“Our journey there is about halfway done,” someone says from the rear of the single file.
Forty-two minutes past of trekking through the thin – often depressed – bush path, and I am losing the feel of my feet. Held up in the clear sky, the scorching sun keeps yelling at me to give up and head back home. I walk on for two reasons. The exciting chirps of birds here and there, and my friends who are with me; Nancy, Jumai, and Tosin.
Nancy stops, pulls off her loafer, holds the pair in one hand and continues to walk, barefooted. Her legs must have been hurting too.
Today is World Food Day, and our group of eleven are going for a scheduled outreach in Aba Oyo. I have being invited by the outreach organizers, Phambook and the Enactus community in my university. For the third time in my mind, I try to create lifestyle images for Aba Oyo. The same total blank comes. Is Aba Oyo real? All along, why have I not heard of this place near my university?
Unexpectedly as we reach a part of Awule, a small community in the immediate vicinity of Aba Oyo, we meet a 10-year old schoolboy. His sandals are covered with dust from trekking. “From Aba Oyo every day, I trek to the university gate, and then take a taxi to Oyemekun Grammar School,” he tells us.
With free flow of traffic, this particular government-owned school is a 15-minute drive away from the university’s main gate. Overall, it is a stressful daily journey for a young schoolboy. So we ask why he does not study nearby. “No secondary school is here. Only this community primary school.” The boy then points to a timeworn building. The school’s landmark shows the establishment date as 1955. From where I stand, I can make out three classrooms. Adjacent to the first building, there is another – smaller in area. A message on its exterior wall says it was renovated last by government in 2006.
Finally, at the shrubby entrance of Aba Oyo, I begin to make the connection between things. Just as I notice the three shed-like churches lying on the right, a man, wearing a white Taqiyah, on a bike stops to welcome and greet us. When he sees Jumai, he gets more excited. Jumai is wearing a hijab. When the man rides off, Toluwalase David-Oluwole comments that although Aba Oyo is about 85 percent Islam, indigenes live peacefully. Recently Toluwalase, the Enactus community Project Manager, frequents this place. A marvel of religious tolerance?
Aba Oyo is dotted with outcrops and gullies. Family homes are similar in size and construction – mud houses and shanties standing on red sand. We are now close to the main square. Hailing in Yoruba and deep smiles are poured on us out of wooden windows, out of porches, out of everywhere. These gestures make me think of my home. Where I come from in the Niger Delta region, one rarely greets or smiles at strangers. It is worse when they are much older than the strangers. Aba Oyo fully expresses Àlejò-ṣíṣe, the meaning of “hospitality” in the traditional Yoruba context.
Roundtable styled and moderated by the Founder of Phambook; Michael Olorunfemi, the World Food Day outreach begins outdoor with a prayer. Cocoa trees with rotten pods partly surround us. The women come in with benches to join the men who are already seated. Surprisingly, they spread out and comfortably sit at the front. This tells me something about Aba Oyo: tucked away from modern development, this society not only allows room for dialogue but also understands and appreciates the perspective and contribution of each other, regardless of gender.
The Baale and Lemomu – local leader and Imam – instructs another man, who is clearly the most educated of them, to tell us the history and story of Aba Oyo. “Yoruba language is important.” The spokesman first says in English. The rest of his words are spoken in an unusual Yoruba dialect. So, I rely on my friend, Jumai, for interpretations. Jumai, herself, finds this dialect somewhat difficult.
Around 1950, Oyedeji Ohunmakin was already planting and selling Cocoa in different places. His occupation soon brought him to where is now known as Aba Oyo. At the end of his sales, the then Baale had great admiration for him. He asked Ohunmakin to come back in the future. Ohunmakin agreed, returned home – the present day Osun State in Nigeria – and convinced more farmers and people to join him. The current Baale and Lemomu is the only surviving member of the first residents who followed Ohunmakin back in 1952. Aba Oyo, a Yoruba name which has its own troubles, means “settlers from Oyo”. First, the name ignores the identity of the people who followed Ohunmakin from Osun. It only tells of the other group of people who dominated the land – people from the present day Oyo State. Today, this land area falls within Ondo State, which was carved out of the old Western State in February 1976. Because of this, the name “Aba Oyo” carries discrimination and inequity with it till date.
The spokesman tells us Aba Oyo needs water supply, electricity, and good roads.
These amenities have never existed in Aba Oyo and it affects their farming of cash and food crops; Cocoa, Plantain, Yam, Oil Palm, and Oranges. Carrying produce on their heads, they walk to sell around the university – their only market. With insufficient markets and no storage facility, massive yields often get rotten.
The elders are concerned more about how many young people are running away from Aba Oyo because of poor living conditions. With an abundance of viable land, old men and women remain a significant part of the community’s workforce.
Behind where we are all seated, a dirty paper attached to a wall reads, “INEC Polling Zone.” When asked about this, the spokesman says that an Independent National Electoral Commission-approved polling unit exists in Aba Oyo. Politicians seeking office come during elections only to canvas for votes. They talk and make developmental and inclusion promises. The story changes after election: new government officials remind them that they are “mere settlers and not true citizens of Ondo State.”
I join one of the outreach’s Partner, Olalekan Bankole of Agromarketplace, for a chat during the food break. Agromarketplace creates markets and doorstep delivery for farm produce and agro commodities, using supply chain technology and e-commerce. I ask Olalekan how Aba Oyo’s food could mean more.
“I believe renaming this place will be a good starting point to discourage discrimination.”
“Providing farm machinery, spraying dead trees with fungicides and pesticides to help rejuvenation, pruning and thinning the trees, as well as offering new hybrid cocoa and oil palm seedlings will cause unimaginable growth and yield,” Olalekan puts. “Between one to two years, new yield will then increase from 1 tonne to 10 tonnes. People will move from subsistence to commercial farming. And youths would come back.”
As Olalekan and I chat, I spot the elders inviting John Jaiyeoba, an Extension and Communication Intern of Phambook, to eat and talk with them. Thereafter, they dive into a conversation. Phambook connects investors with opportunities in rural agriculture and also offers agricultural insights and trends.
“On a personal level, I will share my experience here with the State’s Agriculture Commissioner and the Senior Special Adviser to the Governor on Agriculture,” Olalekan promises. “Ondo State has a new Governor. The Federal University of Technology Akure has a new Vice Chancellor too. This could portend good news and attention for the people of Aba Oyo.”
To assist Aba Oyo in produce preservation and storage, the Enactus community of the Federal University of Technology Akure wants to upcycle plastic bottles and tires into a barn.
It has been a long day. I walk back home with others, thinking about realities and how thoughtful the Enactus students are. The parting words of the Baale bother me, “Words do not mean much to us here. Do not betray our trust like others have done.”
The sun now fades away. Leaves rustle, and I feel the wind on my face.
OGHENECHOVWEN, Oghenekevwe Christopher is a third-year student of Meteorology and Climate Science at The Federal University of Technology Akure. He writes on human and social issues, and how they are sometimes influenced by environmental factors. Follow him on twitter: @ChovwenKevwe