Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”
It was in the year of our Lord , and the northwest winds carried the dust and brown sands from the Sahara and threw them into the Okitankwo River, the sacred waterway in our hometown of Amankuta Mbieri, in Imo State. It blew across the rainforests and the savannah like a goddess of vengeance, carrying sands and hot-blooded reptiles in its wake. We had never before witnessed a dry season so vicious—one that made all the wells like bone and the sand fiercely 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 mother and her newborn usually stepped outside for the first time after four weeks. The newborn would be cradled by the traditional priest, who would scoop a handful of water from the enamel bowl and sprinkle the droplets on the forehead of the baby, who would cry as the cold water drenched her. There would be a roar and laughter from the crowd at her naming ceremony. The child would be given to her father, who with outstretched hands would raise her to the wet skies. The child would stop crying, watching her father as he whispered 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. Later, for those still in tune with the ways of our ancestors, as the water became ever-smaller and more polluted, mother and child would stand under an umbrella and 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—making a sign of the cross like a priest during Ash Wednesday. The father would pray that the child’s life would be like the memories of moist soils that grew greens and had rivers overflowing their banks. He would take the umbilical cord and bury it under the leaves of the udala tree, whose roots reached deep into the ground. It had been a wonder in its youth when the waters ran through its veins; now it looked twisted and thirsty—the snarling face etched on its bark ridden with woody wrinkles, recalling the agony of its death.
The heat was relentless as I sat on the veranda and pondered the loss of the place I had once called home. I tried to cry but my eyes were dry, as if the hot November sun had reached into my eye glands and milked all my tears. I was with child—and when my child grew, he would never know the sparkling Okitankwo River that used to run through at least five villages, including my own—never know the small plantations that bonded us together, the sweet potatoes and sugarcanes that we grew along its edges a few kilometers away from home. The river didn’t cower in the face of the fierce sun in the dry season; it came at the beginning of the rains and signaled the Ofa season. We would carry our cans and buckets to the river to get water, and we used the smooth white pebbles that lay on its bank to scrub our dry feet until they become soft. The waters were so clear that we could see fish gliding with the tough currents—so clear that we could reach out and catch the fish with both hands. Now, the little water left was too warm and toxic to support aquatic life. The fish displayed on the table by the fishermen had been so dried that it could leave cuts in your mouth.
The children of nowadays don’t know what fresh fish from Okitankwo River tasted like. They are content with eating the dried crayfish and tilapia. They see the toughness as normal, but I know that is not what fresh fish tastes 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 riverbank would be used together with pawpaw leaves to scrub the blackened backs of our pots and kettles until they shone like a mirror. Shouts of “Mmiri ayola, mmiri ayola” would rend the air.
But as the seasons came and changed, and the sun grew closer to the earth, the river ran no more. We would rush to the riverbank 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 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 seasoning and cubes of soap. We would sit under the full moon sharing the fruits telling folktales.
But when this child sits under the moon, he will 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 will be taken to the Okitankwo River and shown the pathway the waters followed—the swamp that held our crops now ridden with remnants of water grass and the waters retreated like a tortoise into his shell. No one uses the sands anymore; tiny green worms dance on the surface of what is left of the swamp, and different generations of mosquitoes invade our houses at night—disrupting our sleep with the constant ringing sound, and pumping malaria into our veins.
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 there. Whenever I went to what was left of the river, I saw eggs wrapped in red clothes and bottles of Fanta—offerings to the gods to bring back our Okitankwo River. But it didn’t come back, even though no one touched the few aquatic plants left where the water once was, in an attempt to preserve what was left. As I grew older and watched how nature changed all around me, I knew the gods were not to blame but rather we humans, who had ignored the red flags when we engaged in a toxic romance with our climate.
It happened too fast: the rains not coming in April, the increasing heat, the taint of dust. I remembered the Twitter banters, the Facebook posts, and the various threads of “Climate change is fake” and “Global warming is a conspiracy theory.” I took a trip down memory lane and concluded that it had not been this bad when we were younger. Each generation had met a degrading state of nature, but, instead of preserving and improving on it, had perceived the decaying nature as normal—leading to a downward spiral.
My little cousin hasn’t put a paper boat on water before and watched it sail seamlessly with the currents. The children of today will soon be left with what we once called our home as part of their history curriculum, and will take trips to exhibition centers to see the green we once had. Our children might never get to see nature in its true form. They have already forgotten that stars are part of the night sky.
In our forgetfulness of nature, we forgot that nature doesn’t forget—and any name you call your pet will be what it answers to. The earth was changing rapidly around us, and I was afraid. They call it eco-anxiety: fear of climate change. Children don’t know that tigers are not just emojis in their phones but are wild cats with orange stripes who once ruled the wilds. We are forgetting the ambient sound of birdsong and the satisfying feeling of crunching leaves under our feet on a forest floor.
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I didn’t originally set out to safeguard the environment. I was pushed into activism by memories of our gone river and bewilderment that people were not noticing the darkness that had enveloped the land because of the decline in the dance of fireflies. But Mama knew I would always follow that path: I never outgrew chasing butterflies in the gardens and trapping fireflies in bottles. Now, I had moved from embracing nature to defending it.
I chose my present residence because of the wild green that grew behind it. I was happy to discover that big patchwork of woods, fields, and umbrella trees behind my hostel, which had miraculously remained untouched amid the expanding suburban grid of streets and lawns. But 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 like a knife to bones, and my back twitched. Then the bulldozers uprooted the giant trees, leaving gaping holes where they should have been.
The choir of birdsong stopped.
The whisper of sweet breeze on green leaves paused.
It 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 pain that had come with the loss of our sacred waters. It was happening again: this violation of nature, this accelerated loss of species and life.
Where would we run to when the floods came? Whose roots would hold us firmly to the ground?
Every day, I woke up to something new on the land. Soon, a foundation was dug and a building started taking shape. 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 at 5 pm. I lost hope as I watched the building rise on land that until now had held Amazonian trees and multiple species of birds.
One day, I came home and saw that the building had been wired with electric bulbs. I heard whispers that handshakes and envelopes with lump sums of money had been exchanged. The Ministry of Water and Land Resources were giving out portions of our nature like pawns on a chessboard. I took pictures and wrote newspaper columns 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. I was applauded for my efforts to draw attention to the path of self-destruction we were on, but nothing more.
A year later, I moved to Lagos. I often refresh my timeline to see news of angry waters carrying vehicles and people away. We had cut down our trees; what did we expect? Now, will we train the future generations to have a higher appreciation of nature so that they do not make the same mistakes we are making? Will we take them outdoors to experience what is left of nature in its unadulterated form? The cooing of pigeons in backyard gardens, the beauty of corals, the hermit crabs on beaches. Or will they become housebound, praying that the floods don’t rise to dangerous levels, watching as terrible winds uproot the zinc roofs of houses that sail slowly away, like paper boats.