Oka community has a population of about five thousand inhabitants according to the 2006 census. Out of the number, women constitute 56% of the population. It is a culturally endowed community, in Imo state, southeast of Nigeria.

The major occupation of the Oka people is farming and they concentrate on cultivation of cassava, cocoyam, yams, and vegetables amongst other staple crops.

The men and youth are involved in the cultivation of the tuber crops, while the women and girls farm vegetables and also engage in processing of cassava into fufu, garri, palm oil extraction etc.

Income from the sale of this farm produce accounts for about 91% of the income of the people, particularly the women.

Oka rural community are experiencing the effects of climate change but are unaware of the remote causes of this experience, as it is consequential and manifest in the reduction of income generated from farming, water resources, and  other source of livelihoods as a result of land degradation.

In 2011, the community witnessed a flood disaster which affected over 200 hectares of farmland and livelihoods: destroying their crops, economic trees and aquatic lives worth millions of naira. Prior to this time, the community had no access roads, which are very needed considering the fact that the area is erosion-prone. The encroachment of gully erosion on various land areas has become a source of worry for the people. The community could not boast of any functional primary health-care infrastructure or improved basic education facility. Access to potable drinking water remains an unrealistic expectation in the land. The neighbouring towns and villages rarely hear about Oka as there is almost nothing that could attract them to the community.

Addressing problems of poverty in a livelihood and rural development context requires a robust networking platform, to facilitate information sharing, co- ordination of interventions and forming partnerships. It is strategic to use digital means to identify the real needs and concerns of the rural communities. These needs can be made known to the relevant service providers, both public and private, for intervention.

The vision for what I call the ‘’Digitize My Community Initiative” aims at making the community known using the various available digital tools to register its presence on the global digital map. It is a smart and efficient way to market my community’s needs to the world, and to the concerned partners committed to enhancing rural development. I see this as a profitable/productive advocacy tool for my community and other rural communities going through hard times due to negligence and climate change impacts. This in turn could attract goodwill from philanthropists.

Submerged farmland due to the flood in 2010

Photo showing some damaged economic trees as a result of impact from the flood disaster

EXCEPTS FROM INTERVIEW WITH UCHE ISIEKE ON COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT BY

DEBORAH OHAMARA:

 What gave rise to your zeal and Efforts towards using social media as an efficient tool for community development?

Answer:

Many issues facing most rural communities in Africa, especially, land/ environmental injustice and infrastructural challenges, are not adequately reported by the mainstream media. A given example was during the 2011 Oka flood disaster which lasted for two years and was never mentioned in any media platform despite the efforts made by the community to get the attention of the government for assistance. Up to date, the affected farmers and farmland have not received any form of compensation or assistance from relevant government and non-governmental organizations to help restore the community’s degraded biodiversity.

The cause of the flood was as a result of an overflow from the federal government abandoned Inyishi Dam project, which is a project embarked upon by the federal ministry of water resources.

The impact of the flood was so severe that the only rural bridge that connected the Oka people and her neighbours were submerged by the flood, thereby cutting them off from their neighbours for more than two years.

Oka is not a very popular community due to lack of necessary infrastructures that could attract other neighbouring towns to the area. Such basic amenities as roads, schools, functional market, primary health-care, sport facilities, police outpost, communication mast and others are lacking in the community.  On the other hand, many indigenes of neighbouring towns grew up not having much to bring them to the area, while others perhaps didn’t know or get to hear about the existence of such a community. Each time the community was mentioned, people often asked,” where is Oka located”? Hmm.

Independent research revealed that the community was poorly ranked by various online search engines.  So setting up a multi-digital media platform in the name of the community was one thing I had embarked upon while using it to tell stories about challenges facing the people and also advocating for the community’s development and social inclusion.

HAS THERE BEEN ANY POSITIVE OUTCOME SINCE YOU BEGAN?

The community became the first indigenous rural community in Africa using digital media to engage her citizens for participatory community development.

Having the name and community registered and recognized by online research tools was another innovative strategy to enable anyone to locate the community from any part of the world, for possible developmental assistance.

Another task accomplished was developing a media blog and website where issues concerning the community and other rural communities are discussed and members of the community around the world are connected to these platforms.

Addressing ecological degradation and climate change impacts using the digital media is one innovation rural communities can adopt to create, own and market their stories to the world, in order to accelerate indigenous and global actions for rural climate action.

WHAT MAJOR CHALLENGES NEED URGENT ATTENTION IN OKA COMMUNITY?

Answer:

Road infrastructure is critical for rural integration and climate change adaptation. Rural dwellers, especially the small scale farmers, need a good rural road network for various economic uses.

The maternal mortality rate in Oka community is quite alarming as there is no functional primary health-care infrastructure in the area. Water and sanitation are in a poor state, as evidenced by the dilapidation of the two merely existing primary schools, which lack functional toilet facilities and water for the hygiene health of the pupils. Sadly in 2018, a primary 4 pupil was bitten by a snake while defecating in the bush.

Dilapidated Oka Primary School, Isiala Mbano, Imo state

APART FROM GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION, HAS THERE BEEN ANY MEASURE PUT IN PLACE BY CITIZENS OR PHILANTHROPISTS TO ALLEVIATE THESE PROBLEMS?

Prior to 2016, I was invited by one of the concerned indigenes of the community to deliberate on environmental issues affecting the people and to suggest a few (palliative) measures to be taken, to tackle the menace of gully erosion and land degradation in the area.  As a young environmental resource manager, I made quite a few recommendations which would require the participation of the people, especially the youth, to achieve.  I was also briefed on the several efforts the indigenes of the community resident in Abuja were making to develop the area.

One such was the “Stand Up To Be Counted” initiative, which promotes voluntary participation of indigenous people in community service through the implementation of people-oriented projects for the social and economic development of the area.

So I looked at the project concept and suggested a few things that needed to be captured, especially regarding the SDGs.

I  saw the initiative as one that truly aligned with my rural community development initiative to promote climate-resilient infrastructures for sustainable adaptation.

It also came at the time I had started implementing a rural digital transformation project – the “Digitize My Community Initiative”. A concept which was designed out of a perceived need for my community to be included on the global digital map and to enhance my advocacy program while engaging members of the community for better actions.

For the first time, the community was going to be integrated on a global digital scale to measure and mobilize the people’s interests for accelerated sustainable development.

I have created five various social platforms with a purpose to advocate for rural inclusion and engage indigenes of the area to join hands to develop the community – using their skills, talent, network, energy and resources.

WHAT INFORMS THE URGENCY OR PECULIARITY OF THE PROBLEM OF OKA PEOPLE?

Answer:

It is sad to note that no meaningful government presence has been felt by the community since its existence. Oka is the only Imo state government-created “indigenous (autonomous) community” without a government (public) owned secondary school, which is one of the basic requirements for such creation. Children from disadvantaged homes trek three hours or more to get to a neighbouring community (government-funded) secondary school, on a daily basis. The government-funded secondary schools are a bit more affordable by the poor and average income earners since the cost is being subsidized by the government and partners.

The first ever rural digital awareness campaign organized by the Uche Isieke led publicity and strategy team, in Agust 26/27,2016 in Oka and transmitted across over 10 digital platforms with over 50, 000 engagement

Photo showing a digital project project briefing which took place at the newly built Oka civic hall. The presentation was the brainchild of Uche Isieke, digitally connecting indigenous Oka community members in diaspora with the rural community

The August 2016 campaign rally train with the youth leading  through the nine Oka villages sensitizing the people.

SHOULD WE THEN SAY THAT THESE PROBLEMS ARE A TRIGGER TO  YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGN FOR YOUR COMMUNITY?

 Answer:

Through my newly created platforms, I consistently preached the message of volunteerism as a sustainable alternative the people could leverage upon to make a change in their own little way for the community.

The people received the message with great excitement as consciousness was being awakened, and passion for community service instilled in the minds of the people.  That’s exactly the target, a situation where the people do not feel it is “one man’s responsibility to develop the community but rather everyone’s responsibility”.

As the people continued to express their excitement, having not experienced such a community engagement concept in past, this was a momentum and data gathering period for me and for the next level of action. So I went on to recruit those who formed my team. These were the community engagement person, community media correspondents and social influencers.

The most interesting thing was that I never visited the community during these periods, but I was in tune with situations at home through the various digital means put in place for this purpose.

I was constantly training, briefing and giving directives to my team members, especially those resident in the community, on what to do at every point in time.

The community media correspondents would go as instructed and take photos showing the poor state of infrastructure in the community and transmit same to a dedicated central digital platform, for instant action.

This enhanced my social media campaign for Oka and awareness for lack of basic infrastructure which supports rural lives and livelihoods.

The images were properly annotated and used on various online engagements.

Lack of basic infrastructure such as roads, health-care, low natural resources management capacity, and water are some of the key issues exacerbating poverty, social crisis and climate change impact.

The rural peasants require these key and critical amenities to enable them to fend for themselves and transport their farm produce to the nearby Amaraku central market where people can buy their goods. As these were lacking in the area their farm produce perished, income dwindled, and hunger, disease and poverty thrived. All these issues led to further degradation of land-based natural resources.

Moving forward, I made sure I  strategically communicated their challenges to both public and private institutions, including non-profit organizations through digital campaigns. At some point, I decided to make direct contact with a  few government agencies, including the Niger  Delta Development Commission ( NDDC) and others, expressing my worry over the state of roads in my community which have frustrated economic activities.

Many federal government projects designed to be implemented in rural areas rarely get to the people. In some cases the people are perhaps not aware of such projects to be executed in their community. In this situation, contractors may decide not to visit project sites, possibly due to corrupt practices.

This was one of the reasons I took up the social media advocacy for rural engagement and development, given the fact that many issues affecting many grassroot communities are not adequately reported or mentioned by the mainline media. This could be due to the high cost of publicity and difficulty in accessing the terrain.

SO FAR WHAT IMPACT HAS YOUR INITIATIVE/PROJECT MADE ON YOUR COMMUNITY?

Answer:

On the third month of my project came a report from the community about the grading of one of the community’s roads by a construction firm.  The very road I was consulted on to suggest some palliative measures. The entire community went into jubilation as it is the first time they’re witnessing such a sudden transformative move.

We inquired to ascertain the source from which the road construction project was coming from, and it was revealed that its being sponsored by the NDDC. The same NDDC whom I had consistently engaged and mentioned on various social media platforms with images showing the poor state of the community road infrastructure.

Further investigation confirmed that the contract was awarded since  2013, without the knowledge of the people, until the time we started the campaign on the non-existence of road and other basic infrastructures in the community.

Photo showing the state of the Okaroad prior to the campaign

The Oka road during construction

The submerged Oka bridge connecting Oka and her neighbors, due to the flood which lasted for two years

Before and after state of the road during construction work

WHY DO YOU SHARE AND BEAR THE BURDEN OF YOUR COMMUNITY WITH SO MUCH PASSION?, DO YOU INTEND TO JOIN POLITICS?

Answer:

My resolve to share this story is to inspire actions, especially among the youth anywhere in the world to get involved by volunteering their skills and getting full participation in community service.

With the social media tool in our hands, we can transform, build resilience and achieve sustainable development for our various communities.  Our creative ability to use social media the right way can cause our leaders and authorities sleepless nights with irresistible pressures to deliver on their mandate with the people.

WHAT INFORMS THE URGENCY OR PECULIARITY OF THE PROBLEM OF OKA PEOPLE?

Answer:

Again, as the road project progressed, a complaint came, this time it was on the project not being implemented according to specifications. This was taken up through the same channel of engagement. Before long the implementing government agency visited the site and queried the contractor and instructed that drainage be included.

WHAT MAJOR RESOURCES CAN THE OKA PEOPLE  BOAST OF AND UTILISE IF BASIC AMENITIES ARE PROVIDED THEM?

Answer:

The Umudim – Oka road, though still not completed due to some discrepancies in the contract, is the only road the indigenous people of  the community are making use of while hoping that government and interested development partners can come to join hands to open up the area for better economic activities.

The people are resilient in palm oil production, cassava cultivation, and a unique specie of cocoyam with zero sugar called the “Indian cocoyam”.  The community is very loving, hospitable and peaceful, with a few skilled men who carry out some honey harvesting and palm wine tapping activities on a small scale. The historic “Mbaa river”, when dredged, can help create jobs for the teeming unemployed youths, some of whom may choose to go into the large-scale fishing. The local farmers lack knowledge of smart and sustainable agricultural technology which enhances soil production capacity and food security; this is driving low agricultural production and soil degradation in the area.

The Mbaa Oka river before the flood.

The river with no adjoining source to its (Nkwo Mbaa) origin which flows over 5 communities and 20 villages

The serenity of the surrounding hills of Oka and Umudim, and the aesthetic vegetative views of the river valley along the river banks can turn the river into a mega tourist centre for those seeking such a peaceful place to invest.

Apart from the road which came through my advocacy campaign, other outcomes are:

  • establishment of non-profit initiatives by indigenes of the community to drive developmental projects
  • youths are now being engaged through sports competitions sponsored by some of these NGOs
  • One group of indigenes came together and paid matched funding of the community civic hall with support from an international donor organization
  • another NGO founded by some members of the community has embarked on medical outreach with a team of over 100 medical personnel on three different occasions
  • The youth are gradually getting involved through healthy competitions leading to development and social service re-orientation
  • During the pandemic a group of community members resident in North America, for which I was a part of the formation, offered relief items that served over 2000 population and 500 households. This gesture were done in two tranches. Through the various platforms which I created for the progress of the community, we have raised both in kind and materially over 5,000,000 (five million naira), to support some physically challenged in the community to help them afford medical care and set up small businesses for sustainable income.


Above photos showing  Covid19 response by indigenes of Oka community in North America, which came in two tranches in June and August 2020.The palliatives were distributed among the nine villages in the community under the supervision of the traditional ruler, men and women leaders.

These among many others are the positive outcomes from the campaigns, both from Stand Up To Be Counted where I was made the Director of media publicity and strategy, and that of my personal initiative for citizens engagement to understand the role of volunteerism in community development. Gradually,members are now actively involved in community development.

That is exactly the aim of the initiative-where everyone has a responsibility to contribute to move the community forward. The community is now a fertile ground for government, development partners and nonprofits to invest, owing to the fact that the community is now ready and willing to partner with any development initiative. One such was the building of the community civic hall where the community contributed money as matched funding to complete the project.

A community medical outreach organized by an Oka indigene through his NGO, where drugs and material items are usually given to not just Oka but over 6 rural communities in Ugiri clan.

Through the Rural Watch Africa Initiative, we have reached over  5, 000 rural population facing poverty and climate change impacts in Nigeria, since 2016; educating and empowering the marginalized communities with knowledge and resilient skill capacities, to become good managers of their own natural resources, and wealth creators. We are making sure that the disparity between the poor and the rich is eliminated through our advocacy campaign and the resilient message; thereby helping the marginalized to stand on their feet again.

Presently, we are engaging community heads and educating them on how they could develop their areas themselves through collaborative means, and also helping them know about innovative means to attract partnerships for their projects. We are mobilizing for support to renovate and provide toilet and water facilities to Oka Primary School (where a primary 4 pupil was bitten by a snake in the bush due to lack of toilet facility) and equipped with necessary learning tools.

We are also making sure the right message of love for one’s community is preached because people tend to care and give back more to someone or a community/cause they care about. Without trust and love nothing works.  People should understand that it is possible and sustainable to transform and achieve something big when they come together, identify a problem in their community and proffer solutions to that problem.

What an innovative way to show how much you love your departed mother, father, wife, husband, sister, brother or a friend, by immortalizing his or her name through implementing a project in your community and have their names engraved on it.

What an extraordinary way to say happy birthday to your loved ones by unveiling a newly built or refurbished classroom or library, skill acquisition centre, health care equipment, solar dryer, borehole, drainage system etc., to commemorate their birthday. This way we will have so much self-initiated and accomplished projects scattered across our rural landscapes, so many that there will be little or no projects left for the government to implement.

YOU WERE A MEMBER OF NIGERIA’S NATIONAL TECHNICAL WORKING GROUP FOR THE UNITED NATIONS LAND DEGRADATION NEUTRALITY TARGETS SETTING; TELL US MORE ABOUT IT AND THE OUTCOME?

It was a voluntary national assignment towards ensuring that Nigeria does not lose her entire landmass to degradation. Nigeria is losing about 350,000 hectares of its landmass to desert conditions annually, and such conditions are estimated to be advancing southwards at the rate of 0.6km per year. The last time such a major concern was shown to desertification and land degradation issues was in 1930, remarkably, 1937 when the Anglo-French Commission investigated the report in the northern parts of Nigeria, and gave directives to the emirates to invest in massive tree planting to stop the encroachment. Thousands of seedlings were raised and distributed at subsidized rates. So, Nigeria joined the over 120 countries committed to set national LDN targets with an expression of interest, through a letter dated 26th January, 2016 by the then Minister of Environment, Mrs Amina Mohamed. This led to the commencement of the LDN-TSP process on 9th March, 2017 with a national inception workshop and inauguration of the Working Group. I served as assistant country consultant during the programme. The target summary is to achieve at least 20 percent improvement on land to compare to 2015 net loss, across the initial selected LD hotpots in the six geo-political zones of Nigeria. Rural Watch Africa Initiative was among the CSOs represented, from the inception to the final report review. It will bring opportunities to rural communities and create massive employment  along the LDN investment value chain.

Uche can be reached here:

[email protected]org