Gembu – an Untapped Nature’s Gift

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With its rich lolling landscape, enchanting scenery and shrubbery, amazing heights and of course a next to none but presently comatose tea industry, the Mambilla plateau to many is a golden geese abandoned The town of Jalingo is small one compared to other state capitals. But in terms of infrastructure, beauty and modernity, it cannot be swept aside in the comity of other cities around the country. But this town apart from the little known Mutum Biyu town offers a link route to a greater treasure of the state which has no doubt not been accorded its due recognition due to serial neglect by the authorities. One of the areas of neglect appears to be in the area of good road network.

Whether one prefers to pass through Mutum Biyu or Jalingo, the potential tourist needs to prepare for about 6 to seven hours gruelling trip over vast expanse of arable lands cut through by a poorly maintained road network. From Garba Chede through other human habitations such as Kakegh, Panwai, Gayam, Serti-Baruwa, Gashaka, Mayo Selbe, Masamari to Nguroje, the final major town before Gembu (the fringe town between Nigeria and Cameroon Republic) it is a gargantuan battle for motorists who ply the road. In some few areas though, the journey becomes a little bit bearable going by reconstruction works being carried out by the authorities. But these spots are few and far between.

Particularly of note is the drive up the massive Mambilla plateau which ordinarily would take a shorter time if adequate attention had been given to the maintenance of the uphill road. It is a regular sight, say some of the residents to see broken down vehicles along the snaking road which takes its huge toll on the numerous vehicles that daily ply the route. But it is a journey many tourists are willing to undertake on a daily basis going by the treasure trove that lies high up the plateau.

The route to Gembu for those in the southern part of the country links from a major road to Mambilla from Lagos, through Benin City, Onitsha, Enugu, Oturkpo, Yandev, Katsina Ala, Wukari, Mutum Biyu, Bali, Serti, Nguroje and finally Gembu. One could also take a connecting flight to Yola Airport, then drive a few miles down south to Mambilla.

An online record gives a summary of this treasure: ‘the Mambilla plateau is a high grassland Plateau which is a part and extension of the Adamawa, Obudu, Shebbi and Atlantic mountain chain. The Mambilla Plateau which lies to the southern tip of the State is noted for its rich scenic beauty.

Which stands at well over 1,830 metres above sea level, has a temperate climate with lush pasture green vegetation. The access route up the Plateau and the canyons are a breath-taking delight, with snake – like winding road that ascend the Plateau and along the road natural springs that bore through rocks adorns the road, so also is a spectacular bridge suspended over a valley. The bridge links/joins 2 spurs, and that itself is a sight to behold.’

Gembu, the name of the ancient Mambilla town of Bommi, was taken from the name of a monarch of the town known as ‘Gelmvu’. The town is found on the Mambilla Plateau, in the south eastern part of Taraba state, close to the border separating Nigeria and Cameroon. This Mambilla region is famous in African history as the home of the Bantu who remained after the great split and Bantu expansion across Africa which began c. 1500 BC. The Mambilla Plateau is the generally accepted historically Bantu Homeland.

Yetunde Farinloye, a researcher said that, ‘the Mambila plateau features unique physical and climatic conditions for human settlement as for cattle breeding: it is within such an environment that the Mambila farmers have settled and developed as a dense population. During the 19th century the highlands became the main sources of slaves for the Muslim Fulani kingdoms of Banyo and Gashaka.

Although resisting strongly, the Mambila villages fell one after the other.

A mix of diverse cultures transcending Nigeria’s borders

In Gembu and adjoining towns especially Kakara and Nguroje, there is a rich combination of cultures. The town is located a few miles from the Nigeria Cameroonian border. Crossing the border is a simple task and takes little or no immigration hassles.

This no doubt explains why there is always a large number of Cameroonian especially traders present in these towns on a daily basis. The Nguroje weekly market is also an avenue for the blossoming interaction between the two countries. Nigerians too constantly cross over to the sister country regularly either for personal reasons or for doing business.

Other Nigerians apart from the indigenous Mambilla tribe can be found in large numbers in the town. Particularly of note are the Igbo traders many of whom have taken over large swathes of the medical, clothing and electronic business concerns in the northern enclave.

There are also several minor groups, mainly business men from other locations of Nigeria and Cameroon,who can be found engaging in one form of business enterprise or the others in the Mambilla Plateau, such as the Yorubas , Hausas, Bansos,Kambus, Igbiras etc.

Calystus Faison, manager of the Bannah Center for Community Development, Gembu chapter said the town represents of the greatest lessons in human tolerance and unity amongst diverse cultures, tribal and religious affiliations. “I don’t think that there is any tribe that you cannot find here in Gembu. Name them and you will certainly find someone from there here. And there is a great level of tolerance here.

“You will find Christians, Muslims and other religions practising their faith without molestation here in Gembu. Everyone goes about their business here and do not foment trouble. And it even transcends the town. Cameroonians can also be found here doing business or living peaceably. If the entire nation especially flash points around the country can extract some lessons from Gembu then the nation will be better off,” he sai.

Tea: An untapped natural resource on the Plateau

Tea is a beverage made from a processed leaf of a plant whose latin name is Camellia Sinensis and its Greek name is Thea. Today experts agree that only water is rated higher in world consumption than this liquid.

Tea was accidentally discovered in about 2737 BC when legend has it that a Chinese emperor Shen Nung was visiting parts of his kingdom and he decided to take a nap under a tree. After a relaxing sleep he ordered his cup bearer to boil some water for drinking.

In the process a leaf from a tree above his head dropped into the boiling water. When the emperor tried the brew he loved the taste and thereafter decided to use the trees, leaves for consumption. It soon became a tradition in China to use the tree’s leaves for brew.

The tea drinking culture spread from China to other parts of the globe subsequently. Between 618 and 907 AD tea became a national drinking competition in China and environs. The Dutch and Persian traders took the tea to Europe and British colonies including Nigeria.

In the 70s the Federal Government established a tea estate on the Mambilla plateau, Taraba state. The Nigeria Beverages Production Company was incorporated in the same year to take over the project. (But not much success seems to have been recorded in the nation’s quest to transform the veritable resource) which can be found in large quantities on the plateau into a revenue spinner for the country.

Highland tea: ‘Taraba’s best kept secret?’

Located in a small town, Kakara on the fringes of Gembu is the project site embarked upon by the government years back in an effort to transmute the massive tea quantity abounding in the region into wealth. Christened highland tea, it is a tea which the management say is brewed from 100 per cent locally sourced materials.

According to a literature material made available to Sunday Trust from the media arm of the company, the highland tea is Nigeria’s grossly underestimate revenue earner.

It said inter alia that, ‘tea plants may grow in many parts of the West African sub region but they can only grow under suitable conditions. The suitable altitude range is between 1500m and 2200m above sea level. The environment must have a well distributed rainfall ranging from 1200mm to 2500mm annually with long sunny intervals. The suitable temperature for tea growth ranges from 120c to a maximum of 35c.

The soil type and condition is a crucial factor to the commercial growth of tea. It must be well drained to a depth of 2 metres and have a PH range of between 4.5 and 6.5 beyond which the tea growth may be retarded. Fortunately all these suitable conditions are found only on the mambilla plateau in Taraba state (nature’s gift to the Nigeria)and no other place in the West African sub region.’

It adds the reason why the locally manufactured tea is of a better quality than other brands. “It is the only farm fresh tea that does not suffer the deterioration of the high seas. It is a mixture of different tea clones in our plantation.

It is plucked at our farms with strict adherence to a set standard of two leaves and a bud. It is manufactured under strict hygienic standard and free from pesticide residue. It is natural and contains substances that stop bacteria from sticking to teeth and fights tooth decay. Recent international studies show that high quality tea to which the brand belongs delays the onset of cancer, reduces chances of heart attack and lowers cholesterol level by 10%.”

A laudable project abandoned midway

Abdullahi Aminu, a resident of Gembu, said that the project is suffering massive setback in recent times due to its apparent neglect by those concerned. He said that apart from local consumption of the tea by the local inhabitants, no one seems to know what the brand is all about like it was in the past.

“I can vividly remember the past precisely the 90s when it was still a popular brand. There was no household that did not have at least packet of the tea in their homes.

“But that is not the case today. The plateau especially Gembu was known in the past for its vast number of dairy farms and tea plantations. For the tea the Highland brand was the most popular and there were other large dairy farms in contention then. But today they seem to have been submerged and no one seems to care about their rapid disappearance. Of great pain is the tea industry which is wobbling at present.

“What you have today now is small scale farmers of tea who manufacture small quantities for local consumption and sales but these are done discreetly and under unhygienic conditions. There are no concise plans by the government to upgrade the activities of the major players such as Highland tea in Kakara and the top tea brand in Masamari.

“Presently private people are the ones doing the business now. A single man would own his own farm and will harvest the tea which he will take to the company to sell because the company cannot carry out the harvesting again due to paucity of funds. We learnt that recently they laid off a large number of their staff and that there are plans to lay off more due to the financial hardship being faced by the company. While there is a little bit of activity at least going on in the tea industry that of the dairy farm has been largely neglected. It is sad.”

A drive along the snaking road to Gembu however reveals ubiquitous tea plantations, some large and others small, small dairy farms and a large population of cattle milling across the unending landscape. A resident said that due to the preponderance of the resource in the serene landscape, many small scale farmers have emerged as a new class of entrepreneurs seeking to make quick cash from the abundant tea resource.

We are overstretched financially but we will weather the storm say Highland management

Ibrahim Nwunuji is the managing director of the Nigerian Beverages Production Company producers of Highland tea. He agrees that the company is facing dire economic fortunes but equally opines that with adequate government intervention and a renewed public awareness about the economic potentials of the resource in the region coupled with ample time, the public project may yet yield the desired dividend for Nigerians.

“We agree that there have been some challenges over the years in terms of funding from owners of the company. But as at now a lot of things are changing fast. We are back to production and we now have a lot of packed tea that we have produced and are awaiting sales. We now have effective distribution in Jalingo, Yola, Kano and Abuja. We are also trying to link up with distributors in Lagos and Jos that have hitherto abandoned the business due to our erratic production in the past. We are getting back to the market with full force,” he disclosed.

He saai that funding is a major source of worry for the project.

“This is an agricultural based industry. It requires a lot of money in terms of working capital. Presently we buy diesel up here at N200 per litre. The fertiliser and the herbicide and other materials we use for production are very expensive to get.

“We require a lot of money in terms of working capital. Secondly we require the government’s support policy wise. We need a tea policy. There is no tea policy in Nigeria presently. We presently grow tea on the farm and take it up to the production level. You cannot compare us to those people who import inferior tea and overseas and only pack; they don’t experience the problems of growing tea on a farm, producing tea on a farm and manufacturing. Their cost pattern is different from ours.

“There is no tea policy in Nigeria that will at least curtail reckless importation of inferior tea.” That has in effect made us uncompetitive compared to other ‘tea packers’ only. These are basically the areas we want the government to help us look into. As far as we are concerned Highland tea is still the best in terms of quality. Within seven days that you get the leaves from the tree the tea is already in the market for consumption. It is always farm fresh compared to other competitors who import from India, Sri Lanka and Kenya whose tea stays on the high seas for a high as three months before coming into the Nigerian market. That is why most of them flavour the tea so that the fresh flavour can come out a little bit. Highland tea has no competitor in terms of quality…”

Voices from Gembu

For a town that is rich in cultural diversity, human resource and natural endowment, challenges are also not totally unexpected. A few of the residents make their view known over what they see as major impediments to the expectations of many concerning the relatively unexplored tourist haven.

Sylverius Wirson, assistant headmaster of the Nurul-ulum Special Primary school, Gembu said the most pressing need as far as he is concerned is the unfulfilled educational needs of the town.

He enthuses: “we feel that the government has forgotten us. This town has a very conducive atmosphere for learning (climate wise).

“But we have no higher institution. And this local government (Sardauna local government) is one of the largest in Taraba. The other time the government wanted to establish a college of agriculture but the issue is silent today. If the government can at least give us one federal institution it will greatly serve the purpose of education here.

“Most of us are farmers. So you can imagine how much it will cost a farmer to send his child or children to Yola or Jalingo to acquire higher education or any other state for studies. Also worth mentioning is the issue of inadequate electricity and water. Thank God we have streams or it would have been terrible for us. As for light scarcely do we have that here. It is only once in a blue moon. Sometimes we wonder if we are part of this country.”

For Isaiah Aboki, a local government employee, sees no sign of development in the town so far. “It is as if we are not in Nigeria. In this local government there are no developments to me. Compared to other local governments we are still far behind. In terms of being current with developments in other parts of the country, we are behind.

“We don’t have any networks such as NTA to log onto in order to know what is happening. Not everyone can afford the cable network. Like I said it is as if we are not part of Nigeria especially when we see developments in other cities across the country when we travel there. Even our representatives in the legislature and in Abuja have forgotten us completely.”

Yusuf Gubajao, another resident, wants the government to repair the sordid road networks as a first move to make the residents feel the impact of governance.

“Even you will testify to the bad roads you saw as you were coming in. Getting into Gembu and going out of it is traumatic. The government should assist us to put the roads in order,” he said.

Efforts to speak with the local government chairman over developmental strides being embarked upon by his administration were unsuccessful as he was not available. But the director, Agriculture and Natural Resources department (who did not give his name) said the local government was putting in place measures to improve the lives of the residents. He did not however specify the measures.

“You know I cannot speak to you on behalf of the local government. Only the chairman can. But all I can say that there are measures we are undertaking to better the lot of the residents in this local government. On Wednesday (the day after) we are even having a stakeholders meeting with the chairman in attendance where developmental issues will be discussed and in which developmental programs will he unfolded. This is all I can say to you,” he enthused good-naturedly.

But Abdullahi Aminu, a youth leader, said categorically their leaders have failed them.

“apart from maize and potatoes that we farm here, most of the food porducts we eat in the town are brought down from other towns and these are expensive for the average family. There is hadly any famiy that feeds from the produce of their farms. Our town lacks development. We have hardly known uninterrpted power supply for ten hours at a stretch.

“Our leaders go out there and see development in other parts of the country but do nothing to replicate them here when they come back. There is no youth empowerment whatsoever. The only youth that manages to survive here does so only as an ‘okada’ rider. Many of them are dropouts. A lot more are graduates with no hope of getting jobs…”