Every weekend, thousands of bags of rice are popped all over Nigeria. From parties to family get-togethers, rice is the mascot for Nigerian merriment. Add some pepper and tomato to it, and you have a lifestyle. The Jollof lifestyle.
Most of the rice we eat though, are like Egyptian mummies, old and flushed in chemicals to keep it alive.
But a local revolution is coming, and the arrowhead is in the Southeast of Nigeria, in Ebonyi State.
Ebonyi is famous for one thing; Rice.
Rice rice rice. It’s like every marshland in Ebonyi has rice growing on it.
And so we thought it’d be nice to see the place where a lot of the work goes down, the Rice Mill and Market right in the capital, Abakaliki.
The first thing you learn about Abakaliki, especially when you enter at night, is the bright lights.
“This current governor loves lights,” said the driver who was taking us to where we’d be living throughout our stay in Ebonyi.
I didn’t reply. I was too tired. It was past ten and we’d had a long day.
The thing about drivers is, when you shut up, they do the same. Most of the time at least.
I felt bad later, mostly because of the things I’d have learned from him if I had just feigned interest with occassional hmms and giggles.
We got this driver through our host, Sugar. A he.
“If you guys don’t have a place to stay in Abakaliki, I’ll be waiting with open arms.”
That was his message to me on Instagram. I had no idea who he was before then.
“That’d be awesome man. Thanks,” I said.
I asked for his number and hit him up. And that’s how Ebonyi gave us a roof over our tired heads.
On Monday morning, we set out to the Rice Milll as Ebonyi people set out to work. But first, a quick stop at the market to get a selfie stick; the third one I’ve used since I left Lagos. Selfie sticks help me capture more steady photos and videos.
The new governor’s first step, it appears, has been to fix Ebonyi State’s image. It is the poorest state in the Southeast, and perhaps, the governor thinks that outsiders will be drawn to beautiful things at the very least. Maybe he’s right.
Scattered all over Abakaliki are water fountains with what looks like two giant club-style revolving lights that transform the Abakaliki night sky into a giant disco.
Moving on, we headed to the rice mill, and never have I seen that much rice like I saw there in my entire life. There was rice in every form and stage of it’s life cycle. In every direction.
Sugar’s friend was with us, and he called someone, who he was sure knew his way around the place. While we waited for our market guide, we walked around still, till we came upon a man surrounded by unhusked rice.
Then we kept going till we met another person parboiling rice.
The thing with rice is that when it’s harvested, the grains are well attached to the husks and so, milling would damage the grains. So instead, the rice is parboiled to loosen the rice from the husk and make milling easier.
Then we saw what looked like hills.
We quickly learned that they aren’t even real hills.
The Rice Hills.
Now when milling is done, much of the husk is milled to powder. Almost like saw dust. So these women carry this husk dust to this place to pour it. But instead of just pouring, they sieve the dust for little grains of rice that went down with the husk.
The rice they find, they take home as food or sell it. Everyone there was a woman. Except us of course. And according to Sugar, this sieving thing was done by the poorest.
So it wasn’t any surprise when they walked up to us, asking for money.
Then our market guide came. His name is Onyekachi and he works with a transport company distributing rice across different states in the country.
The first thing he did was take us to a Rice Miller.
“The government promised us, and failed,” one miller said.
The biggest problem Ebonyi rice seems to have is demand.
In this rice mill for example, milling machines work for only four hours in a day because there’s not enough demand.
A bag of rice leaves this market at somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 naira. A bag of foreign rice goes for over 20,000 naira.
“People think they are eating foreign rice,” the miller said, “but they are just eating dead rice. Most of the rice they are eating has taken years to get here from Asia. So what they are eating is just chaff. But our rice here, it takes less than three days for it to go from the farm to market for sale.”
Basic laws of demand and supply tell us that the lower the price, the higher the demand. So why is demand still low for our local rice?
It’s an image problem.
Just like the problem we found in Aba, the local rice here clearly has an image problem.
“People think because it’s local, it’s not good enough,” the Miller said.
Maybe it’s time we start treating #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira as a patriotic duty. We walked around the market some more, watching as machines milled rice, de-stoned them, and bag them.
Next stop: Afikpo.
With almost two hours between us and our next stop, we left the market and quickly stopped at a small restaurant to refill our tanks.
The only type of rice they cooked was Abakaliki Rice.
“Our state government has banned any foreign rice,” the owner of the restaurant said. “If they catch you selling it, you’ll pay a fine.”
I had the rice, and to he honest, it was good. No stones. Tasted good.
It took two hours to get to Afikpo North. But our real destination was in the South. The night before, at the bar where we’d met Sugar, one of his friends there was from Afikpo South.
“There’s this thing all men must do in our place,” he began. “Our people call it culture, but to me, it’s a cult.”
I asked for details, but all he did was laugh.
“There’s this place, where there are 72 stones. Each stone represents one of the 72 villages that represent Afikpo South. All the elders from each village gather there to meet on decisive matters. Each elder knows his stone, and never sits on another village’s stone. In fact, if one elder steps on the stone of another village, he’ll have to appease that stone.” Wonderful.
The thing with Afikpo South is, if you aren’t driving, then you’ll most likely find motorcyles as the only alternatives for commercial transport.
It took almost two hours to get to the top again. On the way, my bike man stopped for a moment to adjust something.
Then a mad man came running towards us. I took a cautious step back. He looked old, and from how locked his hair was, you could tell he lost his mind a long time ago.
“Welcome welcome,” he said clapping and smiling as he ran towards us.
“Don’t run,” my bike guy said. “He just wants you to give him something.”
There were flowers on his head. They looked like he put in time to make sure they appeared as beautiful as they did.
“Do you know what happened,” I asked.
“He ran mad about twenty-something years ago. Just a few days to his wedding.”
I felt every muscle in my body drop like my shoulders.
“Nobody knows who made him mad. They’ve tried everything but nothing worked.”
The man collected the money we offered, and walked on like a playful child. We ceased to exist to him anymore.
So we moved on. And up we climbed. And climbed. Till we reached the top.
When we reached the stones, I tried to proceed to them, you know, actually see them. “Don’t try it,” my bike man said.
Chris is paranoid, so he was a clear ten yards away already. It gives us a kind of balance. Me, reckless. He, cautious.
“Why,” I asked. I tried to sound as polite as possible.
“Only the Initiate can go there. A curse will be placed on you,” he replied.
“In fact, if the elders here decide on a matter here and fail to implement it, bad things happen. The curse will return to them.”
In my head, there were two possible outcomes;
One, I proceed and thunder strikes me dead. To be honest, I wasn’t even worried about this one.
But the second outcome, I proceed and nothing happens nothing happens. No thunder. No hole in the ground to swallow me. But then, there were natives around me. In their eyes, I would become a complete stranger who has come to do something abominable and disrespect their culture. This, people know how to punish.
The wrath of the gods are unpredictable. But you see the wrath of people, that will always be predictable.
So slowly, I turned around. It hurt. We came this far.
“Who put the stones there,” I asked one last question.
“It has been there for as long as our people have been here.”
As we walked back, took a last look at the view. From up there.
“Before,” my bike man said from behind me, “this is where criminals were thrown from or buried.”
I wanted to ask if any politicians have been thrown from here before.
Maybe next time.
We headed back to Abakaliki, disappointed, but hopeful for what tomorrow held. Hopeful for the things we’d find at our next stop;