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SPECIAL: How Bayelsa oil-producing communities defy public health hazards, preserve dead bodies indoors

Scientific studies have warned that undue exposure to preservatives formalin could be responsible for various types of cancer in both humans and animals.

• April 18, 2022
A view of the Swali market alongside the river Nun, in Yenagoa, the capital of Nigeria's oil state of Bayelsa November 27, 2012. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters
A view of the Swali market alongside the river Nun, in Yenagoa, the capital of Nigeria’s oil state of Bayelsa November 27, 2012. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

In Ondewari, an oil-producing community in Bayelsa, an unpleasant and choking smell of formalin filled the air as the lifeless body of 115-year-old Atiri Mark lay in one of the rooms in her residence where an embalmer had come to preserve it after three months of her demise.

The supercentenarian died on October 2, 2021, but her children have yet to take her remains to a morgue. Instead, they managed the lifeless body at her residence.

Ondewari, ensconced in the maze of creeks on the south bank of the Niger River, can only be accessed through the waterways. It takes an hour and 14 minutes journey by speedboat to the nearest motorable community of Ayama, which also takes about 30 minutes to the central town of Yenagoa.

For over five years, residents of the community, which hosts Nigerian Agip Oil Company in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, have preserved dead bodies in their houses with grave health implications.

During a visit to the community, Mrs Mark’s last son, Moses, told Peoples Gazette that the family had no option but to preserve her at home due to the distance of the village to the nearest morgues in Yenagoa.

Late Mark body [Picture credit: Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi]

“We perceive the odour of formalin whenever the embalmer comes to care for her body,” Mr Mark told The Gazette while expressing grievances at the unpleasant scene of preserving his late mother’s body at their residence.

The Gazette learnt that corpses are sometimes preserved at homes for more than six months before being buried. Although some of the deceased had died battling illnesses that would have been treated and averted, a lack of functional health care facilities has been a significant challenge in the distant, secluded community.

“Government is supposed to prepare a mortuary for us, but they have not done so,” he stated, adding that the family pays N30,000 monthly for the preservation services.

Although no family member was available to speak with The Gazette, the community embalmer said that the corpse of another 95-year-old woman, identified as Gbene-ere Igoniwari, who also died in 2021, had been kept at home for about six months.

Corpse of Gbene-ere Igoniwari being cared for by the embalmer

The situation at Mrs Igoniwari’s residence was similar to that of Mrs Mark’s as a moist, fetid odour contaminates the surrounding.

Dime Robert

Having learnt the embalming process from a medical doctor in 2003, Dime Robert has been Odenwari’s de-facto pathologist as the government continues to deprive the community of medical facilities.

Mr Robert, a Red Cross responder, has been preserving corpses for the community for more than 10 years and has preserved over 100 corpses since he started the business in 2008.

Explaining the embalming process, Mr Robert said he operates on the thigh, checks out veins, puts a mark and then fixes a drip set.

“I mix formalin with local alcohol and salt, mix it and fix it like a drip.

“I fix the drip set and put the chemical inside, and from there, the chemical runs entirely inside the corpse. I do it every two weeks,” he said.

For every corpse, Mr Robert charges N10,000 before starting the preservation process. 

Although it is now common for community members to preserve dead bodies at home, The Gazette learnt that it was never their traditional practice.

The acting traditional ruler of the community, Robert Simon, said several residents had lost their lives due to a lack of functioning hospitals or health care centres despite hosting major oil firms, including Italian multinational Agip-Eni S.p.A.

“We sometimes preserve for one or two weeks and bury, and, most of the time, we take the corpses to Yenagoa,” Mr Simon, a retired civil servant, said. Nonetheless, he blamed poverty for the residents’ inability to end the practice.

Formalin inhalation

Formalin, also known as formaldehyde, is an aqueous substance used to produce industrial disinfectants. It has been used by funeral homes as a preservative for decades, but its application, especially during mixture with water, requires the stringent effort of professionals.

Scientific studies have warned that undue exposure to the chemical could be responsible for various types of cancer in both humans and animals.

“I am hearing for the first time that such a thing is happening in Bayelsa,” Michael Azebi, former chairman of Nigeria Medical Association in Bayelsa, told The Gazette in an interview, adding that formalin has a suffocating odour that chokes and results in cough when inhaled.

The embalmer risks the lives of community members, he added, urging communities to make additional efforts to evacuate the remains of their loved ones to the nearest morgues, as challenging as this may be.

Mr Azebi said villagers could also bury the deceased immediately rather than using hazardous preservation methods.

“They are supposed to bury at once if they don’t have access to a mortuary,” he said.

Cottage Hospital buit by Eni/Agip

Emerging public health challenges

Our findings show that the lack of functioning hospitals or healthcare facilities has increased the problem residents face in Ondewari.

On December 12, 2021, Ebikiaki Egbe was in labour, but none of the seven traditional birth attendants in the community was available.

Her husband, Simon Fredrick, told The Gazette that the couple lost the baby due to a lack of pediatric care.

My wife’s case was so serious that the baby’s head had already come out, but the body was still inside,” Mr Fredrick said as he fought back the tears.

He explained that a boat was hired for N30,000 to the Olugbobiri community, a 30-minute ride in a speedboat, and another to the Ayama community for N25,000.

“And, from the Ayama community, I hired a vehicle to a hospital in Yenagoa. She delivered while we were planning the operation, but the baby has already died,” he lamented.

Cargo Okoya managing her breast cancer in a community chemist

Cargo Okoya, who currently battles breast cancer, lamented in her native language that breast cancer would have been earlier detected if there was a hospital in the community.

“The last time I went to the hospital, they said I should bring N150, 000, but I didn’t have money,” she added.

Abandoned Agip built hospital

In 2015, Agip-Eni, which has operated here for decades, completed its cottage hospital in the community with two backup power generators. A few years later, the facility has become overgrown with weeds and is now occupied by reptiles after being abandoned.

“Ondewari has been hosting Agip for years. Sometimes Agip is trying, and at times, they don’t try,” said the community’s traditional ruler.

The hospital was constructed as part of a 2007 agreement between the oil giant and the community, with additional promises for installation of electricity and other basic amenities.

The traditional ruler said although the company made provisions for furniture and equipment, the government has yet to hire doctors and nurses despite several demands.

Before completing the cottage hospital built by Agip, the community residents used the community health centre, but health workers failed to show up, Mr Simon said.

“Health workers only come when they want to immunise, which is not regular,” he said. “I have also reported to the health officer; he pays no heed, but the government are paying them, and people are falling ill every day,” he lamented.

Lockup community health care centre

He, however, recalls that the previous health workers posted to the community in 1980 were very effective in their services, working 24 hours.

Community efforts

Youths in the community told The Gazette that they had written dozens of letters to the company and the government, but there were no responses.

Governor Douye Diri
Governor Douye Diri

Former youth leader Galio Captain recounts how the youth planned to hold a protest but later backed down when additional promises were made that later turned out unimplemented.

“Sometimes, people die while we move about thinking of how to fuel the boat to rush them to the hospital,” Mr Captain said.

Mr Captain said the government has been shifting responsibility to Agip-Eni, including for medical supplies.

“But, we found out from our neighbouring community that the government provided the drugs and not the company,” he said.

Women leader in the community, Ebi Matthew, wants the government to come and rescue the community before the situation deteriorates.

A non-profit organisation, Ondewari Health Education Environmental Project, OHEEP, has been working and advocating against the embalming of corpses in the community. 

Field officer Yeiyei Tontiemotei told The Gazette that they had sent several letters to the community leaders but to no avail.

In a letter dated November 15, 2021, to the paramount ruler, OHEEP had raised the issue of preserving more than two corpses in the community, causing environmental and health problems.

Mr Tontiemotei, a resident of the community, decried the government’s failure to post health workers to the cottage hospital.

“And, we have pushed for the government to bring personnel after the ministry of health came to inspect the facilities,” he said.

Alagoa Morris of the Environmental Rights Action frowned at the government’s failure to provide primary and working health care centres for communities, especially the remote oil-producing communities where billions are generated from.

“The issue of a mortuary not being available is attributed to not having a general hospital. We are supposed to have at least two public hospitals.

“In Bayelsa, apart from FMC and Niger Delta University Teaching hospital, we don’t have anywhere to keep the dead except for Brass and Nembe LGAs,” Mr Morris said.

A spokesman for Agip-Eni said the company has lived up to its responsibilities to Ondewari and other oil-producing communities across the region, adding that more relief efforts are being implemented from time to time.

Bayelsa health commissioner Pabara Igwele ignored calls and text messages seeking comment on the embalming of corpses at homes and the failure of the government to fulfil its responsibility to the communities, including the deployment of medical workers to the cottage hospital built by Agip-Eni.

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