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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Owukpa: Benue community dancing with death, dearth amid affluence

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Owukpa is regarded as the most endowed community in Benue State with an amazing quantum of natural resources. Besides the abundance of coal deposit, the community is strategically situated as it ‘sits’ and rubs ‘shoulders’ with Enugu State. Its location appears to be an edge for commercial reason.

Its fertile soil is advantageous, except that its people are too poor to invest in agriculture. Besides the soil fertility, the community is surrounded by natural water bodies. Awube stream runs through Eja, Ikwo, Ugbugbu, Ubafu and other villages, while Adu stream runs through Ibagba, Ukwu, Ai’Odu and other communities. This is useful to both agriculture and construction of dams.

Being a boundary community, Owukpa should have risen above the entire Ogbadibo Local Government Area which comprises 3 districts – Otukpa, Orokam and Owukpa. Ironically, the community has remained for several years without electricity, pipe-borne water and motorable roads.

A dying community

A few years ago, efforts were made at connecting the community to electricity. Today, the community has gone back to square-one. Wires have disappeared from the poles, transformers have been resold, and the few ones left are mere relics. Some poles are still standing, while others have given ways, and are now been used as local bridges across streams.

Charging a phone in the community that still struggles with 2G network is a Herculean task. People pay generator owners to charge their phones before climbing on top of trees or looking for open fields to make calls. It’s that bad. The people have now resorted to visiting their popular shrines called Ekwanya to be able to fight vandals who sneak in at night to steal the electricity wires wasting away.

An anonymous said “Is it possible for us to have electricity ever in this community? It looks almost impossible to me. I doubt we have people representing us in government. What are they actually doing there?”

One will realize that he is heading to Owukpa after exiting Okpoga into the bumpy road that throws one up and down as though you are in a ship hit by the storm. The same is the case if one is coming through Orokam or Obollo-Eke. If you are a driver, car owner or visiting for the first time, it will be nightmarish. Somehow, you may get to your destination but not without checking with one or two mechanics at Obollo-Afor or Otukpa before returning to base. But the bumpy roads terminate at Ukwo-Owukpa and Obollo-Eke. The rest is snail-driving on roads without asphalts.

It will take hours to get to your destination from Ukwo, a journey that should ordinarily take 10-15 minutes. This vividly captures the state of Owukpa roads. Meanwhile, a well constructed road terminates at its boundary with Obollo-Eke, Enugu State. One is tempted to say that the community is unfortunately under a spell to remain stagnant as several contracts awarded for the construction of motorable roads in the district were allegedly diverted by some politicians who believe that having food on their individual’s table was better than development on a larger scale.

Dancing with death

In the 21st century Nigeria, there exists a community without a single hospital or health centres. In the entire district, no single functional hospital is standing, no government hospital and no standard health centres are found around. Ironically, there is a functional mortuary where people dump dead bodies while waiting for elaborate burial ceremony.

Avoidable deaths are common in Owukpa as people often die of minor illnesses, unless they are taken to far away Okpoga or Otukpa for treatment. For this reason, Owukpa people now take joy in burial thanksgiving than survival thanksgiving. In almost every home, a beautifully constructed grave with a catchy Epitaph remains conspicuous.

The priority is completely lost in death, instead of living. Driving through the stony Anumachogwu, a friend asked, ‘’how come you have beautiful tombs in every home, and the houses are poorly built,’’ and I battled to give a struggling answer. It was obvious his question was not answered at the end of my struggle. If you want to be a successful businessman in Owukpa, own a mortuary.

A youth leader, Augustine Okpe, also known as Buzee explains the health situation in Owukpa. He said, “Ordinary headache kills people in Owukpa. We are living a dog’s life. Death means nothing to us at the moment. If there is an emergency, and we are to rush the person to far-away Okpoga, which road are we going to use? Where are the vehicles? We will usually tie the person to the rider of a motorcycle.

The journey will take hours. At that critical time, it’s all about the person’s luck. Many people don’t make it to the hospital. There are no health centres for primary care. Many people had died in my hands following an emergency. Are we part of the Nigerian project?,’’ he asked.

A woman leader, who does not want her name in print lamented the health challenge in the community. According to her, other communities, especially the neigbouring Enugu communities have left Owukpa far behind.

She said, ‘’we do almost everything at Obollo-Eke and Obollo-Afor, and we see things for ourselves. How come our own is different. I hear we have investors mining our coal at the moment, how has the community felt the impact. We will all come and join you in Abuja. Life is becoming unbearable. The rate of deaths in Owukpa cannot be compared to other communities. It’s very sad,’’ she said.

Accursed community

But there is a myth that Owukpa was cursed by the colonial masters who were allegedly manhandled by its extant community leaders during the advent of colonialism. This has, however, remained conjecture. In Okpokwu LGA axis is Okpoga which shares boundaries directly with Ai- Ifam in Owukpa. While Okpoga’s development is jet-like, Owukpa is moving at a snail speed.

Reacting to the myth that Owukpa was cursed, a clergy who also pleaded anonymous said he doubts if there was any curse dragging the community backward. He, however, said that the same fear pushed Owukpa to organize a liberation retreat of all denominations some years ago, and ‘’then it was prophesied that whatever curse(s) that might have existed and responsible for our backwardness had been broken. We can’t continue to say we are under a curse. We are our problem, just as we also blame the government for neglecting us.’’

The struggling future

A trip to one of the community Secondary Schools, Ibagba Owukpa, where mining activities are ongoing revealed an obvious sign of abandonment. The only community school cited in the area was distressed and the buildings are at the verge of collapsing. One wonders where students will return to when school resumes.

Similarly, another popular secondary school in Itabono, known as ICSS, that had produced many graduates from the community has been abandoned. Most of the buildings erected in the 80s are begging for renovation, and only a few classes could be seen still standing, threatening the future of young people who rely on the school to pursue their secondary education.

At Ipole Ugbugbu, the only Government Secondary School is almost being run without classrooms. Besides the facility challenge confronting the school, the complete absence of government teachers broke the heart of this writer. This writer was told that the only teachers in the school are the ones temporarily employed by some well-meaning individuals from the community who have been paying their salaries since the past 3 years.

Also, the only primary school in Ugbugbu has been completely abandoned as classrooms and the dilapidated buildings are now used to rare goats and chickens. We cannot establish exactly if there are still teachers in the school.

A people so divided

Shamefully, the people who are supposed to be united against these forces of backwardness are even more divided at the home front. Unfortunately, their disunity is dangerously along political and lineage lines. This has further compounded their difficult situation. Their positions on leadership have remained archaic, the worldviews smack of retrogression and their politics mostly characterized by bitterness.

Investigation has revealed that the community in the 21st century sees nothing wrong in adhering to extant cultures and traditions, and are intolerant to cultural dynamism. Take for instance, there is an ongoing leadership tussle in the community which stems from rotational and descent calculation.

The leadership arrangement does not exactly give room to competence, oneness and progress. It dangerously divides the community along lineages. It encourages disunity and calculations are done based on ‘Itabone and Ehaje’ which are the two main clans in the community. Under these two clans are families believed to be children of a man who died several years ago (Amuche Onomo). For this reason, some school of thoughts are of the views that until the yoke of that sentiment is broken, development will be almost impossible as it’s common sense to say that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’

Today, what would have become a common interest, now trends as individuals’ interest. What should have become an Owukpa interest, has become Itabono and Ehaje interests. The interest is further divided even among different families emerging from these clans.

It’s the sad reality of their existence as a people. Currently, communities are in court over who takes over the mantle of Oche’Owukpa (The traditional chief). Though conflict is important in development, Owukpa’s own comes with so much bitterness that kills progress. We are even more divided on development matters; reference could be made to the current controversy on the mining activities in the community. Will Owukpa see light amid this turbulent wind? Only time can explain.

Ali Adoyi is a journalist and writes from Abuja.
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Facebook: Adoyi Abah Ali



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