DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM? The Humble Beginning (Part 3)

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As I think about the big challenges of desertification, it brings me back to how intertwined our planet’s ecosystems are and the fragile balance we’re always trying to keep. You see, I’ve ventured across the vast Sahara desert on two solo expeditions, and those experiences changed me.

My experiences motivated me to author a book, “Me, My Desert, and I,” where I share all the things I’ve learned along the way. It wasn’t just about chasing adventure; it sparked a deep passion in me to understand and fight desertification and how to combat land degradation.

Over the years, I’ve seen how relentless dunes creep closer to homes and habitats, putting lives and nature itself at risk. It’s like witnessing nature’s unstoppable march, slowly but surely reshaping and fighting back.

In my book, I didn’t just recount my journey; I also weave in decades of desert wisdom and insight. My goal is to break down the harsh realities of desert life in simple words while urging everyone to take action together thereby making the world better than they met it.

As I’ve searched for my own identity, I’ve had a couple of close friends write about my adventures and my life. Their pieces were published recently, adding more credence to my story.

And today, I have my dear friend Soni Irabor, a well-known broadcaster, share his perspective on my journeys and my life. It’s another chapter in the ongoing series, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”.

Every first day of the year family and friends gather to celebrate a gentleman who represents many positive things to many people in different ways. That gentleman is Dr Newton JIBUNOH.

Born January 1, 1938, JIBUNOH must have been born into nature with a clear mind to show his commitment to anything natural. From his love for plants to his curiosity over how the earth nurtures plants in the soil.

In his foray through life, he has displayed a daredevil curiosity about planet Earth.

At 27′ he drove a Volkswagen car from London through the Sahara Desert to Lagos, alone! He made news as an adventurous young man. However, what many saw as a curious adventure started to show a defined passion and respect for nature.

Newton Jibunoh who founded Foundation Engineering Ltd and retired as MD of Costain West Africa spent most of his pre-retirement life building structures across West Africa especially Nigeria. It is interesting to observe that alongside his profession Newton Jibunoh has always exhibited a passion for plants, soil and artefacts. All these started to manifest as he grew older. As he built houses, so did his love for nature grow. So did he give prominence to his environment. So did he show a strong passion for arts and culture.

His love for nature showed in how he surrounded his houses with different plants, allowing them to blossom, and giving a beautiful ambience to the environment. The same can be said of the way he adorns his houses and offices with different works of art.

Dr Newton Jibunoh is arguably one of the earliest Nigerians to own a private museum, Didi Museum, located at plot 175 Akin Adesola St, Victoria Island, Lagos.

This man of many passions can best be described as a lover of nature who does more for Nigeria than anyone may care to admit.

Over the years, he has quietly planted trees in different parts of the country, without making noise about it.

In his typical manner, he would joke to family and friends about travelling by road to the Sahara desert.

He would pointedly ask what it would be like to travel by road across the Sahara again! Many, especially family and friends would laugh it off.

It was no longer funny when he asked me how I saw him venturing into the Sahara Desert again. I thought he was pulling my legs.

By 2000 he had put plans in motion. It was more elaborate, He was serious! He actually ventured into the Sahara by road. This time the world was made more aware. He was equipped with the right technology to track his movements. I did a live interview with him in Abuja as he was starting his journey when Soni Irabor Live was broadcast on AIT. This Desert Warrior went through the Sahara a second time. He was received at the Nigerian embassies of the countries in the desert along the route he took. International News Networks like CNN covered that trip.

And in 2006 Dr Jibunoh went the same route again making it the 3rd time.

When in 2004 he invited me to join him to a village in Kano called Makoda, a village that was threatened by desert encroachment, I had to challenge my curiosity to feel, if you may, what was propelling him to take such daredevil decisions that was not common! I went with him to Makoda and experienced the first tree-planting exercise in that sense of the word, for me. A village ravaged by sand storms and threatened by the desert. It was almost a ghost of its once thriving self, laid bare as most of the inhabitants had relocated to a more environmentally friendly place.

“Na dis village dis man wan come save?” I wondered to myself.

He invited dignitaries to the practically deserted village. They came. They planted trees. They left. I left too. We all went our separate ways. But Jibunoh never lost contact with that village. Makoda which was threatened by desert encroachment, is today an oasis of forest, thriving with trees and people have since returned to the village.

Jibunoh has gone through the Sahara desert three times. He has maintained contact with nature through his ‘romance’ with plants by his singular efforts at reforestation.

I began to make sense of it all from that Makoda village tree-planting experience.

The trips across the desert were actually study trips as risky as they were. I linked the tree-planting exercises to those trips.

On his 75th birthday, January 1, 2013, I was privy to be among 75 notable people who took part in planting 75 trees at Folawiyo Primary School in Ikoyi in Lagos. One needs to behold the lush trees to experience the ambience of the beautiful Orchard they have become.

An unassuming reminder of the urgent need to plant a tree for us to, not only appreciate nature, but to be mindful of the climate change growing around us.

One may not appreciate the efforts of Dr Newton Jibunoh until one looks at the totality of what he has done over the years.

I could not understand what kept pulling him to the Sahara desert until he invited me to the tree planting exercise at Makoda village in Kano. In the same breath he established Fight Against Desert Environment, FADE, which he has used to draw attention to the urgent need for reforestation in Nigeria especially the front line states bordering the desert. It is pertinent to note that desert encroachment is a growing threat that only Jibunoh and a handful others appear to be concerned about.

Jibunoh has written more than four books most of which talked about his encounters with nature. In 2002, I was privileged to be among a few Nigerians that witnessed the launching of

the book “Me, My Desert and I” by the then South African Vice President, Jacob Zuma, during the World Earth Summit in Johannesburg. In that book, Dr Jibunoh did not hesitate to remind the world that climate change was beyond rhetoric.

Today at over 86 years of age, Dr Newton Jibunoh is once again reminding us of the need to plant a tree in a bid to revive our forests because the forest plays a key role in reviving our ecosystem, the existence of plants in our environment is the bedrock of human existence. Without plants man cannot exist. Without man plants cannot exist either. God knows why he created that delicate balance but does man?

In the last 10 years this tireless man has established a beautiful resort in Asaba, by the International Airport. It is called Mandela Gardens and Resorts. A beautiful nature’s habitat where plants commune with exotic animals in a homely international hotel fashion.

On January 1, 2023, Eighty Five personalities planted Eighty Five trees to celebrate this iconic man to mark his 85th birthday. He has been selfless in his quest for the revival of the ecosystem of the forests of Nigeria. If as many as 20% of Nigeria’s population could give this idea serious thought, we would sing a more positive tune. One year and a month later, I marvel at what those Eighty Five trees have become, a growing boulevard on Asaba Benin Highway by the Asaba Airport.

What do I think of this daredevil 86 year-old man? Your guess is as good as mine. He is a man created by God to be the voice of conscience for the people. He is daring even as he is humble. His smiles will never betray his determination to take that risk that every other person will probably dread!

He is indeed a man of the people whose actions have spoken louder than words in whatever he sets out to do. He is a complete African. Nigeria is lucky to have had him as a citizen. I am proud to have him as my mentor. God bless you, sir!


Soni Irabor writing from Lagos, Nigeria. He can be reached via his Instagram @iraborsoni

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