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Before We Became Sand Fishermen | Arekpitan Ikhena...

Before We Became Sand Fishermen | Arekpitan Ikhenaode

Before We Became Sand Fishermen | Arekpitan Ikhenaode | Agbowo Art

One. Two. Three. 

I counted the numbers in my head. It usually took Baba eight seconds to resurface from the water and four seconds to cough out water he may have swallowed. I know this because I watch him carefully. I know this because we have been at this for three months. In the first month, we went in together, splashing around, making noise, excited at the prospect of making money again. In the second month, there was no excitement. We no longer splashed around and the noise dimmed. Instead, we began taking turns to go in; one of us had to protect the barge because militants began to steal barges to aid our own emancipation. In the third month, we grew silent, merely watching each other. And because the weight of fatherhood and responsibility had bent Baba’s back, he stopped me from entering the water.

Four. Five. Six.

Baba had become an expert. He did not swallow as much water as he used to. He no longer spent several minutes catching his breath, clearing his eyes or summoning courage to reenter the water. He no longer talked about the wealth he used to have; the bakery or the cassava plantations or the fishing circuits he used to control. Now, he kept mum, a faraway look in his eyes, as if he could no longer see what was in front of him.

In the first month, when his wealth started depleting and our river bank newly held brackish water, he talked a lot about the past. The school he attended, the first time he killed a snake, when he bought his first shoe, the first person that did him 419 and swindled him of his money. In the second month, when many tree roots became visible and teachers took their pupils to see real life erosion, he spoke about Azuzuama and Oloibiri and Ogoni. The problem, he told me, was that Nigerians always forgot. And in the third month, when Aunty Tamuno called to say that the government had asked them to leave Goi with an ordinary sign post that said “dead zone”, Baba stopped talking.

Seven. Eight.

Baba emerged from the water, a small wiry man with a rusty metal bucket filled with smooth white sand. His teeth chattered, his eyes red from being in the water for too long, and his dark skin shone in the moonlight. He managed a grin before upturning the bucket into the heap we had been building for six hours. The newly added sand, as it would in any other work that demanded small efforts, looked insignificant, but we had done the math and one bucket short meant that we would miss a meal. With a grin he still managed to sustain amidst all the teeth chattering, he held a large crab to my face. My muscles ached and I thought he looked pitiful with his sunken eyes and wayward dentition but I returned the smile. His grin stretched, happy for approval. He did some tricks with the crab and the movement of his hands took me back to a time when we left Odioama and travelled to other villages for the fishing season, a time when I was never hesitant to return a smile. 

Baba was still grinning. “These things are evil. If yar not careful, they can chop you and when you get to heaven, God will not allow you to enter.” He laughed. “How can a common crab kill you?” 

His laughter was like the purring of the diesel engine that powered our boat; whereas once, it used to be a loud cackling sound. When I was a child still animated by his stories, I felt like he did not really let us into the reasons why he was laughing. 

He broke some claws off the crab, muttered some prayers and reentered the water for the last bucket of sand. Surrounded by dilapidated stilt houses, mangrove forest and the croaking of frogs, I sat still in the barge. I started counting again.

One. Two. Three.

Before we became sand fishermen, Baba said our lives would have been better if Wiwa were as alive and had achieved the mission. On the day he said it, we had walked two hours looking for clean water to cast our net. We found clean water at the edge of the village but we did not find any fish. Baba said it was a bad omen for fish to run away from man. I told him it was not a bad omen; even fishes wanted to breathe clean air. He opened his mouth to say something but he sighted two male journalists approaching us, their notebook and recorders giving them away. He sealed his lips and hastened his stride. The journalists did not back down. They kept calling, “Wait, sah! Wait sah!” but Baba ignored them. They continued to follow us, squelching across a muddy swamp, splattering oil drenched puddles and barely matching Baba’s quick stride. They continued to shout, “One story can change your life, sah” but Baba paid them no heed. So far, we had told many stories and none was yet to change our lives.

Four. Five. Six. 

Before we became sand fishermen, I followed Baba to Kegbara Dere to meet other community leaders and fishermen. They had formed an association. The association would negotiate with the government and everybody’s voice would be heard. Baba said we had to go for the meeting; we had to add our voices. When we arrived at Kegbara, we were first hit by the stench of oil. Baba sneezed non-stop for two minutes. I did not sneeze but it felt as if someone was scratching my throat and drawing breath from my body. I told Baba we had to go but Baba said the stench was normal here; we would get used to it. Odioama’s circumstance was new but here, they had been having oil spills since 2008 maybe even later than that, he was not sure. 

Kegbara Dere had oil-drenched puddles like we had in ours but they had a creek that we did not have. Baba said it made theirs worse. While the surface of our water was covered by a simple black film, theirs was a rainbow. It danced and shimmered in the sun. While the men ate boiled cocoyam and shared words of hope, I sat away from them, still in Baba’s line of sight but close to a group of girls in fading pink pinafores playing ten-ten. They all had their hair cut close to their scalp. They laughed occasionally, throwing their legs out as they clapped and sang, pausing every now and then to poke the loser with thin fingers. They had beautiful legs. Mama said the day I start to notice such things should be the day I ask myself what I want to do with my life.

Seven. Eight. 

Baba did not resurface. The surface of the water remained calm and, in the distance, an owl hooted. My breath quickened and even though the moon shined brightly, I realized how dark it really was and how alone we really were. I took deep breaths and tried to remain calm. 

“Baba?” I called, my voice on the edge of panic. “Baba?”

To jump in or not to jump in? To scream or to stay silent? I slapped at the cold water, using my free hand to steady the boat. “Baba?”

Nine. 

I continued to slap at the water, the movement frantic this time; his name now a prayer on my lips, a chant. It had never occurred to me that he could drown. He taught half our village to swim. He taught Mama to swim. It was how they spent the first week of their marriage, swimming. He was a good swimmer. In all my nightmares, this was not how we died. Sometimes, we died, caught in a crossfire between the army and the militants. Sometimes, we drank the polluted water and ate cassava that had been rendered poisonous by oil spills. Sometimes, we gave our lives for the Niger Delta struggle, like Wiwa, except that Wiwa did not give his life. It was taken from him.

Ten. 

Baba resurfaced. He coughed out water in small spurts. His hands shook terribly and the bucket was half-filled. He threw it into the boat and leaning on its side, produced a throaty sound from the depth of his belly. I sighed with relief and pulled him into the boat. He continued to shiver, his teeth continued to chatter and I could not even look into his sunken eyes. He almost drowned. Because there was no dry space in the boat, I made him sit on our heap of wet sand. I grabbed a towel and toweled him as dry as I could get him to be. Long after he was dry enough, I continued to press the towel to his skin. Baba, Baba, Baba. I pulled off his shirt and wrapped him in the blanket that Grandma always insisted we carried. She also insisted on giving us hot tea in a flask; I was grateful for it now. I gave it to him, sad that the insulated body of the flask could not offer his fingers warmth, but comforted that his insides would be thankful. He drank slowly. 

“Baba, what happened?” My eyes watered again. 

“Nothing happened.” His voice was small, husky, subdued. 

“Baba, what happened?”

He coughed. “Nothing.”

I held his shoulder. I knew my grip was too tight but I did not care. “What?”

He tugged my hands off his shoulders and continued to drink from the flask. He did not respond. I stared at him for several moments before I turned on the engine and began the slow crawl to our village.

Sixty minutes away.

Odioama is a fishing community and I come from a lineage of seasonal fishermen, men who fished when it was the season to fish and then planted cassava when it was not. We celebrate everything with fish – birth, weddings, death. Men provided the fish; women sold the fish and children ate the fish. In many of my memories, Mama is forcing me to eat more fish. If I refused, she would force the fish into my mouth, staining my cheeks and my shirt. She always smelled like fish. She knew the best markets to sell fish. She knew all the different things you could do with fish. And when oil workers came with the police to check the damage done to our land, she was amongst the women who threw fish at them.

Fifty minutes away.

When the spill came from the Brass Terminal, Baba and some elders went to the other villages to check the extent of damage. He came back home that night to tell us the numbers. “The oil got to Ewoama. It is in Mbikiri. It is in Laijakri. Even in Bubelebarakiri, Okpoama, Dieama. Three thousand men will stop fishing. Three thousand!”

I remember he had tears in his eyes and Mama signaled me to look away; it was wrong to see your father cry. The next day, Aunty Tamuno came from Port Harcourt with bananas and a huge loaf of bread. She had left Goi. She was working in a hospital in Port Harcourt and volunteering for an organization that wanted to help Niger Deltan babies. 

“Brother, you have to leave. You can’t stay here. Leaving is hard but I left or did I not leave? Did I not pack my children and leave?” 

Baba did not say anything.

Aunty Tamuno tapped her feet in quick succession. “You want to be a warrior, eh? You want to fight? Go and ask those fighting in Goi. The oil is wiping ten every week.” 

Mama told her not to worry herself, people did not say Bayelsa men were stubborn for no reason. We ate fish and Aunty Tamuno picked up her bags to leave. She squeezed some money into my hand and left a publication on Baba’s thighs. Baba slapped it off and stormed into his room. While Mama saw her off, I grabbed the magazine. It had been folded in many places as if Aunty Tamuno, intentional about tormenting Baba with whatever it said, had taken care not to lose it. I opened it and read one paragraph: In 2012 and in the Niger Delta alone, we lost sixteen thousand babies to oil spills. I shuddered and pushed the magazine away. I thought about Aunty Tamuno and what she had said. I too believed we should leave but I did not like how she said it, how she talked to Baba like he was a child, how she said “wiping” instead of “killed” – as if we were mere scribblings from a pencil, as if it did not take effort to kill us.

Forty minutes away. 

Before we became sand fishermen, we had to accept the bitter truth that our rivers had no fish and that our cassava would not grow. Baba was in denial. He said we were not doing it right – something was wrong with the net, something was wrong with the weather, something was wrong with the cassava sticks. We started to buy fertilizer and cassava sticks from Yenagoa. We started to fish at odd hours and in odd spots, with fishing nets and baskets straight from Lagos. We did this for a long time, even when others had stopped, even when Mama said not to, even when the water turned black and boats kept on river banks began sinking into muddy black soil.

The fishermen association gathered to look for a solution; the meeting happened in front of our house. From the backyard, I could hear several voices. Baba’s voice was the loudest. He was demanding action. Our neighbor, Alamesigha asked him to calm down in an even louder voice. Alamesigha said everybody was overreacting and that soon, the oil workers who had come to inspect the damage would come to clean it up. I don’t know what happened after but first, I heard silence, then the scattering of benches and then Baba shouting: “Did they clean Ogoni? Did they clean Koluoma? They have bribed you! They have bribed you, yes or no?” I rushed to the front of the house to see Alamesigha on his back and Mr. Thomas, another neighbor across the street, holding an enraged Baba from behind. Later, my sister Preye told me she saw everything. Baba lost control and beat Alamesigha; Baba broke his nose and blood even came out of his mouth.

Later that evening, Alamesigha’s friends in the police came to pick Baba for questioning. Mama just sat, saying nothing, watching them take her husband away. That same night, my friend Steve came to see me. He said he had heard what happened and that it was a shame Baba was now reduced to nothing. I wanted to tell him that my father was still something but the words got clogged in my throat. He patted my shoulders and whispered in my ears, asked me if I wanted to join the Niger Delta Militants. I would be able to avenge Papa and didn’t I want to become somebody? I said no.

Thirty minutes away.

Before we became sand fishermen, Baba developed cataracts in one eye and Uncle Onome in Lagos sent money to pay for the surgery. Baba had to stay home to recuperate and I had to feed my family of four because Mama knew nothing apart from fish. Steve came again but this time he did not ask me to join the militants. Instead, he told me that they had found a pipeline. 

“Are you coming or not?” he asked, a little impatient. 

I told him I was coming.

We went early in the morning, before dawn, with empty yellow, 25-litres kegs. When we arrived, we met a crowd and two militants fighting about who owned the pipeline. The fight was more noise than action but when it ended, one lost three teeth and the other had broken his ankle. The victor produced a hose and gave it to Steve. Steve cut the manifold and began to share the oil. While he poured into boats and kegs and drums, he reminded us that it was our oil. The blood and bones of our ancestors formed the oil and it belonged to us. Everyone nodded their approval. I filled my keg and decided to leave because the petrol burned my hands and the smell, thick in the air, made me want to vomit. I walked home smelling like a walking torch. 

I arrived home, soaked my clothes and scrubbed at every inch of my body with Preye’s experimental, homemade charcoal soap. The soap was jelly-like in my hands and so, I tore bits from it and slapped it down my body. When I was done, I walked out of the bathroom and into news of an explosion from Mama’s trembling lips. 

“Thank God you did not go,” she wailed, holding me and sobbing into my chest. “Thank God you did not go. Twenty-five dead. Twenty-five.”

She clasped my head and muttered some prayers. She held me like that for a long time. I took her to her room and laid her on her bed. We talked about an old film and when she fell asleep, I sat there till she woke up. It was many days later when she saw the filled yellow keg. She stormed into my room and when our eyes locked, she knew that I had gone.

Twenty minutes away.

When Baba recovered from the surgery, I began to take long evening strolls to avoid listening to Mama ask him what his plan for his family was. On one of those strolls, I met Bona eating roast plantain and smoked catfish. It was a strange combination but he looked like he was enjoying himself. Bona and I shared a seat in primary school and now, while I was waiting for Baba to have money, he was attending university in Port Harcourt. 

He shook my stretched hand and asked what was on my mind and instead of answering, I started to cry. He was alarmed, embarrassed even. He kept stealing glances around and muttering, “Man up, man up.” I was alarmed too but the tears would not stop flowing. He held my shoulder and waited me out. When the tears stopped coming, he listened to me talk about feelings I was yet to name, feelings I did not even know I had. When I was done, he told me he had gotten a part-time job just last week. It was by the mercies of God and before the job came, his family did not have clean water to drink for three weeks. They couldn’t cook or wash their clothes or clean their anuses. He told me about a refinery. Again, the militants owned it but you don’t have to be a militant to get the job. He asked me if I was doing it or not. I said I was not.

He laughed, his mouth filled with fish he had severely chewed. “Why are you nuh doing?”

I told him about the pipeline and Steve and how the sight of Steve’s grief-stricken mother rolling in crude-stained mud stayed with me for weeks. He told me things happen and that’s how life is. All die na die and na God dey protect person. If it is your time, it is your time. If it is not your time, it is not your time. He told me I was too old to wait for Baba to feed me. You should be feeding them, he said.

“Are you doing or not?”

I told him I would do it. He promised to fetch me at night.

The refinery was bare, a small clearing in the thick of the forest. We were surrounded by tall trees and traps we had set for any unfortunate soldier who did not stay where the government kept him. While militant music – Fela, Majek Fashek, Daddy Showkey, African China – played and boys like me made jokes about kidnapping oil workers and sticking rakes in their yansh, Bona showed me around. He showed me metal drums cut into vertical halves and placed on supporting metal structures that held them in the air. The refinery had four of such structures. A young boy, barely 13, was making a fire underneath. Bona showed me the metal pipe attached to its sides. 

“The fried crude will come out from here,” he said holding the pipe. “It will pour inside this other drum.” 

I nodded.

Bona gave me a bowl and showed me a drum of Bonny Light, unrefined crude oil. He told me what to do: scoop oil, run towards the fire, throw the oil inside the drum, run away with the speed of light, repeat.

He slapped my shoulder. “It’s not hard na or is it hard?”

I shook my head.

He smiled, clearly pleased with himself. “Time to work.”

To work, we all had to get naked. Totally naked. Bona said wearing clothes was riskier. If we worked naked, the bonny light had nothing to attach itself to. While I removed my clothes, while my eyes stung from smoke and I ran to and away from the fire, while my penis slapped tirelessly at my thighs and mosquitoes bit my bare buttocks, I thought about Steve and his grief-stricken mother. 

We were paid at the first signs of dawn. I did not count the money but the bundle filled my hands and the weight settled comfortably in my pocket. I bought fish, some tubers of yam and prepared white soup. When Mama asked where the money came from, I told her it was by the mercies of God. 

Ten minutes away. 

Before we became sand fishermen, Uncle Onome called Baba to understand how a people could be complicit in their own oppression. Baba cut the call on him. Before we became sand fishermen, we watched Mr. Lucky become a sand fisherman first. Mr. Lucky was the secretary of the fishermen association and like Baba, he, at first, succumbed to walking for two hours till he met a river the oil had not consumed. He too had climbed into a cement truck to protest at the house of the state governor but unlike Baba, he knew when to stop. He forced his first son into the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta which was, in his opinion, a more organized group when compared to the Niger Delta Militants or even the so-called new Avengers. He then took his other sons to fish white sand. It was a successful expedition. After some weeks, he even had enough money to marry a new wife and when he brought the wife to show Baba, he squeezed her buttocks to prove how humble she was.

When Baba told Mama his plans to become a sand fisherman, Mama burst into a long fit of laughter. “Why, Elkana? Why? Why can’t we leave?”

She then stood, a tall woman wearing a loose wrapper. “You want to go to the river to collect sand? You want to send your son to school with sand?”

When she began the second fit of laughter, Baba just sat. I knew he was waiting for her approval. It was how she always was, at first disagreeing and then later on giving you her full support. But that day, I looked at her face and knew there was nothing to support. 

She went into their shared bedroom and packed a few things into a Ghana-Must-Go bag. She touched my head and told me she was leaving. Baba held her by the waist and begged her not to go. He cried like a child. He kept muttering her name into the folds of her wrapper. Inara. Inara, please. Inara. She shrugged him off and left. Grandma crept out of her room and said that Bayelsa men did not cry over women. Women were everywhere. 

Mama called me every weekend. She had moved to Onitsha, her sister stayed there. She was selling groundnut oil and she was praying for Baba, for God to make him big. Bigger than his enemies, bigger than sand.

One minute away.

As the moon crept away, the river bank came into view.  Baba was asleep, his head resting on his knees. I did not bother to wake him; the noise we were approaching would wake him. Beckoned by the remaining resilient palm fronds shelters standing on the river bank, I propelled the barge into the voices of still hopeful fishermen, shouts from farmers who wanted to farm, chatter from women who had something to sell in the next village, murmurs from travelers waiting for someone to row them from here to another river bank. 

I stopped the engine and saw that Baba had awoken.

“We have reached?”

I nodded even though it was clear to see.

He chuckled at his ignorance and gave a smile that, this time, reached his eyes. I smiled back, hesitation flattening the curve of my lips. Together, we entered the shallow water and dragged the boat to dry land. I collapsed on the ground; exhausted, happy I could finally close my eyes.

Baba sat beside me and cleared his throat. “Ayebabomo?” 

“Baba?”

“We will leave.”

I said nothing, my body frozen, my brain, frantic and trying to process the new information and the myriad of emotions coursing through me. “Where will we go?”

“To Lagos.”

“What will you do?”

“I will reason it later.”

I exhaled. “What about Mama?”

He sighed. “I miss her.”

I sniffed and he looked at me, a longing in his eyes. “We will go to Onitsha first.”

“When will we leave?”

Baba coughed. “In a week.” 

Silence between us, we sat beside our heap of sand waiting for the buyer. The bank had grown noisier with more people joining the chatter but despite the near-chaos of my immediate environment, peace bubbled in my heart. We would soon have new lives. 

The buyer arrived with his boys and a cart on two wheels. While the boys transferred the sand to the cart and Baba counted and recounted his money, I smiled to myself. Soon, I would leave this behind. I would go to university. I would have a new life. Papa returned and as we secured our barge with chains and padlocks, I started the count in my head. Seven days till we left for Lagos.


Arekpitan Ikhenaode

Arekpitan writes creative nonfiction, literary fiction and opinion pieces as often as she can which unfortunately, is not very often. She enjoys reading, travelling and telling other writers what to write. Find her tweets @the_arekpitan. 

Photo by Simon Reza on Unsplash


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