Photo Essay – The Creeks Vs. Chevron (Location: The Creeks, Nigeria, Africa)

Warri-Town: In the Dark Bus (Location: Warri, Delta State, Nigeria, Africa)

Just as it was with countries like Cambodia, India, and Nepal, Nigeria was real, it was raw, and it was dirty.  Asked why, a simplified answer spoke of how the people and their land were utterly besmeared by the hands of humanity.  Rounded up as slaves by an advancing world, sold, exploited, freed and once again colonized into a vicious cycle, it was their livelihoods and their land that received the brunt of destruction.  Today, the culprit is called oil:  The Blood of the Earth.  And a market of big leaguers stuffing their pockets with cash continues to fuel.

Twenty Seattleites found themselves in the epicenter of the Federal Republic of Nigeria where approximately 240 dialects throughout thirty-six states interacted within 357,000 square miles.  In the weeks we began familiarizing ourselves with one another and the culture pervading, each of us recognized a common bond.  We were here to experience Africa and we all came together, each independent persons with distinct perceptions, yet each harboring a unifying soul with similar intentions. Like threads in a blanket, we wove ourselves into a network of talent to design a new pattern.

Deemed grassroots diplomacy with Global Citizen Journey, we desired understanding and compassion, which emerged into a deeper awareness: People needed to know.  Our families and friends around the world.  Our neighbors and strangers back home.  Consumers and producers.  The people needed to become aware of the real Africa and the real conditions its citizens faced due to our hands.  This was our purpose, what brought us together—to become aware of our abilities as citizen diplomats, taking the reins of our life and society, and transforming them to meet their needs.

We were in Nigeria, an underdeveloped society striving for a chance, fighting to grow, sitting on a wealthy cache of resources.  We were in the Delta State about to embark on a journey down The Creeks to the village of Oporoza, where something slick and dark moved like a nighthawk.  It killed and pillaged.  It led clear minds astray and clean hands to dirt.  It was pushing Africa down.  Meet greed, the second culprit in this case, and greed and oil do not mix.

Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.  I caught myself repeating this mantra beside Los Angeles-native, Eric Esplin.  We looked at one another and chanted as if in trance.  Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.  Eric and I were finally there after the months of preparation and research.  I had sold my car.  Eric kissed his wife goodbye.  And we both left wanting this experience to permeate our being, infuse us with understanding that would transcribe into compassion and evolve into new lifestyles.  Together, along with a few others, we decided to act on our inhibitions and venture into the masses of Warri-town.

Warri was a significant metropolis of Nigeria’s Christian south.  It went by Warri-town, Wassi, the Oil City of Humanity, Wild West of Africa—and the atmosphere was riddled with the sense of something new, something alive.  Our select group tasted this and felt the need for adventure.  From the plush marble walls of the Wellington Hotel, we left behind its automatic doors and the gated entrance to meet the world of Nigeria’s booming oil town.  And after traveling from Lagos to Benin City, meeting up with twenty new Nigerian delegates, and together moving further along the road, it became just that: Warri in the Dark.

It was what all advisors warned against, including our own leaders and delegates (some of them from the city itself). The traffic, the madness, the exodus of humanity returning home with the 6PM closure of shops and subsequent seven o’clock road-ban of motorcycles due to recent unrest.  The jam was a river of creosote-stained logs, spinning in a whirlpool of rusted industry.

But what intrigued us the most was the sheen of the skin, its black gloss.  It cast a mellow glare like hot candle wax, while headlights from oncoming traffic reflected like sandblasted glass through the rising dust.  Men’s bald heads, their lanky necks and broad, ram-boned shoulders; women in color, rainbows of woven crystal magnified in the haze-ridden beams of night traffic: These two aspects of male/female clashed before slamming into one another with a meager quality of production and care, prosperity and concern.  Their heat infused in the mass of ground movement and mixed within the airborne ether of the African atmosphere.

Again, it was dark—a thick black held in a global container of humidity.  There were few stars, only faint specks seen burning through the dank layers above, and as we crossed the Danger Zone our Nigerian delegate, Nicholas Ijabor, announced,  “In the mid ’90s, even at the turn of the century, this was a battlefield.”

We nodded.  We stared.  White eyes blinking without sound.  There was nothing but black and that brown night beyond the bus’ thin glass.  Our bubble felt small, insignificant.

“This junction is the line,” Nicky continued, “the line of property both Ijaw and Itsekiri battled for.”  His talk was smooth, stirring our fears with his ease of localism.

I know what we were all thinking just then.  First, the reality of being in Nigeria.  I heard that chant in my head.  I looked across at Eric.  He felt it.  It was in his heart:  Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.  In a peculiar way, we were all familiarized by now, but at the same time, we knew we never would be.  We were Americans in Africa.  We came from a culture that exploited their livelihoods and raped their lands.  At that moment, we were taking their oil, paying the multinationals to supply our economy, which gave the people little in return.  This was not our land.  It was not our oil.  It never was and it never will be.  We turned a blind eye as people died, wars raged and violence within a suppressed people’s revolution prevailed.  Oil was spilling across humanity.

Secondly, the US State Department recently released a statement on its website specifically advising travelers not to enter the Delta State.  This surfaced immediately.  Our minds spun with the cars, mottos, lorries, and people outside.  The bubble became smaller.

The feelings, the facts—our rationality—compiled.  As I sat in my seat the bus trundled thru traffic.  I came to a third carriage of thought.  The Security General had reported to our delegation his own personal concern: Do not travel outside Lagos, Africa’s 2nd largest city, without a trunk-full of AK-47s and a MOP squad for escort.

Suddenly, there was space for reflection.  The churning seas parted and we saw the Security General as a professional with words; sentences used by professionals for those very professional reasons.  That was what he was there to do. Cogs and bolts greased, the mind’s moving machine continued, traveling with the rest of Warri as a ship across calming waters.

Now a fourth and final respect reared: our own leaders, one by the name Joel Bisina—a local of Warri-town—warned of the adverse potentials after nightfall.  Looking out the windows again, blinking, and making sure what we saw was real, we wondered whether our bus with its government plates was a paradox.  We were white, rich in most eyes, with the world at our fingertips.  And we were traveling through their existence, at the opposite end of the spectrum, through the blackest of nights.  A deep brown of raw earth permeated my vision and there was only that steady darkness within my mind and within those who stared at our bus’ identification.

Being white in Africa, I seemed to relate with what was white.  Therefore, the only visibility I could perceive from our air-conditioned vehicle was the eyes and teeth of our fellow humans.  They were a clear, clean reflection that caught the glare of passing headlights.  They reflected back like moonlight on a pond, soothing us, reminding us of the perceptions we perceived and the choices we made.  Our minds reflected an external landscape.  Our environment mirrored that of our internal framework.  Everywhere was an oily darkness that stuck to the skin, but there were those eyes, those teeth—the inner brilliance of the light of the soul.  My eyes adjusted, my mind reorganized, and what I saw was the reality of an oasis amidst a midnight dust storm.

Our eyes remained wide, our thoughts pondered the “adverse potentials” as we crossed the Danger Zone, and we played nervous finger games among ourselves while the bus surged through any opportunity for space.  Then we crawled out, smelled the air and broke the bubble.  The eyes and teeth were filled with the light of many smiles as colors absolved.  This was Warri, the West African oil boomtown we sought.  This was our level of desire, arriving for awareness, breaking down fears and moving forward to change.  We were freely caught in this chant—Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria—where the oil suddenly ceased importance, where money did not matter, and what only existed was humanity and the planet we thrived upon.  I had an opportunity.  He had that opportunity.  She had the opportunity.  It was their land and their lifestyle.  But it was our connection as humans that united us within that African night.

Distinguished Guests: The Age of the Oil Drill (Location: Lagos, Nigeria, Africa)

Certainly out of our league.  When we entered the building, there was an air of leaving the world behind and indulging in the high-status frequency of world economics and infrastructure.  I passed a sign, or more a mural embedded within a wall like thick corrosive sludge in the shore’s seagrass.  It was iridescent, out of place, colorful within the drab building of white walls, symmetric hallways, and black electronics blinking, beeping, interrupting and heeding.   It stated:

Integral to everything we do is a commitment to valuing the uniqueness of the individual, harnessing the strengths of a diverse work force, and respecting and learning from the communities in which we operate.  As we succeed, so too should our partners in Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and other countries around the world.


I gave some thought worth pause.

My camera was in hand.  I snapped a photo.  A security guard approached.

“You take no photo.  No.  No photo.”  His head shook.  It was black as night.  It was black.  It was beautiful.

I pointed playing dumb, “This?”

“No photo.”

Too late.

Here we were, average citizens, turned global, now becoming diplomats.  We were inside the headquarters of Chevron Nigeria Limited.  We came for a meeting with the senior managerial staff to probe, to understand, and of course, to “respect and learn from the communities in which we were operating.”  We were twenty Americans about to sit down in a boardroom with the decision makers of Chevron’s involvement within Nigeria.  We left this exact country behind as we found ourselves within leather- and cotton-cushioned seats in a room outfitted with top-of-the-line conferencing technology.  Where was Nigeria?

“You are citizen diplomats in the inner sanctum of Chevron!” Susan shouted in a belligerence of excitement.

As we waited, prepared, and sat in anticipation, our penmanship doodled in quick fury.  It jittered with the unknown that was about to arrive.  What would we say?  What would happen?  What would come about with this meeting, and how could we all benefit from it, especially the people of the Niger Delta?  Together, we felt like we were a world apart from the streets of Nigeria in which we had just left.  The madness, the horns, the heat, the people and the bodies—crammed crushed beaten—the charred metals of slashing motors and their bikes.  It was a pure black ebony traffic jam on our way through the streets of the once-capital—Lagos. With an estimated population somewhere between 10 and 15.5 million people, making it the second largest city in Africa (Cairo being number one), we drove across town with the hoards of traffic in slow crawl.  Buses, vans, sleek black Mercedes with chrome wheels and tinted windows, along with clunking heaps of metal, motto-bikes and foot-traffic allowing time to pass slowly.  People moved in all directions, against all civil rules in what often looked like a rumble of rusted parts held together by bolts and the people themselves.  And despite the exodus of everyday Lagos, we reached our meeting with the precision of planning after the hours of simply crossing town, staring out the windows at the revolutions of Africa’s intensity.  Here we were, within white walls, within silence, putting back on the layers we had been stripped of as a stern, stubborn vent hissed a chilled air over our heads.  We had only spent one night and one morning in the country, and now we were gone.  We were in the corporate country of Nigeria; a Wonderland entirely different.

I sat back.  My leather chair responded; bounced, squished, squeaked, and reclined like a rocket launch.  The air filtered.  It hummed.  Mr. Denji Hastrup and Mr. Simon Winchester entered.

There were short introductions, which seemed wholly fruitless in the scope of their ripening money tree.  Hands were extended as we greeted the senior management of Chevron Nigeria Ltd., and our attentions spanned, as did the tailored wealth of their headquarter lawns.  Susan spoke with a leader’s determinacy; “We’re not tourists, we’re delegates.  We’re here to learn and bridge all sides.  We hope with our presences, with loving hearts and open minds, we can create more trust.”  She paused.  “We’re really here to listen.”

Listening.  This was Susan Partnow’s thing, as well as the other facilitators of The Compassionate Listening Project around the world.  And this was a part of our journey.  How else to learn, but listen?

Alright, indeed there is experience, but within the act and art of experience, you listen.  This is the essence.  Within experience, you don’t just listen with the ears, catching sounds, but you listen with it all.  Your body listens to the environment.  It feels the senses.  It absorbs them with the input they receive.  It immerses itself within the energy of the atmosphere.  It sucks from it—a nectar, the bee.  The body and the experience, when in a union of totality, are one.  They compliment each other.  They feed from one another.  And in order to accomplish this awareness, the body listens.

The Compassionate Listening Project, in an esoteric perspective, is this bodily listening.  It is an awareness of your body to that which is before you—whether a person communicating, whether more than one, or whether the environment you are within—to best understand it and open up to the potential for growth and healing, if necessary.  Deeper, you reach the level of the heart and soul, where your love innately resides; waiting, stirring, believing.  In its patience, your love lingers for your own initiative to release and fill others.

“We’re really here to listen.”  Susan’s phrase extended to a whole source of purpose.  As I sat there, I could see it written and pasted on a refrigerator, one of those magnets of wise sayings and quotes:

We’re really here

to listen

-Susan Partnow

I could look at it as a spiritual meaning.  We’re here to hear—to hear the inner voice of our guidance to direct us to the most beneficial, most safe, most loving home upon this planet where we could operate from the source of love and peace where this precise guidance emerges.  We’re here to listen to one another—something called respect, which could solve any and all problems, each catastrophic war and each domestic dispute among family, friends and strangers.  We’re here to listen.

As Susan spoke of our project within the Niger Delta, Denji and Simon indeed listened, but they often checked their watches, flipping their wrists, or allowed their eyes to wander round the room’s walls as if marveling at the technological masterpieces in which they had at their fingertips.  “Damn we’re good,” the eyes spoke.

The two execs were businessmen and this was the air within that hissing, humming, chilling boardroom.  They spoke to us with diligence and professionalism.

“It is not practically possible to have a full understanding of the complexity of the Niger Delta.  It is a region of tribes and peoples each with a distinct history and kinship to one another.  And for us to operate within it, we face daily trials dealing with the tribes who compete and survive based on their own and their neighbors’ performance.  There is jealousy and often hostility involved.  It is a very, very complex situation we have.  Once you know the problem, it is only half solved.”

We knew what Mr. Denji was speaking of.  We had had our history lessons of the region.  We were aware of the violence, the suffering, between the peoples of the Delta, and we were also aware of the turning of a blind eye in which companies such as Chevron, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Exxon ignored, even instigated.

But it was never all bad, that is…their participation and operations.  Back in the late ‘90s, Chevron funded the construction and operation of a hospital near a platform called Escravos, but relied on the Delta government to supply the doctors from the nearby industrial port of Warri.  This was the high point with the local ethnic peoples.  It was a time when relative stability settled over and under the oil-rich region and both multinationals and locals sought to work with one another.  Many projects such as these flourished.  Or maybe the word flourished used here is a little to ostentatious.  How ‘bout developed?  On top of the Delta’s development in the oil industry and its exportation and sales, the communities within and surrounding the oil platforms developed from the broad opportunities for employment.  Relatively speaking, most were happy, or that was the feeling within those communities reaping the benefits off their own land, as it should be.

This was the high point.  The two separate worlds, one of developed business fueling the rest of the world and one of primitive African fisherpersons, working with one another and both coming out on top—or so most thought.

The hospital near Escravos was up and running.  Local people had medicine.  Pregnant women had a source where they could be cared for, supported, and children could have the chance for survival with modern vaccines when they faced the struggle against disease and virus strains.  Working with one another.  Both coming out on top—or so we assume.

In 1999, the hospital, the drugs, the whole project burnt to the ground.  It was charred, seared, a place of modernity and community within the raw world of Africa’s tribes.  A local group, apparently due to the inter-conflicts between tribes, torched it, leading one to ask, “Was jealousy involved?”  “Why did they get a hospital and not us?”  “My water’s spoiled, as is theirs:  What do we get?”

Chevron returned and helped to rebuild the community’s hospital, one open to all peoples of the region, but the region is big, taking hours, maybe days to cover through the narrow alleyways of water in what is called The Creeks.  So others were not pleased.  They wanted theirs.  It burnt down again in 2003.

Simon looked around at us.  He wanted us to know the complexity.  He wanted us to know the frustration they all face within the business when the people help fuel this adversity of fairness and just responsibility.  “We have to find stability in the region.  It does not make sense to throw money where it will not benefit the people, where it will not care for the children and those who are ill.”

So the leaders at Chevron Nigeria Ltd. developed a new model for sustainable development within the communities, for the communities.  They would fund representatives from each community to create and develop the communications necessary.  It would be termed Regional Council Development, or RCD.  Within this board, representatives would meet and discuss funding options to get input and educate the locals about the prospects for development.  Likewise, a priority among responsible business management is the transparency of the company and its operations.  Therefore, RCD would discuss the costs of the project to create an open and indistinct development.  Simon put the mustard behind the bread; “When we know the cost of a project, when we know the cost of a gift, we are less likely to destroy it so quickly.”

RCD incorporates four basic principles:

  1. Participate with partnership
  2. Transparency and accountability
  3. Community empowerment and sustainable development
  4. Conflict resolution

With the first principle, Simon reiterated the success between partnerships when each member is involved and active in the developing process.  Open communication is key, involving as many perspectives with those present.  In regards to transparency and accountability, if the information and knowledge is not clear, it advocates the spread of rumors from a third party source.  When each participant and community individual is aware of the operation and aware of the contribution to operation, those opposing it in any way are less likely to react in retaliation since all honesty among the other participating member is open and on the board.

As I was listening, I was thinking: Smart man, right?.

And the third point Mr. Simon Winchester highlighted was on empowerment.  We all know empowerment; its strength, its force, its lifting qualities to make one believe and be believed.  Empower the people, Simon emphasized.  “Unleash their potential to develop community in order to create sustainability and stability.  If Chevron leaves, the project and creation will continue in the hands of its successors.”  I was beginning to see Simon as the next Zig Ziglar of the corporate world.

Empowerment is complete power shift.  It is a giving of power, or the potential for realization of power, back to someone.  But was that power ever taken?

Power is in one’s own beholding.  If one has power, conviction, belief, it is only taken from one if that person allows it to be.  Power is yours to keep, and it always is yours.  No one can ever take it; it is only yours to give.  And in the frame of empowerment, empowering people, especially the tribes of the Delta, would be allowing them the opportunity to reclaim their strength and participate in the development of their own land—something they have never had in this emerging world of business.  The new process, according to Simon, would involve the action of both woman and child—another foreign concept in the eyes of village elders.  This is the transparency process of RCD.

Our eyes were open; our ears receptacles from abroad in a world of distinguished differences.  But we listened through each capable orifices of reception.  We learned.

“This is community engagement 101,” Denji finished.  “And always be on alert.”  That last remark jumped out from the bush, and I wondered its relevance to the new model, but he summed up his feelings, whether business to business, or just straight person to person—an equal plane.  “You’re a bridge to us.  You’re a bridge to them.”

As we left the room, we all had the opportunity to ask more questions in a casual, wondering, cocktail-party ambiance.  I chose to wonder and be an observer.

My thoughts burrowed deep within a conscious questioning with every other diplomat, searching for an understanding of the issues facing the oil-rich region of the Niger Delta.  We heard Chevron’s proposed programs in order to meet the local’s needs, needs that have been ignored, trampled and despoiled among the multinational corporations’ greed for revenue and demand.  Yes, their words were professional, understood to be addressing a group of twenty philanthropic workers.  They were shakers of hands, and we met theirs, grateful for the time allotted to us humble seekers.  I wandered and approached a wall near the south exit and stood before a large plastic poster inscribed with the Codes of Conduct.  How professional.


Nigeria/Mid-Africa SBU

Operational Excellence

Safe, Reliable, Efficient and Environmentally Sound Operations

Do it safely or not at all

There is always time to do it right

Tenets of Operation


  • Operate within design or environmental limits.
  • Operate in a safe and controlled condition.
  • Ensure safety devices are in place and functioning.
  • Follow safe work practices and procedures.
  • Meet or exceed customer’s requirements.
  • Maintain integrity of dedicated systems.
  • Comply with all applicable rules and regulations.
  • Address abnormal conditions.
  • Follow written procedures for high risk or unusual situations.
  • Involve the right people in decisions that affect procedures and equipment.

Achieving World-Class Performance Through

Organizational Capability

Out the security borders and beyond the gated walls.  Out back into Nigeria, with Africa’s most populous nation at hand.