|Mr. Ubong Otong stepping out from his Nissan Sunny|
By Cletus UkpongMr. Ubong Otong, as a freelance photojournalist, works with several other media professionals – publishers, editors and reporters – in Uyo, Akwa Ibom, but surprisingly he remains the big story the press has not seen or has refused to see; he has been homeless for more than three years now, living in the streets of Uyo.
Interestingly, Otong drives a fairly-used green-colour 1.8-model Nisan Sunny car given to him as a surprise gift about four years ago by Mr. Aniekan Umanah, the Akwa Ibom State information commissioner.He seems to be connected to top politicians and businessmen in Akwa Ibom, and has done photographic jobs for most of them.
“I have been homeless for the past three years. I sleep anywhere I see. I’ll park my car and sleep inside it, and the next morning I’ll wake up and go,” Ubong Otong said soberly in an interview with DETAILS.Otong, 40, from Onna Local Government Area, uses his car as a mobile home – inside it, are household items like plates, spoons, drinking cups, soaps, detergent, toothbrush, and of course his wears. He also keeps books, his professional cameras and finished photographic jobs for clients inside the car. The day DETAILS interviewed him in a private residence somewhere in Ewet Housing Estate, Uyo, he had inside his car a 20 by 24 inch portrait of Mr. Ephraim Akpan, the chairman of Mkpat Enin Local Government Area who used to be a newspaper publisher before he joined politics. He said he was hoping to get at least N20, 000 from the council chairman for the job.
|The inside of Otong's car showing his personal belongings|
Otong says he sometimes go for three days without taking his bath because he doesn’t have access to any bathroom. He wears rumpled clothes pulled out from his car boot because he doesn’t have a place to iron them.
He buys some extra food and keeps it as a reserve in case he gets hungry late in the night. He has a small container filled with drinking water too.
During the interview with DETAILS, Otong appeared deeply troubled over the sad turn of events in his life. But he intermittently expressed determination to overcome it.
“I thank God for the experience. It has made me to know what it means to be homeless, what it means to pass through the valley of the shadow of death,” he says.
“I have been somebody exposed to luxury before; exposed to sleeping in hotels whenever I traveled, taking flights. I just found myself at the extreme end of the other side of life, and it is an abject lesson for me.”
Since most newspaper houses don’t pay him for his photos, Otong says he fuels his car with the little money he makes from taking some shots of individuals and printing the photos for them for a fee. Sometimes, clients refuse to pay him the agreed fees and in some terrible situations they don’t pay him at all.
“Some of the papers are not even strong to be paying you, but for them to give me a space to exhibit my professional works is something. Some give me up to two pages for photographs, but then our society is difficult. Sometimes, you do a work for a personality in government or outside government or a religious leader, he will tell you, you should sow seed of faith with the job you’ve done for him.”
He has tried putting the car into commercial use as a taxi, but had to withdraw from that line of business because of how passengers were ill-treating him, he said.
Otong doesn’t sleep just in any street; his favourite is Dominic Utuk’s Avenue (former Brooks Street) because it is well-lit at night and has police trucks permanently stationed at the beginning of the road by Christ the King Primary School and at the end of it, close to Rev. Abel Damina’s Power City International Church.
Also, several months of sleeping in the open, along Dominic Utuk’s Avenue has helped him forged some sort of friendly relationship with the security guards in notable establishments that are in the avenue, like EMJMM Hotel, Akwa Ibom Water Co-operation, and the Akwa Ibom State Fire Service.
One night, because of a heavy and violent rainfall in the city of Uyo, Otong was holed up inside his car in Ekpo Obot Street, about three metres away from the popular eatery, Oliver Tweets. He spent about seven sweaty hours in the car, and was lonely and tired. The situation seemed worse when his car engine refused to start after the rain subsided. So, he wasted no time in doing the usual – turned the backseat of his car into his bed, and a collection of books, his pillow. And he slept off.
But there was evil lurking in the dark.
Otong was woken up in the dead of the night by a sound from a thief who was attempting to force open his car.
“He (the thief) tried to open the car door, so I woke up. I opened the door and ran after him, although I was stark naked because in sleeping inside the car, you must remove your clothes or else you will be soaked in your own sweat,” Otong told DETAILS in the interview.
“I shouted ‘thief’, ‘thief’, ‘thief’. But at some point, I stopped pursuing him. I came back to the car because wisdom is profitable to direct, you know he could turn around and say that you were the thief and you’ll become a victim.”
At another time, in 2012, Otong ran out of fuel in his car while driving along Ukana Offot Street in Uyo. Expectedly, he parked the car by the roadside and went looking for money.
When he couldn’t get help - financially, he temporarily abandoned the car on the road, while he went to sleep at the veranda of a house that belongs to an old friend.
Sadly, it was one of the few nights Otong would be staying so far away from the car which has become, perhaps, the closest, most valuable and useful item in his life.
When he went back for his car the next day, he unknowing and innocently walked into the hands of some policemen invited by a man who accused him of being up to some mischief for parking his car there for too long and without anyone around knowing his identity and whereabouts. He was beaten up mercilessly and thrown into the police truck, despite flashing his press identity card and pleading that he was a photojournalist.
He was taken to the ‘C’ Division of the Nigeria police, at Aka Etinan Road, Uyo, and was released at 7 pm or so, on the intervention of Mr. Joe Effiong, the chairman, Nigeria Union of Journalist, Akwa Ibom State Council.
DETAILS asked Ubong Otong what he does, when he feels like defecating in the night. His answer: “I always buy polythene bags; I use it and help myself. I just go out, tie it and double it then I will dispose of it.”
DETAILS also asked him about his parents, his relationship with them and what they were doing about his homelessness.
He is the first son in a family of six (four boys and two girls), and here is Otong’s response:
“Well, they know me as one who is independent-minded. They have asked me to take them to where I put up. What I said to them is that for security reasons I hang around EMJMM hotels, so they said that I should take them there, I said it is not necessary. I have told you where I always hang around, if you don’t see me for sometimes and you can’t reach me on phone, you can come there, not for me to take you there. So if we get there, what will you tell them? That, this is your son, he doesn’t have a home? It doesn’t make sense.”
He says his dad is a retired pastor, while his mum is a retired hospital matron, and that he wouldn’t wish to disturb them for money. He says he wouldn’t also want to stay in the one room his father had shared to him in their family house in Eket because it’s far away from Uyo where he practices his photojournalism.
One interesting irony about Ubong Otong is that he doesn’t like telling people about the predicaments in his life, not because he is ashamed of his situation, but because, as he put it “I don’t want people to feel that I am disturbing them.”
He says he has close relationship with people like Larry Esin, the former deputy governor of Akwa Ibom State, Chris Ekpenyong, the special assistant to Governor Godswill Akpabio, Captain Iniobong Ekong (rtd.), and the current PDP state chairman, Paul Ekpo, and that he cherish his friendship with them.
Ubong Otong is a man of strong faith. He believes that his problem is mainly spiritual and that he will soon be restored by God.
Though a member of Winners Chapel, Otong believes so much in Prophet T.B Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations.
He needed Prophet T.B Joshua’s sticker so badly that when he couldn’t get an original one he had to creatively produce one. “I snapped the picture with my camera on Emmanuel television and went and work on it and make it to become a sticker, I have about five of them now.” He has the stickers pasted on different parts of his car.
He took a similar step of faith and got for himself some ‘anointing water’ that is connected to Prophet T.B. Joshua. “I just put water in a bottle, I went and put it on the screen when he (T.B. Joshua) was praying, it is an exercise of faith.”
Culled from DETAILS newspaper