Thursday, June 26, 2008

Day 7

Final year exams are holding this morning. That leaves us teachers with nothing much to do - except sit in the staffroom and chat.

Today is the funeral of the 14-year old boy who killed himself two weeks ago. School carries on as normal, but a handful of students wearing R.I.P. shirts leave mid-morning to attend the funeral service. It's truly heartbreaking.

I start off this blog post (on paper) so I can free up time to study when I get home. Have you ever tried combining full-time work and full-time study? Don't!

I've been hearing some talk of something called PODs around here since last week, so I ask my teacher what it's all about. Unknown to me, it's a hot topic and in a matter of minutes there's a fierce debate going on about it in the staff room.

It turns out it's all about a revolutionary learning system 'imported' from Australia, in which secondary school students are not taught by subject (English, Mathematics, Biology, etc.) but by theme. So, for instance, a class will have a theme of 'The Environment' for a term. The idea is for the students to find various ways in which the environment can be explained in terms of every possible subject, from English to Biology to Maths to Geography. The argument in the staff room is about whether or not the method is effective in imparting knowledge to students. Quite naturally, people's opinions are varied. I personally think the system is quite murky, and results are not guaranteed. Well, time will tell.

It's soon time for the mid-morning break. I relax in the staff room eating jam doughnuts and sipping coffee. Hmmn, maybe a teacher's life is not so bad afterall...

The topic for my afternoon lesson is fractions. Many of the students struggle to understand it, so I walk around to give assistance. A few of the kids are genuinely making an effort to understand, but the rest of them just loaf around. A boy pratts about the class, swearing by the dozen and showing off his six-pack for the girls to see.

I do a couple of sums with a lad who thankfully finally understands. Seeing this, I prompt him to finish up the sums, but he can't be bothered to. He prefers to just sit there and idle the time away. I realise kids like him are simply not interested in learning, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. How can you possibly help someone who doesn't want to be helped?

Day 6

It's the last lesson for this class before exams. The results of the mock test they wrote last week are not very encouraging, so the teacher decides to review the questions with the class again.

I watch as the teacher works through the question paper on his laptop. As he writes on the screen with a laptop pen, it's boldly projected onto the white board - in his handwriting. My, my. The wonders of technology!

The students still don't get the hang of equations and algebra. The teacher can't understand why or how; he's spent the better part of the last few months trying to hammer it into their heads. Short of actually opening their brains and stuffing them with books, there's nothing else he can do to help them.

After class, I chat with the teacher about the dismal performance of the students. I ask if there are Open Days when parents can come in and see what their kids are doing. He says yes, but the trend is that it's parents of well-behaved kids who usually show up. Those the teachers actually want to see - parents of not-so-well-behaved kids - do not show up. These are kids whose parents are typically lower class, live on benefits, use dope and are addicted to alcohol. They're so ignorant they don't know enough to encourage their children to study. Those who do encourage their kids don't make much of an impact because children are more influenced by what they see than what they hear. The result is a vicious cycle, the very cycle that government is trying hard to break by keeping the children in school by all means possible.

I think it's odd though; at home I know loads of poor illiterate parents who would sell everything just to make sure their children don't end up like them. It seems to be the case that education in most parts of the world is most valued by those who do not have it. Benefits or no, illiteracy/ignorance robs people of their independence and compels them to live from hand to mouth. This may sound morbid, but I'm beginning to think that lack of access to government benefits does have its advantages. We in Africa know we don't have too many options, so we strive to make the most out of life for ourselves. Much of the time we succeed. Now that's not such a bad thing, is it?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day 5

The day starts with yet another revision class. Seems that's all we're going to be doing till end of term.

The teacher goes over a whole range of topics - fractions, equations, ratios - but the students can't seem to remember any of it. Exasperated, the teacher reminds them he's spent all term teaching them all that stuff and therefore they should remember. A disinterested student asks the teacher for the minimum mark they need to get for a C or a D - just to scale through! I can't believe my ears - I thought going to school was all about aiming for what is maximally possible in life. Strange.

After revision it's time for a 30-minute mock test on past question papers. There's a question about expressing a number as the product of its prime factors. Someone asks the teacher what 'product' means. I have to double-check with the teacher that these students are in the penultimate year of secondary school.

After the test the teacher proceeds to mark the scripts. He beckons to me a while later and shows me a script he's just finished marking. The student has all the answers wrong, despite the fact that the questions are based on the topics the teacher has just revised with them and had been teaching them all term. The teacher tells me it's hopeless; he believes he can teach that particular kid the same thing over and over for the next fifteen years and he still won't get it. I ask him what he thinks the problem is; he tells me the kid is just lazy and stupid. Concerned, I ask the teacher what kind of future the little lad can hope to have, to which he responds, "Oh, he'll just live off benefits!".

I do like the stimulating learning environment of this school; it reminds me of why I love learning. It's really refreshing for me - almost like being back in secondary school. Some of the things that are taught I remember; others I think might be recent additions to the curriculum, or maybe I have just forgotten being taught. Whatever the case, I am glad for the opportunity to re-learn old things. I've come to this amazing realisation now that no matter how old or experienced we become, no knowledge is beneath us...

The class we're using for our math revision lesson is actually an English classroom. Pasted all over the walls are reminders of grammar elements - nouns, verbs, prepositions, alliterations, suffixes - I find that I'd actually forgotten what some of those terms mean. Maybe I need this school experience more than I thought I did :).

There are posters displaying interesting information on all subjects along the school corridors. I didn't know for instance that George Orwell is not the author's real name. Nor that Rene Descartes got the idea that developed into the Cartesian coordinates in a dream. Or that the words of the popular South African song "Nkosi sikele Africa" mean "God bless Africa". The more I learn these things, the more I want to learn. I'm no longer sure if I'm a teacher or student here.

There's also a fresh quote on the school's internet portal everyday. I agree with today's by J.P. O'Rourke: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys". True.

The afternoon class is - you guessed it - a revision class as well. This is the last revision session for the class before the exam next week. You would think the students would sit up and at least try to make one final push for it. Wrong. The teacher, apparently reaching the end of his rope, declares to them, "Some of you are lazy, just lazy, and you will fail. However, I have done my best; I can't write the exam for you. If you can't be bothered to make an effort, so be it". Poor man. He really means well for these kids.

The performance of the class in the 30-minute mock test is as usual not encouraging. On seeing his marked script, a student remarks, "I need a C. Why do I get an E?". The teacher turns and gives him the obvious answer: "Because that's what you worked for". The student continues to stare at the teacher like he doesn't get it. The teacher turns away, exasperated. I think to myself: You just have to love this job to do it. Anything less than pure love and you'll go crazy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day 4

I get a rude early-morning reminder of just how new I am to this place. On my way to the staff room, I walk down a corridor lined with students who apparently have nothing to do but loaf around. Reaching a dead end, I realise I should've turned off the corridor somewhere along the way. I guess I don't know my way around as well as I think. I try to retrace my steps - and end up trying to nudge open a window I thought was a door. Instantly I hear sniggers from all along the corridor - the silly kids are making jest of me! As I correct myself and approach the right exit one of them shouts to me - "Miss, no, it's this way" - pointing to the solid, doorless wall on the other side of the corridor. In my country you get spanked for doing that to your teacher.

My first class begins. It's a revision lesson for final year exams next week. Amazingly, the students settle down to work on their class exercises. I didn't know a class could actually be quiet in this school!

A student strolls into the class at least fifteen minutes late, only to announce that he forgot his pen at home. The teacher promptly fishes out one for him from his generous supply of stationery. In this place they provide students with everything - pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, compasses, protractors, note books... My mind is cast back to the six maths sets my mum bought for every one of the six years I spent in secondary school. They kept getting pinched each year, probably by those whose mothers couldn't afford to buy maths sets for them.

This class is really quiet. With the exception of the occasional student asking for the answer to a ridiculous question like 9x7, it actually almost feels like the type of school environment I'm accustomed to. That's better!

At lunch I engage in a discussion with three teachers in which we lament the state of indiscipline in schools throughout the country. Education laws are designed to indulge children rather than correct them. No member of staff, not even the school principal, has any real authority over these children. Someone says he does not know how government expects teachers to do their job without giving them the power they need to do it. Good point.

I have another class after lunch. The teacher does most of the teaching; I mostly watch how he handles the students. Three years in the profession have made him an expert in this business. He knows how to put these children in their place. There's the case of a boy who alleges that I'm gossiping with the teacher about him. The teacher's response: "What could we possibly have to say about you? That you're clever? I don't think so. Now shut it and get on with your work!" Another boy threatens to beat a fellow student as well as the teacher. The teacher looks at him pointedly and declares matter-of-factly: "Well, I can assure you, you won't live to tell the story". I just look on, truly fascinated by all the drama.

While other people are trying to work on their class exercises, a girl takes out her music phone, plugs in her earphones and starts swaying to music. A boy causes disturbance on his table and the teacher asks him to move to another table or get out of the class. He chooses to get out of the class. The girl with the music phone turns up the volume so that we can all hear what she's listening to. The teacher tells her to turn it down.

The day gradually draws to a close. The class disperses and as usual I help the teacher clear up. Commenting on the his handling of the children, he says to me: "We don't teach students here; we play mind games with them. You make them do what you want them to do while making them think they're doing it of their own free will". Interesting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Day 3

I arrive at the right place at the right time. New placements are not so bad once you know your way around.

I'm assisting in yet another revision class this morning. I make my way to the classroom and stop just short of the door. Pasted on it is a quote I find interesting: "Better to be three hours too soon than a minute too late". Some folks need to hear that!

The lesson kicks off. There are two teachers to a class of about seven people (three teachers if you count me). Granted, the term-time class strength is about fifty, but two teachers to fifty students is still luxury! I can't cease to be amazed by the high tech facilities in the school - great teachers, laptops and projectors in every classroom, Wi-Fi internet connection everywhere, the works. If the secondary school I attended had even half of these facilities I'd be a genius by now.

The curriculum organisation is equally impressive. All teachers work with standardised PowerPoint lesson notes designed by some central education authority. Teaching is also graduated, i.e., students in the same class are not necessarily taught at the same level. Topics are divided into modules and each student is allowed to go through the modules at their own pace. As much as I applaud the initiative, I also think it tends to encourage laziness in some students. I believe that many of the students can do a lot better than they're currently doing if they're pushed.

After the lesson, my teacher explains a few things to me about the school. It's an "inner-city school", which means that it's dominated by street-wise kids who come to school by day and do drugs by night. For these kids, the alternative to school is crime. The government and their parents see school as a way of keeping them out of trouble, hence government's willingness to spend millions on schools for them. Maybe, just maybe, somewhere down the line, they might decide to make something worthwhile of their lives. I am now beginning to get the full picture...

After lunch, we take on a class of 14-year olds...

One of them thinks it's cool to be pregnant and comes to class with a ball protruding from under her hoodie. She does not obey the teacher's instruction to take off the hoodie - it would result in her losing the 'pregnancy'. After the lesson she mimics a woman in labour, claiming her water just broke. The teacher beckons to her and asks her what the display is all about (of course, he can't reprimand her!). She gives him a quick summary, and as if to buttress her point, pulls out from her pocket a certain type of rubber that a 14-year old is not supposed to be privy to. The Zimbabwean-born teacher is truly shocked at the sight, and tells me as much after the class has dispersed. Myself, I am speechless!

Another girl abandons her chair and takes to the floor by the door, where she sits throughout the lesson. From her perch, she hardly listens to the teacher. She's too busy taking pictures with her mobile phone to be bothered with solving inequalities and drawing numberlines.

The teacher stumbles over something and a girl makes fun of him. "Sir, you're clumsy. What's wrong with you?" The teacher tells her his grey hairs are responsible for his clumsiness.

All through the lesson the kids do not keep still. Rather than listen, they chat away and hurl verbal insults at each other. One girl tells the teacher she desn't know how to copy a table. Another says she doesn't feel like doing the class exercise assigned to them. Two boys start a mock fight. The teacher sends them out of the room for a few minutes. When they get back in, they pick another fight. A girl plays catch in class with her exercise book.

I come to a singular conclusion: What we have on our hands here is a control problem. In the midst of all this, they don't seem to be learning very much. That much is evident when a secondary school student tells you that the square of 5 is 10!

Day 2

I arrive promptly at 8.15am and head straight for the staff room. I fully expect to find my teacher there: we ned to go over the day's plans for an 8.30am start.

My teacher is not in the staff room. I sit waiting with another colleague for about ten minutes. No one else is in sight.

It's 8.30am. My colleague starts to fidget; maybe we're waiting for the teachers in the wrong place. Problem is we don't know where the right place would be.

We decide to go off in search of information about our teachers' whereabouts. After many misdirections, we finally find someone who knows what they're talking about. It turns out that the teachers we're looking for are based at a different campus, fifteen minutes' walk away.

I've missed the first lesson period getting lost, but thankfully I arrive on time for the second period. The class is not large; just about five students undergoing revision in preparation for a maths exam next week.

The teacher has the clas pretty much under control. There's not much for me to do by way of assistance, so I have quite a lot of time to scan through the Shakespeare and George Orwell excerpts posted all over the walls of the room. Someone has been doing a good job encouraging the students to read.

About five minutes into the lesson, a non-member of the class saunters into the room, initiates a loud conversation with a class member who is obviously her friend, effectively disrupting the class. The teacher patiently waits for her to finish her business and leave.

A couple of minutes later, the noisemaker leaves and the class is back to normal. I overhear a student asking her friend a mathematics-related question. Her friend does not seem to have an answer. I walk over and ask if I can be of help. The student matter-of-factly shakes her head no. Well, I've done my best.

I walk over to another girl who's been shouting questions at the teacher across the room. She looks past me and makes it clear that she needs the teacher's help, not mine. I am too self-confident to feel slighted. I feel like pointing out to her that she's the one losing out, not me... but I don't.

I spot a boy in the corner staring blankly at his question paper. Sensing his incomprehension, I walk over to offer some help. He lets me.

Encouraged, I go over to another boy calling for help from the far end of the room. Working with him, I realise he does not need as much help as he thinks he does. He only needs to believe in himself a bit more.

For that matter, none of these kids need as much help as they think they do. They just need to put their hearts into it. Their minds will follow.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Day 1

I sit waiting in the reception area for about one and a half hours with ten other people.

I'm impressed with the stately architecture - steel and glass building, light, airy and well-appointed interior. My wonder is increased when I learn that it's a government school providing completely free secondary education. Nothing like my government schools back home.

I watch the kids loitering about the school compound and scampering down the hallways at 8am in the morning.

Some of them are wearing black T-shirts inscribed with a farewell message - a fourteen year old schoolmate killed himself last week.

Teachers walk hurriedly past reception without bothering to stop and ask what eleven new faces are doing sat around on their haunches early in the morning.

Finally, at about 8.45am, the bustle quiets down considerably - it seems the school day has finally started.

I continue chatting with my ten colleagues about the odd fact that we have been kept waiting for so long without having anyone attend to us.

Finally, the teachers begin to surface in trickles to collect us one by one. Most of them had forgotten that they were supposed to be expecting us.

I'm briefed on the way the school operates and allocated to a teacher for the day.

I sit in on my first class. My main duty is to assist the teacher in explaining to students on a one-to-one basis any concepts they may be struggling to understand. It turns out nearly the whole class is struggling. I am happy to help, but the students are not as happy to learn.

The kids are working on computers, an approach which is meant to enhance their learning experience. Unfortunately most of them do not get the point. They're more interested in computer games than in computer math lesons.

The teacher moves round the room to check on what the students are doing, but they've perfected the art of switching swiftly between windows as soon as they see him approaching. I also move around, but they can't be bothered to waste their skills on me, a mere teaching assistant.

A boy playing computer games shouts profanities across the room to another boy. The teacher in charge tells him to calm down but does not reprimand him for being inappropriate.

The kid I'm working with decides he's had enough of my ranting and moves off without warning to sit with another group. I doubt that he wrote down another word throughout the rest of the lesson.

I move off to work with another kid who touched my heart. His willigness to learn far surpassed his ability.

I expend considerable energy going over mathematical concepts with the new kid. By the end of the lesson, I am famished and desperate for a break. Thank God it's lunch time.

I have a break-time discussion with one of my colleagues who is with another teacher. Her experiences were not much different from mine. She's grateful her daughter does not attend this school.

End of break. Time for another class. This time it's a revision session for next week's math test.

It takes the class of forty about ten minutes to settle down. The teacher patiently waits for them to get quiet before starting the lesson. He hands out past question booklets to the whole class and gives them thirty minutes to attempt the seven questions in silence.

I study the test paper. I must have been taught most of the topics covered before I ever dreamed of going to secondary school.

The class never stays silent for more than five minutes at a stretch. The kids generally ignore the mock test and spend the time poking fun at each other. The teacher orders the class to keep quiet at least five times during the thirty-minute test period.

The test is over. I move round to have a peek into what the students have written. Most of them have not gotten beyond Question 3.

The teacher decides to spend the remaining hour of the lesson working out the test answers with the class. It takes forever to get them to quiet down enough to listen. I lose count of the number of times the teacher calmly orders them to keep quiet. He cannot shout on them talk less of beat them. It's against the law.

I walk round trying to help while the teacher is explaining. Only one kid is interested enough to ask for my help. Not that the others don't need any help; they just can't be bothered.

The teacher finally tires of telling the kids to keep quiet and tells them as much. He announces that he is fed up with trying to teach a bunch of people who don't want to learn. He tells the kids he will only continue teaching them out of respect for their parents and out of the responsibility he carries as their teacher.

The kids simply cannot stop making a din. Not to lose his head, the teacher finally gives up talking and takes to just writing step-by-step solutions on the high-tech projector board for the students to copy. The students do not write after him. They keep talking amongst themselves.

Time finally runs out. The school day's over. The teacher frees everyone to go home with the exception of about seven students. He asks them if they know why they're waiting. Most of them have an idea: noisemaking and class disruption charges.

The teacher desperately begs them to behave and listen in class so they can get their grades up and pass their exams. This time they keep quiet and seem to listen. The teacher lets them off a couple of minutes later.

I help the teacher with tidying up the room. He lets out his frustration with his job to me, saying his job description fits that of a policeman rather than a teacher. He's thankful that he's on a temporary two-year placement; he can't wait to quit and move on to something else.

Before he even says a word of all that to me, I have made up my mind: I cannot be a teacher in this country.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Yes, You Can!

We all know now that's a winning line :). Over the past year and a half, the phrase has been sounded by a single man as a message of change, of hope rising... Last Tuesday we saw that hope begin to take on the semblance of reality, as Senator Barack Obama became the first African-American in history to lead a U.S. major-party ticket when he claimed the Presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. I'm happy for America. But this is entirely about Nigeria.

If you're a Nigerian like me, how many times have you wished there was something you could do to change your country? Most of us are eager for change, but all too often that enthusiasm is quickly dampened by a feeling of helplessness over not being able to make a difference from where we are. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) is a non-profit organisation that has refused to be bound by the limits and, as the name suggests, has consistently worked to create a new paradigm among Nigerians. Realising that the promise of Nigeria is in her people, PIN works with government, civil society, private institutions and international organisations to connect Nigerian youth with brighter futures via Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). For thousands of Nigerians, PIN's work makes the difference between mediocrity and significance, between poverty and sufficiency, between destitution and hope. PIN's objective is to change the future of Nigeria, one person at a time.

Since its days as an online network in 2001, PIN has successfully executed several projects, details of which can be found at More recently, PIN began a revolutionary project called (see, a relay training programme in which young people from Ajegunle (yes, Ajegunle!) are empowered with ICT and entrepreneurial skills that will enable them break the cycle of poverty in which they're enmeshed. has received tremendous media coverage and has been presented in various fora across the world (Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, United Kingdom and Switzerland) as a case study on how ICTs can be used to aid development in under-served communities. For more insight into the success story of, please visit to watch a brief descriptive documentary courtesy of Nigeria International.

You can support the awesome work PIN is doing by making a financial contribution via debit or credit card at With the click of a button, you can begin to change Nigeria one life at a time. You can also make donations by cheque, if that's a more convenient means for you. Please make all cheques payable to Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, and send to any one of the addresses below:

Attn: 'Gbenga Sesan
Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
18 Akinbola Street
Ilupeju 100252

Friends of PIN UK
c/o Temilade Agbaje
Institute for Science and Society
Law and Social Sciences Building
University of Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom.

If you prefer to pay by cash, please send an email stating your intention to, and payment details will be sent to you.

As a Friend of PIN, I have witnessed first-hand lives being transformed for good through initiatives like Working as a volunteer with the first set of Ajegunle youth in August 2007, I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse into the hopes and dreams of those young Nigerians. Speaking with them, I discovered they all had lofty ambitions buried deep within them; ambitions their circumstances had erstwhile forbidden them to pursue. The coming of re-ignited their buried dreams, causing them to dare to hope again, to believe that they can be whatever they want to be. A certain young man on the programme told me that he saw in me what he's always wanted to be, and to this day I have the honour of being a mentor to him.

The experience made me realise that change in Nigeria against all odds is indeed possible. It made me realise that change in Nigeria against all odds depends on me. Can you be part of this change? Yes, you can. Will you be?

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [5]

[...continued from last post]

Farther on, a rebel camp sat brazenly on a riverbank, the blue roofs of its barracks plainly visible to oil company helicopters.

No solution seems in sight for the Niger Delta. The oil companies are keeping their heads down, desperate to safeguard their employees and the flow of oil. The military, ordered to meet force with force, have stepped up patrols in cities and on waterways. The militants are intensifying a deadly guerrilla offensive, hoping that rising casualties and oil prices will force the government to negotiate. National elections in April could exacerbate the violence, especially if politicians resort to the practice of hiring youth gangs to deliver votes at gunpoint.

Optimism is as scarce as blue sky in the sodden delta. "Everyone was sure they would be blessed with the coming of the black gold and live as well as people in other parts of the world," said Patrick Amaopusanibo, a retired businessman who now farms near the village of Oloama. He had to speak loudly to compete with the "black noise," the hissing and roaring of a gas flare near his cassava field. "But we have nothing. I feel cheated."

In some parts of the Niger Delta, oil still looks like a miracle. In the run-down fishing village of Oweikorogba on the Nun River, where families of ten sleep in a single room under leaky thatch roofs, hope materialized a year ago in the form of Chinese prospectors. They left without finding oil, but the people of Oweikorogba want them back, confident that they'll find a pot of gold. And if a stranger warns these villagers that oil is a curse in Nigeria, they will look at him and say: "We want oil here. It will make everything better."

[The end]

I read the above article with mixed emotions. Anger, fear, sorrow, pity, even guilt. How can my own people in the South-South of Nigeria suffer so much, yet I, living in my comfy corner of the South-West, am hardly touched by it? The injustice meted out to these people is staggering in its proportions. Truth is, I have heard various versions of this Niger Delta story time and again, but probably because everyone involved (government, oil companies, indigenes) tries to tell it to their own advantage, I never quite got the full picture. And I suspect that I still haven't. And for that I am scared.

I am reminded of the years of the Nigerian Civil War, when people in the North and West carried on with life as usual while their countrymen in the East perished by the day. Trouble is brewing in the Niger Delta, and it is not to be ignored. Whether we admit it or not, the problem is as much non-Niger Delta indigenes' as it is Niger Delta indigenes'. It is not a Niger Delta problem; it's a Nigerian problem. The earlier we realise this and take appropriate action, the better for us. Arise, o compatriots!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [4]

[...continued from last post]

"I think the loss of one acre is too much. You're wiping out the means for people to sustain themselves."

Oil companies operated in the delta for years with little environmental oversight. There was no federal environmental protection agency until 1988, and environmental impact assessments weren't mandated until 1992. What pressure the government exerts now is directed mostly at halting gas flares. Delta oil fields contain large amounts of natural gas that companies have traditionally elected to burn off rather than store or reinject into the ground, more costly measures. Hundreds of flares have burned nonstop for decades, releasing greenhouse gases and causing acid rain. Communities complain of corroded roofs, crop failures, and respiratory diseases. After first ordering companies to eliminate flaring by 1984, the government keeps pushing back the deadline. Shell, the main offender, recently announced that despite making considerable progress, it could not meet the latest target date of 2008.

On land, there are oil spills, polluting groundwater and ruining cropland. The government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001—practically one a day for 25 years—but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher. Old, improperly maintained equipment causes many of the leaks, but oil operators blame sabotage and theft, speculating that disaffected community members deliberately cause oil spills to collect compensation money.

Well 13 in Shell's Yorla field had been leaking for five days when I got there. Members of the nearby Ogoni village of Kpean had assembled around a five-foot-high (1.5 meters) wellhead that stood in the midst of high grass. Puffs of smoke drifted from the iron structure. Oil dripped from its sides into a spreading lake.

"We're expecting Shell, but no one has come yet," a villager said. "Soon the oil will leak into the creek over there and spoil our drinking water."

Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria's first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland—though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.

Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa's popular support, Nigeria's military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa's son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, "things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered."

To this day, safety concerns and lengthy, often hostile negotiations with community leaders over access fees and compensation payments hamper Shell's response to spills. When I heard that the leak at Well 13 had become a fire, I returned to Kpean. Black smoke was flooding the sky above the palm trees. This time I couldn't get close to the well—a group of angry Ogoni youths blocked my vehicle.

"Get out, white man! You work for Shell!" one yelled.

"You want to see it? Give us 100,000 naira," another shouted. He was demanding $800.

A few days later, I asked Patrick Naagbanton, an Ogoni journalist who had marched with Saro-Wiwa, to convince the village chief to let us in. Naagbanton led the way, shoving through the crowd toward the well. A fireball was erupting from the ground. The flames roared. Within the inferno, the iron Christmas tree was melting like an effigy thrown on a funeral pyre. Letam Nwinek, one of the villagers, pulled us away from the heat. "We're afraid that if the fire enters the pipeline, the whole community could go up," he said. "Shell keeps promising to come, but they say they need more foam and special equipment because the fire has grown so large."

Suddenly, the crowd began scattering. A man dressed for the city in a pink shirt and black beret came up to us.

"You'd better leave. Now!"

Our evictor, Marvin Yobana, was president of the Ogoni Youth Council. As he spoke, five men surrounded us in a threatening stance.

"Yobana is what passes as an Ogoni leader today," Naagbanton said as we retreated. "He's a thug. I believe he's negotiating with Shell to gain a lucrative clean-up contract and doesn't want journalists around." Taking a last look at the fire, Naagbanton said with disgust, "He's just part of the predatory, parasitic struggle to get oil money."

Well 13 would burn for two more months before a Shell team arrived to extinguish it.

"Is anyone listening?" Ken Saro-Wiwa had asked in his final newspaper column. "The delta people must be allowed to join in the lucrative sale of crude oil," he wrote. "Only in this way can the cataclysm that is building up in the delta be avoided."

The cataclysm is upon the delta. As I write this, 70 militants have just attacked a Shell convoy in the Cawthorne Channel, taking 25 oil workers hostage. Rebels have killed nine Nigerian soldiers in a firefight near Brass Island, the site of a large, vulnerable export terminal. Meanwhile, east of Port Harcourt, gunmen have raided an ExxonMobil residential compound and abducted four Scottish oil workers, demanding ten million dollars each for their release.

The number and severity of attacks in the delta have been building, led by youth groups demanding access to the oil wealth in their territories. This surge in militancy is emblematic of a continent-wide frustration among the young, says Michael Watts, of the University of California. "Across Africa you have a huge number of alienated youths, politically footloose, who thought they could achieve something with their countries' moves to independence and democracy. Those hopes have been almost everywhere violently snuffed out. The youth are pissed off and willing to up the ante."

In the Niger Delta, escalating violence has undermined the country's financial stability and its ability to supply crude to the Western world. Shipments from new offshore rigs are making up for some of the oil lost to sabotage, but rebels identified with MEND have threatened to shut down everything. The day the U.S. consulate warned of the possible attack on Bonny Island, a spokesman for MEND boasted to the press: "We will wipe out the Nigerian oil export industry in one swipe."

Late one night in a darkened neighborhood in central Port Harcourt (the city was experiencing one of its regular blackouts), an angry young man, who asked for anonymity, explained his outrage. "Nigeria made its greatest mistake taking the life of that man Ken Saro-Wiwa. It will not be forgiven. When the Nigerian state overreacted like that, the thinking became, We have to carry weapons unless we want to die. Violence begets violence. When someone loses hope, he is devastated, and he will say, 'Either I fight, or I leave this world.'"

This young Nigerian is a university lecturer, who says the time for talking has passed. "When the situation in the delta threatens to turn into another Middle East, then the world will finally intervene."

Another night in Port Harcourt, a prolonged gun battle erupted outside my compound. Volleys from AK-47s, answered by the booms of pump-action shotguns, sent me running to barricade my door. The gunmen abducted four expatriates from Goodfellas, a nightclub nearby. (It was this incident that led the oil companies to cancel their tours.) A Dutch oil worker on contract to Shell, who makes $80,000 a year as a pipeline construction supervisor, told me he has to travel everywhere with an armed escort. "You must keep it in your mind that people out there may kill you," he said.

With every assault by the insurgents, the Nigerian military seems to answer with devastation. One evening, a gang of kidnappers dressed in army camouflage came by boat to a waterside neighborhood called Aker Base on the outskirts of Port Harcourt, stormed into a bar, and snatched an Italian construction worker employed by Saipem, an oil-servicing company. During the grab, the assailants killed a soldier. Within hours, troops swept into the shantytown and burned down every structure except a bank. Days later, stunned residents wandered through the charred ruins like ghosts; some 3,000 had lost their homes.

A woman clutching her melted cell phone moaned, "I have to tell my mother, my brothers and sisters what happened. I don't know where to start and where to end." In front of a collapsed church, the village chief implored a crowd to "Let God fight this case." A lawyer hired by the village provided little comfort when he said that Saipem would meet with the community "maybe in a week" and ask for a list of everything lost.

"I blame the government," said Caroline Mathias, the owner of the bar, staring at a pile of melted bottles and the crumpled metal roof where her business had stood. "The government should help us. I'm begging them. We are not the ones who killed that soldier."

The Italian worker was freed five days after the sack of Aker Base. That month, 18 foreigners were abducted; all were released, reportedly after hefty ransom payments.

No one is sure how many delta people have picked up the gun to fight for their rights. Estimates range from the low hundreds to the low thousands. What is certain is that each time the military reacts with extreme measures, the number rises.

The rebels seem unafraid, as when a hundred or so MEND members and supporters gathered openly at a morgue in the city of Warri for the funeral service of nine militants killed on the water in an ambush by the Nigerian military. Afterward, MEND leaders invited the press to accompany boats taking the caskets to villages for burial. Along the way, men waved guns from jetties, and white flags flew from huts. The men wore conspicuous red-and-white ties knotted around their arms. The ties and flags were symbols of Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war. Warriors wear the knots as protection against death, believing that having taken an oath to Egbesu, nothing metal—neither bullet nor machete—can harm them. Farther on, a rebel camp sat brazenly on a riverbank, the blue roofs of its barracks plainly visible to oil company helicopters.

[To be continued...]