Rice Demonstration Project

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Chris Collman looking at the first rice milled at the MOA's rice demonstration project at Ekoi-Mbiabong Mbat, with local extension agent and Chris's  Land Rover as a backdrop. Cira 1967
Chris Collman looking at the first rice milled at the MOA's rice demonstration project at Ekoi-Mbiabong Mbat, with local extension agent and Chris's Land Rover as a backdrop. Cira 1967

Story 2 - Mbiabong Mbat-Ekoi Atan Ubom Rice Demonstration Project My most troublesome project, little did I know it was worth the effort.



This was a rice demonstration project, run by the MOA (Ministry of Agriculture. The land was located in two villages, each village was in a difference Province. I was asked to settle disputes between the villages, and between the villages and the MOA. I worked in one of the two Provinces. Essentially I was told the heads of the Provinces and the entire MOA would agree with what every I decided to do to make the project work. Rice had not been grown in this region before. Frankly, I had to be talked into involving myself in what was clearly a volatile land dispute that did not involve oil palm farms.

Just before I was "assigned" to the project, the day laborers at the site were chased off by a group of unhappy people with light weapons. A worker was shot it the rear end with an arrow. The MOA employed 40 to 60 people, was constructing a large bund (levee) and had created 30 acres of rice paddies in a former swamp. They thought the villages could grown hundreds of acres of rice.

The doing

Unlike the 12 oil palm community farms I worked with in Ikot Ekpene Division, this demonstration project was "high maintenance". It required constant attention to the social and economic divisions of resources between the parties. If I dealt with 12 different issues in the community farms, every one of them happened at the rice project.

There are lots of stories in my mind about this project. Why is it we tend to remember the more challenging events and not those that were smooth. Why of the 4 county councils, most of my favorite stories take place in the most rural and not one I spent a lot of time in physically? Probably because I spent more time outside of meetings. What follows are some of my memories about this "very troublesome rice project" (an Annang way of putting it in English).

How to divide land and create peace through insults

The first memory is about the first time I divided the project land between the two villages. It is about unhappy armed men and about how I felt about the leaders of each village (an native doctor and a politician).

Even before a worker was shot with an arrow, I heard gossip from other villages about the land dispute. I thought there could be some sort of palaver (argument) about my dividing the next 30 acres of project land. I looked at maps, calculated square meters and decided alternating rows was a good precedent for future divisions. Both villages agreed with my idea of how to divide the land.

Fabian, my live in cook and unofficial translator, knew it was a special event when I told him to polish my rubber boots and starch my "wide leg shorts". Rubber boots were hot and starch in my shorts gave me a rash. This was my "Colonial" look. I don't think I was 21 years old and hoped my costume would add to my authority. My concession to local attire, was sharpening my working machete. I asked that the MOA people not be there.

One of the villages was led by an former politician. He wore a felt Fedor hat, a western shirt and pants. He spoke some English and was always smiling. I spent a lot of time in his village. It was closest to the project, shorter walk from my car and the Ministry of Agriculture senior staff lived there. I was always greeted warmly by the counselor. He made sure I had an invitation to eat at different peoples houses. I learned about the history of the project and relationship between the villages from this counselor. I was very aware that for me, he was easy to like.

The other village was led by an Okuku, a religious leader or medical practitioner. He wore a raffia skull cap that had palm fron stems sticking out like bouncing porcupine quills. He wore fathoms of cloth wrapped around his waist and thrown over his shoulder, maybe a shirt, and sandals. I want to say he usually carried a hand fan. At some point in his life he had small pox and his face was heavily scared. He rarely smiled and never attempted any English with me. I only saw him in meetings or inspections. Neither the Okuku nor I really wanted to be friends.

At the set time and place I met both men, along with men from each of the villagers. Guessing there were at least 20 from each village.

First the villagers agreed to who would be my official translator for the day. This was one of my "new" traditions. I had a certain way I used translators so it did not matter to me who was translating. In fact, there were usually many people present who spoke English the same or better than my translator. I spoke a sentence at a time and had it translated that way. When possible I would mix in a story to make my meaning clear and difficult for the translator to twist.

The shorten version of this memory is that when it came to divide up the new plots, both villages went to either side of an small irrigation ditch. They stated yelling at each other. It did not look like they were going to stop. I saw a piece of tin on the ground that the children used to scare away the weaver birds from the rice. I told the translator to say exactly what I said, or else. By this time they were yelling in a monotone, a sign intense anger. I banged the tin with my machete. Everyone looked at me. I told them they were making noise like a bunch of monkeys in the trees. and I would be leaving. I was going to give all the land to the government because they had broken their promise to me. I said good by and turned and started walking away. I did not look back but heard them talking with each other and then they ran after me. Gulp.

Well it turned out that the two leaders said I had made a mistake. I did not understand how they worked together. They still wanted me to divide the land fairly between the two villages. That was a turning point in the project, the land was divided and I like to think that the villages realized that it was just not between them. I realized that nobody had been really clear with each village and their leaders. Others had tried to play one off against the other and I was clearly not interested in going down that path.

How to remove juju and maintain the peace

I forgot the exact particulars. I think the senior agricultural manager at Mbiabong Mbat-Ekoi Atan Ubom Rice Demonstration Project 'happened' to be in Ikot Ekpene and our paths crossed. The manager was a Nigerian (Igbo), received his higher education in England and had the equivalent of a Masters degree.

He let me know that work in a section of the project had come to a halt. There was nothing anybody could do, except Mr. Collman. Would I please make haste and go to the project and remove some things from a certain area so that the workers could continue to construct a key piece of the project? I appreciated the urgency of his request but was a little baffled by the issue.

With some round about questioning, I found out more. The manager was watching my reaction carefully as he answered my questions. The things were merely palm fronds. Well actually they were the new frond and were sort of hanging from string that crossed the area in question. How they got there nobody knew for sure. Yes, they were the yellow ones that came from the raffia palm wine tree.

Now it was clear what was going on.I basically confronted the manager and asked him why someone from a village did not remove it. The people around there believe if they touch it, their body will swell up and die. Obviously the manager was not going take any chances either. While I wished he was more direct, he did the right thing, there was a community relations issue and that was my problem.

My mental mantra in Ikot Ekpene was help other people work, but not to do their work. Call me lazy, but essentially if life was to continue after I left for any length of time, then the village had to figure it out. I knew the economic impact on 30 or so men from each village who were paid to work on the project was significant. The manager did not say it but obviously the Okuku was unhappy. I had a plan that I refined as I drove to the project the next morning. My plan:

  1. Send the manager back to the project and announce I would visit the next morning question MOA about progress and to see the thing.
  2. Have Fabian prepare my clothes for the "Colonial" look.
  3. Visit the site with as much fan fare as possible. During the inspection of the established rice plots, ask lots of questions that may seem stupid.
  4. Once a good number of people from both villages had arrived to watch my performance, proceed to the area in question.
  5. Carefully inspect the area, making sure I understood the significance of this particular piece of land (it was really small, 50 by 100 feet at most). Keep asking the manager stupid questions.
  6. At some point the manager would get frustrated and ask me directly to take it down in front of the villagers.

That part of the plan worked. I tried to put on my "shocked and surprised" expression before I answered. I was sorry but it was not going to be removed today. I was not happy that the workers would not be paid for 2 or maybe 3 days work, who knows maybe weeks if a solution was not found. I turned to a workers and asked if they were also unhappy. There was a loud should of agreement.

The second phase of my plan was to tell everyone I would talk to each of the leaders in their own village the next day. The rest was easy. My first stop was to see the counselor. We went into a room with several men from the village. I asked him what was bothering his village and why he had not come to me. The counselor blamed all the trouble on the other village. With some verbal proding he proposed a few items that should be fixed. I told the room that trouble makers who get upset and don't talk to me should not be surprised to see the Army take them away. The fronds should disappear.

My second visit was to the Okuku. We went into his house, there was one other man there who translated for us. The Okuku actually had some real complaints. I let him know I was not happy that he did not tell me these things sooner. I repeated my possible mistatement about the Army and rthe fronds. I wanted to respect the local juju and I was pretty sure they didn't want to mess with my Biafrian Army juju.

The cause of the juju was fairly obvious. The Ministry of Agriculture had not evenly hired from each village. The Ministry only rented living quarters for their staff from the closest village. My mistake was that like other community farms I focused on land use. I forgot about the paid workers and understandably the MOA manager was not thinking about even distribution.

The real problem was how fix it without appearing to do anything. I went back to the Senior Agricultural Manager and privately gave him some advice. I reminded that before I came on board, his Ministry had promised to split the project between the two villages. I suggested he announce the results of an audit which indicated changes need to be made. I askeed if he could post a list of all those employed at the project at both villages in the previous week. He agreed that the Ministry would have to rent equal number of rooms in each village. And yes, he could rotate staff at the furthest post if he could not afford empty rooms. I concluded that his plan sounded good and the Providences would know I approved of his initatives.

The next day the juju was gone and the project quieted down. Or was that because a few months later I was evacuated from Biafra and went to the other side of Africa?

Biafra and beyond

The big story was what happened between the time I was evacuated in 1967 and my visit to Ikot Ekpene in 1972. The divisional office had just reopened within the month when I introduced myself and asked after 'my village projects'. "We remember what you did. It was the rice project that was the most important in the time of Biafra." The roughly 100 acres of rice turned into over 1000 acres at that site and another site had another 600 acres growing. As sort of an after thought, I was told that 8 of the 12 community farms were still being kept up without any government supervision.

Still amazes me, what a special time in Ikot Ekpene was for me and evidently how Peace Corps Volunteers had some kind of positive impact upon on the daily lives of people in Nigeria. By contrast, my time in Somalia was completely different.

--Rcollman 10:49, 2 November 2007 (EST)

Post script

I got a chuckle out of this when I did a Google search "rice Akwa Ibom mbiabet". Looks like Ambassador Sam Edem on Oct 17, 2007 made an announcement about a new rice mill. Then a few days later on 25 October, 2007 it was reported: "Chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, Amb. Sam Edem has said that the commission embarked on commercial rice farming in order to not only provide huge employment for rural dwellers, but also save the country of over $1.2 billion it spends on rice importation annually.

Speaking during a fence-mending meeting with leaders, youths and people of Mbiabet community, Akwa Ibom State, over the misunderstanding that followed the proposed relocation of the NDDC Rice processing factory to Ibiaku Ntok Okpo, a border community in Ikono Council Area urged the communities to see the project as belonging to all no matter where it is situated.

Edem who brought to bear his diplomatic skill in handling the volatile situation, appealed to the parties in the dispute to bury the hatchet and work together to gain the full benefit the project will bring to the people and community.

Describing the Rice Mill as a catalyst that will fast- track the development in the region, while assuring the host communities of the multiple benefits the locals stand to reap from the sitting of the rice project in the area.

“This project is a catalyst because it will create the pace to transform the economic landscape of this community, the Local Government and the state as a whole,” he assured. Also speaking at the occasion, the consultant handling the project, Chief Felix Idiga said but for the problem in the communities, arrangements had been concluded with the foreign technical partner to start the bagging process of the rice project.

“We believe we will start processing the rice within a short period. As of now, we have a lot of rice grains packed in the warehouse ready for processing and bagging.” He expressed optimism that the project will not only benefit the immediate communities, but the country as a whole, adding that with adequate funding, in the next five years, Nigeria may not need to import rice.”

Setting the tone for the immediate return of peace to the community, the paramount ruler of Mbiabet community, Obong Etim Akpan Edward, said he would not trade peace with anything whatsoever, noting that it is only in an atmosphere of peace that development can thrive. The Chairman of Ini Local Government Area, Hon. Ibeto Ibeto, who pledged full support for the siting of the rice project at Mbiabet Ikpe, said the “factory was back to the community to stay.”

  • Interesting. Exactly what was happening when this project started when it was only 30 acres. "The government" moved the hard assets away from this same village. An earlier announcement a month before said a mill would be put at "A'Ibom". Note the caption on the picture above.

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