from normal respiration. It affects the respiration of fish, their morphology, and their features. Their eyes are affected, and they experience reduced vision.”
Many of the inhabitants have fallen ill, deaths are frequent, and their livelihoods have disappeared. Bodo, once referred to as ‘the fish basket of Gokana,’ has now adopted a new name, in a strange twist, for it is now known for its ‘festival of funerals.’ In a gory metamorphosis, the basket now becomes a coffin. On average there are 30 burials each month in Bodo, and different groups of locals confirm this figure without any contradiction. Everybody agrees that deaths have soared in Bodo over the last three years.
A source at the General Hospital Bodo speaking on condition of anonymity, indicates “Between 2016 and 2019 there were 5 deaths per day in Bodo. ”
“The locals ‘practice euthanasia without knowing that’s what they are doing. Euthanasia means mercy killing – a process that is done to end the life of a person who is suffering too much, who has no hope for living again. For instance, pulling an invalid off a life support machine on their request or that of their family. Yes, they will aid the death of the child, rather than let the child suffer,’ says Reverend Agbulu.
He explains ‘I attribute partly the high mortality rate among the under-aged and infants to a seeming culpable negligence on the part of the parents and the immediate family members which can be reasonably defined as euthanasia.’
Dr. Nabie adds “I have heard of birth defects, but I have not seen. People told me, but by the time you arrive to have a look, they have buried the child.”
Data from grave diggers can be used to crosscheck the claims of rising deaths in the community. According to Afaala Miidom, a grave digger in Bodo, 25 graves were dug in Bodo in January 2019, 22 in February, 37 in April, and 45 in the month of May 2019. It costs N10,500 ($29.2) to dig a grave for an adult, while no payment is collected for a grave dug for a baby.
Grave diggers in Bodo do not keep records of graves dug, neither do they have names of the deceased. This compounds the gathering of data relating to the dead. Conversations in November 2019 with Joseph Koottee and Livinus Gbarage, who are both grave diggers in Bodo, indicates a rise in mortalities in the community.
Mr. Johnson Letombari is in the business of printing posters which announce funerals. He indicates that in January 2019, 23 posters were printed. For this same month, as above, the grave digger provided a figure of 25 for January. In February 2019, 20 posters were printed, while the grave digger indicated 22. In May 2019, 41 posters were produced, and for this month the grave digger indicated 45 graves. Figures from the grave diggers and those in the poster business may seem to suggest a recent rise in deaths in Bodo.
Figures from the mortuary at the General Hospital Bodo show that 15 bodies were taken there in May 2019, 13 in April, 9 each in February and March, and 11 in January 2019. The disparity with the figures outlined above, can be explained by the fact that a percentage of the population will not use the mortuary, but will bury a deceased person immediately death occurs. Keeping a corpse in the mortuary has financial implications.
The attendant who has worked in the unit for 20 years, is of the opinion that there is a rise in the number of deaths in Bodo.
Michael Emabe rents out canopies in Bodo. He points that every weekend he has to provide canopies for 5 or 6 burials in Bodo, which amounts to 20-25 funerals each month. In four(4) months he would have provided canopies for 80 funerals.
He agrees that there has been an increase in the number of funerals each week.
Coffin makers of Bori
The large Timber market at Bori, a few kilometres from Bodo is the sunny, almost cheery location many travel to when they need coffins. The market which was set up in 1984 caters to the Coffin requirements for the entire Ogoniland.
On the day of the visit this reporter counts more than eighty(80) coffins on display for purchase. I.J. Akpe, is the Acting Chairman, Bori Carpenters Cooperative Society. He says “People come from all over Ogoniland to buy coffins here, but I cannot give statistics for Bodo”.
A contact within the market states that “Forty(40) coffins are bought each month from the Timber market, and that eight(8) to fifteen(15) of these coffins are destined for Bodo every month”. When asked if some people may not travel to Bori to buy a coffin if a death occurs, he scoffs at the idea. He doesn’t think that they would use other carpenters in their community to make coffins. It was learnt that a few persons in Bodo pay carpenters in the community to quickly make a coffin, once a death has occurred.
N50,000($140) is the cost of the most expensive type of coffin available, and next to this is the one going for N30,000($84), N20,000($56) etc. The cheapest coffin sells for N8,000($22.4). All the coffins available are made of wood.
The coffin business appears to be one of the flourishing trades at the market. Evidence of this is not only the number of coffins available for sale, but also the creativity shown by the carpenters who have different types of coffins available. These include coffins made in the shape of a fish, and others in the shape of Bibles.
Bori suggests that Ogoniland requires forty(40) coffins each month. Forty coffins each month calculated over a period of six months, amounts to two hundred and forty coffins alone. The coffin requirement for Ogoniland is high, and may be the fall out of profound ecological damage, poor health and impoverishment sustained over the decades.
Slowly illnesses began to manifest in the impacted community. Forty-two-year-old Aalo Anthony was born and raised in Bodo, until he left for Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital in 2018.
He opens up on some of the health complications his wife suffered ‘I have lost three children as stillbirths while living in Bodo. The first stillbirth was in 2011. Another in 2012, and the last was in 2014.’
When he thought he had seen it all, complications arose. The two children he has now, were prematurely born in Bodo. One was born at 8 months and 2 weeks, and the other at 7 months and 1 week.
He is not done yet. His woes did not end there.
His son was diagnosed with a hole in the heart, with fluid around the heart. He has been referred to the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State for treatment. For this Mr. Anthony needs three Million Naira ($8,356) which he does not have. He represents many community members in Bodo, fully aware of an ever-present illness, but lacking the resources to step forward for treatment.
‘Festival of burials’
Chief Visanga speaks on deaths in the community “In a month there are more than 30 deaths in Bodo. Yesterday, we buried 5 persons. Today, we will bury 3. In this community, weekends are no longer enjoyable. Weekends are for burials. Before now, it wasn’t like that. Before the oil spill and the degradation of the environment, there was nothing like this. All these deaths became rampant as from 2009.” No proper health audit has been done, thus there are no clear confirmations that these deaths are linked to the oil spill. However, the experiment using rats done by Professors Nwankwoala and Georgewill in Bayelsa State referred to above, suggests that there could be a link between oil spills and the declining health of locals.
Mr. Fyneface comments ‘You have a lot of people dying today in Bodo. The greatest festival you have in Bodo today is the festival of burials. Every Friday, if you go to Bodo, you will see 20 persons being buried.’
Commenting on the numerous funerals, Professor Naanen adds ‘These funerals have occurred non-stop for two years. This amounts to the slow extinction of the people. Bodo is slowly going extinct.’
Reverend Agbulu sheds light on the rising deaths “As at 2014, 2015 the mortality rate increased. As a pastor I bury the dead. The frequency of funeral services increased, that was my yardstick. That was what I used to measure the deaths. Every month I buried four and four was alarming at that time. Previously, I was burying one in three months, and majority of those I buried were less than 40 years.”
Shedding light on funerals in Bodo, Pronem says “In a month there are at least forty burials in this community.”
If there are 15 deaths in Bodo every month, in a year this will amount to a hundred and eighty deaths. Bodo had a population of 69,000 at the time of the spill in 2008. If it continually loses one hundred and eighty souls every year, in a stretch of three years, it is likely that the community will soon be devoid of its human population.
“Petroleum consists mainly of hydrocarbons, and these are chemical elements contained in petroleum products, and most importantly there is Benzene which is an aromatic hydrocarbon. But the danger of benzene in the human body, in animals or in birds, is that it undergoes a lethal synthesis to produce Benzene Arene Oxide which is carcinogenic, meaning it can cause cancer. The health impact of oil spills is enormous,’ says Professor Georgewill who is also a member of the West African Society of Toxicology. On soil infertility, he explains ‘Sometimes spills occur on land. Sometimes, it occurs on water. When it occurs on land, it impacts on the soil, hydrocarbon on the soil will destroy the nutrients required for plants to grow.”
Grace Loabel, 37, is a periwinkle picker. She believes the physiological changes in her body are linked to the oil spill and pollution. “I have personally experienced two periods in a month, this year. I haven’t gone to the hospital because I don’t have money for hospital charges.
Pavia Lenu, 25, suffered a stillbirth in May 2019. She has hearing challenges and communicated by gestures and with the aid of a translator. She too could not go to the hospital, owing to a lack of resources.
Oil spill & declining health
On the health impact of oil spills, Dr. Nabie says “Conventionally, once there is a spill it is not supposed to be left untreated for more than 48-72 hours. But Bodo people have been left exposed to the spill for over five years without any intervention. We believe that with the level of exposure over this period, the effect will be double, or it will be triple, because the people of Bodo have been overwhelmingly exposed.”
He adds ‘If the dose determines the poison, even water taken in excessive doses can cause water intoxication.’ It’s a maxim. The dose determines the poison, and somebody has been exposed for 5 good years, it means that whatever he has will be triple or tenfold of whatever would have happened. The effects of exposure to spills include infertility, occuring in male and female, because it has effect on gonotrophic hormones which are essential for reproduction, respiratory tract infection, manifesting as cough and mucus. In the long term there could be lung cancer. Going by the duration of exposure, Bodo people have suffered more harm than ordinarily they should have, and that is our cry.”
Bodo’s sick hospital
The laboratory at the General Hospital Bodo is equipped to carry out malaria, typhoid tests, and anti-retroviral screening. It does not have equipment to conduct the hormone profile test, kidney and liver function tests. It does not have an X–ray machine and neither does it have equipment to do scans. All cases for hormone profile, a key fertility test, are referred to Port Harcourt. This explains why the sick prefer to remain at home and die. The sick are healthier in their houses. Conditions are similar at the nearby Gokana General Hospital, Terabor. The doctors at both the General Hospital Bodo and the Gokana General Hospital, Terabor declined to speak when contacted. However, UNEP alongside the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) plan to improve the facility content of the General Hospital Bodo. It is also considering raising the manpower to strengthen the human resource capacity of the hospital.
The report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), published in (2011) recommended continuous scrutiny to save lives. “A focused medical study should be initiated to track the health of the Ogoni community over their lifetimes to ensure any possible health impacts are identified early enough and acted upon.” (p.14).
This is the wisdom upon which residents are building
Dr. Nabie suggests ‘The government needs to consider setting up a modular health facility in Bodo which will have facilities for screening beyond malaria and typhoid. Reverend Agbulu argues ‘A commitment to taking on a way forward project by government, community and by stakeholders in the health sector. I also think it should be declared that this community is a state of emergency, even if it requires quarantine, even if it requires some kind of evacuation or resettlement. A standard hospital should be built that will be co-managed by a UNEP driven team, for the first ten years.’
Bishop Fozari of the Booba Bari New Apostolic Church, Bodo, adds “The hospital we have is a skeleton of what a hospital should look like. Government should elevate the hospital and equip it to offer a variety of medical services. The community should be properly enlightened through health education.”
Bazia says “By the time the renovation work at Bodo is concluded, the hospital will have equipment to carry out mammograms, cancer tests, pap smears, and men will be able to do tests for prostrate cancer, among others.”
This investigation was supported by the African Academy of Sciences, Africa Science Desk Project, of Nairobi, Kenya