A Tale of the Black City

By Lucy Abagi James

‘My daughter forfeited her chance to study Engineering at the University of Port-Harcourt because she had compounded breathing problems caused by soot.  She is currently learning how to sew clothes and we are hopeful that by the next admission season, she will gain admission to study at another University’. – Anonymous

A resident of Port Harcourt tells her story. Photo: KC Nwakalor

A lady (in her late 30’s) who lost her younger brother a year ago to cancer, believes his death was linked to environmental pollution’ of black soot. Sadly, these harrowing experiences are the daily realities of people living in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. 

Many years ago,my grandmother journeyed from her village in Oron, in search of a ‘better life’ in Port-Harcourt. Her countless stories on her sojourn for a better life in Po-ta-kot (Pidgin) as she fondly called it, kept arousing my inquisitiveness to understudy Port- Harcourt. The city of PH as it called, is one of the boisterous in Nigeria,  and the capital of Rivers State, Nigeria. Through the benefits of the Nigerian Petroleum Industry, PH further developed, becoming commercially viable and attracting migrants from other States who sought better means of living.

The narrative has since changed. A city that was once the dream of a people has suddenly become their nightmare.  This situation is further worsened for the marginalized and deprived sub-sect.

People have not only lost their means of livelihood but also their lost loved ones to the clutches of the Black Soot. Some have had their health deteriorate, and have been diagnosed with cancer. Others have had to relocate to other cities for fear of the dreadful. The town covered in black, has now become a shadow of what it used to be. If you swipe a finger at a car glass, the colour on your thumb is black soot. Food, windows, beds, furniture, electronics, merchandise are all  smeared with soot. Children are deprived of the opportunity to explore their childhood because movements are restricted, still, in their small play areas, their feet are stained, and unknowingly the soot particles find their way into their homes creating more harm and unavoidable damages to their health.

Stop the Soot Campaign

Soot broke out in the city two years ago as a result of incomplete combustion of carbon, the burning of crude oil on both illegal refinery grounds or government confiscation policy. Experts estimate that about six (6) million residents of Port Harcourt are exposed to the risk of cancer since the emergence of SOOT in the city.

Black soot is the fine black particle, chiefly composed of carbon, produced by incomplete combustion of coal, oil, wood, or other fuels. Soot can consist of acids, chemicals, metals, soils, and dust. The common trait of soot particles is that they are extremely tiny – 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. This is smaller than dust and mold, and is about 1/30 the diameter of a human hair’. 

As a result of this menace, Port Harcourt is now known as the Black City. Majority believe that the source of this black soot is due to incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons as well as asphalt processing, burning of barges used for oil bunkering and illegal artisanal refinery operations in some parts of the state. 

In a more humane clime, black soot would be called  a national disaster and a state of emergency declared. A saner government would have halted the insensitive activities of these Oil Companies, and evacuated citizens in most affected regions. It would have accelerated the  total clean-up of the region. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Little or low attention has been given to the effect of this environmental and climate conditions The tall buildings and white sparkling mansions are slowly losing their splendour. The town has gone sour and many like my grandmother have long lost faith of a better life in po-ta-kot. 

A child holds up a banner during the March to the Rivers Government House

Clearly, as are many issues in Nigeria, soot is believed to be  hugely politicized, making allowance for roles to be shifted. The State Government points fingers at the Federal Government and vice versa. Painfully, the magnitude of the blast is yet to hit the State, although the menace is not getting any serious attention, most of the people affected still go about  their daily tasks. Experts still maintain that the presence of soot in the atmosphere is dangerous and carcinogenic and constant exposures can result in numerous and diverse respiratory diseases. 

After years of waiting, wailing and increased death toll in the black city, on Thursday 19 April 2018 the people of Po-ta-kot marched out in quantum to demand immediate action by the government. Connected Development holistically joined this march and KC Nwakalor, a distinctive and professional Photographer brushed up his magic camera to gather live images and experiences, so the voices of the residents can be amplified, and the oil rich state rescued from total environmental degradation. 

Campaign Banner

KC Nwakalor recounting his ground experience, and direct impact of SOOT on the masses, He opined that the black soot settles on everything and finds its way into the corners of living rooms no matter how hard people try to stop it. “Food items in Port Harcourt markets are not spared from getting mixed with these deadly black particles that are massively present everywhere.

Deeply concerned by this issue, should citizens carry placards before a serious attention is drawn to a case of environmental setback like this?  Be that as it may, this march elucidates citizens distrust in the government and lack of human empathy by the bourgeoisie in ensuring that a joint action is taken to support the marginalized and most affected populace of the state. 

Nwakalor further arbitrated that the mass turnout of people was to ensure that likely solutions and steps are taken by the government to stop the activities of Illegal refineries (a huge business venture enjoyed by certain political thugs and loyalists). The Federal and State Governments, security agencies as well as all agencies in charge of environment and other agencies handling related issues, should toe a defined and safe path in handling illegal oil vessels. “The government should constitute local councils into environmental councils to monitor their areas for any possible illegal refining of crude and other dangerous acts that are inimical to human existence.”

I am positive that some day, the tall, gigantic, stainless and sparkling white buildings of Po-ta-kot will return. Po-ta-kot will be scrubbed white and the present black city will receive its redemption and be polished in gold. Our children will explore the blessings of childhood, market women will display their goods in style, the hospitals will not be crowded with victims  and development will return to the Black City

Connected Development is an initiative that is passionate about empowering marginalised communities.

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