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We Do Not Belong to The Water | Solomon Hamza

We Do Not Belong to The Water | Solomon Hamza


ISSUE 7 | JULY 2023 | TRANSITION ISSUE


“There’s water in the boat! Look, there’s water in the boat.”It wasn’t the voice of the person saying it or the words, but the alarm in the voice that stirred my heart, froze it for a second or two before it kick-started with an entirely faster velocity. It was the lousy woman with dirty cornrows and almost every eye in the wooden boat turned towards the spot she was pointing to.

It was indeed water and it was penetrating into the wooden boat in which we were crammed like clothes in a ghana – must – go bag. The water was the colour of dyed indigo, foaming as it seeped through into the boat. The woman and children sitting there stood up immediately.

“Jesus Christ! How did the water get in? “One man asked. Nobody answered him.

“What do we do now? “Another person asked.

“Let’s keep calm.”The young guy who was given the satellite phone by the Libyan agent said.

“Let’s call for help! “

“No, they said until we get to the Italian waters.”

The sun’s ray was mild like a caress on our skins yet beads of sweat were beginning to form dots on my forehead.

“Do you know where the Italian waters are?”

“Hey man, let’s fucking call for help. The man with braids said. He had been quiet throughout the journey, occasionally listening to rap music on his phone.”Do you want us all to die here?”

The guy with the satellite phone began pressing digits on the phone. He squinted at the buttons, peering into it before he pressed any digit.

“Would you fucking hurry? God damnit! “

“The water is increasing. Please hurry! “Another woman shouted.

“I’m coming. Stop shouting in my ears.”

I shivered inwardly as cold water hit my feet. I looked down only to see that the water had gone past our feet.

God please

“Give me this phone.”A loud hiss escaped the mouth of the braided man.

“Wait…” Phone guy shifted away from the incoming hands of the braided guy. The braided guy held him by the shirt and tried to pull him. The phone guy dragged his shirt from his grip and the phone slipped off from his hand and fell into the dark water with a rippling effect.

For the first few seconds, we stood like statues  watching the ripples the fallen phone had created. A shrill voice brought us back to reality.

“The boat is about to capsize!”

Before we could brace ourselves up, the wooden boat tumbled over and threw us all into the waiting arms of the sea. I plunged headfirst and saw nothing at first but a void space filled with so much blackness. I felt a kick on my jaw. The pain stung my eyes. I didn’t know if it was a leg or a fisted hand. My mouth tasted salty with a mix of blood.

Minutes later, I resurfaced thanks to my swimming prowess. My swimming practices in our village river hadn’t gone to waste. Some of the passengers were already swimming and clinging to the boat which had turned upside down. Others with life jackets were still floating, flailing their arms aimlessly. 

I made some strokes to the boat until something held my legs. The grip was strong around my shin and the pulling persisted. I jumped back into the sea. There were no hands. There was nobody. I made for the surface but this time the hands turned into a complete arm and held me around the waist.

I opened my mouth to shout for help and swallowed a mouthful of saltwater. The arms held on, dragging me down and down until the light on the surface of the water was becoming distant.

* * * * * * *

I woke up. My shirt so wet that for a moment I thought I was actually in the sea. I made the sign of the cross and sighed. A voice completely devoted and unaware of me jerking awake rambled on. 

‘ you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken and to the dust you shall return….’

The owner of the voice was the man who wore well ironed plain trousers and insisted we pray for about 20 minutes before the journey started. He was seated at the front row of the truck, his head bent over an open Bible, completely devoted to his reading.

Except for the voice of the man and the noise the truck made, the motor was completely peaceful. Even the chatty man in the faded AC Milan jersey, who had been talking about visiting the city of Milan and watching live matches at the San Siro, had suddenly become quiet.

There were 16 of us in the truck together with our belongings lying around with our names fastened on them. Five other trucks were at our back and three in our front. I looked sideways and found my younger brother Chimobi sleeping soundly beside me resting his head on his bag. He hardly slept in the daytime ever since our journey from Katsina to Maradi, the southern part of Niger Republic started. I was glad he was starting to get his peace back. It’s just a matter of time, brother.

The country we had left behind had erased more names off the face of the Earth than any pandemic could ever dream. It cleans with the efficiency of the wind to writings on the bare ground — leaving no trace behind. The same way the sandstorm here in the desert covers footpaths and vehicle tracks. It was better to die in a foreign land than to remain in continuous hardship in my country. 

Tufiakwa !

“You still have saliva to waste?” I turned to the voice that had distracted my thought. It was the taut, dark-skinned guy who Chimobi had nudged me at the beginning of our journey in Maradi to tell me he looked like Akuma. Because I didn’t want to think about Akuma, I shrugged it off and said, mbanu, this malnourished person cannot look like Akuma. Your eyes have started to fail you, Chi.”

Looking at him closely now, I couldn’t help but notice the close resemblance between them, even the way his eyes were twitching as he was smiling at me. I looked away, and my eyes settled on the vast sand dunes stretching and stretching until they met with the sky. I had read about the Sahara desert in school being the largest desert in the world. It was larger than large. Isn’t this the desert that became grave to many? This desert the size of five countries?

“You woke up cursing. Was it a bad dream?”The Akuma-looking guy continued. He was in a chatty mood, and seeing that we were the only ones awake, I just had to give in to his conversation advances.

“No. I usually wake up like that if I didn’t sleep comfortably.”

“Oh.” He looked up as if he was trying to decipher what I had just said to him. “I thought it was a bad dream. The place I went to get my juju, one woman there had a bad dream and the herbalist told her to cancel her journey.”

“Look, I cannot talk now, I have serious headache.”

“Okay. Sorry bro, and I do not have Panadol here with me.”

I waved him off. “No need, thank you.” I looked everywhere but not at him, trying my best to avoid staring at the corpses and sun-bleached skeletons laid like discarded waste on the streets. Some had turned gaunt, covered with sand and left only the ribs public to the glares of the eyes. I had stopped counting when I got to 25. My heart suddenly became too heavy for my chest and my breathing was difficult. Chimobi sobbed quietly beside me until his eyes became crimson red like blood.

* * * * *

We had gone past Agadez—the gateway into the Sahara. The drivers had to take a break at Al Qatron to rest from driving so we could also rest properly. The drivers told us in crisp French, which was interpreted by another man—a Cameroonian who understood French and English a bit, that it was the safest part of Libya where we wouldn’t fall into the miserable hands of Slave Market traders. The place also looked quite unaffected by the Gaddafi War.

I sat quietly outside one dirty shanty. The sun was a fiery furnace outside, but it was better than sitting inside with their cockroaches like rats that marched up and down your body with so much ease. I had never seen anything like that before. Nothing is normal here.

The harmattan wind back home raised gray dust and whirled it far and near until everywhere was coated in a dark brown uniform. I really don’t know what to name the wind here. It was beyond wind even. Fierce and ferocious that the driver had to stop at Agadez because he couldn’t see the road ahead. It was as if it was passing across a message, ‘I do not welcome strangers here!’ The sun too wasn’t left out. The heat caked your throat and left your lips cracked like the sole of an old man’s feet during harmattan. And you dare not drink too much water for fear of it finishing before time because no one would share theirs with you.

 The guides were the worst. They rarely smiled except when they returned from God-knows-where with some of the ladies they took out the previous night. We do not ask them where they took the ladies. We do not ask the ladies why they followed them.

When I looked up, I saw Chimobi walking up to me holding a cup in his hands. The swagger had returned to his gait. Thank God. With the way he was shivering last night, I was glad I didn’t wake up the next day to see his corpse like the other three adults that had died when we got to Agadez. They didn’t care to dig graves for them. Our guides just dumped their bodies away from the shanties right on the desert.

“Kedu bro?”

I nodded and he sat down close to me. 

“This water is so hot, it can parboil Hausa beans.” 

He blew the water for a while before handing the cup to me.

“Here, take.”

I took a slow gulp. The water was lukewarm. It didn’t taste like water at all. It felt like torture. Just like when one of the guides beat a Malian boy, the way market people back home beat a thief, because he didn’t give them money for bribe, and we couldn’t do anything. 

We begged and watched but couldn’t interfere. The Malian boy kept saying he didn’t have any money left on him to give them.

When they stopped beating him, he could no longer lift a finger, and the guides were muttering and spitting out words in French and Arabic. I guessed they were cursing with the way rage flared through their eyes.

***

I took a closer look at Chimobi and almost broke the silence when I became certain he was disturbed. Chimobi encircling the tip of his cup with his index finger. 

“What is on your mind, Chi?”

He looked up at me surprised at first. Reluctantly, he said. 

“Osahon told me you had a dream.”

I tilted my eyebrow slightly upward. “Who is Osahon?”

“That guy that looks like Akuma.”

“Oh.” I let my eyes settle past the shanties lined up like clothes hanging on lines.

“Do you believe in bad dreams?” I knew Chimobi. I knew what he was getting at so I remained quiet. “Bro, I feel bad about this. We can still turn around.”

“Turn around and do what next?” I hated snapping at him, but that was the only way to put his senses into his head. We are not turning around, not for anything. I’ve used all my money to fund this trip, how would I survive if I returned? Do you even know where we came from? Our people, we do not give up. It has never been heard before.”

“But brother….”

I stood up. “We must get to Europe, Chi. That’s when I can have rest of mind.”

“Hey, you two. Roll call, come quick.” Aboubacar, the driver of our truck, waved a paper in his hands. It was then that I noticed the other migrants around him and the other guides.

“What if we do not make it? People have been dying since yesterday,” Chimobi retorted as we walked toward the group. 

“We are not turning back.” 

When we got closer, Aboubacar stepped in front of me. “You two fight?”

“No,” I murmured.

“Good.” 

“No waste energy fighting. The sea is trouble. Save your energy for sea, qui?”

His face held no emotions so it was hard to tell if he was joking or not. But I nodded nonetheless.

The driver continued to call names from the piece of papers they held frantically. 

Soon, memories of Akuma floated to the top of my mind, clear as freshwater.

* * * * *

Akuma was as industrious as a farmer during the rainy season and as ambitious as the devil. He was the CYON Vice President in our village, Ummunike and the one who planted the idea of going to Europe by road into my head. 

“Azubuike, there’s nothing in this country.” He would always mutter.

“Guy, you have your Keke business.”I would reply.

“Nna, forget this Keke business, I just day manage.” He had a far away look in his eyes. “If I dey Yankee dey hustle the way I dey do so, I for don hammer since.”

He would snap his thumb against his forefinger to emphasis since. I would let him ramble on, listening without speaking until one day, he confided in me that he would be leaving for France the following week.

“Have you gotten your Visa & Passport?” I asked.

He laughed and patted me on the shoulder three times.”Dey there. I dey follow Libya enter Yankee. I no need all those ones.”

“Guy, aren’t you scared of the risk? Many people have gone home by travelling via this route.”

He continued laughing.”I’m leaving this country to God, who made me by crook or whatever. Greener pastures dey beyond.”

I was in shock as he made preparations and still in shock when he left. He was too eager to leave that he didn’t even bother to see if his idea in my head sprouted or died like a flower that was uncared for.

He left for Europe after he had raised enough money by selling his Keke Napep and adding to some of his savings. He promised to send me pictures when he gets there — pictures of big and beautiful European cities. He told me he would stay in Italy for a while before proceeding to France. The countries had a lot of African immigrants like him, so he wouldn’t feel out of place. But the Akuma I knew wasn’t the type who cared about what people thought about him. He sets his mind to achieving something and then goes to achieving it; a true son of the soil.

A week became two, and the long, strong hands of time dragged and dragged until a whole month passed and added some weeks to it, but there was no news of Akuma reaching Italy or France. There were no pictures either. These things take time. I told myself. Maybe he was trying to settle down first before sending me the pictures. I was constantly on his Facebook timeline, checking for his posts and visiting his home regularly for any updates.

One evening—exactly a year after Akuma’s departure, a short man with skin the colour of clay soil arrived at Akuma’s family house. He said he came bearing news about Akuma. News developed wings and managed to reach the ears of the other villagers. Soon people gathered around him like ants around morsels of rice in the sitting room of Akuma’s family home. He was an experienced harbinger of news, letting off the words little by little and keeping us restless with anticipation until he arrived at the conclusion. He sat and cleared his throat before he began his story. 

He and Akuma boarded the same bus from Nigeria to Agadez where they would travel through Libya and from there to Italy. He was detailed in his story, not minding the suspense that tugged at our hearts. He continued after taking slow gulps of the water Akuma’s younger sister kept on a small stool. He said their journey was a success from Agadez to Sabratha until they got to the Mediterranean Sea. 

He said the dark sea was so glad to see another set of Africans, hugged them tightly and whispered into their ears, “You all must come spend the night with me,” then laid them to rest on its bed. The fatality was great. Many people fell for the sweet words of the sea and went with him, including Akuma. That it was just God that saved him before the Italian Navy came to his rescue and a few other survivors. He said he & Akuma became close during that short journey. And that Akuma once mentioned his village to him and the name of his family. That was how he got to locate them.

Akuma’s mother was the first to react. “The waters have taken my son from me. Chi mo!” The sky of her eyelids opened, and it rained tears—a heavy downpour that soaked her shirt and left her face in shimmering wetness. A playlist of elegies shuffled from the throat of sympathisers, rendering the air with their ‘ozugo, it’s enough, ‘take heart, the Lord gives and He takes’, ‘nobody can question God for he knows best’. They held her. They told her ozugo, but that didn’t stop her from mourning her son, even when the stranger folded a neat envelope that was swollen in the middle and dropped it on her lap.

When I got home that day, I racked my brain searching for days when Akuma missed a Sunday mass, if Akuma was all this while devotedly worshipping God for Him not to have saved Akuma like the stranger and the few other survivors. While I filled my head with fantasies about European cities, a good life with beautiful silky-haired, flaxen-skinned and straight-nosed women, Akuma’s dreams went with the waters.

But that didn’t stop me from dreaming and working my ways to leave for Europe. After laying my hands on several businesses, both online and offline and having failed woefully because of the unfriendly economy, I envisioned what Akuma had dreamt about. I decided also that I would not be going there alone, but with my brother, so we could have a better life abroad. What Akuma planted into my head has now grown into a full crop, and I will harvest all of it when I get to Europe. It has never been heard that a son of Ummunike failed to go after his dreams. Never.

* * * * *

The drivers didn’t stop until we got to Zuwara, a coastal town in Libya which was closer to Sicily. They kept whizzing past desert towns that looked like no one lived there, past turbaned men walking in twos or more, past playful children the colour of sand who waved and chased after our trucks until the dust that trailed behind us covered them.

I didn’t stop avoiding Osahon. I avoided him like a plague and made sure Chimobi did the same until we got on board in a motor ramp, and a Libyan fisherman was asked to join us until we got to the Italian waters. I was happy it wasn’t a wooden boat like the one in my dream. There were many stories that those who travelled on wooden boats too hardly made it across. We sat shoulder by shoulder, holding on to the edges of the boat for support, and from time to time, the strong smell of petrol snaked its way through our noses and filled our empty stomachs.

On the second day of our voyage, when the dolphins took it amongst themselves to end their thrilling circus performances, a Sudanese woman with the darkest skin I have ever seen began singing a sorrowful song in French. The song irked me because it felt like we were slaves journeying in slave ships to the land of the unknown. Soon, other voices joined the lone voice of the woman and filled the air with melancholia. It was obvious they understood French too. I looked sideways to see Osahon nodding to the song. My dislike for him increased. If he wasn’t unfortunate, why would he be enjoying this funeral song? 

Our eyes met, and he waved at me. I pretended not to see him wave and slowly returned my eyes to the sea. My eyes remained on the dark blue waters with different thoughts crash landing on the walls of my mind of the people it had swallowed, of the dreams it had cut off, the way NEPA workers disconnected light in my country, of the loss it had nailed into a family — the loss of a father, mother, son, daughter, sister or brother. I tried to imagine how violent it was during the months of unpredictable storms and excessive rainfalls when it was extremely dangerous to sail through. The guides in Libya said July and August were the best time to travel through it. I took in bouts of the smell of salt and thanked my chi because we were still in the month of August. 

Chimobi nudged me out of my thoughts.”I just hope this foreign land favours us.”

“Of course, it will, ” I smiled at him. “Didn’t I tell you we would make it in the end?”

He shrugged.”I was worried at first. After what happened to Akuma, I thought, I thought…. I was scared at first.”

“We all have our different destinies. You will see by the time we get to Europe, we will have forgotten about all these struggles and the trials we are facing now. You just wait and see!”

Chimobi looked sideways and smiled. I thought at first he was smiling at the baby of the woman sitting very close to us. When he rose his arms and waved, my eyes followed the direction of the arms like a lead. Osahon waved back at him, smiling.

I was annoyed when I saw how happy he was after he had once suggested we cancel our trip and return back to Nigeria because of an ordinary dream. I returned my gaze to the sea, which was now as calm as a lake. When we get to the shores of Italy, I would be the one doing the waving, smiling into his face and bidding him goodbye.

* * * * *

On the third day of our voyage, I sat and calculated how three weeks of traveling which our agents had promised me back in Nigeria, turned into a month. I couldn’t wait to get over with the trip and set my foot on European soil. However, some minutes after 6 PM, the weather became pregnant with expectant rain. It didn’t take long before the Heavens opened to let down water from the sky. It started as a drizzle and erupted into fits of rain, falling for some minutes and stopping abruptly. Then it resumed again. The rain stirred the sleeping sea, and Poseidon wielded his trident, ready to wreak havoc.

The sea took charge, excited to see another set of Africans like in the stranger’s story. It tossed our motor ramp here and there like a swing. It was obvious the sea wanted to play with us before it finally decided our fate. The horrid sounds from the wind and of the raging waves slapping against the boat woke a lot of people who were already dozing. 

Chimobi’s low voice hacked through my chain of thoughts.”Bro, I’m scared, oh.”

“We will not die here in the sea.” The life jacket was large for him, which made him appear much smaller. “We do not belong to the sea, Chi. They will come and rescue us.”

Chimobi began to shake beside me like he had Parkinson’s disease.

“Keep calm, everybody, hold firm. A rescue team will be here shortly.” I recognized the voice immediately even though it was too dark to confirm. The owner of the voice was a smallish Libyan fisherman handed the duty of transporting us safely. I was surprised his smallish body could produce such a booming voice.”I have just made a distress call.”

The waves whacked our boat furiously, tossing us from side to side. To think that the blue sea was as calm as a dove moments ago, now it was raging like a wounded tiger. A flash of lightning zigzagged across the black clouds, illuminating parts of the boat for a while. The storm had also unsettled the calmness of the passengers looking everywhere to hold something, anything strong enough to stop them from falling overboard.

“Chimobi, hold something.” But I was leading his hands to an iron prop, close to us before another hand would beat us to it. The motor raft suddenly became too small for us as screams and wails from children and women alike from different African dialects intertwined with the rumbling thunder.

Despite the noise & ululation, Chimobi’s eyelids were drooling. His breathing was becoming laborious. It was as if he was sucking in the air.”Chimobi, please wake up!”

My God, what would I tell Mama & Papa? That I cajoled my younger brother into travelling illegally abroad and failed to do that, right? That I had allowed the sea to kill their son?

“I’m so cold,” I nudged him.

“You won’t die here. You didn’t die in the desert, so you won’t go home now.”

Just then somebody shouted in the dark, pointing at something. “I can see it, the rescue boat. It’s coming.”

I strained my eyes to see, but my efforts were cut short when a searchlight slashed through our ferry, sending not only rays of light but of hope. The crying passengers suddenly began jumping up and down as the boat approached us. I turned to smile at Chimobi. “I told you, didn’t I? We won’t go home today.”

And of course, the home I was talking about was an unmarked grave on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea.


Solomon T. Hamza | Agbowo Art | African Literary Art

Solomon T. Hamza

Solomon T. Hamza is a Nigerian writer. He writes on various intricacies of life especially ones that keeps him awake at night and musing during the day. His works have been published on Brittle Paper, Ice Floe Press, Shallow Tales Review, RoadRunner Review, Lumiere Review, Afritondo and elsewhere. He enjoys listening to music and exploring new places. He tweets @ST_hamza001.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

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