“The Sea Ate My House” – Who bears the cost?​

Coastal erosion in Senegal

"The Sea Ate My House" – Who bears the cost?

I speak to a Senegalese woman from Bargny. She tells me, ‘The sea ate my house’ 

‘The sea ate your house?’

‘The sea ate my house.’ 

She says it with a face half-broken in places, her eyes full of salt, and so, you can tell, she’s not lying. In Bargny, the sea is eating the houses that hang over the shore’s lip. She tells me that one night she went to sleep and when she woke up, salt waves licked the small steps on the east-facing side of her hut. Fish – which she spends most of her days cleaning, soaking in brine, laying out on woven matts in the noon sun until the shiny skin wrinkles to tough leather – nibbled at her toes when she stepped out to hang her washing. They moved inland but the water followed them. 

It’s still following them.

You hear from a woman in Bomboré, that an army of polished steel giants came to her village, and gouged long, straight wounds in the earth for gold and whatever else they could steal. Now, there’s nothing but red sand and dead trees, and land that won’t grow anything, with empty rivers, and hungry people. In Somkhele, a woman describes how the water in their rivers turned black. ‘From the coal washing, down the way,’ she says. The walls of their huts have deep-grooved striations from the mud-packed floors to the thatched ceiling. They crack and splinter off like the riverine topography of a map seen from afar. The daily explosions from the coal mine down-the-way causes them.

‘So what does the community do?’ 

It’s a stupid question but you ask it anyway because it’s what you are paid to do when gathering these stories. ‘We drink it.’  She looks at you like you’re a child or a fool, and you can’t even be mad about it. 

They drink this water; it poisons their bellies. They wash in it; it brings them cancerous boils. They water their plants with it, they die. They clean with it; it makes everything dirty. That’s just life down here. With cracked crystal eyes, she tells you, This land will never be beautiful again.’ 

In the shadow of one of Africa’s grandest hydropower dams – the one that was supposed to ‘light up the continent’, bragged the pot-bellied businessman with his sharp teeth and hard eyes. No doubt, smirking over the deals bartering lives and lands with banks from Europe and North America in the pursuit of ‘development’. But the women tell you about families living in darkness while staring up at sky-high pylons that carry electricity manufactured on their lands, on their rivers, on their backs, to the big cities far away. To Katanga where children as young as five digging for copper-cobalt-uranium-diamonds-radium out of the ground and dying with it. Or it’s guns in the hands of soldiers. To Kinshasa, the capital city. And even as far away as Johannesburg, the city of gold. 

The women tell their decades of stories and hard living. ‘Imagine that? We, here, in our village where the power is made, we live in darkness. But they can carry that power all the way to South Africa? Why?’

At the very bottom of Mponeng, right about as close to the earth’s roiling core as you can get without dying, men who speak a cacophony of tongues, shimmy down holes so far down that they forget the sun. Their skin grows transparent and chalky, veins limning wiry arms, as they chip, and chip, and chip, and chip, and chip, and chip – for about a knuckle’s worth of gold. That gold is sold to the boss. Who sells it to another boss. To a dealer. To a broker. To the president. Another broker. Some bank in Dubai. And so on the train goes.

In Port Harcourt and the villages that sprawl around it, there are patches of land that have been on fire for years. Decades. Oil spills have daubed everything in black tar. The air trembles, thick smoke shrouds everything, and it sticks to you, too. Your skin. Your hair. Your clothes have a dull grey film all over them at the end of the day that never quite washes out in the months after. You make a note to never wear white when you visit Ogoniland again.

In the ragged, old bus that lurches us around for the ‘site visit’, there is a soldier with a gun stationed at the front by the driver, and another at the back, glaring out the window for any sign of threat.

‘Kidnappings happen a lot here’, one woman tells you‘Why?’ ‘People are poor. Angry. If they see one of these foreign NGO groups driving around and asking questions with your shiny cameras, they might think you have money, so they kidnap, demand ransom payment. Sometimes they just kill you-oh.’ ‘But we are in the richest part of the country, aren’t we?’ 

You think about the research pack you read earlier. It told you that 98% of Nigeria’s export wealth comes from oil extracted from Ogoniland. But no one here—apart from local elites—is seeing any of that money. The real winners are familiar names—Shell and British Petroleum, and the local companies with local names plastered on the fronts of their buildings that have Shell and British Petroleum on their boards of directors. 

Oh.

Oh.

Oh.

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