The history of the Eastern Obolo (Andoni), whose little settlements are scattered among the mangrove swamps along the coast – from the left bank of the Imo River to the Qua Iboe River estuary and beyond – is full of myth, voyage and mystery.1 Their traditions contain elements of Bonny, Opobo and Ibibio culture. Living off the water and subsisting on seafood and its exchange with agricultural produce inland, they developed a good understanding of the interdependence of the elements in their ecosystem- the (male) soul of the great mangrove trees, which is linked to the (female) soul of the ever shifting water, to produce and hold, against the devastating elements, their offspring – the mud. On the harmony among these three, depended the survival of all aquatic life and the human existence (Talbot, 1926: 1).
The largest and oldest settlement and administrative centre of the Eastern Obolo is Okoroete, established by the prominent Unyangala trader, Okurube, who fled from the legendary Nnah Biget’s incessant military campaigns.3 By 1900 the Qua Iboe Mission opened a chapel at Iko and in 1916 the Church Missionary Society, expanding from Opobo Town, established itself at Okoroete, followed by the Christ Army Church (attractive with its healing sessions) and the Lutheran Mission (popular with their vernacular church services). There were well established Anglican Churches in several Okoroete settlements by 1910, connected with the Ikuru Town missionary headquarters, which was known for its militant approach to traditional religion and its association with the Garrick Braide movement. The first native court, established in 1935 at Okoroete, became a centre of intense nationalistic propaganda and tribal development, which culminated in the formation of the Obolo State Union and a series of land court cases with the Opobo, Ogoni, Bonny, Ibibio and Okrika people.
A strong women’s association at Iko supported communal work, road repair and domestic classes for women, conducted by Mma Brazier of the Methodist Mission at Ibekwe. Eastern Obolo I was recently supplied with modern amenities – health centres, schools, roads, potable water and electricity, in return for the oil exploitation, gas-flaring and pollution from the nearby Shell floating station at Utapate (Utibiete) near Iko.
Metal relics at the Isijong shrine of the sea deity built at Amangbauji’s market place (Courtesy: Chief C. J. John, 1996)Eastern Obolo II villages, the largest of which is Okoroinyong, were devastated and depopulated during the Nigerian Civil War. All around are new, post-1970 traditional houses, built on the dry sandy spots among the rivulets and wetlands. St. John’s Anglican Church at Okoroinyong, built with canoe-transported from Opobo bricks, stands on its sandy platform, cherishing its 1918 beautifully carved pulpit and altar.
The main beach landing and the family shrines, including the iele life-tree, planted by the founder, lie across the wooden bridge, made of disused canoe planks. Each of the main settlements has a subsidiary of the Yok Obolo shrine, indicated by a sacred inwang-egbe tree, as well as the customary Isijong shrine of the sea deity, where annual rituals are performed and near which, at the traditional village playground, the annual Ofiokpo ancestral festival becomes a rallying-point of clan unity at the end of each year.4
Bethlehem is a small settlement, founded in 1717 by Adasi Nte and his family as Ijong Awaji village. It became the first Christian outpost in the area. In 1893, Rev. J. A. Pratt from Opobo renamed it after the biblical town, while commissioning the St. Bede’s Church, established there by the Opobo trader, Chief Sam Tobby.
Okoroinyong Creek, used as a base for the oil exploration team in Eastern Obolo IIFrom the equally small Amanglass village, an Okoroinyong colony, consisting of a handful of native houses, where 75 % of the inhabitants are reportedly literate, comes the first graduate and Anglican bishop from the area, Rt. Rev. Emmanuel E. Nglass.
At the creek’s landing in the mangrove shrub is the fresh water spring of the village – just a few short steps away from the salty swamp water and black mud. A picturesque, long and narrow walk-over wooden bridge, precariously propped on long sticks over the deep ravine, connects Amanglass with Ayama, where the Aman Obolo (Voice of Obolo) women’s shrine is kept by its priestess. Almost in the centre of the cluster of nine Obolo villages, on a strip of cultivable land, south of Ete, is located a lone Ibibio village, Ikot Akpan Udo, a long established centre of Obolo/Ibibio trade and a renowned area market, called by the Ibibio urua Obodom (from Obolom). Ikot Abasi traders come from far distances to exchange there fresh vegetables for dry fish and other seafoods. The specialised Obolo markets prospered from the dried fish trade during the war years, when stock-fish imports ceased (Ann. Rep. 1914).
Modern oil-concession maps mark the Eastern Obolo area as a rich mineral oil field, currently explored, as is the whole of the Ikot Abasi hinterland, by the blue-and-yellow clad crews of the Western Geophysical company. The oil wealth is expected to improve the lot of the Obolo people, who through a strong co-operative tradition and sea-faring entrepreneurship, have tried to earn a comfortable existence from their God-given environment.