Communities Of The River: The Ijaw People Of Nigeria

Rivers have been around for as long as humanity. They typically originate in mountains with glacier deposits and flow through channelled paths for centuries. The waters of rivers are home to many life forms and as a result have become an important source of livelihoods to riverine communities the world over.
The Amazonian river people of South America for example have lived by the river for all their existence. While some may describe their culture as subsistence and rudimentary, the fact is that this riverine community has out lived some cultures and are yet thriving strong and proud by the river. They have created their livelihood by the river and have come to flourish from it. The Murray tribe of Australia- named after one of the longest rivers in Australia have lived by the river for thousands of years and can trace their origins by the river for up to 40,000 years. Having lived so long by the river they have turned their unique style of cooking, making canoes, fishing and hunting into an art form which has endured for years. The story of the Egyptian civilisation will not be complete without talking about the river Nile. From farming methods to irrigation to storage and trade, much of the Egyptian culture has been influenced by this very important river.
The growth of the Ijaw people of Bayelsa state can be traced to as far back as 500 BC as they were among the earliest tribes to settle in the lower Niger and Niger delta areas. The Ijaws are known to have a strong affinity with water and it is said that wherever a river is, an Ijaw born is not far off. This affinity for water has seen them settle in riverine communities of Ondo and Edo states and as far off as Gabon and Sierra Leone.
Like many riverine communities in developing countries, they are known to have very poor health practices. The limitations of their geographical location is a challenge to accessing health care and they are oftentimes besieged with health challenges in form of water-borne infections and infestations. For example, the Ijaws who live under the third mainland bridge subject their environment to questionable sanitary practices as they are known to pollute the very waters they fish from.
Statistics show that between 1990 and 2012 among countries, Nigeria had the highest increase in the number of open defecators with Bayelsa state making a huge contribution to these numbers. Research also shows that open defecation is strongly associated with incidence of diarrhoeal disease and prevalence of helminthic infection and stunting especially in children under five years of age.
Many interventions have been embarked upon to help curb this menace. The Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) which was introduced in Nigeria in 2004 sought to address the menace of open defecation especially prevalent in riverine and rural areas by not just providing infrastructure but also by encouraging behavioural and attitudinal change. This approach has shown little or no effectiveness in eliminating open defecation in riverine communities.
A case study of the Qiantang River which is the largest river in China’s Zhejiang Province providing drinking water to over 15 million people shows that this river was once heavily polluted by human and industrial waste and posed a threat to the community. In 2011 and with collaboration with The World bank, the Zhejiang Qiantang River Basin Small Town Environment Project was launched. The project invested in building water supply, wastewater collection and treatment and solid waste facilities in 22 small towns and two urban districts. Now, this project which aimed at making safe drinking water available to the community, helped lower the health risk the people faced by drinking polluted water, improved accessibility to water for industrial use and gave a boost to the industry and economy of the community (Zhuji City, located in the middle of the Qiantang River Basin, is known as the world’s largest producer of socks).
In time and with collaboration from humanitarian driven organisations, the riverine habitations of the Ijaw people can be revamped to promote a thriving and viable industry. Also, forward looking technologies like irrigated farming and hydro-power can be harnessed from the functional and revamped riverine systems.
This development of the Ijaw riverine communities will also give a boost to the tourism potential of these communities making them attractive for direct foreign investment thereby ensuring a stable source of income all year round.

Written by
Uzochukwuamaka Olukoya
Purple Pens Nigeria



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