by Ian McCall

Chapter 15 - THE MAMMY WATER

The Niger Delta covers some fourteen thousand square miles and contains many hundreds of creeks. It has been called the biggest swamp in the world. The Port Harcourt area took in nearly a half of the delta. Some of these creeks are broad and easily navigable while others are narrow and have to be squeezed through. The narrow ones are best approached by small launch or canoe and that by persons well versed in the unique geography of the delta. In my time there, these were inevitably local people who had been brought up in the area. Sometimes they ran a ferry service providing regular contact between the inhabited islands and the main centres of population; Chief Tom Big Harry ran a ferry from Port Harcourt to places like Bakana and Buguma that was an indispensable service, especially for itinerant traders and workers in Port Harcourt returning to the magnet of family, as well as for distibution of goods through the hands of a plethora of middlemen. The most dramatic as well as the biggest of the ferries was the sternwheeler ‘Delta Queen’ which towered out of the water and took us back I would guess, at least two generations. I have an abiding mental picture of the corrugated iron cladding on the lofty superstructure glinting in the sun as she steamed away from the wharf churning up the water behind her into a froth as she moved out into mid-river, sending out sound-waves as well as making bow-waves. Sometimes the experts on river navigation were fishermen who wrested a precarious living from the crocodile infested waters. Other experts were members of the Nigeria Marine who were trained to negotiate the bends and snags and natural hazards to facilitate the travel of government officers going about their daily business. There was also a team of very competent Dutchmen from a firm called NEDECO involved in clearing snags to guarantee the safe access of sea-going vessels to the ports of the delta as well as the many ships carrying traffic on the main branches of the Niger and on its major tributary the Benue. It was fascinating to see how some launches nosed their launches into the bank, went astern on full tiller for a short distance then with the tiller on the opposite hand would ease forward again. Gradually by this process they negotiated the tightest of bends.

Staff of the Nigeria Marine, probably working under instruction, stuck to the main waterways as far as their duties allowed. Touring launches like the ‘Edith’ were big investments. Demands on their services were high and this usage merited looking after them well. This was my commonest form of transport in the creeks unless I was going short distances when I would use a canoe, or to Strongface Creek which was approached from Opobo by Marine gig with two uniformed pullers. I was always intrigued in a guarded kind of way by the watchful insouciance of the crocodiles as the wake of the launch washed the bank. They would half-open their yellow eyes and peer over the tips of their snouts as if recording the scene. In contrast to the lethargy of the crocodiles, African Grey parrots would once in a while flit from tree to tree, occasionally essaying a dart across the creek and providing a welcome flash of colour as the red of their tail feathers fleetingly stood out against the more sombre background of the surrounding browns and greens.

It was hard to imagine that the remote and small community of Opobo, now accessible by road from Port Harcourt, was the domain of the same King Jaja who signed an accord with Britain, had been awarded a sword of honour by Queen Victoria for sending some fifty men to fight in the Ashanti wars in the Gold Coast, and who had died far from his home for defending traditional values as well as his own commercial interests. He was apprehended for trial by means viewed by many as unacceptable and un-British. His fame and admiration among his own people is evident from the statue erected to him by public subscription in Opobo Town in the early 1900s and still an object of respect and pride when I was there on tour as was witnessed by the eagerness of locals to point him out.

The vegetation of the area varies. There is the mangrove which somehow manages to survive the swamps exposing daylight through the twisted roots that rise above the level of the brackish water rather like dancers on stilts, with the occasional fisherman’s hut in the foliage and his canoe pulled up into the mud. Then there is the oil palm, the Eleias Guineensis, which thrives on the more solid ground to provide a living for many of the river people. The mystery of the oil palm to the uninitiated is that despite its name indicating a local origin in the area washed by the Gulf of Guinea, it is not to be found in primary forest, certainly not in Nigerian forests, giving rise to the claim by some that it was not indigenous to Nigeria. This was erroneous and the explanation is relatively simple. It needs plenty of light which is not available in the forest covering of high trees but grows in abundance when the forest has been cleared. The area of the southern part of Ibo country is well suited to the growing and harvesting of palm fruits as they give a better yield and quality there than in any other part.

The oil palm grows, at the crown of the tree, large stems known as bangas which sprout spiky bunches of fruits. These are harvested by specialist collectors. The collector shins up the trees with the assistance of a stout rope of plaited lianas which he passes round the trunk of the tree and round his back. Pushing his back against the rope and his feet against the trunk, he moves up the tree step by step. As he levers himself up with all the power of his legs thrust his feet against the tree, he whips the rope further up the tree, and repeats the action until he reaches the crown of the tree where three or four bangas are clumped together. From this position he cuts the stalks with a short, sharp cutting tool and drops the bangas to the ground. If he has time and energy - some trees are more easily climbed than others - he will lower it to the ground on another rope, an action that prevents the bruising of the fruits which raises the free fatty acid content and reduces the quality of the oil produced. Some palm oil collectors make variations on this theme depending on the size and configuration of the tree and the availability of useful appurtenances like small car tyres tied to the tree and used to support the feet when cutting the fruits, illustrating once more the ability of the Nigerian to improvise with what is available locally. He performs his specialist task for a fee, likely as not in kind, as not all farmers are as strong, skilled and fit as he is. As a result he is often a self-employed itinerant worker within a limited area.

The fruits so harvested have a thick, purplish-orange pericarp or skin with a kernel inside contained in a hard shell. Between the colourful wall of the fruit and the nut is a rich, reddish-orange oil which has been used to cook locally and is exported for the manufacture of margarine and, in the case of oil with a high free fatty acid content, as additives for paints and as a lubricant. It is traditionally extracted by first of all removing the fruit from the spikes, boiling them in water to soften the pericarp, pounding the them in a tall, narrow mortar or trampling them in clay-lined pits or in dugout canoes to loosen the pericarp and fibres from the nuts. These are stirred in hot water and the fibres picked out and pressed by hand to remove the oil. Where the fibres are small, I have seen them taken out by hand and strained through a sieve and the remaining oil squeezed out by hand pressure. When the fibres have been removed and dried they make good firelighters. The oil made by this method was known as ‘hard oil’ that had a relatively high content of free fatty acids and was less valuable than ‘soft oil’ produced cold and more likely to provide oil of edible quality.

Palm oil was also used locally to provide a naked flame from a round 50-cigarette tin with a whole punched in the lid to take a wick that goes down into the oil. It gives enough light to make out figures and products on stalls open after dark and can be compared to a candle in terms of its effect. Goldsmiths use it in their brass lamps. The oil I also saw being used by women in the process of grooming their own or their children’s hair into criss-cross patterns. It was produced by local peasants in small quantities. To get to market it passed through a number of hands, each time increasing the quantity until finally it was of sufficient size to justify a purchase by a trader who sold it on to licensed buying agents.

The kernel, once its shell has been cracked, yields a high quality edible oil, also used in the making of soap when pressed out but this cannot always be done locally as it requires high investment crushing plant, although Unilever did have a factory for the manufacture of margarine with the ‘Blue Band’ label and the making of soap. Kernels are sometimes also used when processed as an additive to gin. The residue after the oil has been extracted is used for cattle cake, which is good for the milk yield of cattle in temperate climates in winter when there is no grass. As a result of such activities there was a small export industry based on this by-product of palm oil production.

The palm oil and kernels were produced by local farmers unless they were the output of a small local oil-mill to which the fruits could be taken to be sold for cash. These were called ‘pioneer oil mills’ and they were financed by the Eastern Regional Production Development Board for more economic production and distribution. Some 50 of these had been established by the Eastern Region Production Development Board with money allocated by the Oil Palm Produce Marketing Board and many more were projected. These were purpose-built plants which increased the extraction rate of palm oil from just over 50% by treading under foot and 65% by wooden hand press to 85% in their processes. Only an affiliate of the United Africa Company had the right to lease land for the setting up of a plantation within Nigeria and that was so that best practice could be observed and incorporated where possible in the pioneer oil mills.

Kernels produced by a family unit were traditionally left to accumulate until a quiet time when the family could take them to the cracking machine available in many villages. The heaps that grew up outside the houses were sometimes referred to as ‘the poor man’s bank’. Ibos in particular had the patience and determination to perform the tiresome task of cracking the nuts, 90% of Nigerian palm kernels coming from Ibo areas while only just over 50% of the palm oil originated there, probably due in part to the demand for oil to feed the highly concentrated population but also because the Ibos were more assiduous in gathering and cracking the nuts. In some communities palm kernels became the perquisites of the women who were often responsible for the cracking. In the more remote areas they were often cracked by the women with stones. This provided a welcome addition to the family income. The kernels had then to be transported to a middleman or an official buying station, either by a family member or carrier who expected payment for his services or who took possession of the kernels as an intermediary. While they were normally bought by weight, they were bought by measure in Opobo perpetuating a custom going back more than a century. They were then inspected for quality and that they were free from undue amounts of shell by weight, fibre or other impurities, were not damaged by insects or contained kernels that were rotten. They were then bagged to the requisite 185 pounds and sealed for export.

Local economies were often dependent on the contribution of the womenfolk. They laboured together in the cultivation and harvesting of crops. In remoter areas where they worked the land communally, they would go to work singing. Stories abounded of their durability - of how they worked until a child was on the point of being born and returned to their work shortly after the birth, retrieving the child from older family minders to feed and comfort it, or even carry the child tied to her back while she worked. The nursing service and the medical services of the missions encouraged them to come to see them at important times in pregnancy and after the birth. So appalling was the infant mortality rate that in some places it was not customary to give a name to a child until it was about a year old. Mothers were encouraged to seek help immediately after the birth to ensure there was no possibility of umbilical hernia which manifested itself in the umbilicus developing into an unsightly and uncomfortable protuberance in the growing child. That they paid attention to the advice given that the cord should be examined and cut as soon as possible after the birth at the centre for medical care, was illustrated by the story told me by one of the nursing sisters. On one occasion, the mother of a new-born child had walked miles through the bush to the centre carrying her baby with the umbilical cord still attached. It was as well that the people of the Ibo lands and of the delta region had reasonable nourishment considering the rigour of their lives. The oil and fish diet which were the staples of the river people was, it has been claimed by Pip Powell, the man who coached (voluntarily) the Nigerian national athletics team in the 1950s, the basis of the exceptionally high performance of athletes from that part of Nigeria. Peter Esiri, one of my staff stationed in the Delta, was the Nigerian triple jump champion and competed internationally.

Lest I have given the impression that everyone was in his or her small corner doing what he or she was good at or was forced to do as part of a social group, let me correct that idea. One facet of the Nigerian is that he, and perhaps even more so, she, is a natural trader. Almost everybody had another interest of some kind that brought in money. In the creeks trading was the general practice, if only part time. The people regard it as part of existence itself, not necessarily a distinct occupation. In consequence, they are good at it. While some women traders might turn over thousands in a year, trading took place too at a level accessible to the poorest. Enterprisers would buy a packet of sugar cubes and sell them in lots of ten or whatever number corresponded to the lowest denomination of coin. While the market women might buy scent by the case, their customers would buy a bottle and sell by the drop. Even schoolchildren were involved. They would sell four or five dabs of scent for a penny. Professional people like doctors and lawyers often had trading interests and wives did business with husbands. At one time there was even a report of a wife suing her husband for a commercial debt.

This tradition of involvement in trade stems from the proliferation of intermediaries in internal trade and in the community at large. The large number and variety of intermediaries were often criticised by official and unofficial observers. In fact, these traders substituted semi-skilled or unskilled labour for capital which was in short supply. Their trading methods were economic in that they used resources that were redundant and economised in the use of capital and supervisory staff for which there was a keen demand and for which there were more valuable uses. It was a way of matching segments of supply and demand that met conditions in the local environment. Many traders, especially importers, were often less than meticulous in honouring commercial contracts. Often their failure to meet obligations stemmed not from dishonesty or even irresponsible risk-taking, but from a mixture of shortage of capital, wide price fluctuations and a tendency to overtrade, sometimes encouraged by European exporters.

Into this background enter Sam Bleasby who was a legend in his time. He was reputed to have worked for the United Africa Company as its agent in Opobo. He left the company to become a licensed buying agent of the Nigeria Palm Produce Marketing Board in an abandoned plot, it was said, of the United Africa Company. The land had to be rented as Europeans were not permitted by law to own land. In the clubs of the delta his name was a byword, usually for the eccentricity of living like a hermit or for having ‘gone native’. The local people knew him as a friend. He knew their customs better than anyone in the expatriate community and respected their way of life.

Sam was a very private man who would not join in the social activities of the expatriate community. He would never be so ungracious as to turn down an invitation of the Queen’s representative the Governor, but these occasions came round at very infrequent intervals. I met him only once and was invited to his house - a most unusual occurrence I was assured by my principal produce officer. I may have been honoured but he possibly saw in me an innocence of my new world and that there was hope for me to escape the kind of life which he shunned. I saw a gentle, spare, frail, old-looking man with a tunic that reached well down past his waist and was buttoned across his neck in Chinese fashion. It was not at all what I expected of a former successful UAC agent whom you expected to be tough and positive in his talk and actions and to dress in the more accepted fashion. He extended an old world courtesy to me and his quiet dignity held me and at the same time kept me at a distance. He was reputed to have prepared a will leaving all his worldly goods including his business to his servants. The locals were also mystified and intrigued by his way of life. They knew that every Sunday he disappeared for the day in his launch down the creeks which he was said to know like the back of his hand. When asked what he did there, one of these river people smiled and said ‘Maybe he get Mami Wata for dat place’

The Mami Wata or mammy water, was the pidgin name they gave in these parts to the manatee which is the sea-cow, the aquatic mammal that most closely resembles the fabled mermaid and whose perception on the rivers as a nymph with special powers could well stem from the figureheads on the prows of early sailing ships that visited the Coast. She could appear in different places simultaneously. The manatee is found mostly in brackish water, its infrequent sightings adding to the myth that has grown up round it. The water spirit or goddess who, they say, resides in it, is reputed to influence the happiness or unhappiness of the individual. She is characterised as a beautiful and seductive creature with long flowing hair and a light skin. Sometimes her followers are rumoured to have a sexual relationship with her in the spirit world. The term Mami Wata is also used generally for extraordinarily beautiful women who are believed to embody the qualities of the goddess. Likenesses of her can be seen in a few locations around the coast. She is usually characterised as looking in all directions by the expedient of repeating the fashioned figure of the goddess a number of times in an outward-facing circle. In the slaving days someone delegated by a ship’s master would not infrequently take a whip called a ‘manatea’, made from the skin of a manatee, to slaves and sometimes to crew members themselves of the ships conveying them to distant lands far from their homes. Maybe old Sam knew something the rest of us were unaware of. Or maybe it was just that he was never less idle than when unoccupied, nor less alone than when without company.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003