AUGUSTINA ARMSTRONG OGBONNA
As part of its extensive environmental conservation across Niger Delta creeks, the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) is funding the reforestation of the Umaja sacred groove which also doubles as the source of River Ethiope.
Located in Akoku Kingdom of Ukuani local government area, Umuaja community hosts the Onoku deity which is believed to be harbored in a tall tree that grows in the heart of the groove. Around this tree is the source of River Ethiope, which flows across three local government areas of Delta and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The sacred groove which has being in existence for centuries had been dilapidated due to poor environmental condition of its location. The entrance into the groove is descending thereby enabling leaching and erosion of the soil, making the shrine and its environs water-logged all season. This is in addition to relentless logging because firewood is the primary source of energy in this remote part of Delta state.
However, the UNDP under its Niger Delta Biodiversity Project (NDBP) has assisted the community to ameliorate the evolving environmental disaster around the shrine by initiating the reforestation of Umaja sacred groove. This involves the cultivation of diverse indigenous trees such as opepe, ogbono and oil palm around the sacred groove.
According to the project coordinator of the NDB Project, “the trees being cultivated for the reforestation of the Umaja sacred groove will grow into huge trees that can be used for timbers at their old age as well as harvesting their fruits for consumption such as the ogbono tree.”
The tradition and cultural objective of the groove in connivance with conservation of the environment has turned the shrine and groove into a conservatory and this is why the UNDP is supporting the initiative that has being generally embraced by the host communities.
UNDP has now laid a brick walk-way from the main road into the descending path of the groove and channeled the descending water fall appropriately and this has completely solved the problem of erosion and persistent water logging of the groove.
Regent of Umaja, High Priest Oliseh Menogor while hosting a media tour of the groove noted that “before this intervention by UNDP, the groove was always water logged and not very welcoming to worshippers or visitors but since the walkway was constructed the groove has become very comfortable for everybody to either visit or come and worship at the Onoku Shrine.”
“We are now recording increasing number of guests to the shrine” he affirmed adding that “this has also made a lot of Umuaja resident to very respectful of the shrine and its environment as both old and young now see to cleanliness of the shrine’s environment as well as conserving the adjoining forest as a result of the awareness creating by UNDP.”
Also speaking, the former Deputy Vice Chancellor of Delta State University; Prof Robert Ikimi, stated that “the groove is now a major attraction for religious tourism as Onoku worshippers who are abound in most homes in Delta and Edo states as well as revelers who come to relish the comfortable ambience that the laid pathways now provides under the cool canopy of the mighty Onoku tree as the source of River Ethiope flows quietly along.”
“It is a river that has given many fortunes to people across the world” added the regent. “With this improved facility provided by UNDP, a lot more people now come to the groove from all over the world to collect the water for blessings and spiritual supplements.”
The shrine now plays a major role in the annual Onoku festival
In bid to enhance the biodiversity of the forest around the groove, UNDP in conjunction with the Umuaja Community Development Council (CDC) organized a series of enlightenment workshop for residents of the community to desist from felling of trees around the groove, therefore trees within and around the sacred groove has become forbidden to be felled thereby infusing culture and traditional beliefs into conservation of the environment.
An elder on the Umuaja CDC said that UNDP has educated us to realize that “the destruction of nature around the water source can lead to the drying up of the River Ethiope” hence the enormous support of the community not to touch the trees around the sacred ground despite firewood being a major source of energy in the entire local government area.
The community has also started planting more trees following the UNDP initiative which has helped them restore their sacred groove and its environment.
“A huge untouched canopy of trees around the groove will become a perfect nestling place for birds which will transform the groove into a huge forest reserve with rich biodiversity and this will greatly increase the tourism potential of this community” Dr Dore said.