Mama Ayo. That’s what everyone in my village of Ugborodo calls me. My
village is right across the creek from the ChevronTexaco terminal that
pumps oil deep in Nigeria’s delta. We live in shacks with no
electricity or indoor plumbing, but you should see that company place.
One of my friends said it’s like paradise – everything all clean and
beautiful. Another said, “I saw America there.” That’s because of the
air conditioning and the paved roads, the telephones and fresh salad, a
machine called a microwave and good foam in the beds.
“We were pretty angry when we saw such luxury. For over forty years
ChevronTexaco was growing richer while we were growing poorer. We knew
there was a big difference between the two sides of the creek, but we
didn’t know how much until the day we women crossed to the other side.
For ten days hundreds of women occupied the terminal until the oil
company agreed to provide our village with electricity and water, and
to build schools, a community center, and houses. It also agreed to
increase student scholarships and help us women set up poultry and fish
“We did in ten days what the men had not done in
years. And do you know what the men say now that we have won? That we
are “big-headed.” The elders are worried that our new assertiveness
will weaken their authority. They’re worried that we will enter their
shrine. Well, who knows? That, too, may be just around the corner. . . “
As Oil Riches Flow, Poor Village Cries Out
By Norimitsu Onishi
Nigeria – Only a creek separates this village from the vast ChevronTexaco
terminal that pumps oil deep in West Africa’s great Niger Delta, but
most of the village women who raided the terminal one day in July had
never crossed over before.
Just after sunrise, hundreds of unarmed women commandeered a boat and
infiltrated the terminal, fanning out across the docks and the
airstrip, entering office buildings where Chevron managers worked and
homes where they slept. For the next 10 days they occupied the terminal
in a peaceful protest, the first one led by women. Chevron allowed them
to stay on and entered negotiations. On their side of the creek, these
women live in shacks with no phones or indoor plumbing, so to see
inside Chevron amounted to an epiphany.
Bible describes paradise as a beautiful place where there is
everything,” said Roli Ododoh, 33, a mother of two. “When we got in
there, it was really like paradise.” All their lives they had heard of
America, but now, as 66-year-old Anirejotse Esuku said, “I saw America
there.” For Mrs. Ododoh, much was inspiring in the new world of
Chevron: the air-conditioning, the tarred roads, the countless phones,
the fresh salads, the odd machine called a “microwave,” the good foam
in the beds.
Things unimagined. But the women
were also enraged at what they saw. This wealth had been drawn, over
four decades, from the land around them. Yet virtually none of it had
benefited a community confined on the wrong side of the creek. The
people of the delta feel abandoned by their corrupt government and are
turning to Americans, whom they see both as the source of their
suffering and as the solution.
Chevron, Felicia Atsepoyi, a leader known here as Mama Ayo, said: “They
achieved something from this community for 40 years. Can’t they help us
achieve something?” That question is taken seriously by Chevron. Word
of the women’s raid quickly spread from this remote village to London,
where Chevron executives cut short a management meeting to rush to
ChevronTexaco’s giant terminal the
size of 583 football fields is protected by barbed-wire fences and
moatlike waterways. But, as the executives knew, it is also surrounded
by tens of thousands of Africans who have grown poorer and angrier.
Americans rarely set foot in those villages, flying in and out of the
terminal aboard helicopters and planes.
long these two worlds can coexist in such proximity without inflaming
violence is a question that increasingly preoccupies the top management
of ChevronTexaco. In the years ahead, the company, which operates in
186 countries and is the top American investor in sub-Saharan Africa,
will pump more of its oil in places where people live on “less than $1
a day,” said its chief executive, David J. O’Reilly. “The big challenge
it’s an enormous challenge is to ensure that as a human race we provide
an environment in which these billions of people achieve the standard
of living that the majority of the people in the world have come to
Mr. O’Reilly said in an interview at
the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “Does it have to be the
same living? No. But should it have a standard? Yes.” Commenting on a
recent trip he made to the Niger Delta, he said: “There are tremendous
needs. We can’t fill them all. There’s no question. But we have to play
During the women’s 10-day occupation,
Chevron representatives repeatedly crossed the creek to negotiate with
village leaders. Much was at stake. Executives at the Escravos Terminal
dispatched regular updates to Chevron headquarters in San Francisco on
the fate of the 350,000 barrels of crude that is supposed to be shipped
out daily. So far, there is a truce that allows the output to continue.
An Enterprise Rises, and a Village Sinks
Many of the women are old enough to remember the Americans’ arrival
here in the 1960’s. They watched the terminal grow over time, the giant
red-and-white communications tower rise into the sky, and the first
helicopters and planes land on the terminal airstrip.
Meanwhile, on their side of the creek, life deteriorated. Ugborodo, a
fishing village, is sinking into the water, a fact that villagers
attribute to company actions to widen the creek and a nearby river. Oil
wealth has brought few modern amenities. Outhouses made of corrugated
zinc line the nearby shore; the villagers follow raised planks to them
and defecate directly into the same water where they fish for crabs.
Ugborodo may sit across from Chevron’s largest terminal in the delta,
but the village does not have a gas station. Villagers buy their
gasoline upriver and have it shipped here, paying three times what the
rest of Nigeria pays. These issues impinge on American interests, too,
as the demonstrations show. In the coming years, the United States will
increasingly rely on oil from the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta,
already its fifth-largest source of imported oil.
Seeking new sources of oil outside the Middle East, especially since
the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has been courting big
African producers like Nigeria and Angola, as well as upstarts
Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe. The United States imports 15
percent of its crude oil from Africa, but the share is expected to rise
to as much as 25 percent in a decade, with most of the world’s new oil
reserves coming out of this continent. The output of Nigeria itself is
expected to increase 50 percent, to three million barrels a day, by
These days, when Chevron signs a contract with an African government in
Nigeria, 40 percent of the oil revenue goes to Chevron, 60 percent to
the government it is often only the beginning of the company’s
negotiations. The Nigerian government has spent little of its 60
percent share to improve the lives of more than 120 million Nigerians.
The generals in power for most of the country’s oil-producing history
funneled an extraordinarily large amount of money into an
extraordinarily small number of hands.
dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in office in 1998, stole perhaps $3
billion during his half-decade in power, an amount that Mobutu Sese
Seko, the former dictator of Zaire, which is now Congo, took three
decades to amass. The thievery has not abated since the election of a
civilian government in 1999, although the money now trickles down to a
wider circle of leaders, by common agreement.
The women’s occupation of the Escravos Terminal set off three other
women-led protests against ChevronTexaco and one against Royal
Dutch/Shell the first time women spearheaded demonstrations against the
Western oil giants. In response, ChevronTexaco officials now say they
will significantly increase the money the company spends to build
schools, roads and hospitals, and to provide electricity, water and
other essentials to their African neighbors. The women who have now
seen inside Chevron wonder, could this be true? Can they trust Chevron
Jay Pryor, the American in charge of ChevronTexaco’s Nigerian
operations, raced back from the London meeting to Nigeria while trying
to monitor events in the delta. Such protests were not new. In recent
years groups of men had used the same tactic, but they usually targeted
small oil flow stations. The women of Ugborodo went straight for the
big prize: the heart of ChevronTexaco’s operations in the delta.
The government that took over three years ago remains corrupt and
brutal. Soon after the current government took office in 1999, it put
down ethnic riots in the delta town of Odi by razing it and, according
to human rights organizations, killing hundreds of people.
Here in Ugborodo, among the many buildings destroyed during ethnic
riots that same year was an 18-bed hospital that ChevronTexaco had
built in 1992. Government forces and Chevron’s private security were at
the terminal, but Mr. Pryor gave orders that they not evict the women.
He consulted with government officials; he sent his general manager of
asset management, an American named Dick Filgate, to negotiate with the
people of Ugborodo.
In discussing the takeover, Mr. Pryor was careful not to sound
inflammatory. Indeed, he described the women’s protest this way: “There
was an organized effort to try to give us, I would say, what was
characterized to me, as try to give us some feedback, to try to get
more attention to their plight.” Mr. Pryor, who is 45, conveys a
passionate determination to understand the delta’s problems. He has an
engineer’s practical belief that rigorous analysis will lead to
comprehension and has learned his craft in a number of overseas
postings, starting a decade ago in Kazakhstan.
He was born in a small Mississippi town, the son of a teacher and a
pharmacist. By the time he entered Mississippi State University, he
knew he wanted to be a petroleum engineer. He felt the oil industry,
more than any other branch of engineering, suited his personality.
Asked who is responsible for using the oil money to raise the people’s
living standards, he said: “The oil companies, us included, the
governments, all have responsibility. The major responsibility I would
say is the governments’.”
He says he is not satisfied with the results of the $36 million the
company has spent on community development in the last decade. In
addition to increasing the community development budget to $80 million
over the next five years, Mr. Pryor says the company will create a
“longer term strategic plan” for community development. Worldwide, Mr.
O’Reilly, the chief executive, said the company would focus on
“sustainable development” projects in education and the creation of
local businesses, working with organizations like USAID and the United
Nations (news – web sites). Perhaps then the money will be less likely
Across the delta, there is little to show for the $36 million spent by
Chevron or an additional $54 million spent by the government on
community development in the last decade. Over the years, the oil
companies have handed out large numbers of development contracts to
chiefs and other delta leaders. But like the country’s top rulers who
stashed away billions in Swiss bank accounts or built fabulous villas,
the local leaders used their contracts to build large houses in Warri
or Lagos. They left behind a delta littered with half-finished or
Privately, oil company officials have long singled out this local
corruption as the central obstacle to development; their critics,
however, say that oil companies cynically give contracts to these local
leaders to buy their silence.
Mr. Pryor is careful not to point fingers, though he suggests that some
people of the delta have not given back enough to their community.
“We’ve hired a number of people from those communities,” Mr. Pryor
said. “How much have they done to help their community is something
we’ve got to work on.”
Though he has never visited Ugborodo he has been to two delta villages
and seems to understand how the neighbors of ChevronTexaco’s terminal
might feel. “Put yourself in their situation,” he mused. “If you lived
in New York City in a slum and you saw this big mansion sitting right
next to you, and the people in the mansion had new cars, color TV,
everything, and you grew up that way from 20 to 30 years, what would
you think? You would think that what you had wasn’t good enough
Tapping African Oil, Striking African Rage
Africans these days are quicker to express their anger. That was true
even inside Chevron’s Nigerian headquarters in Lagos. Chevron security
guards, Nigerian men, played a tape of “I.T.T.,” a song by Fela,
Nigeria’s best-known singer and political critic. The 1981 song, in
Fela’s pidgin English, is an attack on American multinational companies
like the old conglomerate I.T.T. and the Nigerian politicians who side
with the corporations, and it captures a mood that is close to the
surface here. The lyrics go like this: International thief thief!
I.T.T.! International thief thief! International rogue!
The big newspapers in Lagos eventually compared Ugborodo’s women to the
legendary Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Nigeria’s most celebrated campaigner
for women’s rights and the mother of Fela. In 1997, when Victor Omunu
first saw ChevronTexaco’s national headquarters in Lagos, with its
large office buildings and elegant residences, he fell into a
“I almost felt like killing myself,” he said. “This was our oil.” Few
Ugborodo residents have seen the ChevronTexaco headquarters that is a
couple of hundred miles away in Lagos. But Mr. Omunu, 40, was part of
Ugborodo’s elite, one of perhaps 20 boys of his generation who had gone
on from the town to a university.
For years delta rulers dealt exclusively with the oil companies,
demanding money and development for their communities, but mostly
enriching themselves. This contributed to the rage of young men who, in
1998, occupied oil stations and kidnapped workers all over the delta,
at one point shutting down half of Nigeria’s daily oil production. In
response, the oil giants paid ransoms or protection money.
The delta’s young educated men, like Mr. Omunu, then took the lead in
dealing with the oil companies. As the secretary general of Ugborodo’s
Manpower and Social Development Forum, Mr. Omunu became a powerful
figure. The oil companies and foreign contractors hire some workers
through his organization.
One Dutch dredging company servicing ChevronTexaco employs about 40
workers and pays Mr. Omunu $420 a month as a “community liaison
officer.” Mr. Omunu lives in Warri, 40 miles east of here, but comes
regularly to Ugborodo. In the last year, he married, had a son and was
able to buy his first car, a secondhand Opel.
On an October morning, Mr. Omunu joined a reporter making the descent
from Warri to Ugborodo aboard a small, twin-engine boat. As the rain
clattered on its roof, the boat made its way down the Escravos River,
which feeds into the creeks that are eroding Ugborodo. “Every year, the
place is sinking,” Mr. Omunu said. “Over the next 20 or 30 years, if
nothing is done, we will disappear.”
Attached to his shirt pocket was a card that identified him as a
community liaison officer for the company and allowed him to enter
ChevronTexaco’s terminal. Dark wraparound sunglasses masked his nervous
energy. He had not visited Ugborodo in a few weeks and was dreading
coming back. He knew that the young men he employed would bombard him
with complaints, and he had not slept well the night before.
Mr. Omunu shouted to be heard above the rain and the roar of the boat
engines. Yes, he said, the federal government had failed in its
responsibility, but he blamed ChevronTexaco and the United States more.
“We know the Americans influence the policies of this government,” he
said. “If you have the interests of this community at heart, why is it
that you can’t draw the attention of the federal government? The
Americans are so particular about certain things. `Take this I.M.F.
loan.’ `Don’t take this I.M.F. loan.’ ”
He continued: “The Americans who claim to be freedom fighters, the
Americans who claim to want to better mankind for us, they are the
devil. They are worse than Lucifer. Can you tell me they are not worse
than Saddam Hussein (news – web sites) or Osama bin Laden (news – web
sites)? To me, they are worse. I want to be clear. Americans are like
terrorists to us. They come, take and leave without putting back.
“The only security is for them to improve the lot of the people. If
they don’t, Chevron is sitting on a powder keg.” He grew silent. His
anger seemed to have drained him, and his big body was slumped forward.
The boat’s roof leaked, rain dripping down on his left shoulder.
Soon Chevron’s Escravos Terminal came into view. Even the terminal’s
name seemed to demean him. Escravos means “slaves” in Portuguese. He
knows that Portuguese slave traders once took his ancestors from the
hinterland and shipped them down this river to the New World. Victor
Omunu’s first stop was the house of Ugborodo’s traditional leader, or
eghare aja, whom he called Pa.
The eghare aja, Wellington Ojogor, 70, glared. He was upset because a
section of Ugborodo called Ode-Ugborodo had been without electricity
for three days. Like most delta villages, the community depends on a
generator for light. Every month, ChevronTexaco gives Ode-Ugborodo
eight 53-gallon drums of diesel to run its generator; Shell gives 10
drums. The village limits the generator’s use to several hours each
Even so, the generator had run out of engine oil in October. The eghare
aja had sent emissaries across the creek, but the oil company replied
that none was immediately available. In this community of ethnic
Itsekiris, the eghare aja is the embodiment of customs and traditions.
A retired government surveyor, he recalled how the arrival of the
American oilmen, on the heels of Nigeria’s independence from Britain in
1960, heralded a period of great hope for Ugborodo.
Bringing a map from his bedroom, he traced with his finger the creek,
which he said the Americans had dug separating Ugborodo from the
terminal. Though Chevron says its records show that the creek was there
before the terminal, the eghare aja said the Americans had widened and
extended it through a section of mangrove forest that Ugborodo had long
used as a cemetery. This creek and others that the oilmen had dug in
the area for pipelines will be the death of Ugborodo, he said.
Each morning’s high tide floods parts of Ugborodo. Villagers with
rubber boots wade ankle-deep in the water; people without boots roll up
the bottoms of their trousers. If this oil terminal were in Texas, it
would be regulated by state and federal environmental agencies. But
here, the eghare aja is on his own, and he blamed the company for not
taking proper precautions.
“They leave our burial grounds to wash away,” the eghare aja said. “But
they are protecting their terminal with their embankment.” In the last
decade, the eghare aja has presided over an increasingly divided
community. Another elder is claiming to be the rightful head of
Mr. Omunu, an ally of the eghare aja, worries that the women’s new
assertiveness had weakened the ruling elders’ leadership.
Traditionally, the elder men made the decisions and went to the shrine
to seek divine blessings. A woman’s presence in the shrine is
considered an abomination. “You know women,” Mr. Omunu said. “Any
little thing makes them big-headed. So after the Chevron protests, some
women said they wanted to be in this committee or that committee. So we
told them, `Do you want to come to the shrine now?’ ”
Seeking a Way Out of a Dire Situation
Mama Ayo, as everyone here knew Felicia Atsepoyi, 48, was one of the
small group of women who organized the occupation of the oil terminal.
Part of the reason they had taken action, she said, was that they knew
the Chevron guards would be less likely to brutalize women.
But Mama Ayo also felt moved to act because she believed the men had
failed Ugborodo. The situation here had become dire since 1999, when
much of the village was destroyed during clashes with a rival ethnic
group. Frustrated, she and a small band of women created the Young
Ladies Progressive Wing. “We created it because the men were cheating
us,” she said, explaining that men monopolized the oil jobs. “Look at
this community. Do you see any development?”
Her small room was cluttered with clothes, a stereo, plastic bags,
cooking pots, two tomato cans, orange juice and a can of Raid. A
ceiling fan and two naked light bulbs hung over the bed. Cardboard
patches covered holes in the ceiling. Unlike the other women here, Mama
Ayo had already seen the inside of ChevronTexaco’s terminal. She had
secured small landscaping contracts with the oil company or its service
companies over the years. She had learned the business from her late
father, a successful fisherman before he became a petty contractor to
Because her mother died when she was a girl and she was the only
daughter among 10 children, Mama Ayo grew close to her father. He had
used the money from his fishing to build a compound of small houses,
which he rented out, and he regularly won contracts to mow the lawn
inside the oil terminal. She married a Shell engineer, a Nigerian, and
lived in Warri for several years rearing her children, only to return
here after her husband died from an illness 15 years ago. Looking after
an aging father took up much of her time.
Today, Mama Ayo can usually be found sitting in front of her one-room
store, chatting with neighbors and greeting passersby, her big eyes
dancing. She had owned a much bigger store, but it burned down in the
1999 violence. Parts of her family compound were also destroyed,
leaving her 18 small rooms. She now lives in two of the rooms, renting
out the rest for $3 each a month.
Her store sells corned beef, canned and powdered milk, sardines, Raid,
soap, toothpaste, custard powder, gin, rum, beer, Coke, Fanta and other
basics. Before the clashes in 1999, American workers used to visit this
side of the creek. Mama Ayo could sell 120 bottles of red wine in two
weeks. Since the clashes, the bottles have been gathering dust.
Mama Ayo lost more than business in the violence. Her 96-year-old
father was shot to death in the creek as the two tried to flee to
safety. She escaped to her son’s home in Warri before returning here to
Ugborodo. “I don’t like to live here,” she said. “But this is our
father’s land and our mother’s land. Who will stay? “Suppose we have
good lights, good roads,” she said. “Your house you can make it O.K.
Wouldn’t it be O.K. to live here? One of the few decent-paying jobs for
a woman here is prostitution. In their bright miniskirts, tank tops and
halters, the girls at the Bush Bar flit from one American to another,
sitting on one’s lap, holding another’s hand, rubbing another’s
shoulders. They called themselves Esther and Patricia, Milla and Helen,
Gina and Joy.
“I love the people and culture of Nigeria!” one middle-aged American
oilman said. The Bush Bar and another establishment, Mama Lolo’s, are
in a section of Ugborodo that abuts the ChevronTexaco terminal. Named
Ugbolegin, the section is better known as Back of Fence. Separating the
terminal from the village are two parallel barbed-wire fences the inner
one 12 feet high, the outer 15 feet. Where the fences end are two heavy
swivel gates, linked by a tunnel, encasing workers as they move between
the Escravos Terminal and Back of Fence.
The gates open nightly at 6 and close at exactly 10. During those
hours, the oilmen head for an evening of pleasure at Back of Fence,
which ChevronTexaco has supplied with uninterrupted electricity, water
and a paved walkway. The oilmen filing into Back of Fence do not stray
far from the swivel gates, heading for one of two signs: “De Bush Bar.
The Ideal Place” and “Mama Lolo Inn & Supermarket. 24 HRS Service.”
At the Bush Bar one night in October, Americans sat on white plastic
chairs around a table, as the girls swarmed around. Some of the men
wore name cards identifying them as employees of service companies that
contract with ChevronTexaco. From a table nearby, Victor Omunu quietly
watched the Americans. He and his friends drank Nigerian beer; the
Americans preferred Heineken. Radio Delta played Fela.
The middle-aged American oilman, who is white, said he worked a
five-week shift before flying home to Mississippi for a five-week
break. He has stopped trying to explain this overseas life to his
American family. “I have a 140 I.Q., and I had no idea until I came
overseas,” he said. “They can’t relate to the third world.”
His co-worker, Terry, also white and from Mississippi, said he joined
the oil business six years ago, after high school. Three years ago, he
came here because, he said, he wanted to expand his horizons. A girl in
a light blue halter top moved behind Terry and rubbed his shoulders,
then sat beside him. Terry a big man in overalls with a shaved head and
beard took the girl’s hand in his.
“They’re very friendly and very Christianlike,” Terry said of the
Nigerians he had come to know. “There’s nothing personal over here.
Everybody’s here working, to make a profit. We’re producing oil and
gas. That’s all there is about it.”
A Secret Strategy and Public Impact
When it comes to Americans, Mama Ayo is more tolerant than Victor Omunu
or the eghare aja. She believes that Americans would do right if they
could just be made to understand the plight of the delta’s people. This
was why Mama Ayo and women wrote a letter to ChevronTexaco early this
year detailing their community’s problems. But when company officials
did not respond Chevron says it receives hundreds of such letters daily
the women felt disrespected.
“We women grew annoyed,” Mama Ayo said. So annoyed that they began
formulating their plan to take over the terminal, which is protected by
the company’s private security force, as well as the Nigerian police,
the paramilitary mobile police, the army and the navy. They went to see
the eghare aja and asked his permission. He gave his blessing. The
women picked July 8. According to accounts provided by Mama Ayo and
many other women, the plan was kept secret from the men, but relayed
from woman to woman, from shack to shack, from dugout canoe to dugout
canoe, across the river and creeks.
At 2 a.m., Mama Ayo and the others paddled across the Escravos River to
a dock facing ChevronTexaco’s terminal. Hundreds of women gathered by
the riverfront. They watched the sun rise and the male workers fill the
Ginuwa, the boat that ferried them inside the terminal every morning at
6:30. “We drove the workers out, and we took the boat,” Mama Ayo said.
About 150 women jammed the Ginuwa and ordered the captain to take them
across the river to the terminal. “He was afraid. We told him not to
say anything.” She continued: “The guards believed it was the workers
coming. Before they knew it, we were inside.”
Reinforcements followed aboard a smaller boat. Eventually, several
hundred women from young mothers with babies on their backs to
90-year-old great-grandmothers occupied the oil company’s terminal.
They scattered throughout the complex and trapped some 700 oilmen by
blocking the airstrip and the docks. The women had no guns, but they
did have a powerful weapon: they threatened to disrobe in front of the
oilmen. Showing nudity, especially by older women, is a weapon of last
resort, considered an act of deep shame here and a great curse directed
Villagers recall that Chevron’s negotiator, Mr. Filgate, arrived in
Ugborodo on a particularly flooded day. He was accompanied by the
police as he made his way to the town hall built by Shell. Meanwhile,
inside the terminal, production had ground to a halt. “If you don’t
have control of a certain aspect of your business, you’ve got to shut
it in,” Mr. Pryor said. “Because if anything happens, bad things can
really happen. So we started giving an order to shut things down.”
At the town hall, the eghare aja presided over the talks for the
Nigerians, with several women, elders and young leaders like Mr. Omunu
at his side. Mr. Filgate, who declined to be interviewed for this
article, spoke for Chevron.
ChevronTexaco pointed out it was already doing a lot for the delta.
More than 90 percent of its work force of 1,800 is Nigerian. In this
area, the only health care is provided by a mobile boat-clinic run by
ChevronTexaco. In Benikrukru, a village not too far away, almost
everything except the private houses has been provided by Chevron: a
generator, a water tank, a primary school.
For their part, villagers were frustrated that most of the workers at
the terminal are actually employed by service companies that contract
with ChevronTexaco. These are the lowest-level jobs, in the laundry or
cafeteria and paying less than $100 a month. Company officials said
that they understood the frustration, but that the problem was that
most people living near the terminal had little education and were not
qualified for the better jobs. The villagers had started negotiations
demanding 100 jobs. They had also asked for new roads, 500 two-bedroom
houses and embankments to stop Ugborodo’s erosion.
On July 17, the two sides signed a seven-page memorandum of
understanding. The oil company agreed to provide electricity and water
to the community by creating a direct connection to the terminal. It
agreed to build schools, a community center and houses for the eghare
aja and the rival traditional leader. It agreed to increase student
scholarships and help the women set up poultry and fish farms to supply
the terminal’s cafeterias.
Chevron also pledged to resume construction on its New Town project for
the people of Ugborodo. The on-again, off-again project began in the
mid-1990’s, with the clearing of land less than a mile away so the
people of Ugborodo would have a place to live when the creek, river and
ocean finally wash over their village.
But even with this popular project, the company has faced considerable
criticism and distrust. Ugborodo’s people want New Town, but they also
want the company to stop the old town from disappearing. Mr. O’Reilly,
the chief executive of ChevronTexaco, said there were limits to what
big companies should do. “We can’t take the place of government,” he
said. “It’s unrealistic; it’s not our role.”
Mr. Pryor understands Ugborodo’s mistrust and suspicions. “It is a
no-win situation in a way,” he said. “But the worst thing we could do
is nothing.” Perhaps. But Mama Ayo is unconvinced by ChevronTexaco’s
promises. She believes in the Lord and sees signs of his divine
presence, even in Ugborodo. Three days after she and the other women
left the terminal, lightning struck an oil storage tank and set it on
Because of the fire and the protests, ChevronTexaco stopped pumping
crude for four days and failed to meet its export quotas for more than
10 days. To Mama Ayo, the lightning was a sure sign that God stood on
this side of the creek. One afternoon a while back, she visited the
terminal to see if she could win a lawn-mowing contract. She wore a
ChevronTexaco card that identified her as a contractor’s assistant.
After several hours, Mama Ayo returned. She was unsuccessful, she
reported. But being Mama Ayo, she was not without hope. She had been
thinking. The women had won several concessions by getting the
attention of Chevron’s managing director in Lagos. Imagine the power of
the managing director in America.
“If Chevron’s M.D. from America comes here and sees the way we are living,” she said, “he will do good. I’m sure of that.”
She is sure because she says she believes that Americans are not bad people.
“We are still friends,” she said. “We are friends forever. But we are pleading with them to come and develop us.”