*To a first time visitor, Rivers State cuts the image of a dream haven for its lush greenery, presence of rich oil companies in the city and a legion of tie-knotting workers hustling around. But beneath the glitters of the Garden City lie the pain and agony of a people battling the menace of soot – a major environmental and health challenge caused by oil exploration. ADEBAYO FOLORUNSHO-FRANCIS reports.*
Five minutes after she hurriedly bolted the door of her apartment after the kids arrived from school, Mrs. Temitope Tytler, stood outside the bathroom with arms akimbo watching all three take their shower.
As each child stepped out, Tytler took her time to inspect their body in what has become a daily ritual to ensure there was no trace of black soot.
As the 38-year-old e-commerce vendor carried out the task, she hissed intermittently.
Sitting on an area of 21,850 square kilometres and with an estimated 9,567,892 population, the Garden City has not been the dream move that she has anticipated.
She had reluctantly left her comfort zone in Lagos with her children to reunite with Akin, her husband, who works with a blue-chip company in Port Harcourt.
“I came at a time when Rivers people are struggling to understand what we now call soot.
“Now I am so scared for my kids. Since the close of school (end of the year break), we have been mostly indoors. We only go out when it is necessary. It has always been like this, for like five years now.
“I’ve also resorted to closing all windows and doors, not just because of soot but to reduce the amount of dust blown in by the harmattan wind,” she said.
Continuing, she disclosed that the situation is manageable during the rainy season because the wetness douses the soot but it is still noticeable in the environment because the rain puddles are blackened.
The young entrepreneur also affirmed that the black particles often settle on her laundry, parked cars and items in the house during the dry season.
“Although my kids have not fallen ill as a direct result of the soot, we’ve been having different catarrh, cough and malaria manifestations since harmattan started two weeks ago,
“Sometimes we either have Tammy (son) wearing slippers or socks indoors to keep the under feet clean. The sole gets blackened all the time though,” she bemoaned.
Soot is a deep black powdery or flaky substance consisting largely of amorphous carbon, produced by the incomplete burning of organic matter.
When the particulate matter broke out in Rivers State years ago, many residents struggled to understand the cause until it was eventually linked to oil exploration activities, and more particularly, to oil bunkering through illegal refineries popularly called ‘kpo fire’ in Niger Delta.
In major communities such as Rumuola, Choba Rumuomasi, D-line, Elelenwo, Iboloji, Ogbunabali, Rumigbo, Mgbuoba, Diobu, Woji, Amadi Flats, Umuchitta and Borikiri, the situation is not different.
Amidst health concerns over soot, it has been difficult for residents to continue with life as normal. Many residents go around with their faces heavily wrapped in face masks.
A physician at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Dr. Diamond Tonye-Obene, offered an explaination.
“We wear masks religiously because they function both ways, protection against COVID-19 and, most importantly against soot. It is terrible. Soot is a ticking time bomb and a public health emergency. It is a menace right now.
“You walk around, touch things in your environment, and discover they are black. We sometimes envy people in other regions and states who breathe fresh air,” she said.
Tonye-Obene, who is currently the Chairman of the Association of Resident Doctors in UPTH, expressed surprise that the ‘mask up to avoid soot’ campaign had not resulted in a price hike as witnessed at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.
“I am surprised too. The price hasn’t changed. I usually buy the mask in packs. People are not hoarding them as one will expect here in Port Harcourt," she noted.