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The Nigerian Activist Trying to Sell Plants to the Oil Company That Destroyed Them

“They were dragging me from behind,” she said. “It all went bad.”

Shaken, Mrs. Agbani and her team left and did not return to Yaataah for months. She decided to base the nursery elsewhere — a local leader agreed to lend her land close to the polluted sites in Bodo.

But she couldn’t quite let go of Yaataah. It had a good creek where they could practice cultivating mangroves out in the wild, directly from seeds, rather than first establishing them in the plastic grow bags of the nursery in Bodo.

And now, in May 2021, the women were back to plant.

Hoisting the sacks onto their heads, and with their skirts above their knees, the women descended the little hill barefoot and slipped into the clear water of the creek. It didn’t stay clear for long, though, as dozens of feet stirred up the soft sediment.

“Something’s sizzling round my legs,” said Mrs. Agbani, 45, laughing, leaning on a stick, and struggling to get a foothold in the mud. “Oh my god, Martha is an old woman.”

The spot was perfect. There was very little oil pollution. Birds, frogs and crickets still sang from their clumps of foliage. Like many a creek of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, it was choked by nipa palms. But Mrs. Agbani had arranged for villagers to clear a large patch of the palms.

The women squelched nimbly through the mud over to the patch and worked quickly, passing the seeds — technically, podlike propagules” that germinate on the tree — from hand to hand and sticking them in the mud at foot-long intervals, directed by Mrs. Agbani.

“Carry me dey go-o,” one of the women, Jessy Nubani, sang, bobbing up and down as she worked, adapting a popular call-and-response song. The other women sang back in harmony: “Martha, carry me dey go, dey go, dey go.”

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