I came across an article in a newspaper titled “Our Weapon is Our Nakedness” and it, of course, peaked my interest! My first thought was “what a great story about culture, about tradition and the roles of women especially in the way they lead this humanist movement.” I was amazed by their power. I couldn’t think of a comparable traditional “weapon” that we might use in the US to successfully shut down an oil facility for 10 days unarmed. I’ve thought about it for over 8 years and regardless of our education and any other blessings bestowed upon us, I still haven’t come up with anything as powerful as an organized group of women.
On the first night in the Niger Delta I was watching TV and I saw an amazing ad for CARE. A woman emerged from a mist, walking towards the camera and as she approached a mass of women emerged behind her. On the screen it read “The world’s most powerful untapped resource”. I couldn’t wait to get to work.
After 6 months of trying to reach someone in Nigeria, Sam Olukoya finally answered my email. We planned a trip to the Niger Delta, doing as much preproduction as possible with very few resources. The first biggest hurdle was traveling in the Niger Delta with camera equipment. The Niger Delta is not a video culture where cameras are everywhere and tape stock is on store shelves. We had been forewarned about filming and the risks involved in traveling with and using video cameras in a militarized zone. We were also aware of the risks when telling the stories of the impact of oil production and the conditions of the people and the communities.
When we arrived at the airport in Lagos, we discovered that our bags had not made it from Frankfurt. At the exit there was a checkpoint where passengers were told to open their bags while a security guard rummaged through them. Suddenly the fact that our bags with our cameras and tapes were stuck in Frankfurt became a good thing. Foolishly, I thought this was a good sign and a fortunate beginning to our shoot.
But our first day on the road into the Niger Delta proved my wishful thinking wrong. We were stopped at roadside checkpoints so many times we lost track. We had AK47’s pointed at us through the windows of the van. Our driver from Ghana provoked the Nigerian military who stood at these checkpoints asking for registration papers for anything from engine parts to hubcaps. Having defied a command to stop at a very specific point, the driver was pushed into the passenger seat when a can of mace was shoved through his window while threats of arrest were shouted from a very hot and very drunken officer.
Two stops later we were hijacked by a gang of machete whielding kids who immediately surrounded the van while throwing nail strips under each wheel as fast as they could. Tempers flew. Yelling and screaming demands ensued. However, with us we had the invincible Alice Ukoko, a Nigerian human rights activist, sitting now in the front seat where she met their shouts head on. Shouting at these rebels that this behavior is a result of the degradation of their lives resulting from the corruption and collusion of their government and the oil companies, Alice shouted them down, shaming them, condemning their behavior and challenging them to rise up for the good of their communities, not themselves. After a serious emotional battle “the boys” retreated, wished us a safe journey and removed the nail strips.
No more than 5 minutes later, accused of a traffic violation, a policeman waved us over, got into our van while another yelled into the car through the passenger window. Another shouting match fired up. Again, Alice met the assaults head on only this time our volunteer passenger decided we were all under arrest and demanded the driver drive to the police station. Alice wasn’t having it. As the policeman yelled “turn left” Alice yelled “turn right.” Fortunately heavy traffic and a lot of confusion on the road didn’t allow us to move more than a few feet. Twenty minutes later, frustrated, the policeman slid open the door, got out and walked away through the tangle of cars. That was day 1 in the Niger Delta!
Sam kept telling us it wasn’t always like this…that this was an especially unusually bad day. However, we no sooner hit the road the next day when we found our van pulled over and emptied of equipment. We were accused of being spies.
So went the rest of this particular trip. Each day held its own close encounter. There were endless hurdles throughout production of this film…far too many to relive here. They followed us right through to delivery of the master tape. I had to tap into that endless stream of perseverance that flows from the women of the Niger Delta. I had to keep looking ahead and stay focused on the work at hand…. just like Emem Okon.