Skip to the content

Cry me a river

It was in the year, 2023 and the Northwest winds carried the dust and brown sands from the Sahara and threw it into the Okitankwo River, our sacred river in our hometown of Amankuta Mbieri in Imo State. It blew across the rainforests and the savannah; like a goddess on vengeance, carrying sands and hot-blooded reptiles in its wake. We had never witnessed a dry season so vicious that made all the wells dry and the sand very hot. That year our river didn’t come home.

          The Okitankwo River had always been of cultural and spiritual significance to our people. Grandma told us that in the days of her youth, a child would be cradled by the traditional priest who would scoop a handful of water  and sprinkle the droplets on the forehead of the crying baby. The child would be given to her father who whispers her names, Mmiriozuzo- the rain has come, Obianuju- born into wealth, Nnenna- our mother has returned. That way, the child would never forget where she came from; she would always follow the river home.

           This was how it was done in the past but as the water kept on becoming small and polluted, the father would take some sand from the earth, mix it with the little spittle his tongue could produce, and smear the wet earth on the head of the child. The father would pray that the child’s life will be the memories of moist soils that still grew greens and rivers overflowing their banks. He took the umbilical cord and buried it under the leaves of the udala tree whose rootswould reached deep into the ground. It had been a wonder in its youth when the waters ran through its veins but now, its snarling face etched on its bark was ridden with woody wrinkles, recalling the agony in its death; looking twisted and thirsty.

               When the child finally grew, he would never know about the Okitankwo River; the small plantations that bonded us together-sweet potatoes and sugarcanes that we grew along its edges, a few kilometers away from home. The famous Okitankwo River was the sparkling river that ran through at least five villages including my own, Mbieri in Imo State. It didn’t cower in the face of the fierce sun in the dry season. We would carry our cans and buckets to the river to get some water and use the smooth white pebbles that lay at its bank to scrub our dry feet till they become soft. The waters were so clear that we saw fresh fishes gliding with the tough currents; so clear that one could reach out and catch fish with both hands. Now the little water left was too warm and too toxic to support aquatic life. The fish displayed on the table by the fishermen had been dried so much that it could leave cuts in someone’s mouth. The children of nowadays didn’t know what fresh fish from Okitankwo river tasted like, they were content with eating the dried crayfish and tilapia. They saw the toughness as normal but I knew that was not what fresh fish tasted like. Fresh fish was a staple of our nsala soup; we would roll our eba into the thick spicy broth, laden with the traditional fresh catfish, and swallow it ‘gbim gbim’ down our throats. The white sands on the Okitankwo river bank would be used together with paw paw leaves to scrub the blackened backs of our pots and kettles till they shone like a mirror. We would rush to the river bank when we heard the slightest noise but would end up staring at the hot baked earth and white stones where the water had once passed through. The edges of the river were where we dared nature, forcing the marshland to produce sweet sugarcane when we farmed with skill and patience. We would put seedlings into the ground, tend to them as the greens shot out from the earth, and wait patiently for the sweet yellow bananas that hung clearly on evergreen trees. The women in our household would carry the bananas in long baskets and ferry them to the next village where other women would hustle for the white sugarcanes in exchange for cubes of soap and seasoning. We would sit under the full moon sharing the fruits under the full moonlight and telling folktales. But when this child would sit under the moon, he would hear stories of a gift of nature that had once been of cultural significance to his people, a source of a rare food crop and foreign exchange of some sort. With the waters went a part of us. He would be taken to the Okitankwo River and shown the pathway the waters followed, the swamp that held our crops was now ridden with remnants of water grass and the waters had retreated like a tortoise into his shell.

My mother said we had offended the gods so they had cursed the land and taken back the gifts of water and the crops that grew therein. But as I grew older and watched how nature changed all around me, I knew the gods were not to blame but we, humans and the way we didn’t notice how nature was changing all around us.

             I took a trip down memory lane and I concluded that it was not this bad when we were younger. Each generation met a degrading state of nature but instead of preserving and improving on it, we perceived the decaying nature as normal leading to a downward spiral in what we termed good nature. The children of nowadays would soon be left with what we had once called our home and were part of their history curriculum and would soon take trips to exhibition centers to see the greens we once had. Our parents grew up watching palm squirrels hop from tree to tree with nuts and rats scurrying through the ceiling stealing fish from the basket but our children have forgotten that stars are part of the night sky. The earth was changing rapidly around us and I was afraid. They called it eco-anxiety- fear of climate change; the idea that nature was shifting from one generation to the next.

              No one listens when the Federal Ministry of Water says that Nigeria’s wetland loss increases by 6.5 percent per annum due to rapid urbanization. I didn’t originally set out to be a writer to safeguard the environment. My first fascination was to be a doctor like most Nigerian parents wanted their child to be but I was perplexed by seeing that people were not noticing the darkness that enveloped the land because of the decline in the dance of fireflies. Memories of our gone river pushed me to be an environmental activist. I moved from embracing nature to defending it. I chose my present residence because of the wild greens that grew behind it. I was happy to discover that a big patchwork of woods, fields, and umbrella trees behind my hostel remained untouched amid the expanding suburban grid of streets and lawns.

               One morning, I woke up to the sound of a roaring chainsaw, the big ones with wicked edges used for felling giant trees. I watched the blade drive through the fleshy bark of the tree like a knife to the bones and my back twitched. I had heard about the rumors of the government coming to build a secretariat on the land but I didn’t know it would be true. I thought it was one of the news that will fickle away with time but the chainsaws were real and the trembling sound it made was nerve-wracking. Then the bulldozers uprooted the giant trees leaving gaping holes where they should have been.

I felt like a part of me fell with the trees. It felt like I was never going to see a dear friend again. I felt the same ,type of pain that accompanied the loss of our sacred waters. It was happening over again; this violation of nature, this accelerated loss of species and life. I took up my pen and wrote to the Ministry of Water and Land Resources but no one came. I went to the secretariat and sat all day waiting for the Commissioner only for his secretary to tell me he had left by 5 pm. The people from the Ministry of Land came and we heaved a sigh of relief. They came, gathered in small circles, had small talks, and left. I was hopeful that they had ordered work to stop on the site but I was wrong.  I heard that handshakes and envelopes with a lump sum of money had been exchanged. They were giving out portions of our nature like pawns in a chessboard. My friend shook her head as I took pictures and wrote columns for the school newspaper talking about the destruction of wetlands and forests due to urbanization, population explosion, and weak implementation of laws. The big men in Abuja already knew but there was nothing anyone could do; my heroic attempts could do little.

             A year after I moved to Lagos for my internship program, I often refreshed my timeline to see news of angry waters carrying vehicles and people away. When we had cut down our trees, what did we expect? It is very important to train the future generation to have a higher appreciation for nature so that they do not make the same mistakes we are making. They should be taken outdoors to experience nature in its unadulterated form, the cooing of pigeons in backyard gardens, the beauty of corals, and hermit crabs on beaches. If not, our children would not only inherit the crimes of a generation that didn’t get it right with its environment but continue setting forests on fire and worsening the current situation. Instead of being in classes learning, they would be home, praying that the flood didn’t get to dangerous levels watching as terrible winds uproot the zinc roof of houses and sail slowly away like paper boats.


Del Innhald