There had been another sighting of a mami-wata, mermaid to you and me, somewhere in the Cross Rivers State. The social media sites were going crazy with purported eyewitness accounts of a half-woman, half-fish being seen sitting on a rock by the creeks. Some even suggested there was a YouTube video.
I’ve searched but can’t find anything.
I sat across the desk from my editor.
“Chris, if I had somebody else I wouldn’t send you”.
“’Can’t Features cover it?” I protested.
“Features are in Abuja covering the movie awards”.
“Lifestyle and Fashion?”
He gave me a funny look. Of course I knew Lifestyle and Fashion wouldn’t cover something like this and neither would I. I’m Politics and there’s enough going on in the political arena to keep me busy for eternity.
“Look…” he began, “I’m begging you. All the other reporters are tied up. I can’t even get a correspondent in Cross River. You know we don’t normally cover this sort of thing, but it sells newspapers…”
“So you want me to go to Cross Rivers State to cover a story about a mermaid seen by a few people probably drunk on ogogoro?”
I’ve drunk ogogoro before. It’s an illegal gin that packs a punch. A few shots of the stuff and anything’s possible! Seeing mermaids wouldn’t be amiss.
He pushed an airline ticket over to me. ”Look at it as a paid holiday. Go down there, talk to a few people, take a few pictures, file a report and take the rest of the week off.”
I was won over. I needed a break anyway and if it was being paid for, so why not?
I took the ticket and left.
It took me nine hours to get there.
An hour’s flight from Lagos, a four hour road trip and to complete my journey, a four hour boat ride from the mainland to the coastal island in the Bight of Biafra Bay. I didn’t mind the flying or the bumpy road journey, but if there’s anything I can’t stand its boats and water. I’m the kind of person who’ll be seasick before the boat even disembarks!
The sea was mild and the boat was reasonably comfortable but as soon as we docked I couldn’t wait to disembark and throw up in a corner.
“Sir…you okay?” I heard a voice from behind me say as I threw up my guts.
I turned around. There was a young girl looking me up and down. I was obviously in a state and she looked concerned.
“I get you some water.” And she ran off.
I was sitting down trying to regain my composure, taking deep breaths and watching the other passengers disembark. They ignored me altogether, more concerned about offloading their goods. They were mostly traders coming back from the mainland with supplies. The dock was full of people who knew somebody who had just got in. I was the outsider nobody came to welcome me or knew.
I looked around me; a few thatched huts, a church of some sort, market and some other structures. Not much. The way I saw it, I could get this story and be out of there in a few hours, probably on the same boat I had come on. I was just about to get my bearings when the girl came back with a bottle of cold water and something wrapped in banana leaves.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the bottle from her and downing the contents. Water, always an elixir, flowed down my throat, filling a stomach I had just emptied out. She opened the banana leaves to reveal a whitish kind of herbal root.
“Chew this,” she said offering it to me. ”It make you feel better.”
I was a bit apprehensive. I didn’t even know who she was and here she was offering me things. Hospitality of this sort normally comes at price.
Seeing my reluctance she threw the smaller piece of the two roots into her mouth and began to chew on it. I took the other piece and did the same. It had a funny taste. As I chewed, first it was bitter then it was sweet, like saccharine. I felt the juices go into my blood stream like a powerful stimulant. I began to feel my head clear.
“What’s your name?”
“Nkechi…you are not from the village are you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m from Lagos.”
“Lagos?” she repeated.
“One minute nobody knows us…now everybody dey waka come here” she said offhand. Her command of English was good even though she mixed it with pidgin.
“Excuse me, I don’t understand.” I really didn’t understand.
She pointed to a group of men, too sharply dressed to be villagers, in the distance talking to some elders. ”You come to see mami-wata?”
It was more of a statement than a question.
I guess I did look out place. I had a backpack on, carried a laptop bag and had a camera dangling from my neck. Top that up with my attire – designer jeans, T-shirt and trainers and I definitely looked out of place.
“Yes” I said. “I’m a newspaper reporter from Lagos.”
“Is it true newspapers pay good money for pictures of mami-wata?” She asked with a mischievous look in her eye.
Here we go, I thought. I’m not even off the jetty yet and I’m being hustled.
“Y-e-s” I replied slowly, wondering how much I was going to have to part with for an ‘exclusive’.
“Good!” she exclaimed triumphantly. ”I show you everything and then you pay me!”
I smiled. You have to admire her entrepreneurial spirit. This is a remote offshore island that doesn’t get many visitors. So when a bunch of city slickers, money in their pockets, turn up out of the blue, why not fleece them?
I steered her towards a bar across the road. It wasn’t really a bar but more or less an improvised beer parlour built out of palm fronds with benches and tables and a radio blaring away in the background.
“Why you no believe in mami-wata Mister Chris?” asked Nkechi, sipping from the bottle of Fanta I had just bought her.
An intelligent girl, she’d just turned eighteen and was on holiday from Calabar where she goes to college. I tried to explain to her that mami-wata or mermaids were just a myth and they didn’t exist but she wasn’t buying it.
“There’s got to be a logical explanation for the sighting,” I said brushing away a small swarm of flies gathering over my glass.” There is no such thing as mami-wata.”
“But I see it!”
You could see the seriousness on her face.
“Okay then, tell me what you saw.”
It was early evening and a number of them had gone to the stream to fetch water. Just as they were about to start fetching water they heard singing coming from upstream and when they looked there she was sitting on a rock combing her long hair. She was young and naked down to the waist with a snake coiled around her shoulders and a tail where her legs should be.
A group of teenagers on their own in the bush going to fetch water? I’ve got two teenage nephews and I know what they get up to.
“Do you drink?” I asked her.
“No!” she replied lowering her eyes.
She was lying.
“When I was young…” I told her, ”and we used to go and fetch water in the bush, we used to get up to a lot of mischief – drink, smoke, play and party. We’d go at first light and won’t return till nightfall. We’d play, wash our clothes and then come home with water in pails balanced on our heads.”
“Okay…so sometimes I drink a little and smoke,” she finally admitted.
“So were you drinking that day?”
She shook her head.
I believed her. She probably saw something and there was a logical explanation for that.
On the way down I had googled the word ‘mami-wata’ and it threw up an interesting explanation. The African manatee, also called a sea cow, was the most likely culprit. These gentle sea mammals are known to resemble human beings from a distance with the females having breasts with teats. And if one was seen it was probably sunning itself or eating the greenery.
I had mentally finished writing my newspaper report but since I was on the island, I thought I might as well go on Nkechi’s guided tour.
First it was to her parents’ house where her father entertained me to a tale about how they had upset a mami-wata on a late night fishing trip and she had knocked over their canoe, forcing them into the water. I tried to explain to him that it was a manatee. And even though they’re slow and timid and stay out of man’s way, can become aggressive if provoked, attacking and knocking over boats.
He shook his head. ”You city people don’t believe anything.” He said something in their local dialect and shook a fist at me.
I didn’t bother to ask what he said. His actions said it all.
Next was the long trek into the bush to find the creek where the mami-wata had appeared. It was late afternoon and the sun was high in the sky. Drenched in sweat I followed my little guide as she ran a running commentary on what they did every step of the way on the day of the sighting. At the same time I had to keep an eye out for scorpions and the stingy nettles growing along the path.
There were others too and we ran into other local kids escorting visitors up and down the place. Any chance of me getting an exclusive was lost as the opposition had better equipment and cameras than me. One enterprising photographer had set up a remote camera to record everything.
I stood on the bank of the creek listening to Nkechi babble on when all of a sudden I heard the sound of tiny bells being rung behind me. Looking around I saw this elderly woman dressed in a long white dress with red headgear on. She was ringing two small bells and singing to no one in particular. She walked to the water edge and waded in until the water was up to her waist. It was then that I noticed she had a bag and was throwing plastic combs and cans of Fanta and Coke into the water along with sweets and candy bars.
I turned to my guide for an explanation.
Nkechi explained to me that she was the local priestess and she had come to appease the mami-wata with gifts because she was looking for a human mate.
Yes, a mate. She was looking for a human man to have a sexual relation with and she would kidnap somebody and take him down to her kingdom at the bottom of the sea.
I burst out laughing.
Nkechi didn’t find me funny. ”You don’t know anything! Mami-wata can come for any man she fancies and take him away!”
That was it. I had heard enough. It was getting late and I needed to get back to civilization where everything was black and white.
We turned around and headed back to the village.
A storm was brewing far out to sea and I wanted to be on the mainland before it erupted.
She stood there with a big smile on her face counting the money I had given her. I gave her double what I promised her. I don’t know why I did. Perhaps it was because she was a good guide and companion. I also gave her my phone number. Again I don’t know why but I did. It’s not as if we’ll be calling each other up.
“Why you no stay tonight. The storm is coming and the sea go rough plenty plenty.”
I looked at her little angelic face and smiled. Their little coastal village has no running water, no electricity and to make matters worse I couldn’t even get a signal on my phone. An overnight stay for me is in an air-conditioned hotel room, with electricity and running water, a full signal for my phone, Wi-Fi and satellite TV. No! I’m leaving.
“Sorry Nkechi, I have to go.”
“I walk you to the boat then.” She picked up my bag and hoisted it onto her head as I led the way. It had been a long and exciting day. I came looking for a mermaid and I’m leaving more baffled than I was when I first came. The strange thing was everybody, young and old, seemed to believe in mami-wata.
The boat was the same one I had come out on. In a previous life it had been a fishing trawler but now with some clever modifications it carried people.
As the boat pulled out of the tiny dock and headed to sea I waved to her till she was out of sight and then went down to my cabin. My cabin wasn’t luxurious like on a proper ocean going ship. It was all very basic, a bunk bed, a small table and locker. Not much, but at least I didn’t have to sleep on the open deck top side like all the other passengers, at the mercy of the elements.
I dumped all my things on the floor, crawled on to the bunk bed and within minutes I was fast asleep.
I must have been asleep for about an hour and a half when a loud bang followed by people shouting woke me. Scrambling out of bed, I made my way up to the deck. On the way up, the engineer squeezed past me in a wild panic heading to the engine room. He was a right state covered in oil and soot.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Engine don finish” was all he said and he was gone, disappearing into the confines of the engine room.
Just as I made my way up to the deck there was another explosion and the whole of the rear of the boat seemed to disappear in that one big flash. People started to scream and before you knew it they were diving overboard, men and women.
Half of the boat was on fire now. It was dark with just a few stars in the sky and when the captain brushed past me I knew he was going too.
“You have to jump” he shouted trying to get himself heard over the noise.
I shook my head. ”I can’t swim.”
“Sorry,” he said and he was gone over the railings too.
I was alone on a burning and sinking boat.
Praying the boat would at least stay in one piece and afloat, I put on one of the discarded lifejackets and ran and locked myself in my cabin hoping that God in his mercy would save me from this.
As I woke up I had this feeling I had fallen asleep in the bath again. I opened my eyes and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was bobbing in the sea amidst a lot of debris, oil slicks and seagulls screaming overhead with a lifejacket keeping me afloat.
I wasn’t alone.
Nkechi, the girl from the village, was floating alongside. She didn’t have a lifejacket on and was topless, her pert teenage breasts barely breaking the surface of the water.
“You awake?” she spluttered in-between gasps and spitting out water. ”You sleep all night.”
“What happened?” I asked. I couldn’t remember much and I had a terrible headache. The sun was rising, casting its long golden rays over our pitiful condition at the mercy of the sea.
“The boat it sink.”
I must have suffered a bout of amnesia for it all started to come back. The late night boat trip…the storm…the engine room explosion…everybody jumping overboard…I, unable to swim, locking myself in my cabin, praying…the sinking…sinking…water rushing in filling the room I was in…the air pocket that saved me from drowning…Nkechi…wait a minute – she wasn’t even there.
“Nkechi,” I began. ”What are you doing here? You weren’t even on the boat. Where’s everybody else?”
She smiled. ”Everybody else swim…you no swim so I come to rescue you.”
That explained it then. It’s true what they say about Cross River women and water; they can swim like fish.
It then dawned on me. The final block in my mind came tumbling down as I could now see the events of last night unravel before my eyes. It couldn’t be true, could it?
We were in the middle of nowhere, far out at sea. I couldn’t see land anywhere. To swim out here on your own would be a herculean task, not to talk of dangerous and suicidal.
I looked at Nkechi in awe. It was all coming back to me now…
…Looking out of the porthole of the cabin I’d seen the long silvery tail of a big fish swim by…it swam by again…and again and I could see it! The fish tail had a human torso attached to it…the upper body was that of a young girl and she was smiling at me and waving!
I must have thought it was a hallucination.
Water began to fill the cabin as the boat listed and the air pocket wasn’t holding it back…I was going to drown…I couldn’t breathe…the water rose above my head…water filled my mouth and nostrils…I was drowning and as I began to lose consciousness, I felt something tugging at my legs, pulling me out…
It was too incredulous to be true but it was.
She smiled and nodded. She swam closer and took off my life jacket.
It was strange. I held her close to me. I could feel her bare breasts against my chest through the wet clingy fabric of my shirt. I could feel her heartbeat, her lungs breathing, her chest moving up and down. She even had a belly button.
I’d never swum with dolphins before but I knew how it would feel now. Beneath the waves I wrapped my legs around what should be her legs. Her long tail was smooth and scaly in parts. At the end my feet could feel a flipper, only this wasn’t plastic like divers wore. This was real.
I must have aroused her. She clung to me even more as her sea legs entwined mine. Her eyes closed in ecstasy as she sang in high shrills and pitches in the language of the porpoises of the sea.