Did I not tell you my story that evening, as you cruised past my village? Did I not tell you as I paddled my wooden canoe, sitting athwart, working my oar through the water? My little brother was often sick and could not paddle but I brought his oar along anyway. He sat close to the stern, his oar resting on his body, his limp body, unable to help the canoe move faster, unable to help with the fishing.
Did I not tell you I was in need of clothing, or did my tattered clothes not tell enough? I wore old shorts, ugly due to age and grime, and a torn second-or-third-hand singlet that was once white on the body of a previous owner. Did I not tell you I needed shelter, or did you not see my thatch house in the background? It was miserable, nestled among mangrove forests and precariously positioned by the bank of the brackish water which washed the forest in high tide, eroding the soft soil cover and exposing the tree roots. Did I not tell you that we no longer caught fishes as much as we did the last season, which was even worse than the season before the last? You noticed my empty net and you noticed the slick, the film which coated the water and which changed colours – like uncoordinated rainbow – eternally dancing before the sun.
Did I not describe my life enough, living by the water in the makeshift fishing settlement? You saw the slice of my life on those journeys along Warri channel, like many ships on their way to Escravos, to the sea, to wherever they transported oil. The houses were all thatch, built on stilts driven into the soil which got submerged in high tide. Sometimes the waters receded and we played on the sand – sand darkened by thick crude. Sometimes the waters swelled up, climbing into our dwellings so much that we made our canoes our homes, exposed to the elements.
My family originally came from Abonnema. Our neighbours were from Nembe as were the four other families in the fishing settlement. We all spoke dialects of Ijaw that were mutually intelligible. We were the diehard families, the few who refused to leave despite the dwindling catch. There did not seem to be much else to do as means of livelihood. The waters were all polluted by spillage upon spillage that seemed not to be controllable (then, I did not understand what oil spillage meant. I only heard my papa complain that the floating oil on the waters was responsible for the poor catch because it killed the fishes).
We used to spend days in the water fishing, casting our nets, leaving them for hours and then drawing them in. Sometimes the catch would be good enough and we poured the fish into our canoes, watching them writhe and dance about, threatening to bite at our bare feet and slipping off our fingers if we attempted to hold them. Sometimes we stayed into the night and yet the catch would be poor and we would retire to sleep exhausted and gloomy. Sometimes we came together, about four canoes at once, forming a roughly rectangular perimeter, to make fish traps in the water, in the area not usually navigated by the ships and boats that always sailed past. My brother mastered the art early; he was only five years old but could dive into the water – when he was not sick – to secure weights properly on the traps.
During the nights when we did not fish and the tide was low, we would lie on the bare sand. Papa always insisted that we scrape off the surface of the sand before lying down. Sometimes it was clean but we did it all the same. We would lie face up, watching the sky. We would count the stars and read the patterns on the moon. We would watch a perpetually glowing flame in the distant, shooting into the sky. Papa told us that certain men always offered sacrifices on our behalf; that was why the flame never went off. He grew up to see it. If the flame were to go off, then all humanity would die. I believed him – I believed all that Papa said until I met Stonecold, who told me that that was “gas flaring” and explained what the big English term meant. Stonecold. He made me know things, do things, but I will talk about him later. Sometimes Papa will leave us on the sand to count the stars and tell him the number later. He was going to check on Mama who mostly stayed indoors. Then he would climb into the shack and disappear into its darkness. We would hear faint muffled groans and grunts. I never knew what those sounds meant till I grew up.
On the nights that we did not fish and the tide was high, we could lie in the canoes secured to stilts that held the house (there was no pier), or lie in the one-room shack close to each other, sweating, smelling (only Mama could perceive the smell, as only she complained about it). Papa would tell us tales of our tribe and other coastal tribes of the lower Niger Delta. In the past when a child was born, it would be lowered into the water and allowed to either drown and die or float and be brought out of the water. Our lives depended on water and therefore every child was to float, or die on time, rather than constituting a nuisance to self and society later in life by not floating well. The tradition had since stopped in the colonial times when patrol crafts scoured the creeks and arrested anyone who indulged in such. He would tell us stories of the bravery of ancient warriors that fought with machetes and arrows while swimming under water. We would listen to the gurgling sounds of the water charging through the mangrove forest or splashing against our canoes and house. Surprisingly rain did not enter through the roof on days that it rained. Papa deftly crafted the thatch roof.
Mama smoked fish while we were out in the water fishing for more. The smoked fish would be gathered until they were enough to be taken to the market in Warri. A second thatch building housed the fish and other supplies. Sometimes some men came in engine boats to haggle and buy up the smoked fish and transport them to Warri. Papa liked them for they saved him the stress of transporting the fish, but Mama hated them – they made us sell at ridiculously low prices. Those men would go on to buy up smoked fish from other neighbours and even proceed to other similar settlements along the banks of the Warri channel.
On Sundays we would mostly rest. Rest in this sense meant no fishing, because we mostly spent Sundays mending our nets. There were always holes to mend. Sometimes Mama insisted that we wash the nets. Papa also repaired any leakage in the canoes. I was old enough to join him in the repairs but he always insisted that he do it alone, painstakingly. It must have been because he almost drowned once, when a whole panel of a canoe came off while he was fishing. He had to cling to a long splinter when the canoe sank and managed to stay afloat for hours, screaming, until I re-emerged from one of the creeks where I had paddled into, in search of better catch. He berated me that day for not hitting the nail in properly while patching the canoe. He wouldn’t let me repair a canoe after then. To make matters worse, he could not replace it as he said that the trees around were only good enough to patch a canoe but not to build one afresh. I mourned the loss of the boat. He did not allow us to search for the wreck. He was to discard the boat anyway. It already had so many patches and almost claimed his life. Papa could be superstitious at times.
Sundays were also special in that Mama cooked Ndomie noodles. Why we skipped the “I” in Indomie I did not know. I liked Ndomie noodles so much then. We all did – all the children. Papa would feign indifference but we knew he liked it too. He would not reject Ndomie offered to him by Mama. Mama rationed the Ndomie. She cooked only two packs per head. There were no markets around. Ndomie could only be bought in Warri and more so, was unaffordable. We didn’t travel to Warri but we managed to get the noodles. That was the secondary role of our canoes – we paddled toward ships that cared to throw noodles to us.
There was a bend in the channel not far from us. We could not see beyond the bend but we could hear the loud blasts of ships’ gongs – or whatever they made the sounds with – while they approached that bend. That was like a signal for us to paddle from wherever we were in the nearby creeks to an area near the middle of the channel, where the ships would likely pass. Most times we made it in time before the ships passed, and then we would raise one hand in the air to wave at them while clutching the oar with the other. Papa thought this to be begging and would sometimes protest, but we continued all the same. We were collecting, not begging. Could we stop the benevolence of those ships? There was always joy in our hearts whenever we saw the bright yellow pack tossed into the air and onto the water. It would float, drifting with the current as we hurried up to pick it before it started absorbing water. Sometimes they would toss more than one per canoe – two packs or, rarely, three packs; but that happened only if there were more than one person on each canoe. That was why I always came with my little brother, even if he was too sick.
From year to year our routine was mostly the same. We did not have a calendar, but somehow Papa managed to know the day, the month and the year. Sometime in December we would travel to our ancestral home in Abonnema. Mama would buy stuff from the local market for her parents. She would also buy clothes for us, clothes that we wore for only two weeks and returned to the fishing village without. We usually took along to our fishing village those bought three Decembers past. Papa would buy building materials and erect new walls in our proposed house there and repair many a leak in the roof of the old house in which we slept. He had been building since I was little. He hired but few labourers, just enough to help him mix the cement with sand while he applied the mortar. The blocks were the cheapest variety made with as little cement as was enough to bond the sand particles into concrete blocks. Many a time, some impurities like bits of yellow-black polythene would be seen stuck in the substance of the blocks.
Sometime in January we would travel back to the fishing village, in a “cut-and-join” itinerary, stopping up to six times to transfer into a new ferry or bus or canoe. We usually got back to our fishing village safely, the creeks unchanged, the sky clear and the vegetation po-faced. Then Papa would tell me how much he yearned for me to start schooling before the next December. He would want me to learn beyond the few English words I knew and speak more English than Pidgin.
I was returning from a narrow creek one day, after checking our traps there, when I heard loud sounds of engine boats roaring through the water towards our settlement. On arriving I saw three boats each new and carrying gun-toting men, with belts of ammunition worn round their shoulders. The boats were clean, shiny, blue-green, the type I owned in my dreams. One of the boats had the engine on as it slalomed across the water making beautiful patterns in its wake, while the crew looked alert with their guns. They looked formidable and though they appeared scary at first sight there was something remotely attractive about them. I do not know what they said or did or gave to Papa. But I saw Papa all smiles, revealing his discoloured front teeth. He grinned as I had never seen him do. With his shoulders squared he seemed as if he was proud about something, or at least he must have been made to feel important. They looked as though they had been expecting me. A round-bellied tall man was standing with Papa. He was very dark in complexion, the darkest I had seen then. He spoke to Papa in an Ijaw tongue that I later understood to be the dialect spoken in the creeks of Bayelsa. He wore a beard that looked bushy, trying in vain to hide a keloid that sat squarely on his jaw. A rail track of a scar ran across his temple. His head shone with baldness. He wore a black shirt that seemed two sizes too small for him. A button was undone at the point where his belly protruded the most. He had a carton of Ndomie in his hand. He turned and smiled. He did not need to. I was already impressed.
Seven years and many operations later, I am looking at people who say they represent the government, or that they are even the government. I look at them through teary eyes. I look at them through iron bars, seeing every object as blurry double outlines. I see a television across the counter, emblazoned with my name and my face, my head lowered. They were parading the ammunition cache confiscated from my boys. They say I am a militant. They mention kingpin. They mention all sorts of mundane names. Yes, mundane. I learnt the word from Stonecold. He taught me things. He taught me life. He taught me how to fend for myself slightly differently, still in water or near the waters, still using boats and the like, such as barges, but protecting myself. He taught me English and perfected my Pidgin. He taught me that our water was rich in resources worth more than fish. He taught me crude. I became one of his trusted boys because I was entirely loyal and had an uncanny dexterity with the gun. He taught me, me.
Stonecold had an oil depot. Depot was the word used for a point in a creek where a pipeline was punctured and crude channelled through a conduit to receiving tanks and barges. Some of the oil was transferred from barges to ships that berthed in turns at a private jetty near Ijelejele. It was an elaborate business in which everybody gained – the operatives, the government agents, the transporters, the crude refineries. I learnt the job over a year. I was initially a runner, then a batman, then became Stonecold’s most trusted man. I earned his unfettered trust after I shot an assailant, one of his aides who turned mutinous. He then entrusted me with the core business secrets, his girlfriends, his bank accounts, and his life. That was in the last month of three years ago, the month before the oil explosion that killed him. He was not fast enough.
I was helping to secure our boat to a bollard at the shore improvised with a tree stump while Stonecold had already disembarked and was moving towards the kiln that cooked the crude to diesel. I heard a shout and barely turned my neck a few degrees when I saw a huge ball of flame. I had seen it for only a fraction of second when instincts pushed me into the water while the flame ball was in hot pursuit. The ball rapidly withdrew as if having lost hope in catching me and instead decided on concentrating on the men caught in its belly. I promptly rose to the surface and took a huge breath. Portions of the water surface burned queerly. I took two quick strokes to an area shallow enough for me to stand and sloshed the fastest I could through the muddy bank – I had to look for my boss. Instead what I saw was a theatre of live fire, with characters flapping their hands, stamping their feet, emitting the last sounds spared in their lungs, expiring their last and slumping on the ground in defeat. I watched the horror but I could not help.
I could recognise my boss by the burly frame in flames. He struggled with the fire. He was strong. He finally gave up, dropped, made to raise his head but the will was not enough; it had gone with the flame. He froze, dead I presumed. The different bodies were contorted to a similar position, bent at the waist, legs apart, chin extended away from the chest, charred like charcoal, indistinguishable. All happened so quickly. The land burned around the site of the kiln as it was already soaked and turned black over time by petroleum and its varied products. Then the kiln imploded, a barrel rolled off the kiln, apparently not fully consumed by the fire. The content had to be fresh crude that was less flammable. But I was sure it was to explode anytime. As it dropped to the ground the cover shot out and with it a jet of fluid. I did not wait to see further. I dove, managing to drag a man beside me into the muddy water edge. I think I heard another explosion. I also think my shoe caught fire. I was partly submerged. I did not wait to confirm as I sprang farther into the water. The water was turbid but I could see that the surface of the water burned and I lingered for several seconds till I could no longer see the fiery yellow from under the water. I rose.
Did you not notice my brother dead at the stern of my boat that day? He was limp, his oar resting on him. He was supposed to help me paddle. He had very high fever on the previous night, and was weak but I brought him along so we could get two packs of Indomie instead of one if I came alone. There were no drugs or any medical care there then. I had noticed that he was dead minutes before I saw you but I decided to just collect the gift anyway before heading back home. I will never forget that day. You were in your big engine boat which had “Niger Delta Wado!” painted on it in flashy blue colour. Did you not notice the tears on my face when you threw the pack of Indomie, only one? You raised your camera to your face, took pictures and zoomed off. I kept watching the wake of your boat with a hazy sight, heavy with tears. Was it not you that wore a T-shirt with “Niger Delta Wado!” written on it – the same type you are wearing now? I recognize your glasses, your moustache and your distinctive Urhobo tribal mark. I saw my picture about a year later on a page of a back issue of your magazine in Stonecold’s house. You had a snapshot of my life. Now you ask me questions, making me retell my story without asking them to unlock the handcuffs first. Did I still need to tell my story after then? Your lens was focussed on me in my canoe. Did I not tell you my story?
Image: joy garnett via Flickr and Pixabay.com remix