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Skies without Birds: Speaking for Nature in Niger Delta Ecopoetry


By Emmanuel Edafe Erhijodo

The poet-scholar and environmental activist, Tanure Ojaide, has a rich literary oeuvre that appreciates the natural world, foregrounds humans’ kinship with nature and calls for action for the preservation of the ecosystem. Ojaide, like other pioneer Niger Delta poets such as Gabriel Okara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and J.P. Clark, has been at the forefront as troubadours and paramount voices speaking against the despoliation of their ancestral home. In his poem, ‘Skies Without Birds’, he makes nonhuman casualties of the Niger Delta ecological pollution the central preoccupation. He came out firmly in emphatically speaking for nonhumans—birds.

In the poem, which was published in the collection Songs of Myself: Quartet (2015), the poet's persona begins by decrying the lifelessness that has become of Nembe—a once bustling town. Nembe is an island town in the Niger Delta that was surrounded by lush vegetation, freshwater creeks, and rainforests with enormous biodiversity.

But it has become a shadow of itself as a result of pollution and climate change. Perhaps, the poet persona had seen too many deaths of loved ones as a result of oil pollution in the coastline communities, hence he wants to take solace in nature to relieve the grim and gloom of bereavement but is soon hit by the stark reality that even nature has had its fair share of the ecological despoliation. Hence, he laments, "…this is surely a ghost town—skies without birds". Nembe is renowned for its agrarian prowess, as one of the ‘food baskets’ island towns in the Niger Delta thus it is worrisome to the persona that not only have his kinsmen and townfolks who are mostly fishermen been displaced, even the nonhuman endowments have been truncated. The animals that serve as games, the fishes in the freshwater swamps and of course the colourful birds that grace the once-clean skies are no more.

Recalling the relationship between humans and animals, the persona remarks that "where there are no birds children see no kites to coast along the skyline". This foregrounds one of the painful effects of pollution and global warming. It also highlights the close link we share with nature. As birds are facing extinction as a result of the polluted skylines, we are also robbing our offspring of their childhood. Imagine growing up without the knowledge and experience of seeing birds in the skies. Imagine the pain of telling our kids that birds once roamed the skies; that there used to be flying creatures but just like dinosaurs, they are no more because they are extinct.

I remember growing up in the riverine town of Warri in the Niger Delta. Some of my fond memories of childhood were during the peak of the harmattan, when my siblings and I would lay face-up to the skies counting the number of birds flying across the sunny December skies. Sometimes we would count the variety of bird species; at other times we would use slingshots to aim at migratory birds. These are profound memories that the children of Nembe have been deprived of.

In the succeeding stanza, the persona goes on to lament that even elders are also affected by the disappearance of birds. He notes that “where there are no birds elders see no falcons to celebrate gleefully the year's constant renewal”. The symbolic bird, the falcon, which serves as a harbinger of new seasons is no more to tell the elders time. This line again emphasises the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. In its pristine state nature serves as both companion, healer, and reminder to humankind; announcing the beginning of new seasons. The persona notes that “there are no hunters in a land of skies without birds”. The death of nature therefore is the death of humans as famine, starvation, thirst and malnourishment would soon set in.

The persona goes further to say that there are “no totem birds [to] grace the state's insignia; no colourful birds to mount the national air fleet”. These go to show the important roles birds (nature) play even in governmental and state matters. The Nigerian coat of arms has an eagle which symbolises the strength of the nation. Using Nembe as a microcosm, the persona metaphorically utilises the lack of birds in his community to depict the waning of the strength of the nation. The eagle’s strength of the nation’s military has deteriorated. Disturbed by this, the persona goes on to pose a thought-provoking question, “how does a country attest to [its] sovereignty without a bird to affirm it, without symbol of freedom?” The lack of birds has exposed and threatened the nation's sovereignty. The persona adds that birds are symbols of freedom which also means the freedom of the nation. Now that there are no birds, the independence and freedom of the nation is in question.

Consequently, while drawing attention and speaking for the endangered species (birds) in Africa, particularly in the Niger Delta, Ojaide also utilises the proverbial 'one stone' to make two aims. Firstly, he makes a case for the often neglected nonhuman casualties (birds); and secondly, he uses the metaphor of birds to expose the weakened state of Nigeria's sovereignty. So far, Nigeria’s economy has been heavily dependent on borrowing, and her poor policies continue to set the nation on a downward slope.

In conclusion, the health of all life and the future of human’s continued existence on the planet Earth lies solely on us taking actionable decisions that are geared towards healing the land. While reminding us that as humans, we need nature to survive, or else, our existence on the planet will implode, Ojaide repeatedly emphasises the need for us to make peace with nature. The onus, therefore, lies within us to explore every option to ensure continuity and sustainability.


Emmanuel Edafe Erhijodo is a researcher on African ecological spaces at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He participated in the "African Ecologies" workshop, hosted at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, 29-31 July 2023 in collaboration with the Leeds University Centre for African Studies. This blog post is an abbreviated version of the paper presented at the workshop.

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