DEATH AT THE BORROW PIT
A True life Story
OGHENEMERE EDWIN ORUGBO
WRITINGS FROM AFRICA
LAND OF THE BEAUTY AND SALT
Little River, Long Episode
Dangerous stealth, innocent calm;
Mighty ocean, Oh Dormancy
But why, Why!
“Eric, I want you and Ghenemere to take the decision:” should we move to the house I found at Iyara or should we go to your father’s new building”?
“To my father’s house” I said, with delight on my face.
“I don’t like Iyara” elected Eric. “Besides I have never been to my father’s compound before, I have only heard of it”.
“But Ghenemere has seen it”.
“Yes, when he cried and ran after brother Voke on his way to visit brother Mike whom you said lives in the compound”.
Actually, my mother only wanted a justification for her already made decision to move to my father’s building at the instance of my father, as compensation after a family court case between my mom and dad, declared in favour of the former.
There had been a big fight between my mom and her mate, Seke, my father’s third wife. As restlessness is always rife in a polygamous home, fights between these two women were by no means uncommon. This particular one was so big and my father so mortified that he promptly asked the two women to pack and go back to their parents.
Thinking about it now, I can understand my father. He was only a tenant in a building occupied by many other tenants including the landlord who himself had a large polygamous family, such that, the compound was by every yard stick over crowded, and closely packed amongst other similarly over populated buildings. Whenever there was a fight between or within families, buckets, plates, mortars and other missiles invariably flew around. In such a compact setting, the ensuing commotion was intolerable.
The next morning, Seke who was, going by the average of about two years interval, in which the wives gave birth, had three children as at the time, had packed and gone. Apparently she knew where to go. But my mother did not: Her parents were dead; her few remaining brothers and sisters where very poor and scattered around the forests and creeks of southern Nigeria doing bush work. Their very destinations hardly known and word seldom came from them.
Two days later, a Datsun pick up van arrived at about 2p.m and there was a systematic packing of everything that belonged to mum to the last needle. She was at least six months pregnant with seven children.
Her eldest child Patience, a girl, was in secondary school. Anote, another girl, next to patience, was at home when mum had to leave so she and Ufuoma, my immediate younger brother, sat in the open carriage of the van among the luggage while my mother, her hand baby Ejiro and Orhorha-ore the boy next to Ufuoma all bundled themselves in the single passenger seat beside the driver.
We would later hear that Seke had gone to live with my father’s eldest child from his late but much respected first wife, Onameyoren. He was at that time resident somewhere around Olu Palace, some five minutes drive from No. 8 Timi street, Okumagba lay-out where my father lived. She would pack back to Timi street to live with my father two weeks later. But for my mother, it would be the last time she ever slept at Timi Street, and it would be a tale of hardship en-route kolokolo, squatting with one friend after the other with seven children and a pregnancy.
“Abigirl you are too stubborn”, Liku my father’s distant relation and my mother’s distant in-law said.
She was standing just behind my mother unknown to her.
“But Liku, you are funny. You who have seen all my travails”
“What travails? Please allow my ears some peace. Go and cook something for us to eat, the children are hungry”.
“Am no longer in the marriage and I have said so one million times’ my mother said and looked away.
“No longer in the marriage” Liku mimicked and made faces at my mother. They both laughed.
We had come to live with liku in her one room apartment and I don’t know how we managed. Liku her self had many children though she was living with only two of them as at that time. Added to my mother’s five children, we numbered nine people including my mother who was at that time heavy with pregnancy.
Eric, my immediate elder brother never went with us from Timi Street. There would be no continuing school if he did, so when he came from school and found that mum had left, he promptly stayed behind. Sister Patience was shuttling between school and brother Jackson’s, my father’s cousin’s place.
When I came back to find my mother had gone, unlike Eric, I ran after her. For me, school did not matter much. Any opportunity not to have to go to school was highly welcome.
I knew there was only one place my mother could go: To her family compound in Emadadja village, some five kilometers from Warri. And one of the drivers shuttling the route between the Udu villages and Warri promptly took me there. My mother had left a word with them to bring me, as my reaction was predictable to all: They knew my love for the villages. By this time my mother was seven months
Pregnant. It was all she could do to transport herself from the village to her shop at the Mc Iver end of the Warri main market where she traded in local gin (Ogogoro). Not the finance though, but the stress involved and the painful thought of who would set an eye on her children while she was away. It was unthinkable to let someone like myself romp about the village without my father’s whip and his clear but unmistakably threatening voice, and my mother’s constant surveillance amidst many knocks and occasional slaps with a variety of other punishments, to constantly put me in check.
There was no knowing what I was capable of doing or what my next move could be; I was only nine years old but given the chance, I was capable of driving a truck or a trailer recklessly about the main road of the village. I believe but for me, my mother could have managed but she was not willing to leave the children alone, thus her business suffered.
Entered Liku to the rescue! She offered my mother to leave her luggage behind, to take only the children and their clothes and shoes to live with her in her single room situated not more than ten yards from my mother’s very store. It was just at the end of the row of stores where the women traded in (Ogogoro) as middlemen between the Ijaws of the riverine area and merchants from the north. Pardon me for failing to mention the other inhabitants of madam Liku’s house where we lived. The mighty rats, cockroaches, and the elephant sized mosquitoes. The area ranked one of the greatest slums or Ghetto ever seen or heard of.
On our return from the village, first thing, I showed up at my father’s shop at the other end of the market. I alighted in my boisterous manner not suspecting the least. Even before I could greet, he said rather indifferently.
“What have you come to take?” with a mischievous smile hanging loosely on his face. Before I could think of what to say, he added. “Are you people tired of staying with your mother?”
I stood petrified, “Go, go back to her, you shouldn’t be tired so soon” he mocked.
It was the first time ever I took offence against my father. I was only nine years old and it was one month then since my mother left because they were asked to go following the fight between her and Seke. I didn’t even know what was happening and was not even thinking about it. I was by all means happy to see him.
In the deepest recess of my mind, there was a black spot on my father’s file consequent to those remarks, for a long time; but I have since forgiven him. I want to note here that a polygamous home is an oppressive institution with a divide and rule framework, always to the detriment of the older wife and her children. In these families, there is little or no peace but for always. I detest polygamy!
It would be the first time my father was guilty before my conscience, but it would not be the last in a series of oppression, bias and a variety of injustices against my mother and her children.
The Mc Iver slum was a haven for all kinds of criminals; from buglers and drug users to highway robbers. It was a breeding ground for the under-world operators in Warri as at that time; not an ideal place for children to grow up. Especially if you want them to be absorbable and responsible citizens of the society in the future, and my father knew this.
We were on long vacation. Schooling for myself, Ufuoma and Anote had stopped before then, but this wasn’t the immediate problem. The most pressing being that my mother was heavily pregnant and would put to bed any minute. This was when my father commenced his ovations to my mother for a ‘decamp’ to the new house.
I kept shuttling between Mc Iver and Timi street which was closer to school when we resumed again. I didn’t like the idea of going to school much so I went back to my mum often as to afford me the excuse some times for not going to school.
On my return one day from Timi Street, the women with whom my mother traded received me with broad smiles on their faces, some held me closely to their bosom and kissed me; As is always the case with stubborn children, I was their favourite. One of them, Alice, who called me her husband right from the day I was born, held me close and announced to me that my mother had put to bed. She and the other children had been moved to my father’s new house at Udu road: welcome to kolokolo lay out!
As though an unseen fence, he covered the goal post entirely to the dismay of the opponents; the crowd rose in ovation again and again, and even again as he leapt high as though a bird, and deflected balls otherwise headed for the goal at difficult margins.
Geo-political Warri ends just before Enerhen junction, the nerve center of activities in Warri. Udu road begins from Enerhen motel, the name of a junction of three roads, one of them being the Udu road.
Right from Enerhen junction and throughout the span of the Udu road, to the right and left, consists of villages and small settlements of the Udu people one of the many clans that make up the Urhobo ethnic nationality, a people situated right in the heart of the Niger Delta in Nigeria.
Beginning from Enerhen motel, the first five hundred meters of the Udu road to the right up to Sedco junction where the road takes a turn due right is called Kolokolo lay out. Opposite the Kolokolo lay out along the Udu road is the Atamakolomi lay out. Further up the road also opposite Kolokolo is an area called Dugbo, named after chief TK Dugbo; a notable Udu elite of the seventies and early eighties and probably one of the first to have a landed property there.
Kolokolo lay out was divided in two parts: first and second kolokolo. There were no demarcations, also, no functional divide between first and second kolokolo lay out. Two small un-tarred roads that run perpendicular to the Udu road were the only roads in and out of the lay out. The first and closest to Enerhen motel was called first kolokolo junction at the point where it meets the Udu road. The second kolokolo junction is the one situated near the Sedco junction at the point where the second road into the lay out meets the Udu road. Both roads run straight through the lay out to end in a dense swampy forest which haboured many palm trees and thickets bordering kolokolo, behind which in turn is bordered at the back by the Udu river. It was possible to access my father’s house by a small road which opens up somewhere very close to Enerhen motel but runs backwards through the fences between two estates: Kagho estate and Chief Rhekpa kpohraro compound. This was the best route to my father’s compound that was situated just a block away behind the back fence of the Kagho estate.
Adjacent to my father’s house is one of the bungalows of Chief Paul Odia’s estate. It consists of two rows of bungalows, each row holding five bungalows. The road between the columns of bungalows is as wide as to make for the passage of two cars at a time. It ends up at a gate, which opens up to the Udu road just about twenty yards from the first kolokolo junction. This was another access to my father’s compound and still is.
Immediately in front of my father’s house is a bush covered-semi valley as big as a football pitch.
Behind my father’s house is a building built back to back with ours and it was the house where my first friend in Kolokolo, Idongesit Udoh, lived with his uncle. Adjacent to theirs was yet another replica of my father’s house but only partly completed then. The two or three plots to the left of my father’s building were undeveloped.
“Brother! Brother!!” I shouted and waved frantically to a church member whom I was acquainted to and one of the drivers that plied the road.
“You this stubborn boy” the ‘brother’ remarked after he pulled on to the side verge “what are you up to this time. Where are you coming from and where are you going”?
“I am going to my father’s new house.” I answered looking up excitedly at him.
“Where is the house”?
“At Udu road after Enerhen motel”
“So Abigirl asked you to trek from Mc Iver to Enerhen motel at your age and on your own”?
By this time we were in the car and driving in the direction home. This particular driver knew my history. He wasn’t sure I was telling the truth. I had that habit of running away to our village without the consent or knowledge of my parents. There were times when they thought they had lost me for good. The ‘brother’s’ line of thinking was, it’s better to drive me home if I was on one of my journeys again than to have me deceive him to drop me off along my route after which I would continue my long and lonely trek which was too far and too risky for a boy of ten.
I told him how I came to find my mother gone to the new house and how she left a message with the women for me to come after her; that of course was not true but I convinced him so he dropped me off at Enerhen motel. I took the small road that passed between Kpohraro and Kagho estates home. It was the same route I took with brother Voke when we visited the house about a year before.
I was alone on the road. The side of the chief Kpohraro fence was lined with assorted fruit trees with ripe fruits dropped some inside the compound and some on the road, but what fell into the compound was more and looked better. The fence was a maze of un-barbed wires, one could clearly see through. I was sure I was going to be on the other side of the fence in no time to pick me some fruits but I was more interested in getting to my father’s compound today. I walked silently along. In the late seventies and early eighties, Kolokolo layout was sparsely populated, much of it was bushes, farmlands and uncompleted buildings.
The road could take just one car at a time. About a hundred meters behind the estates it took a left turn at the point where it intersects the foot path leading to my father’s house.
The house was still unpainted then. There was a local well standing alone in front of it; some rooms were still vacant. The kitchen and bathing rooms block was yet uncompleted. In every way it was a new house and I was delighted to see it.
“Did you come alone”? Ufuoma asked, standing near the well holding a rope, one end of which was tied to a fetching pail.
“Ghenemere, Ghenemere!” Orhorha-ore called. He ran into one of the rooms, I had him announce “mama! Mama!!, Ghenemere has come”
“Who did you come with”? My mother asked, sitting on the big divan bed that was all too familiar to me.
“I came alone” I replied and added quickly that Liku asked me to come. But that was a terrible mistake because Liku had been with my mother since the past two days. If not that a newly delivered woman is one of the happiest people on the face of the planet, that brazen lie would have earned me a big slap between my jaw and my ear: somehow, she never slaps the jaw alone.
I went out shortly to meet Ufuoma who was sitting on the balcony. We talked about this and that. He was very happy. We played a little on the sand then I took a walk around the building on a familiarization tour. Ufuoma narrated to me as much as he could the story of how they came to Kolokolo; he wasn’t very eloquent, being so even till this day.
We drew cars on the sand while we chatted. Ufuoma tried to draw a lorry; I drew a Volvo, which was my favourite then. My car was more beautiful but Ufuoma gave a registration number to his lorry, something I never thought of. I became jealous and decided to imitate him. I gave my Volvo, I still remember it, the best car I ever drew as a child the number BD 6045 H, according to the method of numbering in those days in Nigeria.
I always remembered the number because I liked the Volvo that much and I had a beautiful one drawn. About three months later, my eldest brother Mike Orugbo, bought a Volkswagen Beetle. When he applied for a number, the authorities gave him a registration number plate for his car, and inscribed on it was the number—wait for it—BD 6045 H. He never saw the car I drew let alone the registration number I conjured for it; more so, he wasn’t the one to dictate to the authorities the number he wished for his car even if by any chance in the world he saw what I drew. They gave the numbers randomly and in series with applications. How did it come to be exactly the same number I gave to the Volvo I drew on the sand some months before? To put it on record, this was the first car ever to be bought in the entire Orugbo family. Was it a coincidence? Hold your opinion yet; the story has just begun. At that tender age, I already knew for certain that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Presently, dusk was approaching; the building was not wired yet so there was no talk of electricity supply; we went to bed early.
Morning next day, after the normal forced morning duties, I strolled out for an inspection of the immediate vicinity, crossed to the buildings adjoining ours, found some kids playing on a heap of sharp sand meant for the construction of a house; I needed no invitation. Among them was Idongesit Udoh, who would become my first play mate and friend ever in Kolokolo layout. There was Apipi; a girl, and the bully among them. There were others I can not remember their names now.
“Who is this boy” Apipi asked stern faced.
“They live behind our compound” Idongesit said defensively.
“Go” she commanded, “You are not invited here.”
I only took a glance at her and concentrated on the house I was building on the sand.
“Apipi, please leave him alone” Idongesit pleaded on my behalf. She came over to me in few very quick steps, wearing an angry expression on her face. I stood up and faced her as Idongesit rushed between us. But he retired as he came when Apipi shouted in a sharp shrill voice threatening to give him the beating of his life if he didn’t mind his own business.
That really frightened me. Sure, Apipi was a shade taller and looked truly a menacing sight in her anger but as I knew it, it was a shame to allow a girl to commandeer you around or allow her to be the boss of any peer group I belonged.
She came on to me with an expression that clearly spelt imminent trouble and stood in front of me. We were so close our noses nearly touched. She glared at me shouting.
“Aren’t you afraid, eh “? But I stood my grounds and that surprised the other children. The truth was, if I knew how much the others dreaded her, I would have accorded her, her due respects.
Just before she would proceed on me, her mother intervened. She shouted at Apipi to leave me alone and demanded what wrong I had done. She promptly retreated to her own spot on the sand.
Idongesit came over to me, he fancied my seeming courage. Apparently, any one who could dare Apipi was himself to be respected. I told Idongesit to put his foot opposite mine so that our toes touched. We mounted sand all around, pressed hard and added more, by the time we removed our toes a dome shaped structure was left on the sand with two holes on either sides. I called it a two bedrooms apartment and proceeded to decorate it with flowers.
Our bully watched on with interest, she liked the idea of a house so easily built and the method was in any case, new to them. She attempted to build same but theirs crumbled at the withdrawal of their feet, apparently because they did not press hard enough. At the end of their third trial, she rushed to our spot and booted my beautiful house to shreds.
That was more than I could accommodate. I rose in a flash and landed my fore head with a thud between her left eye and her nose. She was stunned, she was not expecting any one to start a fight before she did; at least not with the head and before she knew it, she was on my shoulders. I landed her heavily on the sand, I did not wait, I had a slight feeling that if Apipi was allowed to recover, I might regret the decision. I sat on her stomach and ran sharp fingers across her face a couple of times; she cried out and caught my fore finger between her teeth.
There was great excitement as they—the other kids—saw their bully being humiliated. A cry of “No biting, Apipi no biting” rang through the air. I was happy; the battle was going my way all right. I scooped sand unto her face with one hand and with the other I tried to keep her pinned to the ground. She reeled out punches at me and struggled fervently to disengage. I did let go when one of her punches crashed heavily against my left eye. In that moment I thought I saw a monster shaped star and a goat walking upside down.
She rose quickly and bolted, not because she thought I was stronger but because she was confused and could not see clearly as I had put sand in her eyes. I rushed after her excited, eager to fish the kill. I caught up with her, shot my right foot forward, it caught her escaping back foot which tangled with her other leg and she went sprawling on the floor. I was atop her again, but this time my eldest sister would not let me stay that way. She tore me away from her with my right ear, she dragged me home that way with my entire hearing organ threatening to dislodged from it’s cavity; Apipi had been disgraced but my disgrace would come some day.
We called him Calabar as none of us could correctly pronounce or even endeavor to pronounce correctly, his syllabically jagged fore-appellation, Idongesit. We were either at Idongesit’s or playing some where with him. He was physically very healthy, fair complexioned, with an otherwise handsome face. He talked somewhat incoherently with a slight stammer. When Idongesit was angry it was not worth it trying to hear him out, you would never understand anything he said. Among other things, Idongesit was brave, he knew the area like the back of his hands; a ready accomplice for all my childhood rascality.
We went to school together or at least, went out as if to school together. As our route in and out of Kolokolo was through the small road that leads to Enerhen motel, we invariably picked fruits along the chief Kpohraro fence, many a time, it was the only reason why we set out. During this period too, we picked many fruits and planted their seeds among flowers round my father’s compound which later became full grown trees bearing fruits: we had pear, coconut, orange, guava, Ammon, cashew, bananas and plantain courtesy of my mother-among a variety of blossom.
On one of my exploits, I climbed over the fence into the yard and climbed the very tree of a particular fruit we enjoyed most. We always did that when we saw that no one was about the compound. It was on a Saturday and the children were home. I was engrossed with picking ripe fruits directly from the tree according to my preference that I did not notice them come and surround the tree.
There were five of them all about my age though some were visibly two or three years older than me.
“To climb the fence, you must first come down from the tree do not forget” one of them said. And he was right. The fence was no less than three meters from the tree base. He had said that because I was looking wistfully in that direction like a trapped rabbit. They led me to a bigger boy called Solo.
“We’ve brought him” one of them announced. Solo grunted and started with me on a long interrogation course. At the end he declared I should be giving twenty four strokes of the cane.
At that I started to cry while the smallest among them was collecting the canes, there was no escape for me.
“Let set him free” another one said. “After all we never pick the fruits ourselves”
“Augustus, shut-up.” Solo barked, but he persevered, after a while he too started to cry.
Tennessee, a much bigger one of about twenty came to set me free at the instance of Augustus who called his attention amidst tears to the issue.
At the gate he announced to me that I could always come but should pass through the gate to avoid problems.
“Ask to see me any time you come.” He added.
At home I told Idongesit the whole story carefully omitting my captivity and near severe punishment. As it happened, we went on daily basis to the chief’s compound where we later had personal friends; Ufuoma was Tony’s bosom friend; they were both small boys. I was Augustus dear friend; even unto this day. Eric was Solo’s friend; a kind of dog eat dog friendship they shared as Eric never really liked Solo because he was a little bigger, bullish and authoritative. Idongesit was Kingsley’s friend; but he would have preferred Augustus who was more accommodating.
We went there on every excuse; we ate there, had our baths and played there-the more extreme ones like myself even slept there sometimes. We played many football matches, sometimes they won and sometimes we did. They liked us generally. May times they ate and played with us in our own area so that there were matches and return matches.
When second Kolokolo Had to play football matches against first Kolokolo, our own end of the layout, we borrowed the Kpohraro boys. These matches ended up sometimes in big fights, but that is the way of exposed children. It was during one of this matches that Eric, my immediate elder brother met another youth, Daniel who would later become a long time family friend of the Orugbo’s even till this days.
Kolokolo was being developed by the second and more families were moving in. Godspower and Ogushi—the wag—were some of the first indigenes of Kolokolo. They were real ghetto boys; Garrulous, cantankerous and prone to fights. Earlier on, I had had victorious bouts with these boys but as time passed, physical growth was not on my side while some of the other boys grew rapidly. By virtue of their past fights with me, they kept out of my way and because of their recent physical development, in turn, I avoided them—especially Godspower. There was this incident I mind not to over-emphasize.
On one of my visits to the Kpohraro compound, I found that no one was home. I climbed my favourite fruit tree, the one they caught me on. I climbed particularly higher in my search for bigger and riper fruits that I did not realize I was so close to the high tension electric wire that ran high above the fence and passed in between the higher branches of the tree properly screened by its healthy dark green leaves.
As I climbed even higher, just before I was to make the fatal contact, something made me look up-and there it was. I almost fell right from the tree. From the many stories I had had, I knew I was seconds away from death itself. My next move would have brought my body in contact with the electric wire around my armpit region.
I climbed hurriedly down and went home trembling. For once, the bundle of fearless cells in my brain was rattled. For once, I really thought of the possibility of dying during one of my many adventures. I never told any one that story and I never climbed that tree again till it was cut down. This was my second near-death experience. The third was during one of our famous and which became the last syringe combat.
Two years had passed, and we were becoming bigger boys. Emmanuel Sergeant, nicknamed Emmagbo, one of the unfortunate boys to be in the party that went to the borrow pit on the day of the incident came to the area about this time.
Emma was a smallish, red-eyed youth who took pleasure in making secret everything he knew or wanted to say. His closest pal in the area was Eric. They were both crafty boys and did too many things in secret. Because I wanted to be part of everything, I was always in conflict with them. Emma was rather lazy, Eric was thick-set with a heavy chest and broad shoulders; a very good fighter he was. I knew better and avoided him where possible.
As afore-mentioned, I always traveled home on the flimsiest excuse. On return from one of my journeys, I was told first kolokolo will be having a big football match with second Kolokolo the next day. I liked football matches though outside the goal post I was entirely useless to the side.
Next morning we gathered around my father’s compound and trouped to second Kolokolo in a body. Among us were these two boys entirely new to me because I had not been around the past two weeks or so. It was going to be their first experience of our much talked-about encounters with various sides. It was holiday period, thus each side had the best of their players in attendance—no excuses. The boys were over-whelmed with excitement. They talked freely with the others whom they had acquainted themselves with in my absence.
Second kolokolo were ready and waiting when we arrived, but the match was not to begin before a fight.
Chief Odokuma, the father of many children, some of whom were the able bodied boys that constituted the second Kolokolo team had declared the day before, that he was going to convert half of our un-grassed football pitch to a coco yam farm and had moved the goal post to the center of the field the remaining part being if anything, too small for our much publicized encounter.
No one could force the chief out of the field because his children were there—big and rugged—though pleading subtly with their father for a rethink of the decision. After too many exhaustive and fruitless pleas, suppressed tempers were let loose. One of the bigger boys, Akpofure ‘the gentle giant’ still from their side, walked casually to one of the posts, uprooted it and proceeded to return it to it’s former position. He was met halfway by the chief, who gave him a serious trashing with his walking stick. Though with some respect he pushed his assailant roughly, but that was too much for the children. As if given a sudden command, in one accord they rushed at Akpofure. This was anticipated by some other youths from the same side who rose swiftly in defense. We watched the fight quasi-confused.
The chief was led home after a while with a promise that he could have the land after the match— he never did.
Now the match was to begin in earnest. This was a critical point as there would be fierce arguments as to who should be featured and who shouldn’t be. Eric was our opinion leader in such matters and the indomitable captain of the side. He was a very good footballer, an eloquent orator and unbelievably charismatic, almost to a para-natural extent.
On the pitch, I was Eric’s greatest enemy. His one standing belief was; outside the goal post, I was a minus one to the side, he wasn’t far from the truth. Thus, any unwillingness for me to mount the post was construed as unwillingness on my part not to perform altogether. How I hated him!
We usually fought at this point. He had selected the players for the side and ditto! I was left out; with a promise to be featured halfway as a palliative for me not to start my disorganizing protests that usually led to our fights.
The bigger and obviously the older one of the two new boys to our side, Monday Obaro, had elected to mount the post. Cheer novelty plus his coolness of character earned him the position. He was handsome, dark and tall with his two canines showing more often than not.
His younger brother, Julius Obaro, shorter, albeit relatively average height compared to the rest of us and relatively fair compared to his brother, with a wider mouth, had elected to be a center forward, the goal-getter to the side. Surely, there was no way to evaluate his abilities as declared except given the opportunity to show it. Thus sheer novelty defeated reason again.
It didn’t take long after kick-off for us to know that Julius was an unserious semi-wag; a mischief-maker with zero abilities in football. I was either better than him or we were the same.
But Monday the elder was his very opposite. He performed far more than was expected. As though an unseen fence, he covered the goal post entirely to the dismay of the opponents; the crowd rose in ovation again and again and even again, as he leapt high as a bird and deflected balls otherwise headed for the net at difficult margins.
There were two remarkable players in second kolokolo:
Daniel, Eric’s bosom friend and his brother Peter. Peter had the extra ‘maradonics’ of being able to dribble a whole side including his team mates if they wished without losing possession of the ball, while Daniel had the extra speed and strength. He didn’t care whether there was a goal-keeper or not, he would zap into close quarters and shoot violently into the post with his face contoured and eye brows knitted so that they almost touched as if he was on a mission to kill somebody. He was my bane during my days as a goal keeper. Many a day when I refused to mount the post, it was in horror of Daniel who spared me not. His movement was as quick as lightening and his shots as fast as a bullet. I dreaded him to the knowledge of all.
But today, both stars were useless before Monday. He stood courageously and held Daniel’s shots at close range, in which case I would have deserted the post long before he got there, lest he shot the ball at my face; He was rather wicked with me.
Julius was sent out before he knew it. Every ball passed to him—I repeat, every ball— flew past the between of his legs. We won the game 1:0 however and at the end, Monday was celebrated by boys from both sides; he was carried shoulder high amidst praises back to first kolokolo.
The next day Julius came to our compound about ten o clock in the morning with a syringe well attached to a needle in hand. He said behind me.
“You this boy who doesn’t know how to play football” as I turned to look, he sprayed water into my eyes from the syringe.
“Okay,” I said and dashed off in a particular direction. Other who guessed my intention trailed after me. We ran to the back of a near-by estate whose back fence ended edge of the forest with its side fence defining the end of first kolokolo to the west until it meets the chief kpohraro fence, where we knew a clinic inside the estate always emptied their used syringes, bandages, drips and the likes. We collected enough used syringes and needles, coupled them and ran back to the compound which was our meeting point by day as my parents were safely at their shops in the market. We sprayed water at each other running about, away, and after each other. It was a beautiful newly invented and highly dangerous game, though we didn’t see the danger in it. This was the beginning of our famous syringe battles.
A new youth had come to the area, about same age with me: lanky, tall, and extremely handsome at least facially; of a mixed European and African extraction. He was called Kamma. He was my closest friend among the kolokolo boys from the point when he came on the scene even till now. They lived closest to the point where we collected the medical wastes in one of the makeshift buildings. As it was, the bigger the syringe, the better, but it also meant the bigger the needle—the more risky.
Kamma will go early before anyone to collect very big syringes with six inches long needles. It happened one morning. Armed with big needles and syringes, we commenced our play. Idongesit was my partner while Kamma and Julius were partners. Partners defended each other and launched attacks simultaneously. It was a hide-and-seek game. Among the plantains we hid ourselves. Some climbed on trees others hid themselves in bathrooms and sundry places. You attacked others when their ‘guns’ were empty or their partners had disengaged.
I had had a successful attack with idongesit on Julius in front of the building. As our syringes emptied, Kamma came to his rescue and we disengaged hither thither and vanished through both angles of the building. Unknown to us we were headed in the same direction. Though on separate routes, we had the same intentions.
Another group suddenly charged against me. Already an escapee from Julius and co, I ran fast, ducked under sharp arrows of water, closed my eyes and bolted for the back of the house. A small passage was between the row of bathrooms, toilets and kitchen and the building itself. As I turned the sharp corner, I bumped into my partner, Idongesit, who had his needle outstretched and was spraying water in anticipation of a supposed assailant. The full length of the needle sank into my upper stomach and came out unstained.
We stopped short, Looked at each other and the syringe fell out of my partner’s hands. White faced, he asked me, “What happened?”
“I returned his question, equally shocked. Not ready to accept what had just happened.
“The needle-em-the-syringe” he stammered.
I said yes, frightened. I expected to drop dead that moment.
“You…you will die” he chocked.
“Em…em” I wasn’t a stammerer but I didn’t want to put an affirmative to that.
We were too over-whelmed with shock to cry. In addition, I wasn’t feeling any different from the way I felt before-no pains.
All the ‘combatants’ threw down their weapons and rushed to the scene wide-eyed in disbelief, with various expressions in anticipation of the consequence of what had just happened; everyone expecting the worst.
“I warned you of this rough play.” Brother Dave, one of my elder cousins said, looking down from his window. He saw it happen and heard it all.
“Brother, rush me to the hospital” I gasped with trembling lips.
“No! I will let you die to teach your friends a lesson” that was when I started crying. The others only sat around me waiting and crying with me till I die.
Whether because of my crying or because of the journey of the syringe down my stomach I can’t tell, but suddenly my intestines reacted, sending sharp piecing pains through my body. I rolled from side to side on the wet dirty sand wriggling and twisting on my sides while the children cried louder begging brother Dave who was the only elderly one at home to do something. He never did!
After a while the pain subsided and I went to bed. Out of fear I never told my parents what happened. They would have taken me to the hospital. Brother Dave never did. Well, he too was a young man at the time and probably did not perceive the seriousness of the incident. That was the last of our famous syringe battles and I never heard from my stomach again. It would be the third time I nearly died; but it wasn’t the last either.
I was physically the very opposite of Kamma who was tall, light complexioned and more or less skinny. Permit me to give a detail description of myself here: average height, very dark, physically very well proportioned with more or less a feminine buttocks. The girls always made jests of my buttocks in jealousy. I also had a very handsome face, at least then.
A pastor in the area once remarked, “these two are really fine handsome boys, I would be happy if I had them as my children” referring to Kamma and I; we overheard him.
His companion who knew us better laughed mischievously, and said “I can see God really loves you indeed, he knows what is better for you. Those two are so stubborn you would have died of heart attack many years ago.”
At that I turned and gave a long, scornful look.
“It is not necessarily so” the pastor said “ after all their parents are not dead yet. In fact, I prefer stubborn children to some dull listless things”
I was the dirtiest of all kolokolo children. As a bathing substance, water was truly my enemy. I hardly put on a shirt. As for my hair, my mother would forcefully shave them off when they were almost turning Rasta from neglect. When angered, I was totally mad and completely out of reason. I had very sharp reflexes. In danger situations, I was renowned to be the fastest and the toughest both mentally and physically.
The first time ever I got to know Kamma he was in trouble. I was going to see Julius on a hot Saturday afternoon.
I branched unto Ugonofure Street where Julius lived and saw Oguchi, God’s power and a third boy, Kamma, trying to push a car out of a ditch. I raced to join them but I was late, the car had been removed before I got there. The owner, as generous as the word, gave them ten Naira in appreciation.
I knew those two enough; as greedy as the merchant of Venice in a Shakespearean play, and oppressive to the core. I hated injustice from the day I was born, it touches me where nothing else does. Because I knew the other boy looked frail, slightly knock-kneed and surely wasn’t acquainted with the order of survival in the area, I didn’t need any one to tell me what Ogushi and God’s power were going to do. They didn’t need a soothsayer either to tell them I was going to object.
“Ghenemere, you are not invited in this and you know it”. Godspower said, looking anywhere but my face. I said nothing but stood closer to him. He was that type who could dash off suddenly.
“Didn’t you hear,” Ogushi asked more seriously. I said I had.
“Eh hen, so what are you still waiting for?” I said I was only waiting to see how good they could divide ten by three. He said I shouldn’t worry that Kamma would accept two Naira from them without questions.
“Yes but he could also accept four Naira without questions” I entered.
“Ghenemere, you have started again.” Godspower said frustrated. “What is your problem here, do you know this boy before? He is an Ibo boy, why do you want to make trouble with me a fellow Urhobo boy because of an Ibo boy.”
“Why don’t you wonder too that Ogushi a fellow Ibo boy, is collaborating with you to cheat his brother?” we advanced to a nearby shop to split the money. I snatched the change from the woman as she stretched them back to Godspower. He pushed me roughly and I pushed him roughly too, each one not willing to throw the first punch. We were separated. I gave him seven of the note and handed Kamma three.
“You think you can fight with me, hem”? Godspower fumed.
“That is if you think you can fight with me.” I replied hotly.
“Okay, cool down. There are people to separate us now that is why you are being so brave. If you call yourself a man, meet me here at eight o’ clock in the night for a real fight when there will be no one to separate us.”
That was too much of an open challenge; I said it was well with me and we went our separate ways.
Kamma went with me to Julius and then to our house where we made some food and ate together and then proceeded to his place afterwards.
Someone came to report to me later that Ogushi had planned to come along with Godspower to give me a surprise. At that, I took a Machete, Got it well sharpened and hid it at the spot where we were supposed to meet.
The fight never took place; for, they didn’t show up. The news of the machete had spread to them. I suspect Kamma told Julius who got it spread. When I took a weapon, I used it! And they knew it.
Kamma never missed my place for a day thereafter. When he didn’t come early enough, I went to him, but he was seldom absent; for, there was always one activity or the other going on at my father’s compound. More so, it was the meeting point.
ROLL-CALL AND EVENTS
Braveness could overwhelm many obstacles, but many have gone simply trying to be brave. Sometimes it pays to be a coward.
The Obaro’s were quite comfortable financially. Their father Mr. Obaro, who worked with AGIP, one of the multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria, had been transferred from Port Harcourt in Rivers state, the largest oil producing state then, to Warri in Delta state, the second largest oil producing state.
He was a storekeeper if my memory has not failed. They hailed from Ughelli the capital city of the Urhobos. The ownership of Warri until this day is still a matter of furious and often volatile contentions between the three major tribes occupying it: the Urhobos, Ijaws and the Itsekiris.
Among us all, they were the only family that had a car you could truly call private and was used solely for that purpose.
Monday was the first boy and the second child; the first being a girl, a very beautiful, cool and quite character then. Julius, next to Monday, had a girl Patience next to him, and another girl whose name I do not remembered now. Their last born, a boy, was very healthy, smart and talkative.
Their mother operated a small shop somewhere in Enerhen village not far from Kolokolo. They lived in a flat on the top floor of a story building in Ugonofure Street which ran through the back side of the entire Kolokolo layout and parallel to Obukowho Street which provided entrance to the buildings adjoining my father’s at the back.
We would ‘invade’ their house immediately their parents had left, eating what ever was eatable and drinking whatever was drinkable. Julius was my very Right-hand man; Monday, our famous and reverend goalkeeper, was more on the senior boys group, though we all mingled as one. I was on the same school grade as Monday and two grades beyond my very peer that consisted mainly Julius, Kamma and Idongesit. In effect, I belonged to two groups: I was intellectually very sound, though I hated going to school. When matters of critical reasoning that demanded proof of your educational standing and command of English language arose, my voice was as good an authority as that of any of the bigger boys. Thus they knew when to respect me.
I was about the poorest financially; me and my peers were semi-wags, talkative and highly mischievous. Also, I had a habit of scratching my skin when alone. True the boys knew when to despise me. Added to my age disadvantage, I belonged to the junior boys or small boys group.
At the end of every feast we had at the Obaros’ we would cart away foodstuff to my father’s compound, which was the center and prepare delicious meals in the likes of Jollof rice, beans, porridge and Ukodo, a very native pepper soup of the Urhobos.
My mother suffered most. She lost her herd of chicken to us, and her basket of Garri would vanish before she returned from market. She also had a big yam farm every year; there was no telling what happened even before they were ready for harvesting.
It’s not only the immediate family that is responsible for the upbringing of a child; neighbours, friends and well wishers play a big part as well. When my mother’s herd of chicken got exhausted, we did not stop there. Any fowl that came close to our compound was dead and in our pots in minutes. We often invaded maize and cassava plantations. Whatever we couldn’t get in-house had had to come from outside. Indeed, we cooked and ate together more often than not. We slept together many a day after watching movies into late night in my father’s living room. As many as we were would settle on the chairs and carpet for the Night.
The bond between us grew. We were poor but happy, never knew death and never expected it. But death is a cruel enemy, walking among the children of men as in a vineyard and picking indiscriminately, both ripe and unripe fruits; leaving death and untold sorrow in its wake.
‘No contribution, no para’! Was a popular maxim among us when a meal was being prepared. The phrase ‘para’ stood for the word ‘perambulation’. The maxim meant if you have not contributed anything to the meal, there would be no need to hang around; your share would be nothing. In other words, you will definitely not partake in the enjoyment of it.
It was exported to us by one die-hard, equally stubborn youth, Nathaniel; with various nick names like kashakpo kpekpekpe or kpukpuyeke. (The last one means a duck.) He was a childhood friend of mine even before we came to Kolokolo.
We attended the same church and went together when we were at Timi Street. They had also moved to Udu road and were living in ‘Dugbo’ one of the layout’s opposite Kolokolo on the either side of the road.
He contributed a tuber of yam on one of his many visits for the preparation of bean porridge. As it was getting ready, he noticed ‘parasites’ were all about, he wasn’t comfortable. He looked up at one of them who was passing in front of the kitchen on his umpteenth time and said: “look here! No contribution No para o!”
Unless you were totally bared from partaking, it was easy to contribute something. You could contribute a token towards the buying of those things we couldn’t get at home and could not steal, or contribute physically toward the preparation or its ancillary errands: Kamma was always of physical contribution.
Once we had a meal prepared, I remember it was Jolloff rice. Kamma had contributed physically but Idongesit had been bared from contributing at all. We closed our selves in the small stuffy room meant for my elder brothers and cousins when they were on holidays. No sooner had we settled down to the meal than Idongesit burst in. usually, it was also possible to partake in a meal partly pleading and partly exercising force. The stratagem was, the one who tried to obstruct you will have to obstruct himself in the process; for we ate with a combination of greed and haste. More so, whoever prevented you will record himself in your ‘black book’ against the day he will be so disadvantaged. I minded not to obstruct Idongesit.
The others did not even look up –that was usual. They were pleased I was getting into trouble and was being slowed down in the process. I was the fastest eater: Believe me, there were occasions when I dipped my hand into hot boiling soup to pick a piece of meat within a twinkle of an eye and before anyone knew it, it was in my mouth and if you expected me to spit out, you had another think coming. I would rather swallow it.
Idongesit was so hungry he didn’t care what followed. He knew he was always at the sinister side in a fight with me. But I wasn’t going to fight and lose my share of the meal: I had another idea.
I dipped my palm into the hot pot that had just arrived directly from fire, scooped and smashed hot rice against the side of his neck.
He roared in pain and left the room in a whirlwind, in search of cold water to quench his burning neck. I locked the door quickly, settled down and ate voraciously. The others did not like what I had done. Monday said it; he simply refused to eat further fearing that I must have injured the boy.
When I came out of the room, I saw Idongesit in a hip sobbing. The skin of almost the whole back of his neck had come off living a pinkish white patch.
I didn’t like what I saw. It was the first time ever I had a remorse for a violent action I took. I had been raw, blood and injuries were just one of those things, they mattered not. I could injure anyone without thinking twice and never bothered getting injured. I never cried when people died: not close relatives or friends—I never had that experience—but people close enough to slow down the other boys to tears.
My friends refused to play or associate with me for the rest of that day saying I could kill a man because of food. I had a personal maxim; ‘men don’t cry’ And later developed another one: ‘The worse has not come’. They help me hold back tears in difficult times, but in spite of these, I regretted what I did and cried a little. Unknowing to me, my raw nature was deserting me, maturity was approaching, blood and the sorrows of others were beginning to matter.
They say the law of Kamma-otherwise known as the law of retribution-Action and reaction is real. Do you believe in it? Stay your opinion yet.
About two weeks later I came home one day to meet Idongesit and others just about to settle down to a luscious, well prepared, aromatically suggestive Bean porridge pot. I struggled into the room so as to be locked in “you are surely not going to eat” Eric told me pop and plain.
“I know” I replied “did I tell you I am hungry?” I lied questioningly.
“Well, no, Mr. Belly Full, but I tell you: Whoever eateth here-from this day becometh bigger and plumpier immediately after, and needeth him shineth his skin nomore; behold! It gloweth naturally”. He said with an air of superior wisdom. He was probably reading too much of King James Version.
Eric had a way to talk. He could get you furious, make you laugh or cry, or calm down your temper if he wanted. He had the highest intellectual quotient a man could possibly have as I know it, and he hesitates not to put it to use.
“Okay, if that’s the case, then I am going to have a share, after all it was cooked in my mother’s kitchen. That is my contribution”
Eric had shared with us on uncountable occasions from such ridiculously flimsy claims and now he wouldn’t let me benefit from the same. I heated up.
“Unless you want to die” he said clenching his fists and showing them to me in a menacing fashion.
“Two people are heading for the grave” I responded, edging forward.
“Idongesit, you forgot so quickly what he did to you”?
“Who said”? Idongesit replied. “I am just waiting for the opportunity to make a POP around his neck with hot porridge.
I had been waiting for a ‘weaker vessel’ to say something. Eric was astonishing in a fight. Bulging muscles and varicose veins made him look even meaner. I knew him more than to attempt a fight with him.
Right from the fall of Apipi in those days, I had won Idongesit in every fight. He lived in fear of me. I oppressed him in every way that it had been impressed on him I was stronger, though not necessarily. I rescued him from others and he respected me in return. After all I was one of the most fearless and visible fighters, even when weapons were involved, when we had fights with other areas like Dugbo or Atamakolomi, during some of our inter-layout football matches.
I gave him a big slap for uttering a word at all, bounced out to take a position as he sprang up. I bounced around a ring hurriedly drawn on the floor by Julius, throwing punches at an imaginary opponent. In any activity, I always drew great following, but this was not to be on that day. Everyone sided with my opponent. Eric personally gave him words of encouragement and brief tactics he could employ. He asked Idongesit not to be such a fool as to take it for granted I can always win him in a fight, and pointed out that Idongesit was bigger after all.
He took courage and charged at me. I stooped low to have him on my shoulders, a strategy that usually worked when someone charged at you. I was wrong; my head went into a groove. With one hooked hand he clamped my head to his side, his body and hand well locked in a loop that separated my head from my shoulders. With the other hand he pulled tight the loop to exert more pressure on my neck, which grew smaller and hurt badly that my eyes became red and were bulging out of their sockets.
The crowd hailed him. They encouraged him to grip harder, not to let go. All efforts to break loose were futile. I was caught and I knew it.
Idongesit advised me to beg him as a mark of disgrace for him to let go of me. It was an unmanly thing to do, more so not for someone like Idongesit, considering my standing. But the grip was excruciating and I was feeling dizzy.
“I beg you” I said at last in a strangled voice.
“I did not hear you” he bragged. He was like that; the type that prolongs the show when the odds favoured them.
“I beg you” I unsuccessfully tried to say louder. Then he let go of my neck. First I saw a monster shaped star, then two Idongesits that took some time to become one as I tried to shake off the mist hanging in my head.
I dropped my fists to my sides as if they were heavy with gloves, raised them to my face, the left one higher than the right, assumed the posture and gave the impression of a heavy weight boxer. I knew it would only take time, I was going to give him the beating of his life—did I hear you say the beating of my life?
I dropped my guards and charged at him. What did I ask for? The same groove was waiting for me, and the same hooked grip completed the circle. But this time I was not going to beg any one. I tried hard to get off the grip to no avail. I lifted him high off the ground and brought him heavily to the floor. I went with him as he had my neck in the angle 90 formed with his left hand all the way. The impact was more severe on me than on him. I wriggled this way and that. He let the entire weight of his body rest on his left hand, which was well supported by my neck. I was in maximum anguish.
There were cries of “Idongesit the great” Idongesit Udoh the great” among others.
“Idongesit you will soon kill somebody” Julius said
“Then let him beg”.
Won’t you let him go? His eyes are bulging out
“Let him call me Idongesit the great”
I heard him, and summoning all the energy left in my body, I said “Idongesit the great” in a voice scarcely above whisper. I stood up to regard the audience properly, there were boys and girls, some sympathetic to my course now but others not. “You want to disgrace me eh?” I said to Idongesit bouncing again.
“You still want to fight eh?” okay, come on, but this time no begging.
That got me really bitter. I bided my time, skipped a little, I was careful not to rush at him again, I made to throw a punch, he dropped his guard and I applied my one mode of attack that always worked—the head boot that stunned Apipi.
I pulled my head all the way back and brought it hard to crash on his face. He would have lost at least four teeth to that blow but again, I was unlucky; He is the type that always have their front teeth showing, who don’t bother to draw the lips over them. In fright, he made to look up as my fore-head banged against his two front teeth. They sank deep into my forehead just above my eyebrows leaving a deep cut that gushed blood. That was the end of the fight.
One of my elder cousins later reported the matter to Idongesit’s uncle who came to inspect the wound. If my cousin had known how much oppression Idongesit had suffered in my hands, he would have probably joined Idongesit’s fans during the fight. My father cautioned him not to disturb the good neighbours anymore for my sake. They would have me rather than a neighbour’s child, injured.
Idongesit was sent home to Calabar, never to leave in Warri again, partly because of the fight. And if that be the case, then I did him a lot of good; I saved him from the embarrassingly sorrowful event of that ill-fated Sunday morning. In any case, we all missed him badly. We had had too much in common, we were like brothers now. Those of us that God has deemed fit to spare still share the same love.
One of our favourite pastimes was table tennis; almost all of us could play. The boards were quite good and numerous. My eldest sister, Patience, was a state champion with many gold and silver medals to her credit. A rack of high quality table tennis bats was in my mother’s room. We learnt to play early.
Patience was not in our group being a girl and much older but whenever she was around and took part, she defeated all including the champions; Eric, Myself, Monday and another youth, Dennis.
Dennis had good services, very smart and made funny remarks as the game progressed. Eric was about the best, though I continually checked his superiority. He would force you to put the ball on his right side and when that happened, the bang that followed as a result of his right strokes disarmed even sister Patience and we always had to buy a new ball at that point. Monday was also a right hand ‘terrorist’, he would bid his time; he waited so patiently that you were temped to put the ball there without thinking, only to regret it immediately after. I had very good services like Dennis but my most advantage was my back strokes, which were numerous and came effortlessly.
Daniel, Eric’s close pal, was another very good player. He was left-handed, thus difficult to calculate. He was always in first Kolokolo; our house was practically his home. He was the most accepted by my parents of all kolokolo boys. He could stay for as long as he wanted and feel at home, little wonder he was always among us.
As we played and sweated, those who had money would buy soft drinks for themselves and their ‘friends’. Monday and Eric always had the finance to take care of their little wishes. We would play tennis all day in the hot sun. When hungry, coca-cola and bread was the ready answer, for those who had the money anyway. As early as 7: 30 am, we were already at the board. Sometimes we were made to do menial jobs for the owner before we were allowed to set-up, and then we would strain and sweat it out till the sun sank in the west. Among our many games, table tennis was the one I loved most.
During the dry season in tropical Africa, a period of more or less six months, the sun would make unmitigated appearances with all its might, making life quite uncomfortable. As early as 11 Am rooms were intolerably hot already. Residents of un-air conditioned houses were tormented day-in and day-out, by the heat of the sun. Sitting under the sun is even worse. It was the period when we usually went to our various bathing ponds, borrow pits and rivers to cool down and have fun.
Some of the waters, like the one in Atamakolomi layout in which we bathed were quite dirty and stank. We didn’t mind as it was apparently not risky. It was a low land where all the waters of the area drain into during the raining season when it was cold and always rained. In the beginning of the dry season it was just ideal for swimming both for those who knew how to and those who didn’t. During this period, youths from different areas would fill the big ditch to the brink. Those who could swim went higher up why those who couldn’t hung on at shallow quarters. Many incidents took place in this ditch, including near drowning experiences, but no one ever drowned in it.
While some were bathing, some were busy stealing their foot wears, money and clothes. Once, my clothes were all packed. If not for Idongesit, I would have probably had to wait until midnight and run home stark naked like a spirit. Idongesit waited with me till it was dark, he gave me his shirt—I was lucky he had one on when he came—we stole home through the back streets.
The news went round the next day and I became a subject of ridicule in kolokolo. It was the last time I would ever visit that ditch, a decision I would regret in time. If we had visited the same ditch on that unholy Sunday, we would have unknowingly saved the life of a dear friend, a colleague and a brother. Though the idea was raised, it was knocked down in favour of the borrow pit by the same one who died.
In the peak of the dry season, the Atamakolomi ditch was dried up to a marsh. Our main swimming sport then was the Udu river under the Udu bridge, which formed the connection between mainland Udu and the other Udu villages and settlements in and around Warri.
Among us all, Monday was no doubt the best swimmer. We never saw him swim but his school mates brought stories of how he effortlessly crossed the Opete river, an extension of the Udu river up-stream, and wider than it about that point, even in high tide. A feat he had performed several times. When we discussed rivers and swimming, he would laugh jeeringly and remark that “none of us could swim, after-all you have never attempted swimming in tide”, he would say.
Many times I argued that flowing rivers and the stagnant ones were the same to swim in. “after-all they are all a volume of water”.
But equally good swimmers like Godspower and idongesit would support him. They had had the experience. I never personally saw Monday swim at the Udu River all the time we swam. We always went in the company of Kamma, Julius, Idongesit Bomboy, Emmagbo and others both big and small. I hated any of my younger ones going to swim in the river; I knew it was dangerous and my father was strictly against any of us going to swim in a ditch not to mention a river as big as the Udu River. Each time I was reported to have been in the ditch in Atamakolomi, he flogged me with a cane till I was bruised all over. This is probably why I was one of the last to ever attempt swimming in tide, and the only reason why anyone else; Monday, Godspower, Idongesit or who ever was better than myself in the act of swimming.
The right route to take to the Udu Bridge would be first to proceed through our area to second Kolokolo, then hit the Udu road at second Kolokolo junction. A hundred meters along the Udu road would bring you to Sedco junction where it turns right and about half a kilometer would bring you to the foot of the bridge, another two hundred meters and you will be at the river bank under the bridge.
Two hundred meters or there about before the foot of the bridge to the right is a vast area of land covered with sharp sand called ‘white sand’ dredged from the Udu river some years back.
It extended into the forest behind the lay out such that it almost connected the second Kolokolo at the behind but for a patch of the swampy forest with its equatorial under growths like tobacco leaves that separated them.
It afforded us a short cut. Proceed to second Kolokolo, walk back towards the ‘forest’ along the second Kolokolo road and cross the marsh into ‘white sand’.
This route reduces the distance by a whooping two third. It was the route we took. I was to learn the lesson of my life.
In the company of most of the boys from first Kolokolo including Jiyovwi, the deaf and dumb, we flocked to the Udu River. I was disturbed that so many people were going, some of whom couldn’t swim at all. I was concerned about their safety. I succeeded in forcing some back, but it was in the heart of the dry season and everyone wanted to have fun. It made me look oppressive as anyone who ever imagined, more so commented that someone could drown, was perceived in the light of devilish pessimism.
There were three hut-like structures built about fifty meters from each other across the river. This means that fifty meters from shore, there was a resting place, another fifty meters was yet another, and fifty meters again was shore on the other side. They were painted red and white and were meant apparently to direct approaching vessels: we called them ‘red and white’. Beside these were the mighty pillars suspending the road upstairs. Beyond the pillars on the other side were other ‘red and whites’ for vessels coming from that direction.
The river was flowing slowly to the left, up stream away from the direction of the sea when we got there.
I stripped to my pants and joined the others. I could swim fairly, the tide was hardly noticeable, and if others could swim in it, I was going to do same. Braveness could overwhelm many obstacles but many have gone simply trying to be brave. Sometimes it pays to be a coward. As far as Eric was concerned that was and is still his guiding philosophy. He was never found anywhere in the vicinity of a ditch not to mention a river, he cherished cowardice in this regard.
I swam easily around. I was surprised to see that Jiyovwi the deaf and dumb was by far a better swimmer. He made jests of me, ventured into deep waters and came back. Idongesit and co the ‘water kings’ were suspended all head above water far from shore. The river is rather narrow about the point where the bridge is. To the left and right of the bridge was wider, only the ‘water kings’ went there and only in the direction against the tide, before the ‘red and white’ and the pillars of the bridge so that if they got tired, it was only a matter of swimming lightly in the direction of the tide which was easy and effortless, until the tide brought them to the ‘red and white’ for a rest.
There were various strategies applied for the purpose of safety when swimming in tide; they weren’t known to me. For example, swimming on the right side of the bridge when the tide was due right was most dangerous as you would have to swim against the tide to get to the ‘red and white’ in the case of danger.
Also, to swim to a ‘red and white’, it was safer to walk a little on shore against the tide, dive straight and swim for the ‘red and white’ the drift distance occasioned by the tide would be compensated for by the distance against tide covered on shore. There were other rules to learn. Many people say ‘learn from your mistakes’ I say no! Instead, never make the mistake at all; there might never be a second chance.
Presently, Jiyovwi advanced to ‘red and white’ and came back in minutes. I never like being left out but I knew it was the kind of distance I had never done. More so, in a deep tidal river, but it slashed my reputation and pride to see that everyone else, even Jiyovwi, the most despised of all people went easily to ‘red and white’. For one thing, to go to ‘red and white’ meant to be able to cross the river. It was a matter of resting at each ‘red and white’.
I swam to a distance between the ‘red and white’ and the shoreline and came back! Then I almost thought aloud “but why? The distance back to shore from where I returned was same as to take me to it. Should I attempt it? Is it safe? Can I make it?” is this wise? Too many questions. The tide was so slow it was almost unnoticeable, though it increased as time went.
I was still undecided when Jiyovwi ventured out again. He made a gesture for me to come along; he spoke his usual incomprehensible language. I summoned courage, gagged my energy and set out after him. I was foolish to believe that Jiyovwi, much smaller physically and a deaf, who would not even hear me call would help me if there was an emergency. But there was none, I swam easily to ‘red and white’ rested a while and came back. The tide was on the increase. After a couple of visits to ‘red and white’ I crossed the Udu River along with the deaf, resting at each ‘red and white’. It boosted my ego and I thought myself a ‘water king’ too.
The deaf and dumb left me afterwards, crossed under the bridge and went to the other side where there were many more people than the side on which we swam. The tide was fairly high now and swimming was becoming difficult. Remember! The tide was flowing to the left-up stream. Now it was very difficult even for the experts to swim; the tide was very high. Most people remained around the pillars of the bridge or the ‘red and white’; if at all, they swam between the pillars of the bridge and the ‘red and white’, which were very close. It was difficult to swim on a straight course perpendicular to the direction of flow not to talk of swimming directly against it. More so anyone drifted away from ‘red and white’ would drift into wide open waters; no bridge pillars, no ‘red and white’ just open river, even wider than the potion lying immediately under and around the bridge.
I went over to the other side and joined them up. I swam very close to shore conscious of the velocity of the water that was now pulling on everything afloat. Boys were playing about with cocks some big some small, which served as life buoys. People still went to and from ‘red and white’-on the side same as the direction of flow.
There was a particular life-buoy that was big and looked safe enough to swim about with. The owner was a much bigger and older folk, one of the boys who practically lived under the bridge. He cautioned us not to let the cock drift away with the tide, which now literally threatened to tow away people and objects in its course. I picked the cock up, walked very far on shore in opposite direction to the flow of the river, threw the cock on to drift away and dived after it: I set out for ‘red and white’, it was a mistake.
I didn’t worry much. After all, I walked a good length to compensate for the drift. I calculated the drift as against my forward progress, and saw that it was good. As I swam into the main stream of current however, the cock, as a lager mass, drifted faster in the direction of the open sea—the wider river—because of its wider surface contact. That was the first lesson I was to learn on that trip, but it was too late to go back. All I had to do was to expend more energy, I did. Again, forward progress with a cock was drastically slow. Though with it I will always be afloat, but to be drifted away into that openness to my left was not why I set out in the first place and being drifted away alone, with only a piece of cock suspending virtually just my head, with the rest of my body submerged, in a big river probably infested with water goddesses, crocodiles and other man eating aquatics was the least of my wishes. I was becoming afraid; fear drives away strength, I was in trouble.
I swam frantically now, in a perpendicular course and only about ten meters from the ‘red and white’. Others, both on shore and on the ‘red and white’ perceived my predicament. The tension on everyone was palpable. ‘What is this about to happen?’ You could almost hear the heavens ask. Yes, if it involves me, the heavens, even the heavens will ask questions. I was swimming with my last energy now, but drifted even faster off my course. Painfully, I saw my destination recede to my right as I drifted to the left. If I didn’t have the cock, I would have caught up. In that moment, I heard the owner announce from shore not to ever lose the cock.
Someone shouted from shore “Ghenemere swim, you are drifting away”! I tried my best, but my very best was not good enough. Now I was swimming directly against the tide, attempting the impossible; the best I could achieve was to remain at a spot about five meters from the ‘red and white’. I was trying to save myself and the cock. In a brain wave, I decided to push it to them that I may progress. I brought out one of my hands and gave the cock a hard punch, it sailed close to the red and white, someone stretched out to it and grabbed it. That was the final mistake. Never let go your only support at any time! With the cock I would float away into the big river, yes, but I would not drown. Someone could come after me with a canoe. The attention of a fisherman or life saver could be sought to save me, probably before the dreaded occupants of the ocean world got at me. At least, I would be afloat long enough to be saved.
I realized it too late. Without the cock, I was going to sink and sink fast. All my energy was gone. My hands and legs felt heavy. Because I was so tired and ready to give up, I didn’t make progress either without the cock. Then the boys on the ‘red and white’ began to cry, some shouting words of encouragement to me. “So, this was it,” I thought. Even me Ghenemere would drown in a river. I decided to give up; then I remembered!
My mother always gave me tips on swimming. Her trade involved long, boat journeys into the delta and the sea. She knew I loved traveling, especially in boats and canoes mostly for fun. She knew I swam in ponds and borrow pits. There was no use stopping me because she would not even be there when I took my risks.
“In the case of a boat mishap; don’t ever be the first or among the first to jump out. Most times it was the ones who didn’t know how to swim that panicked easily and jumped in fear and desperation. They grip onto those who can swim”. She told tales of people found wronged together in death when boats capsized.
“Don’t even leave the boat at all,” she would say. “Certain boats and canoes are made from woods and materials that float. Many never sank altogether; they could still support two or three people quasi-submerged.”
Then the one I applied: “water moves faster on the surface, in tidal rivers, you gained more distance swimming under than on the surface. I was better at staying longer under water than other boys when we competed.
I took a deep breath, sank low and swam in the direction of the ‘red and white’ I surfaced not more than two meters from it. Not good enough! I was drifting again, this time, faster. When I dipped to swim under for the second time, everyone thought it was over. They cried and pleaded to God. Below surface, I knew it was my last effort. I couldn’t even swim much. I had given up. A man dies only when there is nothing else he can do about it, for none ever went to the grave smiling. I looked up to God and thought about my mother. Whenever I was in danger, the only person I remembered was my mother.
I pitied her so, I knew I was either at the ‘red and white’ or dead. I surfaced in tears and saw a hand. It was the hand of God, stretched through Jiyovwi, the deaf.
When others lost hope and only wailed, Jiyovwi was the one who thought I might have made another under water effort. He stretched his hand as much as he could in the direction where last he saw me. I had surfaced one meter from the ‘red and white’ and Jiyovwi-God-was there to pick me up. If God had not granted me the one grace, I repeat, if Jiyovwi had not pushed out his hand in anticipation; the Lord, have mercy. I dreaded the Udu River for many years.
“Ghenemere” a voice barked harshly from the other side of the road. It was the unmistakable voice of ‘the most dreaded one’. The one who spared not the rod to save the Child, the one person I would rather die than meet in that circumstance—my father!
I did not write the common entrance examination which all college seeking primary school children must at least attempt because I was too ‘busy’ to bother about it so I was admitted into a mixed secondary school that did so only because it was on the look out for students to feel it up. I hardly attended.
My parents decided afterwards to send me to a morning school as the former was for afternoon students. The reason being that I was tempted to play with the morning students who had returned from school and were more in number, thereby forgoing mine. It was partly true. I was transferred to Urhobo College, a morning school: very old with a maximum reputation for breeding very brilliant, sociable, but equally very hardened students.
Mr. Obaro would take me and Julius half way in his car after which we took a short cut, and jumped through the high fence at the back of the school into the compound. We hardly went through the gate.
Eric was a graduating student of the same school. Monday was admitted into another college; he had written the common entrance. I remember he was very good in mathematics, which was my greatest ‘enemy’ but not quite as good as I was in English language. Close to the common entrance, we studied together, answered many test questions in various subjects and shared strategies important for a successful common entrance examination.
Kamma did not proceed to College, he was partly financially incapacitated and partly intellectually incompetent. Emagbo, after one or two years of struggling in a community secondary school, retired into apprenticeship at a roadside mechanic shop. We were all adolescents; I was fourteen. Social classes were developing. The prominent groups were the ‘haves’, the ‘have-nots’, the ‘educated’ and the ‘uneducated’. I belonged to both the ‘educated’ and the ‘have-nots’.
We were bigger boys now, already making passes at girls. I became a considerably neat fellow once I became the first to have a girl friend among the junior boys. From the first day she made a pass at me, I knew henceforth it will only be proper to always have my bath and wear clean clothes. Everyone noticed the ‘turn around maintenance’ she was doing on me.
Eric and Emmagbo were too secretive to be understood. But they clearly had more girls around them than my click, which consisted mainly of irascible clowns. We had a room, meant for my elder brothers and cousins, where we perpetrated lawlessness. Emmagbo also had a room in a makeshift quarters built by his father.
We usually gathered in the evenings to tell stories, abuse each other and discuss issues. Some one could ask for example; “who is the better fighter between Jacky Chan and Bruce Lee?” we would argue at the top of our voices and demonstrate karate into late night.
“They said a very bright star could be many millions of times the size of the earth,” I once mentioned. I was almost mobbed.
“Surely you will die because of your lie one day” said Eric.
“Nigeria we hail thee” Julius added; this was the commonest way of saying one was a great liar in those days.
“But my geography mistress said so” I protested.
“Ghenemere, if you don’t have anything to say, please sing one of those Indian songs of yours or laugh” Emma teased.
Monday said he also had it somewhere but he doesn’t believe in it at all. Even my desperate efforts to point to them some of the fascinations of the celestial system did not help me. I mentioned the names of some stars, quoted the distance between the earth and the moon, named and described the planets in their successive order; but my voice was even being drowned as I spoke.
Eric said he saw me on the moon the other day after he came back from church and that drew a great laughter. “After swallowing a big bowl of Eba (a variant of cassava) you can claim to have been anywhere. After all I flew with my private jet the other day to attend a show with many great musicians and various show makers in attendance, it was great fun”. He added. Some nearly choked themselves to death with laughter. We could tease and abuse each other the whole day and never get tired.
We were not always naughty boys however. We had some moral values. We never liked smokers and always discouraged stealing, as in taking anything from another person’s house other than from our parent’s houses. We wouldn’t let anyone force a girl to ‘know’ her. Oppression generally was abhorred. Indeed, we fought many fights in defense of men and women that were otherwise strangers, for the sheer reason that they were being oppressed. Some of the fights were even bloody.
We were all born into Christian families. According to my father, he joined the church even before he got married to any of his wives. The best way to please my father was to go to church regularly and the greatest misdeed would be to fail to attend service. He never failed at correcting the child with the rod.
Many a time I would plead; “please Papa don’t flog me, God said you should forgive offenders”. He would stop short and open a potion in the bible for you to read: ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ it read. After that, there was no escape. Until date, among his thirty-two children, I was the most flogged.
We always went to church, not because we wanted to listen to admonition but because we wanted to please papa and to pick some fruits if possible. You never took your stubbornness to church; papa would skin you alive.
Every Sunday evening, after punishment for my sundry ‘crimes’ he would call us in one after the other and ask such questions like; “what sermon was preached today? Who officiated the service?” and the sort. When we didn’t go to church, we begged those who went for information.
Many of the other children went with us to church. Even today, Daniel, now a full grown adult, is still a member of the church.
Every youth that went from Kolokolo claimed to be from “Orugbo” family, because my father was and is still a highly respected elder in the church. Soon troubles we didn’t cause backfired on us because those who caused them claimed to be “Orugbo”. Then we changed it; when ever we got into trouble, we claimed it was one of those boys claiming to be “Orugbo”
Opposite our church was the biggest cinema hall in Warri. The Laila cinema-when it was in vogue we went every Sunday, which was specially for Chinese films.
For my father, to go to Laila cinema was even worse than not to go to church. In his thinking, it was to associate with the major cream of Warri criminals. Therefore, to go to Laila when you did not go to service meant unprintable trouble.
It wasn’t very difficult for us to go to Laila even when we did not go to church. We only needed to wait until “closing” ask some friends for the sermon, the minister who officiated, the closing and opening hymns etc. The church service closed at eleven a.m. the Sunday show commenced one p.m.
In the evening we would gather to recount the story of the film even to those who went. It was too bad not to have been there. I loved movies more than anything else. My favourites were Indian and Chinese films. We would save, beg, sell textbooks, novels—anything—just to get the entrance fee for the Sunday show.
My father never caught with us, he never knew we went to Laila, he believed none of us would ever dare. He never went to church in Warri. He was one of the officiating elders in the branch at the village. He would never miss service, not even once in ten years, so we were safe.
That particular movie was indeed interesting. We trooped out of the cinema hall in a multitude. I was in the fore-front of the crowd. I had gone with a few friends who knew my father’s routine. I demonstrated beautiful Kung-fu steps that were employed in the movie we just saw, jumped about excitedly on the side of the main road as I did so. It was a very noisy affair. Others were also busy trying to remind whoever cared to listen, every detail of the film.
Then suddenly, “Ghenemere”! a voice barked harshly from the other side of the road. It was the unmistakable voice of the most ‘dreaded one’. The one who spoilt the rod to spare the Child, the one person I would rather die than meet in that circumstance—my father!
“Is that not Ghenemere”? He continued. I stood transfixed; my colleagues walked on briskly. I heard one of them say “this guy is dead”. They would rather not be recognized, there was no excuse! I was dressed clearly not like one who went to church. More so, all those who went to church had gone home three hours ago. I wasn’t reported to him, he had caught me himself, red handed.
I was petrified. If the earth had swallowed me, it would have been the greatest help it ever rendered to a man when he needed it most.
My father was standing on the other side waiting for me to cross over. They had a general meeting of all committee members, the reason for which he had worshiped in Warri. The meeting started after the normal Sunday service, the more reason for our unceremonious encounter. I was too confused to think and I had only a few seconds till I was with him. My lips trembled as I waited for oncoming cars to clear. I even waited for cars that were still far off to come and pass, but that was fine with him. He liked carefulness on motorways, though it was unusual of me. I crossed speedily, many times with vehicles dangerously close. I didn’t waste time with anything. He knew I was trying to buy time, but the excuse was admissible.
Then the road unpleasantly cleared; no cars from either side. “Where are you coming from”? He bawled. I had never seen him so visibly angry. The hand with which he held his walking stick was trembling. He knew I was coming from the last place he expected to see his son.
“I am coming from main market” I managed to say.
“To do what?”
“I went to do petty jobs for traders who had much load to carry so as to earn a little money”
“Are you not coming from the cinema?”
“Not at all papa”
“But I saw you jumping and shouting, demonstrating the film amongst the crowd.”
“Yes,” I said. But I was only telling them part of the story because that particular movie have been on TV, I was unlucky to be passing in front of the cinema when they closed hence I was among the crowd as if I went.”
It was the fastest lie I ever thought up in my whole life. My father was disarmed completely; one moment he had caught me red handed, the next I was off the hook. I had thought up a lie, delivered and defended it efficiently in seconds. He didn’t support any of us doing menial jobs, and not at the Warri market for that matter, but he never told us so; therefore, it was excusable. Even then he was very sure I was coming from the cinema.
“Don’t you ever go to the market for any petty jobs again, do you hear?” he said pulling an ear.
“Yes sir,” I answered, and blessed my reflexes.
There was another cinema we frequented, The Video Max. It was situated in an area called ‘old Ames’ not far from Enerhen junction and was much closer home, smaller and cheaper. They used a box-like machine to project movies onto screens from VHS cassettes. A paid entrance to that cinema would have been the reward for us had we been successful on that Sunday morning trip to the borrow pit. The other ones were little halls were movies were played directly to TV sets from VCR home appliances to viewers for a token. There were at least three situated between Enerhen motel and second Kolokolo junction.
Anywhere beyond the Udu bridge was called ‘after the bridge’. Across the bridge on the other side, the Udu road was a lonely stretch of tarred road newly constructed, hardly used by motorists. On either sides of it were thick forests still harboring some giant tropical trees, twigs and climbers, some as thick as the smaller trees with hardly any under growths. Within the first hundred meters on either sides of the road were bushes, wide leaf plants like tobacco and other tropical wetland undergrowths, from where it thickened into the forest.
There were few buildings scattered about an expanse to the left. Half a kilometer away from the bridge the Udu market and Udu garage neighbored each other in loneliness to the right. The road took a left turn here and continued again, accompanied on both sides by rubber plantations till it met the Orhughworun road at Orhughworun junction which was the only major center of activities after the bridge in those days.
Just before the junction, a tiny footpath ran through a rubber plantation to the left, leading to Owhase village, a very small settlement of fisher men, hunters, palm wine tapers and various bush workers of different callings.
Directly opposite the Owhase footpath was a larger one leading to Ovwian village. Two hundred meters from Orhughworun junction, along the Udu road, on the left, hidden behind bushes and uncompleted buildings was a big borrow pit. The same could be accessed via the Orhughworun road, about two hundred meters down, but one would have to branch to the right for, the road sat at right angles to the Udu road.
The borrow pit was at the V formed between them. It was probably dug out during the construction of the roads. The road network ahead along the Udu road was little understood to me then. I will describe it as it seemed to me when I was a young teenager.
Traveling home by foot sometime before, alone on the lonely road, long before the incidence at the borrow pit, I saw that beyond the Orhughworun junction, seven hundred kilometers away or there about, it intersected a major highway that could take four cars in either direction comfortably. In the middle was a wide hedge of hand planted grass, running between the lanes all the way. It was very newly tarred and well marked. I could not tell if it was motor vehicles or aircrafts that used it. I had never seen any road like it before. No vehicles passed as I stood fascinated. As far as I was concerned, one way led to heaven and the other led to hell; it led to the unknown in both directions. All about it was rubber plantations, forests and long stretches of bush. The only sound that came was of birds and the winds as it swept and tossed dry leaves all around. The place was as lonely as a graveyard.
I romped about the first four lanes, crossed on to the grass verge in the middle and traversed the other lanes meant for cars on the opposite direction. I regarded the whole scene a little more, in awe, and continued a short while later along the Udu road, which one place it surely led to, was my village. Just five hundred meters further down, I saw a massive road built with concrete passing on top of another road; “okay” I thought, “so this is the thing they called Over-head Bridge that I always hear about”. Before the overhead bridge, one road branched off to connect the slopping end of the bridge on the far right. Just by the bridge, another branched off to connect far to the left.
I ran to the top of the bridge and regarded the scene properly. Beyond the bridge but close to it was another connection of roads and intersections, all newly tarred, brightly and beautifully marked with white and black paint. I retracted to the road below and attempted to walk under the overhanging road. Gelegba was standing alone with his back against the concrete work upon which the bridge is rested wielding a well-sharpened machete with a menacing look on his face. The place was very quite: I was sure I was in danger.
Gelegba was a known madman in Udu clan; his hair was so weather-beaten, dirty and knotty that it formed an ugly bundle on top of his head; any lose strand hung well below his waist. Even a blind man will recognize him to be crazy because of his looks. He hailed from Ogbe-udu, our village; hence he frequented the village as much as I did.
“Where are you going small boy”? He spoke very neat Udu.
“I am going home,” I said; my eyes darting this way and that, all danger reflexes on absolute alert and all physical systems ready to go.
Somehow, I suspected Gelegba recognized me. I was one of those kids who taunted him all day long back in the village, and I was the ring leader. There were times when I went home because I would like to taunt the village madman.
There was another madman called Okpes, but Okpes does not ‘take prisoners’; taunt Okpes and he will chase you to your family compound and beat ‘the devil’ out of you if there was nobody at home to rescue you; you don’t mess with Okpes.
“Where is your village?” The madman asked.
“Ogbe-udu, I am from Ogbe-udu,” I said in equally neat and very clear Udu.
“Then you are lucky, I am from Ogbe-Udu too, come and pass I won’t hurt you”
“But the machete” I said relaxing a little.
“But I said you should come and pass, I won’t hurt you”
“I am afraid” I said resolutely.
“Oh this is how people make life difficult for themselves” he said frustrated, stamping his feet one after the other on the neat coal tar like children do when they insistently cry for something.
“Ogbe-udu has only two horns and a very long tail isn’t it? If I am the king why should I hurt a dog from Ogbe-udu”? He was saying as he edged slowly from his resting position against the wall.
That got me going. I ran as fast as my legs could manage, he didn’t run after me. An approaching car stopped as they saw me coming down the middle of the road like a Butterfly out of hell. I told them the madman chased me with a machete. They laughed and said it was a lie because if he did, I wouldn’t get far. According to them, he was one of the fastest runners in the whole of Udu before he went crazy. The traders knew my father. They took me in their vehicle straight to my village.
Civilization had suddenly jumped at the Udu people. Nigeria had started construction on a multi-billion dollar steel company to be built around three Udu villages: Aladja, Ovwian and Orhughworun. Hence the construction of road networks in this area, which was apparently in the middle of nowhere; I was to know much latter.
“SHOKOPIN” AS A FENCE
Indeed, my reflexes were verySharp; but those who survived a plane crash did not survive by reflexes, they survived by the grace of God
“Hmm” I grunted
“How is the body today?”
“It is getting better” I said between short quick breaths, my body quivered under high temperature; my teeth clashed continuously at a high tempo.
“Sorry” Kingsley greeted again
“Have you taken any tablets?”
“Just now” I replied breathlessly and groaned in anguish, turned on my side and sighed.
“Chloroquine”, I said. The heavy blanket with which I was covered trembled in rhythm with my body as it quaked underneath.
“Is that not the same medicine that always itch you afterwards”? For a reply, I nodded my head.
My struggle with malaria fever was not a new story to any of the boys in Kolokolo. Of all, I had the most unstable health. Even though physically I was of utmost balance, I was down at least once every three weeks, and would remain so for a minimum of seven days. I was never ill from any other ailment. I didn’t catch boils; I never had headaches even when I deliberately knock my head several times against a cement wall to show how strong it was.
The only cure my mother knew was Chloroquine tablets that caused me greater agony than the fever itself. She was tired of the frequent visits to the hospital which took the drain off her financially. With the Chloroquine tablets, I would be up and doing again in about a week. But the last four days of that one week were worse than anything the malaria could ever do to me.
My body would itch painfully all over; worse still, at the fingers and toes. There would be no sleeping. I would cry and strike at imaginary mosquitoes all over my body through out the day for four days or so. At last I decided not to take the tablets at all. My temperature would rise so much that I would cry and beg for cold water to be poured over my body right on the bed. My mother would come back from the market to find the room topsy-turvy; the foam on the bed and everything on the floor soaked. She would weep and plead with me to take the tablets. “No, let me die once and for all” I would say. She resorted to the use of herbs. Somehow, herbs never worked for me. I sweated under the vapour, drank and bathed with the extracts. I felt better only for some hours after which the fever returned stronger than ever.
This is probably why Kamma, the lanky half-cast became my best friend; he was always there for me. When others only came for some minutes to show sympathy, Kamma would be there all day. He was the one who fetched the uncountable pails of water from the well outside the compound to pour over me when I asked for it. ‘Don’t bother about the herbs’ he would tell my mother. A sole volunteer, he would trek long distances sometime into the Kolokolo forest in search of rare herbs. Sometimes into town to look for Dongoyaro leaves and pieces of bark from mango tree.
Loss of appetite was the first symptom of malaria in me, hence I emaciated in no time. Kamma would prepare anything to tempt me; Jollof rice; boiled yams, pap, porridge, fried plantains and beans—anything. Though my mother provided the money for whatever I wanted while she was away, it was Kamma who actually did everything for me while my numerous brothers and sisters only came around occasionally. Kamma would try to have a rest while I slept and would try to chat me up to distract me from the itching. He was always there to take the place of my mother and would not retire until Mom returned to take charge of me. Next morning he would be there again even before my mother left for the market.
Kingsley, a next-door neighbour to the Obaros was more like me; he never took anything seriously. He was a much bigger fellow, the only son of his father who had many children, all girls, some older and many younger than Kingsley. He was much pampered; he had almost everything he wished. If there was one youth who had more to spend than Monday Obaro, it was always Kingsley. He was an average table tennis player, never played football even when we were short of boys, but always accompanied us. He joked with everything no matter how serious. He was a generous spender, a graduating student of Urhobo College.
He had come not to sympathize but to borrow table tennis bats and net from me. On seeing my condition, he could not but sympathize a little.
“Kamma you are his nurse”?
“What else can I do for him”? Kamma asked sympathetically amidst the pap he was making.
“How many cubes of sugar do you want?”
“Four,” I gasped. My breathing was particularly bad. Kingsley fidgeted for a while and hissed. “Kamma, do you have any idea where the Tennis bats are”?
“Under the foam near his legs” Kamma said, crushing cubes of sugar against the side of the cup.
One week later, I was up and about again. Kingsley had passed out. Once he invited us to come with him to the school compound, which was completely deserted as students were on holidays. Kamma, Julius and I volunteered to help. Emmagbo came with us only because he intended to bring back a desk and a chair to augment the little furniture he had in his single room apartment.
Kingsley was going to remove some hostel furniture belonging to a friend of his who traveled before the vacation. The hostel was a big rectangular hall with double and triple Decker iron beds arranged along the walls. There were no useful items in the hall; the beds revealed their bare springs, no foams were on them. Abandoned useless items littered the floor. Broken furniture, tattered clothes, school uniforms too old to be bothered were all about. Cobwebs hung everywhere on the ceiling in a dense crisscross. Any useful furniture was well secured with a lock and key to a wall or one of the beds. Everything and everywhere in the hall was covered with soothe and dust.
Kingsley discovered rather late that he had forgotten the key to the lock that secured his friend’s property to the window protector near it. He had to rush back home to collect the key. We decided to hang around till he returned. We looked around for anything valuable to take home, but there was none. Emmagbo went off to take a look at other halls. I sauntered out for some fruits and returned later to find Julius and Kamma sleeping on two of the beds, one opposite the other. Kamma was sleeping on the lowest bed of a triple-decker why Julius was on the top bed of a double-decker. Kamma had said something and Julius was laughing humorously, revealing his thirty-two teeth. He turned on his sides, chucked with suppressed laughter and almost fell from the bed.
I climbed one of the triple-decker beds three beds away from Julius, on the same row and stretched out on the empty springs on the highest level, placing me highest above my friends vertically. I heaved myself against the springs; they creaked in depression and thrust me upwards. I repeated the action as I landed on the bed and bounced up again. Repeating the motion got me bouncing up and down in rhythm with the springs and before long, we were all bouncing up and down our beds. Emma came back with a broken locker and joined up on a bed opposite me. We were all now occupying the top beds of triple-deckers, everyone trying to bounce higher than anyone else. I was particularly good as I did it without the slightest fear of tumbling over. I was bouncing quite high and was enjoying it. Unknown to me Julius had sneaked under my bed.
As I landed on the springs in rhythm to be sprung upwards again, he folded his legs so that his knees touched his chin and trust up violently in synchrony with the upward thrust of the springs. I was hauled high up into the air and away from the bed. I descended on a straight vertical course head first, more like a diver thrown from a springboard on a high dive, heading head first for a swimming pool drained completely of water.
Hae! I gasped and someone shouted “Jesus!” as I touched the concrete floor, head-first, and my entire body weight above it. But what you fear did not happen. I had seen it occur in films and many acrobatic displays before; people leapt up, arranged themselves to land apparently head-first, but folded as in a coil beginning from the head and rolled forward a little through their backs and ended up on their feet.
Several pictures of such scenes flashed through my mind in mid-air. Just before I would crash on the floor, I decided to try it as, well, my only alternative. I bent my head to my chest, touched the floor with the back of my head rolled quickly on my atlas and backbone which were folded as much as I could in a semi-circle, and ended up almost on my feet. It was a split second thought, I touched the floor and rolled forward almost without a sound. Indeed, my reflexes were very sharp; but those who survived a plane crash did not survive by reflexes, they survived the sheer grace of God.
Kingsley had bought the table tennis which was located near Kamma’s house where we usually played, and had relocated it to an uncompleted story building opposite the house they occupied with the Obaro’s and others as neighbours. Mr. Obaro, Julius’ father knew me well among kolokolo boys because I was always with Julius and I went very early to their place, sometimes even before Mr. Obaro left for work. I taught Julius much of the things he could not understand at school—there was very little he could understand. Although we were age mates, I was two classes ahead of him. I encouraged him to continue trying to study. Mr. Obaro met me sometimes studying with Monday, he considered me a positive inspiration to Julius in academic affairs, and a motivation to juvenile delinquencies, and general rascality. Once he told me not to visit his place before it was 10am in the morning.
For Julius and Monday, they both had to be at home when he returned otherwise it was trouble. There was something peculiar about these boys and their father. While we played and told stories in the night, they will be on the lookout for any approaching vehicle in the distance. Many vehicles will pass without them even turning to look; but immediately their father’s car showed up at the far end of the street, they will shout daddy! daddy! And scramble home before he got anywhere close. At first it was simply unbelievable; they recognized their father’s headlights hundreds of meters away. It was simply unimaginable to those of us whose father never had a car. No matter how much the car resembled their fathers’ even if it were also a Datsun pick-up, they could tell it was his or not just by the headlights. It baffled us all together.
Now that the tennis board had been moved right opposite the Obaros, it became more difficult for us to start playing early. What we did was to hide with one of our friends whose mother sold soft drinks and foodstuff three blocks away, waiting for when the white Datsun will drive off. We were also at that store when we were not playing tennis. The youth, simply called Bomboy, was very hospitable and friendly. The mother had another store some where inside Warri. More like my parents, she left every morning and came back in the evening leaving the store wide open for Bomboy and his cohorts. He was about my age, a little bigger physically and a little smaller mentally. He was fair complexioned, big bellied, and cross-eyed.
He was quite new in the area and was fast becoming one of the rascals and the mother was already on the offensive. Sometimes he would close the store just to be among us when we gathered elsewhere. Once when we were chatting at Bomboy’s, Julius told me in confidence that their father was building a house somewhere along Orhughworun road. He added that there was a borrow pit not far from the site where the workers took a swim everyday after work. According to him, he went to the site once ostensibly to inspect the building, while his very intention was to have a swim at the borrow pit.
Monday also made mention once of swimming in a borrow pit somewhere near Orhughworun junction. It was also in the company of his father’s workers but being a more reserved fellow, he omitted the part about the building, apparently to keep it secret. He said it was more fun swimming in the borrow pit than in the small ditch with the stinking water in Atamakolomi. He blamed our misfortune on our inability to swim well.
I knew that borrow pit too well. Even before anyone of my friends set foot on it, I had been there to swim many times before. But it was rather too far for frequent visits. I had forgotten about it because it was long time ago since I last set foot on it.
Many moons before, Voke, my cousin, had invited me on a visit to Owhase. He said it was a village located somewhere after the bridge but not too far for me to trek. He knew I would readily accompany him, I liked seeing new things and being to new places. I saw no problems in travelling long distances; i loved adventure. More so, he made mention that my most loved brother and dearest friend from early childhood days, Benjamin, was now leaving at Owhase, doing bush work with his father, my father’s half brother.
Many a time when I made my dangerous and lonely journeys to the village, it was because I wanted to see and be with Benjamin again; we taunted Gelegba the madman together. He was more my brother than any of my mother’s children.
I was only about ten years old when I trekked with Voke to Owhase. The road was very lonely across the bridge; the walk was long. It was on a hot sunny afternoon, only few cars drove past at long intervals as we trekked along the freshly tarred road. The sun shone heavily on the coal tar making it to glimmer, and causing it to form mirages ahead of us. We walked quietly along the road bothered on both sides by the forest. I was bare footed, my feet hurt as I marched continuously on the tarred road heated hot by the sun. On intervals we branched off to take a shade under any tree with wide branches on the side of the road, till we arrived at Owhase junction, only yards from Orhughworun junction and opposite the route to Ovwian village.
The small footpath was overgrown and winding in his course. Midway between the junction and the first buildings (thatch buildings) was a small stream flowing across the path. The water was clean and cool. The village was about two hundred meters long; its houses were along the main footpath that sloped at the end to a small stream in the middle of the forest. Just before the stream, a much smaller footpath and much overgrown ran into the forest to the right and ended up in a row of tents, one of which was occupied by an extension of the Orugbo family where they produced local gin (Ogogoro) for sale. There were four tents on a row; they were situated in the heart of the forest. Two of my uncles with their spouses occupied the tent second to the last.
Benjamin was there! For many years I had not seen him. We talked about old times and played in the immediate forest around the tents for the rest of the afternoon. He introduced me to other relations hitherto unknown to me. No doubt they all had had of me; my news spread round the large extended family like wild fire; I was a notorious rascal. Voke left me there and went back to Warri as dusk approached. I was not going to leave Benjamin so soon. We bathed in warm water, ate and settled down to tell folktales, riddles and jokes, fairy tales and legendary stories of old Benin Empire into late night.
The elders occupied the ‘rooms’ while the children slept in a row, side by side on a wide mat placed near the distillery on the floor. From where we slept, there were no barriers between us and the open forest. Save for the ‘rooms’, the tent only had a thatch roof suspended by sticks, no walls or any kind of covering to ward off an invading animal, or to bar or pose an obstacle to a trespasser. We slept on the floor save for the distillery, exposed. The cool night air drifted to us the stale smell of palm wine, trees and decaying foliage characteristic of an equatorial forest.
The distillery itself was a cylindrical drum mounted on an oven constructed with earth, called Ovini; a fornicated version of the word Oven. Six pipes bored into one side of the drum, equidistantly separated one from the other, ran through a boat-like structure constructed with wood and blunt at both ends, which contained cold water. It was called (Okpokro), the coolant. The pipes emerged at the other blunt end of the coolant unto a kind of receptacle (Oko), which was a dissected piece of bamboo placed on short sticks dug into the ground just beneath the pipes, this channels the gin on to a funnel mounted on a jerry can.
The Oven was shaped more like a drum with one of its ends cut open, from where logs of wood are stuffed into it. The drum had one small hole at the lower end of one base blocked with tissues of plantain stems wrapped on a piece of stick the size of the hole. Remnants of palm wine escapes through this hole to be drained off through a small gutter at the end of each round of production.
On top of the other base, on the cylindrical body of the drum, was a bigger hole blocked with a carved cone-shaped piece of wood with a handle, plastered vapor-proof with garri paste to the drum during distillation through which the recipe is fed into the drum. Garri paste was also used to vapor-proof the points higher up on the body of the drum where the pipes penetrated it.
The pipes were inclined so that they penetrated the coolant higher up, at the end closest to the drum and emerged very close to its floor at the end closest to the receptacle. The receptacle was completed by twenty-five liters Jerry can with a funnel and foam or a piece of Cloth placed inside it.
The process was easy. Vapor from the recipe (palm wine, sugar, yeast, caustic potash etc) boiling in the drum travels through the pipes and cools to droplets of gin, which collects along the pipes, flows down to the contraption for collection and into the Jerry can. It was a hot affair though; at some points, even the water in the coolant rises almost to boiling point. It requires a continuous supply of logs of wood as the sole fuel and cold water for the receptacle, which has to be refilled after each round of production.
I observed these and more when we woke up next day. I was asked to hew wood with Benjamin as my partner in the cold of the morning. Others went to fetch water for various needs including cooking and bathing, in a small pond somewhere inside the forest quite far from the tent.
The various domestic chores and the labour involved with the production of the gin, was shared among us the children. My two uncles went into the forest: one to fell wood, the other to inspect traps in the deep of the forest.
As we hewed, Benjamin on the opposite side of the large piece of log placed horizontally on the ground, covered with old and new pieces of wood scattered all about from many years of logging and hewing, was holding an axe fitted to one end of a round, smooth piece of wood. He struck the log at his end with a perfect aim, and bent double to steady it with the handle of his axe, which was stuck into the wood making a little opening on it. I struck close to his axe to widen the groove and his axe came off. He struck again close to my axe to relieve it and I repeated my blow a little further up the wood towards my end. We repeated the process throughout the length of the wood, one axe sinking into the groove formed by the other to relieve it. My aims were not as good as Benjamin’s who had been at it almost since he was born, but good enough to provide a partner for him. Splitting wood like this was much easier but requires people who took great care at doing things so that one axe does not fall on the other to cause havoc. We split many logs and my uncle was full of praises for me.
But the ovation was not to last long; its place taken by surprise, shock and gratitude to God for the life spared. Close to my end of one log, I raised my axe high up and brought it down with all the strength in me; the intention was to split open the piece of wood with one last blow. I wanted to gain more accolades from my uncle.
Benjamin was bent double with his head towards the wood, holding the handle of his axe, waiting for it to be relieved. My descending axe missed his head by the breadth of a human hair and banged violently with a clang and a flash of fire against the flat back of his tool. The axe sprang out of my hands, whisked past the middle of the tent narrowly missing another head that was bent low by inches, to hit the wooden side of the cooling chamber which gave in and gushed hot water onto the floor of the tent. Yes! That was how clumsy and careless I was and I hated myself for it. I was absent minded in everything I did. I was either singing one melodious tune or the other, or thinking of where next to go and what next to do while I had not finished with the one.
After the morning meal, I was asked to wash the dishes; I broke two earthen pots as I struggled to remember the tune of a song in one of the fairy tales told the night before. My mind was never fully concentrated on whatever I was doing at any particular moment. Indeed, I was a terrible character to behold. But then, I was just a child.
As I grew older, the little pieces of reason fell into place one after the other. I developed into a thought champion among my peers, one of the opinion leaders and probably their only mini-walking encyclopedia.
It was past mid day the sun was high, up the elders had all melted into the surrounding forest. The whole place was cool and quiet save for the distillation process, which went on rather noiselessly.
“Where are the others”? I demanded from Benjamin.
“They went to have a swim somewhere” he replied.
“Is there a place where people can swim around”?
“Yes but very far”
“What are we doing anyway?”
“Well, you want to go?” Benjamin asked wistfully, searching my face with his eyes.
You don’t ask a hen if it cares for corn.
He got up and moved away from a pool of light coming from above, delivered by the sun through a small opening on the thatched roof, which fell on his chest. The beam of light fell on a silver spoon on the floor, which partly diffused and partly reflected it.
He discarded the working shots he had on, donned a better one and we set out. Benefit the youngest of us all had been refused permission as no one will be left at home. Together with Monday Orugbo from my father’s elder cousin (not Monday Obaro) we were three in number that set out through a bush path that disappeared into the forest and emerged in a rubber plantation where the bush path was neater and wider.
Benjamin was a wise, smart and very careful lad, my only virtue where he was, if you must call it that was my absolute intrepidity and my leverage in academics. Monday Orugbo was bigger physically, at least three years older than any of us but painfully clumsy and almost slow to a fault. He was a very tough labourer; no job was too difficult for him. His calmness was also highly praised.
We walked along in a single file with Benjamin in the lead and Monday on the rear. Dry rubber leaves cushioned the path. It was in the peak of the dry season when trees shed their leaves. There were no under growths save for young rubber shoots growing everywhere except on the footpath.
After some thirty minutes of walking, I observed the trees become scanty with less under growths just in front. I saw the plantation end in an opening beyond. We walked faster unto the opening which haboured the usual under growths of equatorial wetlands, alighting unto a new well-tarred and neatly marked motorway, (Orhughworun road) crossed it.
We walked through a small breath of rubber plantation and beheld a big borrow pit. It was dug out almost in a rectangular fashion, with the far end of it somewhat narrower than the near side. It was about 75m wide and 200m long. The earth around the wall and on the floor of the pit was clearly lateritic.
All around the borrow pit except for the near side, was covered by an over growth of a kind of grass locally called “shokopin” a fornication of the world ‘shell company’. It gave the impression of a fence made of bush and grass around it. At the far end, rather shallow and muddy, “shokopin” could be seen protruding out of the water to confirm it depths.
The water was very muddy and stank of freshly excavated earth with a color in the likeness of laterite. More people including women and children bathed on the near side that slopped gradually to a depth of about two meters; the average depth of the borrow pit. The other point on the side where people also bathed was two meters deep right from the beginning. The wall of laterite formed a sort of cliff at that point. Those who swam there pulled themselves out of the water to the top of the ‘cliff’ by means of “shokopin” and other plants which protruded and offered a small shad on the side, their branches and foliage almost touching water.
My other cousins were there! We had fun swimming on the shallow side, sometimes venturing to the middle. Good swimmers like Benjamin swam at a hypotenuse to the side walled by laterite, where only good swimmers ventured, climbed on shore, and ran round the angle to where we were to repeat the feat. Many people including Benjamin swam the entire breath of it time and again. The floor of the borrow pit was clayish, hard and somewhat uneven.
As evening approached and the sun made ready to take a dive in the west, we retired home through the tarred road to where it formed the T junction (Orhughworun junction) and branched off to the small over grown footpath running the length of Owhase village, which in turn branched off near where it slopped to the stream, into the forest to the row of tents, second to the last of which was now home to me.
Throughout my seven days stay in Owhase, there was no day we didn’t swim at the borrow pit. On one occasion; I succeeded in swimming the length of the hypotenuse, which was about 30m long. Thus, swimming distances in stagnant water is purely as a function of practice and stamina, it was my first real distance. I couldn’t swim the breath which was clearly too wide for me.
I left Owhase because schools resumed and I was forced to leave.
I visited the village almost every week-end and on every holiday until once when I went there, I was promptly told Benjamin was no longer there. It was the last time I ever was in Owhase. I didn’t even pass the night there and never saw the borrow pit again, until I saw it. This was long even before the Obaro’s ever came to kolokolo.
When a man dies,
Not The man but his
Loved ones, that
The moon floated alone in the sky on a starless night, during one of its mysterious but periodic lunar journeys. High up above, every now and then, dark patches of cloud floated past intermittently, some partially screening and others completely obscuring its pale blue light for a moment, as they floated slowly and solemnly past on their seemingly mission-less journeys. It was a hot stuffy night, the air was still. Seated in a circle on a sandy portion of the Obukowho Street towards second kolokolo with Jiyovwi the deaf in the middle, our noise and laughter floated into the still night. It was quite late and our voices sounded hollow.
We had been amusing ourselves with Jiyovwi all night, he was a peculiar deaf and dumb: stand just behind him and shout his name all day into his ear, he wouldn’t turn round for he wouldn’t hear you. But stand right in front of him and say a word he would repeat it almost correctly, only with the syllables unnecessarily extended and some vowels substituted. Nevertheless it was a perfect mimic of the original word.
Once Kamma shouted in front of Jiyovwi, and he mimicked back the question: “what is it”? In pidgin English. Ninety five percent of all his utterance were however incomprehensible.
We had been calling each other’s names to Jiyovwi, his response to some native names like mine was rib cracking.
Even today some of us now fully grown are still fondly called by nicknames arranged for us by Jiyovwi. One by one we retired to our different homes as the night wore on. I was particularly a late-nighter, always among the last batch to leave; Julius was with me on that occasion.
By this time it was no longer news that their father had completed a building after the bridge. It wasn’t comfortable to keep it too secret for it was dignifying and boosted your ego to be called a landlord’s son, and worth a while to gambol in the reverence that followed it.
My one difficulty was how to be making the journeys to Orhughworun road from Kolokolo when they eventually moved. Julius also intimated me once that he would rather be in Kolokolo to remain with us than try to sort new friends out around their compound.
It was always easy for the Obaro’s to stay out late or go where they liked because their father traveled to their village almost every weekend to return on Sunday morning. The children always told us their father had a building in their village, a fact we doubted, we claiming anyone could say so for it was difficult to confirm. Considering it now, it was possible he did have another building probably inhabited by another wife of his. Hence, the frequent weekend journeys. This is only an unconfirmed opinion of mine.
In those days in Urhobo land, the wealth of a man was the sum total of the number of wives, children and houses he had, even if he didn’t have a dime in the banks. Respect and prominence was measured by it. Hence, there was hardly any Urhobo man with less than three wives and a trailer-load of children. Houses came last on the scale of preference.
“Look! A ghost” or “run! There is a spirit standing behind you” someone would say suddenly, pointing in the surrounding bushes and the rest will be a cacophony of thundering feet as we scrambled home in different directions.
As Kamma made to rise up preparatory to saying one frightening word or the other, Julius said “yes, I know it a spirit or a ghost” standing up as he did so, Kamma laughed and said “Good night” as we all rose and parted quietly. Julius’ home was a stone throw away; once he was ten meters from their building he shouted aloud, “Kamma run for your dear life” and helter-skelter we fled in the darkness of the night.
“How much is the betting”? Bomboy asked, rather looking at my hands than in my face as I shuffled the cards. How much have you been betting”? I replied with a question “or is it because it is my round”?.
We were just being introduced into gambling. The round man, the owner of the cards or dice depending on what we were gambling with, is entitled to participate once every fourth round without betting cash. Often times I had no money to play so it was more comfortable for me to be a ‘round man’. I only had to look for money to buy the cards or dice and for the next four days or so until they were stolen or worn out, I would be a ‘round man’. Many a time we earned money to go to the cinema this way. It was also good to give unwavering support to a friend who could be lucky to win and contribute to your cinema entrance fee or offer to pay you in.
Bomboy’s mother was safely at the market place but Mr. Obaro was still home, we squatted just outside the store engrossed in our unwholesome, newly found past time. Bomboy was having the rough end of the game and he was looking to transfer his aggression on me.
We were still on the cards when Mr. Obaro drove off. He eyed us and slowed to a halt.
“Are you children gambling?” he demanded.
“No sir” Kingsley the neighbour’s son answered. We had our money under our feet.
“But those are gambling cards” he pointed out.
“Yes sir, but we are only playing a normal game with them sir” as he came down from the car, I gave a warning look to Bomboy who quickly shifted his foot to cover properly the protruding tip of a currency note. He looked all round us.
“Give me the cards”, he said. Bomboy quickly handed them over. He inspected them carefully. Because he was ‘sure’ money was not involved, he gave them back and drove off.
Seconds later, Monday and Julius had joined the squatters we won money from Bomboy and bought bread and coca cola from the store. Minutes later the money was back with someone among the squatters.
“Let’s” go over to table tennis”, he declared at last, “I am not lucky with cards today.”
We moved over to the uncompleted building opposite the Obaro’s. There I wasn’t as lucky as I was with dice, my usual game seem to have deserted me.
Kingsley was making quite some money with the board. Each game was paid for; unless you won, you had to pay again and if there was a bet, he gets a percentage that varied directly as the amount involved. He had bought his own bats, nets and didn’t care to borrow mine any longer. Many times he just sat back and ate bread; sipped coca cola and watched. He only needed me when there was a champion proving too difficult to defeat. I was helpless however where the champion was any of Eric, Monday, or Denis. With these guys it was only a probability that I won. Gradually Kingsley’s board became the major board in the area and now, first thing every morning we were all heading for the uncompleted building in front of the Obaro’s.
I woke up with a start and almost jumped out of bed. My father was standing right in the middle of the entrance, with one hand he bared the door wide open so that it touched the wall, and with the other he stretched a walking stick at me.
He had woken me up with one loud sounding of my name and was demanding why I was still in bed by 7am. He was fully dressed and about to leave for the village service which began by 9am, but he left early so as to arrive well ahead of time.
“And is it not time to start having your bath? He turned to Eric as I tried to remove a speck from my eyes.
“I hope the clothes Ufuoma is washing outside are not the very one’s he wants to wear to church.
“look hear you two” he pointed his walking stick first at me then at Eric “ any one who does not go to church today, Hmm! Hmm! He didn’t finish the sentence but we got the message.
He always came like that to make sure every one was getting prepared for the Sunday service. Usually before he came we got very busy about anything just to make believe we were on our way, otherwise you were marked down for tough interrogation on activities that took place during the day’s service.
As he made to leave, he saw my mother returning from the kitchen. “Abigirl, if by 7am on a Sunday morning they are still sleeping, how are you sure they are going to attend service.”
“I woke them all up. Whoever was still sleeping has gone back to bed, it could only be Ghenemere. He came back very late last night, I heard him pounding the door for Anote to let him in”.
Before my father could turn to look at me, I snatched a bucket and made fast for the well.
I brought back a bucket of water, dropped it near our door, below the pavement and went off to tell Julius to be ready on time.
On my way, I met Daniel well dressed as a gentleman in new clothes, already on his way to our compound.
My father always got very angry with us because of Daniel. He was only a friend and a new member, but he got dressed early and came all the way from second Kolokolo sometimes to meet some of us “old” members still sleeping, and he attended to church service and church matters with more enthusiasm than any of us. To my father, he was a role model.
I met Monday and Emagbo dragging the table tennis board from under the steps. I carried the ‘standing’ with them to the uncompleted building opposite and helped them set up.
“Emma wait, before we start let me warm up with Ghenemere. A game with a novice is difficult and boring. Emma was not happy but gave me the bat all the same. Normally, it was first come, first serve. It was also true Emma didn’t know how to play.
Our first game was still on when Kamma and Bomboy came sauntering in from opposite sides; before long, the hall was gathered with our usual playmates. Kingsley came down to collect his money.
Ufuoma was sent to call me but promptly stayed behind to watch some interesting bouts.
About 9am when I asked Julius to get ready for service, he said I was crazy and asked if church service had not started already. He was right.
“You were not ready to go to church today” he concluded.
“Are you stupid” I demanded angrily.
“Yes” he replied, “and because of my stupidity, am going to be the one to tell your father you didn’t go to church today”
“You will lose one of your eye balls after that, and your new name will be One-eyed Johnson” I said, and made to sit on one of the window frames as everyone burst out laughing.
“Which of his eyes do you prefer” Bomboy asked me, bent double, chuckling with laughter.
“The left one” someone answered for me.
“You can all laugh” Julius fumed, but every one should also be sure of his strength”
At that some stopped laughing, Julius was quite crazy when angry, he was not going to fight with me anyway, because we were very close. I tried to continue the teasing but not many people responded, I soon felt stupid and dropped it.
“Do you know they have an interesting Chinese film today”? Someone asked.
“Where” asked another;
“At video max.” the one replied
“I will surely see it”, Bomboy said, uninvited.
Kingsley had gone back to the house leaving me in charge of the money.
“I will be there too” Monday said “what about you Emma”?
“Hmm only those who have money can make it”
“That’s true, but why is it you don’t ever have money?
“I have always paid myself in; if I don’t have money today it does not mean I don’t always have money”
“True! Unlike Ghenemere who would always depend on someone for every movie he saw.
“I had no response for that one because it was largely true.
“Since there are not many people going to the movie, who will go swimming then?” It was Monday speaking.
“Where”? I asked.
“At the borrow pit on the way to my father’s building.
“Hmm, too far,” Emma put in.
“Well, that’s the only place I can afford to go with any of you, the Udu River is too deep for your types. I love swimming at the borrow pit, moreover, we have always said we would visit it once,”
“We can go there and still be able to make it to the film” Kamma said.
“Then we must leave now, who is ready”? Monday asked looking round at us.
I don’t waste time to have fun but the borrow pit was quite far. I hesitated.
“Okay, anyone who comes will have a free paid entrance into the movie at video max.
That was my name! You don’t say such things to my hearing, my hope for the movie was on the money I was collecting for Kingsley, he had just come down to collect it all living me with nothing.
“I am with you” I brightened up, raising my hand.
“Wait let me put on a better short” Kamma said and ran home.
“I will go too” Emma joined in closely followed by Bomboy, suddenly, the table tennis game was no more interesting, the general interest was now in swimming and getting a paid entrance to video max later.
“Wait a minute” Julius said and ran upstairs to collect something.
“Ghenemere lets be going, the others will join us on the way”
“What about Julius”? I demanded, “He will be down soon let’s wait for only Julius.”
But Julius was keeping long in the house, apparently the mother was asking him on an errand and he was protesting.
“Julius! Julius!! Monday shouted “we are on our way! You meet us up we can’t wait for you any longer”
Just then he came running down. We trooped in a body along Ugonofure Street towards second Kolokolo. Bomboy joined us on the way as we passed in front of their store en-route second Kolokolo.
We were six initially; the others were to come behind. Emagbo and I were in front, closely followed by Monday.
Ufuoma and Julius came on our heels and then Bomboy who was hurrying to join the group.
It was quite sunny on that Sunday morning, it was towards the end of the dry season, around May, when the weather was most unstable as rain and sunshine struggled for prominence.
Monday was somewhat hasty about it all, and soon we were in a single file with Bomboy at the rear. “If you don’t want us to go, please say so. I am not going to see only half the movie so we better be quick about swimming” he said, stopping briefly as we hurried up to form a body again.
We were now almost in second Kolokolo; those of us in the lead branched off onto a road leading to the Udu road without thinking, as it was the natural route to follow. “Emma, that road will be too long, when are we going to be there if we should go that way? Let’s go straight to second Kolokolo road and walk back through the ‘forest’ into white sand”
True, this reduces the journey appreciably and we all knew it. But that place is quick to gather water, I was sure it must be knee high from the few rainfall experienced already. Nevertheless we headed for second kolokolo and walked towards the ‘forest’, arguing with Monday, our only hope for the much talked about movie was not advisable.
The end of the road was a small circular opening of grass and sand, beyond this point it continued as a footpath, which sloped steeply through overgrown grass and jagged tree stumps. The ‘forest’ itself was a mere shadow of the real thing. All the trees here had been cut and were only struggling to continue their unduly terminated life span. Their foliage scarcely covered anyone walking through it. More so, it was on a low land.
As we got to the opening at the end of the road, suddenly the sky grew dark, heavy clouds migrated from nowhere and shaded the sun, a cold wind swept through the valley below from the Udu river. I looked at the quivering foliage of the semi-forest just below and shivered as goose pimples over took my skin; without notice, it started drizzling.
“We can’t make it” Julius said.
“It will be too cold to swim by the time we get there” Ufuoma endorsed. We stood undecided for a moment.
“Let’s go to the ditch at Atamakolomi instead since it is not far off” I added looking ahead of me towards the Udu River.
“Is there water in the ditch already?” Emma asked.
“But it is not going to rain” said Monday. “These days the cloud is always hovering over the sun, it does not really rain”. Even as he spoke, it stopped drizzling, the clouds gave way shortly and the sun reappeared as bright as ever. “You see? I said it, he beamed triumphantly.
We decided finally. There was no use nursing reluctance. We descended the slope, forced into a single file by the narrow footpath with Monday at the helm as the captain. We marched on to make good our intention to have fun on a Sunday morning, which turned out to be the day of my greatest agony ever.
The Sunday was ‘pregnant’; we were very happy and looked forward to the ‘baby’. But it gave birth to a monster; we were very sad and totally over-whelmed with grief. It was a tragedy of colossal proportions and vivid as ever in my mind even as I write.
We were now among the semi-forest. I was second to last on the row. I forget who was behind me. Many years after the incident I am still at lost as per understanding the series of events that took place on that day.
We did a rare thing here. As soon as Monday stepped his foot into the water commencing our trek through the wet part of the semi-forest, he let out a deep mystical incantation, “shegbelegbe” he said.
The next person thrust his foot into water and said, “shagbalagba” same word only changing the vowels, the next, “shigbiligbi” and shogbologbo” “shugbulugbu” we all chanted, each man saying his own, only changing the vowels as he stepped on water.
Our spirits had refused water for the day but we were not to detect the warning signals. Or were we just saying meaningless nonsense? Again I implore you to stay your opinion.
Monday stopped chanting as he stepped out of water onto the grassland bothering the vast expanse of ‘white sand’. Each man stepped out of water and stopped. I should have asked were the seemingly meaningless word came from. I should have asked why we said it as we stepped into water and stopped as we stepped out of it. But I did not, and none of us did.
Walking through the soft white sand was strenuous. We used much strength but advanced only a little, by the time we reached the Udu road, we were breathing heavily from exhaustion.
“Why don’t we rest a little?” Emagbo gasped. He was a weak fellow, more so at lengthy physical activities. But it was not Emma alone, I was quite out of breath myself and Bomboy sat down under a shade even before Emma did.
“We will be wasting time like this, my father has gone home and you all know he will be returning this morning, if we go on like this he will surely see us on his way back. Why not get to the borrow pit as quickly as possible so as to be out of his way? We can bath and rest there” Monday was almost getting angry now.
This argument was cogent in my thinking. Beyond the bridge, there was no hiding place, the road was straight most of the way. A returning Mr. Obaro will surely see us all at a glance. If that happened, one thing was sure; he would take us all back with his car and duly report us to our parents. For me, that will be my finish. To be reported to be heading for a river on Sunday morning in lieu of church service, especially when I was singularly warned by my father that same Sunday morning would attract an un-quantifiable amount of punishment, the severity of which would know no bound. If I had seen this possibility in the first place, I wouldn’t have headed that way at all for any reason. Our rest was to be shot-lived.
One by one we rose reluctantly to continue. Monday never rested, he was too impatient. We walked under the sun, most of us bare footed. Climbing the steep bridge was an exhausting task. We stopped at the top of it and looked down over the rail to the mass of moving water far below. From this point you could observe more than half the city of Warri and its environs. That bridge is one of the highest in Nigeria; it was constructed to allow for the passage of fairly large vessels with their tall masts.
“Who said he wanted to swim under the bridge”? Am not sure who asked the question, but looking down at the dizzying mass of running water below, nobody answered.
“Lets run” Monday said.
“Why”? I asked.
“So we can finish the remaining part of the road before my father drove past”.
The remaining part of the road was longer and I didn’t like the idea of running a distance. We were about to turn it into a general argument when he broke into a run. We all ran down the steep side of the bridge, at the foot of it we stopped, panting. We continued after a while. After another ten minutes of walking, Bomboy said he was tired and he would like some water. Monday bought cold water for us all and said he did so that we could run better thereafter. This was somewhere near the Udu market. Soon afterwards, we were running again to take the last stretch of the road.
“Am afraid my father will surely run into us” Monday said as our pace reduced to a walk out of exhaustion.
“We will soon be there, the remaining part of the journey is not much” I said, trying to ingratiate myself with him.
We were closing on Orhughworun junction, behind which was our destination.
“Men, I am very hungry”, it was Julius.
“I want to faint already” I contributed.
“See Ufuoma your junior is not crying hunger yet, imagine an old man like you crying for food already”, Monday said to me pointing at Ufuoma.
“Men, if I don’t eat something I can’t continue” I said and sat down on the side of the road, knowing that he is likely to buy us some soft drinks.
Bomboy came and sat heavily on my side. Monday laughed and said “I can see you guys are protesting” there is bread here let’s buy something and eat.
He bought bread and peanuts and ice water for us all, but urged us to eat quickly. We were pleased at his generosity. He liked doing that sort of thing; outside Kolokolo with Monday, say your wish and he would make sure you got it.
We left Bomboy still eating bread and peanuts and took the shot distance between us, and the borrow pit.
“You know the place”? I shouted back at Bomboy.
“Okay, finish and come after us” He nodded his reply, and so Bomboy was not there when the unexpected happened, for it happened quickly.
Shortly after Orhughworun junction, we branched off the Udu road, stole through “Shokopin” and uncompleted buildings to alight at the side of the borrow pit, the point on the side of it where few people swam, as against the popular side which was the base, now lying to our left.
The place looked very strange to me, but it was the same place I had been many times before some years back. The grass at the verge of the popular side was much over-grown. The height of the ‘Shokopin’ surrounding it had also increased appreciably.
We stood together in the little opening on the ground where the floor was bare. To me, there was no sign of life around the borrow pit, more so, no one was there yet to swim. At my guess, it was as late as 11 AM already. I looked at the floor on which we were standing and saw that it was spotty all over, the impression made by heavy drops of rain on impact with the lateritic soil was small holes the size of peanuts all over the small grassless area where we stood, it felt very rough on our bare soles.
The water was still, very still and its color was green; unnaturally green, not blue, not colorless and not muddy as I use to know it. My mind almost clinched it in that moment and I said, “It looks as if human beings have not been coming here since long time”.
“Are you afraid?” someone asked, as I made the statement. I did not answer but to show I was not afraid, I edged closer to the water. Without warning, the floor under me gave way; I slipped into the water as I tried to dig my fingers into the soil to prevent me. They all laughed and pointed at me. Then Monday dived in and appeared somewhere ahead of me. I struggled up on shore and said to Ufuoma, “you are not going to swim; this seems to be too deep for you.”
“How can he come all the way and you say he shouldn’t swim”? Julius protested.
Only two of them were not in the water yet, Emma had already dived in. Ufuoma did not protest, it was usual of him to obey simple instructions. He put on his shorts, stood aside and folded his hands across his chest. Julius rushed forward to give me a vigorous push into the water; I had anticipated that. It was just up his street to do such a thing. I stepped aside as he pushed at nothing; he gave a cry, clutched at nothing for balance, but it was no use. He slipped fast along the short, steep embankment into the water. We laughed heartily, but it was to be our last laugh for a long time.
We swam around lightly causing minimum disturbance. We hadn’t swum for five minutes before Monday suggested that we should cross over to the other side, which was to swim the breadth of the borrow pit. I had had my tutorials at the Udu Bridge, but I was not quite sure I could make it. Emma was slightly better than I was, nevertheless, we were both better than Julius.
“Let’s try it,” Julius said.
Emma wasn’t too sure he could succeed in crossing to the other side. I said if others would go, I will attempt it as well.
“I will swim behind you guys; if any one gets tired he should signal me.” Monday assured us of security in case of alarm. With that assurance from the best swimmer among us, the biggest and eldest, we set out for the other end of the borrow pit.
Julius said he could not make it and held on to a branch to rest, but on a second thought, he set out after us. I was in front, side by side with Emma, Monday swam protectively behind us, closely followed by Julius who came on the rear.
We swam quietly again with very little disturbance. As we swam into the main expanse heading for the middle, I heard Julius say, “I can’t make it o! I will rather return to shore.”
Ufuoma mocked him from where he stood as an observer, “swim on, you lazy thing, aren’t the others your mates? Or would you not make it if there was hot porridge waiting on the other side”? Moments later when I turned to look back, I saw Julius standing side by side with Ufuoma, hands akimbo watching us.
Now we swam very calmly, not at all in any hurry to complete the crossing, I progressed at the same pace with Emma. I noticed we swam in the same fashion; the same strokes, same rhythm and at the same frequencies; as if we were automatons programmed to do exactly the same thing in the same fashion. I noticed particularly that we made the same progress and were just at the same distance from our destination.
I thought there was something unusual about it all. I swam so effortlessly that I could not but notice it. I drifted forward with each stroke as if carried along by somebody. I could have as well stopped moving my limbs and still floated along. Even so, I still maintained the same pace with Emma.
About this point, I thought my feet grazed the floor once. We were roughly two meters apart as we swam side by side and roughly twenty meters from shore.
Then I saw something! About two meters ahead of me was a green bottle floating upside down, half immersed in the water. It was unnaturally green, the color of the water. It bubbled lightly as waveforms from our bodies impacted on it. The more frightening thing was that it kept same distance ahead of me even as I swam towards it—it kept moving forward. It seemed to be swimming at the same pace, neither increasing nor decreasing the distance between us.
I didn’t think anything of it until I saw the second bottle. Green, half immersed in the water, at the same two meters distance ahead of Emma as the one in front of me, it was also floating upside down; they were identical in every way and bubbled in the same fashion.
The setting between us and the mysterious green bottles formed a perfect square. Yes! Even a fool would know now that something was not right. I sent a glance to my left, in the direction of the popular side, as if asked to do so by an inaudible voice; lo and behold! There was a third bottle. Same color, make and size with the other two—it was also floating upside down!
The difference was that it was not making progress, just ‘standing’ there, with at least three quarters of it submerged in water, unlike the other two which were half submerged and seemed to be ‘swimming’ forward.
As I watched in horror, unwilling to believe the suggestion of the scenario, it sank a little further into the water, letting out bubbles of air that rolled along its sides to the surface as it popped up and down due to wave impact on it.
I gave a muffled cry of terror and gulped water as it all downed on me what was about to happen. I knew the third bottle represented somebody, and that person was going to sink—that person was going to die.
In the same moment a cry came from shore behind us, it was Julius. “Emma, Ghenemere, please, somebody help Monday, Monday is dying”.
I was drowning myself; I had lost control, suddenly my legs couldn’t swim. I cried and gulped water as we fought frantically for shore. I looked back and saw Bomboy raise his hands to heaven in a plea, looking up to God.
In our frenzy, I cannot tell whether we swam beyond the bottles that were ahead of us, whether they sank or whether they vanished; but I never saw them again.
I was almost at the other side when I sent a last glance to where the third bottle had been. It was still there, but almost totally submerged. It’s flat thick green bottom scarcely above water.
All the time Monday had been swimming on a straight course behind us, but now, he was simply afloat; motionless, just drifting with his arms partially spread out. He was floating off course to the left, as if to meet with that mysterious green bottle; his head was bent toward the floor, as if he was looking for something on the bed of the borrow pit.
All his body, including his face was now totally submerged. Only the back of his head showed above water. Same proportion of his body as that of the bottle above water, and I thought I saw bubbles of air whirl up from around his mouth region and drift to the surface through all sides of his face.
The irony of it all was that Monday did not struggle. He did not cry for help, he swam slowly and quietly and sank more slowly and even more quietly; he sank like an inanimate object. I have never heard such a story before that someone drowned in a river without yelling for help. Even if he was alone in an ocean where no one could hear, that cry of terror, that last minute desperate struggle to survive was invariably present for anyone, anything, above in heaven or below under the sea to come to his aid.
We were now on shore and gone ‘mad’ with wailing in severe agony. The clear voices of weeping children rang far and wide into the quiet of the morning.
Julius was nowhere to be found, Bomboy and Ufuoma were on the other side jumping and prancing widely as they wept uncontrollably. All “Shokopin” and other plants around me were lying prostrate as if they witnessed a fight between two large animals as I somersaulted, tumbled and rolled on them, severely wounding myself all over in a vehement protest to whosoever and whatsoever was making this expensive joke and was using me as the dramatist personae.
By now the water had swallowed all that were on it, humans and bottles, except the once that had come out of it. One by one people were running to the scene. Then I remembered The Bible. ‘Why not?’ “Call on me on the day of trouble and I shall be there for you” now I was in trouble like never before.
No time to waste. I banged my knees on the sticks and grass that were now lying flat on the floor in submission, I spread my hands to the sky with my eyes looking up to heaven as tears rolled fast from them and called God by every beautiful name I could remember, praised him wildly like I never did before and pleaded for immediate intervention. I needed it badly, I just wanted to see my friend, my brother rise up and swim to shore. I promised God that we will never try this kind of thing again.
Emma had been with me in prayers, we prayed hard but Monday did not surface; God didn’t hear us, at least he didn’t answer. For me, it was the first time I prayed for something and didn’t get it. For as long as Monday did not come out of the river, whether practically or mysteriously, I felt he did not answer; but maybe he answered imperceptibly, for three could have died instead of one, after all, there were three bottles.
By now people had gathered around the pit, many of the women were crying bitterly as if they knew us before the incidence. Women are always in sympathy with children no matter whose child it was, and I love them for this.
Well, I couldn’t stand the fact that my friend was down there below, dead or dying. I was always trusted for action, if God was not going to do something, I had better do something myself, I thought childishly. I was never known to resign to fate. I always did something even at the very last minute. I took a mad rush suddenly to the edge and dived forward into the water, disturbing its lethal serenity again. I knew where to look for my friend, I didn’t need anyone to tell me he was somewhere where I last saw the bottle; and that was where I headed.
As I got close to the point, I remembered my mother; she had once said “Never try to rescue a drowning man if you are not an expert. He is as strong as ten vexed lions and grips on unintelligently in his struggle for survival to any part of your body, including your throat. On many occasions, even expert rescuers died with their victims for, they were unluckily held at the wrong places”.
This time I almost drowned for real; the fear that gripped me on realizing that I could be held right now and drown with Monday paralyzed my muscles. I called out for help. I sank low, gulped water and came up several times until I struggled and clutched on to a hold on the side of the borrow pit. It was all a tragic drama. It was getting too late for a successful rescue operation I thought and roared in frustration.
Somehow, no one dared step into the water of all that came; they only wept and prayed with us, some scolding us for venturing out early in the day when we didn’t know how to swim.
Then two men came hurrying down “where did he drown? Stop crying and tell us where he drowned” saviors had come; I pointed towards where I knew he surely was. They both wore jeans shorts that reached down to their knees. They were about same age and generally looked alike.
“Will he still be alive” I asked. We were drained of energy and were scarcely able to weep any further.
“Wait until we bring him out” the one said to me and I thought there was a pessimistic edge to his voice. They walked briskly to the river approaching it from the gently sloping popular side.
As the one in front walked into the water, he drew up one leg from it and standing with the other, he twisted his body this way and that, staggered on one foot, bent low as he tried hard to regain balance more or less like someone under the influence of evil spirits, he snapped his fingers loudly and shouted. ‘Shegbelegbe’ his second stepped in did same and shouted: ‘Shogbologbo’ ‘shigbiligbi’ and ‘Shugbulugbu’ they chanted as they walked deeper into the water in the direction where I pointed.
My head expanded in horror so that it felt too big for my neck. Emma and I standing on the shore to where we had swum looked questioningly at each other in total disbelief. That was when I knew the game was up; nothing would save him now.
We cried like we never did before, sure that one of us, one moment was with us eating, drinking and chatting heartily, the next moment he was gone: Gone forever, never to be seen again. The sorrow that followed was unbearably painful.
I rebuked death for its lack of intelligence and cursed that borrow pit for detaining my friend till he died underneath. Thus, forever will its waters remain green and useless to man and animals until the new order of things to come.
We had little or no time to see the men rescue him dead or alive, for suddenly, like a crazy horse, a Toyota Kombi bus galloped and practically jumped through the bush and thickets to halt abruptly at the mouth of the borrow pit now crowded with people. Mrs. Obaro, Julius’s mother advanced like lightening from the passenger’s side. Her carefully done hair now all over her face, she looked like a tigress and walked like one. Her clothes ruffled and her eyes were already swollen and blood shot red. With her hands outstretched she half ran and half walked in our direction. From her lips came the words: “you should go and find my son for me!” you people must produce my son “where on earth is my son?”
I didn’t like the look on her face. We were terrified; now it was double trouble. With the expression on her face she could squeeze or drown any of us before she knew what she was doing. As she struggled among the surrounding bushes to get to us, almost running now in her haste, in one accord, we took to our heels fearing for our dear lives.
The other passengers that came with the bus were not known to me, there was no time to observe who they were but in the commotion that followed their arrival, I did spot Julius with the same pant he had on while standing side by side with Ufuoma as they watched us proceed, and Kingsley who owned the table tennis board; neighbor of the Obaros.
Within ten minutes, Julius achieved a feat I shall always remember. As he saw the helplessness of our situation, he took off at once in the direction home, bare footed and on pants alone; no taxi driver or clear thinking person would have admitted him into his car. Even by car, it would take a driver fifteen minutes to make a to and fro journey from the borrow pit. Taking into account that the motorable route was longer and the motor road in and out of Kolokolo was as bad as can ever be imagined. Believe me; the journey one way that took us 45 minutes took him ten minutes. All shame put aside, the girls and anyone who wanted to laugh could do so, and stark naked but for pants alone, Julius made the journey in ten minutes. Don’t ask me how he achieved it, I can only tell you that: When a man dies, not the man but his loved ones that truly died.
THE ACTUAL DEAD
The life of one man is more
Valuable than all the
Treasures of this
Earth put Together.
Completely overcome by fear, we ran, and running, left behind the scene at the borrow pit and what happened thereafter. Hence, we were not there when the body was removed from the water. Whether the mother did take a chase after us or not I cannot tell for, we fled as fast as we could, not looking back. Her action however suggested, as far as I was concerned, that we were guilty, that is, we were responsible for her son’s death. I can’t blame her. Her condition was past reasoning.
Three of us ran in the same direction: myself, Emagbo and Ufuoma, my immediate younger brother. Once we appeared on the Orhughworun road through the patch of rubber plantation separating it from the borrow pit, we headed right, away from the junction, which meant away from home. Somehow, we believed we were responsible and all we wanted was get away from home as much as possible, into the unknown and either take our lives or never to be seen again.
The road happened to be a long one. We all knew too well that one end of it connected the Udu road, but the other end, as far as we knew led to nowhere so we were satisfied to be in the right direction—to nowhere. We would never be found to be scolded, punished or called upon to recount what happened. I thought of my father and his warning that morning. One million canes would not be enough for this punishment. Well, the canes didn’t matter now; I would never be seen again in the first place.
Our running had unwillingly slowed to a walking pace; we weren’t crying but were too tired to even walk not to talk of running. It was past noon and the sun was burning hot. Other than the bread and water Monday bought us in the morning, none of us had eaten anything for that day.
We kept walking on the lonely tarred road burnt hot by the sun bare footed. After walking some more, as the road seemed not to be ending, we branched off the tarred road and sat on a big tree trunk by the road side.
“We should have gone to church” Ufuoma said, breaking the silence, I had nothing to say.
“Now we are in trouble. I wish I didn’t come to call you”
I wish I had gone with him. I thought to myself, not saying anything aloud.
“You keep getting me into trouble, if only I had left you alone I wouldn’t have been in this trouble now” his voice was shaky and scarcely beyond a whisper. His large eyeballs were red, swollen and bulging out. He sobbed a little as he said the last words. I was becoming guilty from every direction, even for Ufuoma’s participation.
“But it was Emma who asked me to help them with carrying the board. Do you think I didn’t want to go to church? I only went to call Julius” I tried to explain.
“I was going to buy sugar and tea when Monday said I should help him to set the board for a tutorial before others came. Do I normally join you in playing tennis”?
“What are we going to do now” Ufuoma asked, slapping the back of his right hand against the open palm of the left.
“Hmm!. Me, I am not going back to Kolokolo. I will never reach Kolokolo again in my life” Emma shook his head miserably as he said so, two drops of tears ran down his cheeks.
“How did you know”? I asked “that is just my plan. We sat quietly looking across the road to the opposite forest, each one of us deep in thought. Our only company being the wind and the burning sun.
“I heard once that this road leads to Lagos” Emma said breaking the silence again.
“Lagos”? I asked curiously.
“But I heard Lagos is far, far place”
“Yes, but that’s the idea I thought. We want to fade away to a far, far place where we shan’t be seen again is it not”? Well, if I knew a place further than Lagos, I would travel there. It is a pity that I don’t have any money but there could be someone to help. Otherwise I would walk as far as my feet could manage, even if I happen to die on the way that is all the better for me. If you are not coming I would do it alone, it does not matter.”
The idea was fascinating, Lagos! I had always heard of Lagos, we would be three to make the journey. Walking for days probably months, I know my decision would be well with Ufuoma. It sounded like the solution to our problem, a sure way out of the predicament.
In those days I thought of Lagos more as a myth; a far, far place in the midst of the unknown, probably out of this world. Lagos was associated with wealth. It was believed to be the land of the rich.
There are two fabled cities In Urhobo Folk tales: Benin City called Aka and Lagos called Eko. It was a status symbol to have been to Lagos and such one was generally considered a great traveler. As we grew up and improved in education, the mystery surrounding these two cities reduced somewhat; albeit, Lagos retained the respect of its distance.
“We will come with you” I said. “Please, if you know a place further than Lagos, don’t hesitate to tell us” I pleaded.
“When we reach Lagos we will ask”.
“But we don’t even know the way to Lagos” Ufuoma said. He had his chin resting in the cup formed with his two hands, his elbows balanced on his knees. He was known for few words.
“We will keep asking” Emma assured him, “there will be no way else, he added”
“Ghenemere, this place is not good, they could decide to come after us. Let’s walk to where ever the road ends then branch off this straight road. If at all we want to rest, we could rest there”
For a moment, my mind was taken off our troubles and was fully given to the distance to Lagos and how we were going to make it.
Emma had unpleasantly jolted back our ill fate. We got up reluctantly and continued to race away from the borrow pit and into the world for all we knew. The tarred road was unbearably hot now, too much energy had been expended without replenishment, we were terribly hungry but no one complained, our situation was past food; the grief of the episode was overwhelming. It was not long before we started walking again as the road came to an abrupt end where it met a highway each lane wide enough to take four cars with a wide, hand planted grass verge between them.
Here we became confounded, not knowing which way to go. There was no one to ask. All about the big roads on both sides was the pink of quietness. No cars passed, no houses to be seen. The hot sun was telling on us. One or two old women passed with worn out machete and bundles of sticks on their heads. They kept a good distance from us. I found it beyond me to run up to them and ask which direction it was to Lagos. Then suddenly, a car appeared from the left towards us along the lane on which we stood. It rushed past us at great speed to the right.
As if it decided for us, we turned and walked in that direction after it.
“Why have we chosen this direction?” Ufuoma asked.
“I believe this is the way to Lagos, see the speed with which that car passed, it must be heading for Lagos” it was the only way I could rationalize the decision.
It was an endless walk but we must not yield; we did not yield. We kept the walk on. Apart from “Shokopin” and the vast rubber plantations beyond them to the left and right of the high way, there was nothing else in sight. No houses, no cars, no humans, not even uncompleted structures. We were dogged, the sun bore mercilessly on us. We sat down at a corner and rested. None of us spoke. We just sat there with minds too full for words. The sun was now at a slight angle I guessed it was past 2pm.
My mind was pre-occupied with the death of Monday. Could I be dreaming? I asked myself. But why, I almost smiled, it could just be a dream and in the morning you will be telling the story to others. “But it can not be” I said this time aloud. I looked at Ufuoma in a heap on the sand and Emma shaking his head in that miserable fashion of his and thought I must be a fool to ever believe I will wake up from this and call it a dream.
I should have gone to church I said to myself. Why didn’t God prevent me from going to the tennis board? Why didn’t I die instead? If that had happened I would be at rest now and someone else would be the one to contend with this tragedy. The questions came in their thousands in quick succession. Not until a drop fell on my lap that I realized I was crying again.
I wiped my face with the back of my hand, got up and we trekked again for half an hour and came to where the Udu road itself crossed the highway. I recognized it immediately; I had been there before. For a moment I fondled with the thought of heading home to Ogbe-udu, it was as easy as crossing the highway at this point and continuing straight on. But I quickly decided against it, my village was the first place my father would think of looking for me. On and on we marched, hunger and tiredness were now on the rampage. Our feet were so cooked I didn’t feel mine on impact any longer as I stamped them continuously on the ground, the vein at the back of my legs threatened to burst out of their surrounding tissues.
Suddenly Emmagbo collapsed on to the grass verge and began to weep bitterly. It all started again. To remember that Monday was dead plunged us back into the scene at the borrow pit. We all sat down and wept variously. Some voices too week now to be heard.
A heavy wind began, and blew sand all about us making it difficult to see. We forgot our sorrow for a moment, scrambled up and ran alongside the road in search of whatever could afford us cover, screening our faces with our hands to prevent particles of sand going into our eyes. We had been walking for about an hour when Emma asked suddenly as if speaking to himself, “what could be happening in Kolokolo now?
“How can we know”? Answered Ufuoma with question.
“The story must have gone round” I told them.
“Wait. Do you mean to say Monday is dead really”? Ufuoma asked again.
“I don’t think so” I replied hoping against hope. If he is dead what are we going to do”?
“I don’t know. May be they fished him out shortly after we left and resuscitated him, I said with a new meaning in my voice, some hope beginning to return. The possibility flashed through my mind. I had heard of people fished out of water and brought back to live by some mechanical methods. Someone said once in a story that people who drowned could be made to live again by exerting pressure on their stomach, to release the water they had drunk through their mouths, nostrils, anus and ears. On another occasion, I heard the water could be expelled by hanging the drowned one upside down, by tying the feet of the person to one end of a long pole and then standing the pole vertically afterwards. The water was said to run down their nostrils and mouth, some breathed afterwards when relived from the hanging position. For the more severe cases, artificial respiration was applied. But both hopes depended on whether the person was brought out of the water on time.
But then how long was on time? He was still under water for the fifteen minutes or so that we rallied around the borrow pit in agonized desperation before we fled, was that too much time already, or was that within time for survival? I was getting excited and confused. Excited at the possibility that he was fished out, revived and rushed to the hospital in which case our predicament will only be a small fraction of what we fear it was, and confused at the possibility that it might have taken them long afterwards to find and bring him out. Who knows? They might even still be searching for him, in which case he would be very dead and our troubles would be real and present.
But I have to be optimistic I thought and brightened a little. Why? We could just walk into Kolokolo to hear the good news that he was recovering in a hospital; after all our prayers had been sincere and most earnest.
“Emma, do you know Monday could be alive”?
“May be they fished him out and revived him”
“Is that possible”? Ufuoma asked. I saw the unmistakable expression of hope that swept across his face as he looked up for an assuring answer.
“You know that it is possible to fish out someone from water and still have him breathing or make him breathe again”?
“It’s true! Ufuoma confirmed” I have heard such thing before” he added with more hope than myself who brought up the theory.
“But that depends on how long the victim stayed under water” Emma observed unpleasantly but rather intelligently.
“But how long is too long”? I asked him.
“I don’t know, but I just think he stayed too long to survive.”
“Have you ever imagined he might have been brought out of the pool just after we left”?
“Do you think it is possible for a human being to remain under water for the length of time we were there and still be alive?”
“He could be revived I said” and added “have you ever drowned”? That kept him quiet. I knew myself that the possibility was more like a shot in the Dark. The shock of the death of a loved one had apparently derailed my objective mind. Any theory was reasonable and welcome as long as it implied Monday could be alive.
It was not long before we saw a big opening beyond the forest on the right hand side of the road; we hastened our paces and after fifteen minutes of fast walking, came to a seemingly endless portion of land devoid of trees. The end of it along the road ahead of us was in sight; the same mixture of rubber plantation and tropical wetland vegetation seemed to continue ahead but the extent of it inwards to our right was not in sight. The highway ended there and continued thereafter as a country road. The expanse of land was fenced from the road with a see-through kind of fence made of un-barbed wire running its entire length along the road. In the middle of the area was a gigantic structure built like a warehouse. All about it were metal pipes of different sizes, lengths and capacities, welded together at various angles, heights and distances in different directions. It was the complex work of iron usually noticed around big industries. Conveyor belts could be seen amidst the work of iron running together at some points and variously at others. A thick black smoke emanated in slow unwinding coils somewhere behind the factory house.
There was a multi-storied building to the left of the factory structure; it was closer to the road in proximity from where we stood in awe.
It was the office block, from where the place was managed. There were other small buildings, warehouses and factories scattered over the premises. The place was quiet except for a constant humming sound coming from some of the conveyor belts in motion. A small, tarred road ran from around the middle of the building to end up at a gate positioned about the middle of the fence, it opens unto the high way, which came to an abrupt end about that point in a confusing circle.
I realized we had unintentionally found our way to a place I had always had of; the reason for the network of roads and bridges in the middle of the Udu clan: the multi-billion dollar Delta Steel Complex.
Our predicament vanished for a while as we stood awe-struck at the seemingly meaningless haze of metal works occupying this vast expanse of land in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forests except for the behind, where we knew not what bordered it. Though I was aware that somewhere in that direction, maybe far, far behind, would be the Udu River.
A cool breeze swept past us in the direction of the steal company, the thick black smoke expanded a little and seemed to change its course. It refreshed our thirsty throats somewhat but brought to mind again our tragedy. It reminded us that evening was approaching; we had to move on. Our Lagos high way had vanished before our eyes at the entrance of the company. For a moment we were confused, not sure what to do next.
Emma finally said he knew where we were. “Aladja village is somewhere in front, I know it. If we follow the road ahead we will arrive there.
“Aren’t we going to Lagos anymore? Aladja is not far from Warri, if we go there they will soon find us out.”
“But Lagos seems to be in the opposite direction. We have chosen the wrong way. You know how far we have come, to trace it back and continue onward to Lagos will be too tiresome.”
“I prefer to go to Aladja than Lagos, maybe we could find something to eat there. I am hungry” Emmagbo said and looked as if he would faint any minute. “I know a couple of friends who work as boatmen faring people to Warri from Aladja water side, they could house us if I ask them and they will surely give us food”
That seemed to be hope, and with a new meaning, we resumed to trek again. The small road to Aladja village from the company was dark, shaded almost entirely by wide-leaf tropical wetland plants. They virtually rose from the sides of the road. The low land on both sides was wet and marshy. The sun resumed its punishment on us as we left the part of the road shaded by trees. Far ahead we saw the road end in a small bush. Emma said there is a road at that point, which led through the center of Aladja village. We were so tired we both walked and lurched.
The first villagers that passed us on their way back from farm noticed we were in some kind of trouble.
“These boys look so tired and hungry,” remarked the woman in front carrying a basin of cassava supported with one hand, the other hand with which she led a little girl.
“They are not from this village. It’s like they have been walking for a long time” said her companion carrying but only a bunch of wood.
“The one in front looks like he’s been crying”, the first woman said referring to me.
“Something is wrong with these kids”. Her colleague added.
“Well, who is it that is not in one kind of trouble at one time or the other, everyone has to bear their own troubles this days”.
Well, true enough, but they were lucky not to be in our kind of trouble. They spoke native Udu and we understood all. We trailed loosely behind the women, our stomach flat and dry, until we branched off the road leading to the waterside.
“Please, I am looking for some Ukpiovwin boys, they are boatmen here”. Emma demanded off a trader who was reluctantly parking her wares amidst complaints that the trade on Sundays was always bad.
“I don’t think you want to find your friends if you ask off me when you could easily walk to the water side and ask among the boatmen themselves.” She did not know why Emma deliberately avoided the site of the river.
We had resolved never to see a river again in our lives. We had planned to remain behind the blocks of buildings that served as the market behind which was the Aladja River.
I almost jumped out of my skin at the sight of the wide river. The market, hence the water side, was situated at a point way down the Udu river, far from the Udu bridge, where it splits in its course towards the sea and indeed, the Atlantic Ocean. Each strand, as wide as the Udu River itself, flows variously: one through the Warri main market; the other through a network of Urhobo and Ijaw villages, splitting continuously as is approaches the Ocean.
A steady wind was in prevalence, causing pockets of turbulence on the surface of the water anywhere away from shore and creating small waves that ran from the expanse and flapped repeatedly at the shore. The few boats and canoes moored along the shore rocked in a to-and-fro movement as they threatened to drift off with the mass of receding water, the by-product and potential of each waveform leveled on shore.
Evening had come and with it came a different weather. As the wind increased intensity, masses of cloud hurried over the sky and ‘arrested’ the dying sun in no time. They seemed to be produced in the east and directed westwards. The few passengers, traders and boatmen hurried about their chores in anticipation of a heavy rain.
My mind seemed to come alive in a whirlwind of secret, fearful and rather mysterious activities bothering on the event of the morning at the sight of the River. The small blotting effect the little time and distance between the place and the vent of the morning had done on my memory had been erased completely.
“Water is water anywhere, yes, water”. I seem to say to myself, as I walked slowly but steadily towards the river. “Monday, just swim to shore. I said. I could help you out if only you can come a little closer”. Then I saw his head, only the back of his head as he seemed to look downwards, towards the bed of the Aladja river with bubbles of air running through the sides of his face to the surface, and I made forward to help him—I had lost my mind!
I remember strong arms pulled me violently back few meters from the river; the voices I heard afterwards were faint and distant, they even became fainter and more distant as I drifted into the Abyss of faintness. And for the first time ever, my very strong and resilient mind was completely overtaken by a combination of shock, agony and sorrow.
“They won’t be able to eat anything’ A voice was saying, it was the voice of a man.
“Some food could help them in this condition” another voice said. ’They look so tired and hungry, it continued.” It was the voice of an elderly woman.
I came round to find I was wet through; there were three bottles of soft drinks and three loaves of bread on a small square table set in the middle of the little room. Three men and an old woman were sitting on benches placed near both side walls, sitting among them, one opposite the other was Emma and Ufuoma.
“Sorry” the old woman greeted me as I sat up “Do you have to kill yourself because your friend drowned in a river?
“It is quite hard to withstand that kind of grief at their age” the man sitting close to Emma said trying to console him as he told the remaining part of our tale in tears.
One of Emma’s friends had recognized him as we approached the waterside. One look at his face and the fellow sensed something was very wrong. I had headed for the river as they prodded Emma for information. But Ufuoma seemed to read my intention and before Emma could tell anything, he made public our situation by broking into a frantic cry for help as my pace quickened towards the river. In confusion Emma’s friend and his master abandoned them and ran after me. They brought my limp body to the small room that served the Aladja river transport officials for an office where people converged and Emma subsequently told the story.
We were attended with much pity and sympathy when he finished telling the story. One of the men recounted how he lost his best friend once in a boat mishap. He told of the grief and sorrow he experienced. Even as a full-grown man, he said it was a long time before he could overcome the shock that followed the event.
“But I don’t understand” a man said from the doorway. “Orhughworun junction is not far from Kolokolo, you should have gone home through that route”.
“We cannot go home” we said almost at once.
“But why”? Asked the old woman.
There was a short silence, as none of us knew exactly why. “We should have gone to church but we didn’t and now somebody has died” I said and wept as I imagined the solemn mood of sorrow that will hang over the air in Kolokolo for many days.
“No we can’t stand it” Emma said as if he read my thoughts.
Then everyone began to speak at the same time. “Please go home!” “They are only but children!” “See the suffering they have brought upon themselves when they could easily have walked home!” and many more.
“Silence, please”. One of the men said.
“you will go home” another man in the house said quietly with an elderly air.” You see, your parents are not going to punish you further. What you have seen today is a lifetime experience, it is more than punishment in itself, you people look so be grieved that anyone could easily tell what you are passing through. Not only that, your parents will be looking for you already. You will be causing more confusion if you refuse to go back home. They won’t be sure what has happened to you”.
Unknown to him, he was actually describing my mother’s condition. Not until she set her eyes on her two sons, no amount of assurances, even from eye witnesses will convince her that they did not drawn or were safe wherever they were.
“We will assist you to get home” the quiet speaking one continued.
We were partly compelled and partly persuaded to return home with a mild and subtle threat that no one will allow us to stay in Aladja when they know our parents are falling over themselves for our sake at home.
“But can they still walk that distance home from main market?” asked the old woman with that characteristic sympathy that belong only to women.
“That’s no problem,” The boss of Emma’s friend said. “I will provide something for them to take a taxi home.”
“But will that be enough”? Another woman asked from among the people at the door mouth. ”An elderly person will have to be in the boat.
“At least two men.” said another. “This one is ready to do something stupid” she said pointing at me. He—
“No, not at all,” the man sitting beside Emma on the bench cut in. “We have explained to them the need to go home, and they have agreed.” He imposed. “Why should he do such thing? They are not the first people to experience this sort of thing; they will get over it in time”
He spoke wisely, and was wise enough to be one of the two men who escorted us on the boat journey to warri, the other being the boss of Emma’s friend.
As we climbed into the small speedboat, I noticed the clouds had dispersed and the rain did not fall after all. It was about 5pm judging from the angle and color of the sun as it glimmers gold on the surface of the river.
Emma’s town boy set the engine on reverse and we drifted backwards into the river. The experience was too much for us. A few hours before, we had sworn never to see a river again, now we were being made to travel through one, just hours after what had happened that morning. It was a bad idea I thought: to have allowed anyone to convince me to travel in a tiny boat like this, was surly a mistake. We trembled; Ufuoma’s mouth fell open as he clutched on the bench on which he sat, his knuckles turning white and bulging. My heartbeat could be felt meters away; I looked frantically to the left and right in fear. Emma knew better, he cast his gaze to the floor of the boat and remained like that.
As the boat made a semi-circular turn preparatory to setting out, the men thought it better for us to sit on the floor rather than on benches from where we could see the river. We did and promptly shot our eyes.
I loved to travel in boats, more so, motor powered speedboats. I had cherished every experience in one of these machines during some of my many risky journeys as a child into the wild and confusing network of the Delta Rivers, many of them unknown to my parents. I had even been through the Aladja River before on one of these journeys. It was like me to jump into any speedboat setting out from the Warri main market when I hawked cold water and soft drinks for my mother at the waterside, never minding where the boat was traveling and if or not it was coming back to Warri same day. The trick was, while one traveler thought I was the child of the other, the other would be thinking I was the child of another or of the driver.
There were times when I got into trouble. On one occasion, a driver threatened to throw me into the river, deep in the creeks of the Delta, far away from Warri. He said the crocodiles living among the mangroves would love my flesh. He was not ready to reverse and burn fuel back to Warri because of a stupid boy crazy enough to have slipped on board. He was traveling very far and wasn’t to return until three days later.
Now, once we were well seated on the floor of the boat, its nose pointed in the right direction, the engines came alive. We were pulled forward with a drag similar to that experienced by aircraft passengers during take off. Apart from the drone of the engines, the only other sound that came to us was the splashing of water as it formed wide circular sheets beginning from the curved bottom of the boat, which was hardly in contact with the water surface, they formed into glassy circular sheets by the sides of the boat, and touched back on the water few meters from boat. The impression was like a beautiful fountain of water. I wasn’t looking at it but I knew it. I was too used to it, only today I was not impressed.
Meanwhile, with everything shut out of sight and every sound shut out of hearing by the drone of the engines, I was engrossed in a fervent prayer for God to forgive me for swearing just hours ago that we would never be in a river no matter what again.
I opened my eyes after the short prayer and looked up in time to catch a glimpse of the fountain of water. We had passed the wider part of the river and were not far from our destination. The boat had reduced speed; we glided along slowly. The distance from Aladja village to Aladja waterside along the Warri main market river was only about five minutes on a speedboat. We sat up on the benches again as we made to berth.
We stepped out of the speedboat; the remaining occupants made a last plea for us to head straight home. We gave our word that we would, and thank them profusely for their kindness as they handed us a currency note and drifted backwards for a return journey to Aladja.
The clouds were at it again. This time, they made good their threat. The skies winked every now and then followed by deafening rumblings of thunder. I looked up to see the eastern sky that produced the clouds had turned dark grey and was fast spreading over. There was no doubt a very heavy rain was imminent.
We ran through the Mc Iver market road largely devoid of its teeming population. Everyone in sight was running in one direction or the other. A very cold wind blew about, threatening to lift every thing and everybody off and away. We had no shirts on and felt very cold as the evening quickly turned night by the activities of the eastern clouds that had now totally occupied the heavens. We ran as much as our remaining energy could manage in the direction where we could board a taxi had not reached the point before the rain started.
First it was a staccato of ice pebbles that drove everyone else except us under shelter, breaking vehicle windscreens and windowpanes. They stung us from all sides. They were very painful in the cold weather. All vehicles were off the road and parked as much as possible under shelter so that the road was deserted when we arrived. It went on like that for a few minutes then stopped abruptly. We decided to walk until we found a taxi. The soil was hardly wet after that horrendous rain of ice; the lightening and rumbling continued however.
It started all at once. The raindrops were large and spaced from each other. They stung our bare skin on impact and blinded us. They were very painful and came harder as we tried to endure and keep on the march. Soon it was more than we could take. We ran for cover under a make shift store built with sheets of zinc on the side of the road. A few others had taken shelter there too. Instead of receding, the rain started in earnest. The floodgates of heaven seemed to have broken lose; it ‘rained hail and brimstones’! Large drops of rain tightly packed poured down to the Earth in a torrent so heavy that I was forced to think of the great flood of the days of Noah described in the Bible. Accompanied by heavy winds and thunder, it raged on endlessly. We watched on from where we were sheltered completely wet and cold, as it shook makeshift stores standing on the sides of the road. A small kiosk placed on the roadside for selling cigarettes crept to the middle of the motorway all by itself under the force of the accompanying winds. We were as wet as we would be standing directly under the rain.
“Is there any use standing here”? I shouted to Emmagbo who was standing right by me.
“Hmm?” He replied, not hearing what I had said. I too did not hear him but read his countenance. I knew it was no use; the sound of the rain on rooftops was so deafening it was not possible to hear each other. Worse still, my voice had been reduced to a mere shadow of what it used to be from over use.
“We are wet” I tried again.
For a response, he came closer to me, put his ear close to my mouth for a repeat of what I had just said. I was about to shout into his eardrum when the roof under which we sheltered flew backwards and banged heavily with a thunderous crash against the roof of the building out of which it projected.
We ran into the heavy rain scarcely seeing beyond two meters ahead of us. There were no cars on the road; all windows and doors in sight were tightly shut. We went along the middle of the road as it was not possible to tell where the drainages which were now flooded and flowed unto the roads were. On and on it poured, and on and on we marched. It was one of the heaviest downpours I have ever witnessed in my whole life.
Normally when it rained in torrents like that, I refused to go into it for one reason. In Warri, like in all other towns on the national electric grid in Nigeria, the network of wires supplying the individual buildings is not underground, they hung loosely and haphazardly overhead, suspended by badly erected and sometimes very old wooden poles on the sides of the roads. To make maters worse, the wires are naked, that is, they were not insulated. Not even the very dangerous high-tension wires carrying current between transformers and supply stations.
There were many instances of naked wires snapping and dropping on commuters beneath, burning them to death instantly. In many other cases, which were more common, heavy rains brought down un-insulated wires, electrifying pools of water bellow, which electrocuted unsuspecting pedestrians. In the height of the raining season, it was no news that electricity killed somebody in Warri. Hence I was very careful with pools of water during or after torrential rains.
But not on that day; I was beyond caring, nothing mattered now. We waded through pools of running water where they crossed the road. The spirit was: let’s get home and face whatever is coming.
The rain receded slowly but constantly as we marched for Enerhen junction; it had stopped completely when we got there. We had to wade through the pool of water that was invariably the case after a heavy downpour at Enerhen junction. Slowly and one by one, people were appearing on the roads again. It is no use to mention how weak and tired we were now. We had caught cold in the rain. We trembled like leaves in a soft wind. My teeth cracked against each other making a constant crackling sound. Bent forward with hands folded against our chest in front of us, we made for Enerhen motel, on our way to second kolokolo, dragging each foot with great effort.
We walked hesitantly in spite of ourselves towards home. After all our plans to head out of sight for ever, never to be seen again and never to have to face the aftermath of the gory incident, here we were walking back to kolokolo, looking vacantly ahead, not knowing what to expect. It unnerved us. It was like walking back to the borrow pit. The fullest impact of what had happened hit us again, but we could not cry now, we were finished! It was almost a miracle that we were able to walk home. Every bit of energy was sapped; my stomach touched my backbone in emptiness, yet we dragged on. The sorrow increased drastically as we turned onto the Udu road and began to see familiar faces. Night was falling but it would still take another forty-five minutes before day dark, it will not be more than ten minutes before we were home. Briefly, I recalled how I got myself into this trouble. I regretted absolutely whatever made me not to go to church that morning. Finally, I decided to rest my mind on the hope that Monday was possibly rescued on time and was probably recovering in hospital. We branched into first kolokolo, which was the only entrance then; the estate gate had been closed permanently following the vacation of all its occupants.
Ogushi, the wag, was hurrying out as we did so. He gave a steady look at us and hurried on, not uttering a word. My hope increased, I gained a little energy. Why? If Monday was dead, at least Ogushi of all people will know and will not walk away without torturing us a little with our misfortune. He would at least utter a reproachful remark. But he didn’t. It was more likely now that nothing of such happened.
The cold was overwhelming, more so, without a shirt on and the only cloth on us wet. I pulled my partners in misery to a corner and announced to them in a guttural voice that I didn’t want to go home. I had caught real cold and felt sick.
“But we are here already” Emma said. His voice was also dead but it was better than mine.
“I mean I don’t want to go to our compound” someone who lived in our compound, one of my father’s tenants, was approaching; we edged further into the corner and looked away so as not to be recognized.
“I will go home.” Emma said.
“What about if we go and hide in Ogwunone, the football pitch sized land space in front of my father’s house occupied by few palm trees, cassava farms and thick bushes.
“We will still be found out”
“No. You see, night is falling, in another fifteen minutes it will be dark.”
“What will we be doing there”? Asked Emmagbo, that one defeated me.
“Let’s just go and hide there” I said, not knowing any answer to that disarming question.
“I don’t mind, I want to go home. I will just go home” it was Ufuoma speaking his mind now. Well, they both were resolved to go home. It won’t make any difference if I stayed behind. We walked back to the road and headed home.
As we were about to branch unto the footpath that ran through the estate to our house, we saw Apam, an Ijaw youth in the area, friend and old classmate of mine. One look at us, and his mouth fell open in a gasp.
“God! What happened to you?” he said rather than asked. I looked vacantly at him, my senses dulled by the powerful combination of tiredness, hunger, cold, shock and grief—everything. And then he asked the question. “Are you among those who went to swim with Monday who died at the borrow pit?
That was it, thrown at our faces. Stunned beyond description, my legs could not support me any more. I almost sat on the wet sand in utter shock and disbelief; my whole body quacked to my toes. My mouth fell open—something that never happens to me—as I gazed back at him with vacant eyes. All my hopes had evaporated in a flash. So it was true, the truth that I had feared, confirmed. There was neither voice nor energy to cry with, the tears just flowed recklessly.
“Sorry, sorry” he added quickly. We turned on to the footpath and walked towards home, sobbing silently and very miserably; the day was almost dark now. Apam’s remarks had dashed our hope of a possible mild reception at kolokolo. He seemed to have told us that Monday was very dead, the news everywhere and that we were in big trouble. .
We climbed over the small wall that separated the estate from the Ogwunone as a fence, walked through an open cassava farm and sat among plantain trees in a small plantain plantation owned by my mother just at the beginning of the Ogwunone farmlands, not far from my father’s building. We sat on the rain soaked loamy soil, rested our backs against plantain stems and wept. I was sure now that I was not only plagued by the utter heartbreak of the tragedy; the Malaria string in my blood stream had also been activated.
Usually, the residents of makeshift structures and uncompleted buildings go to toilet in nearby bushes close to their abodes. The Ogwunone served among other purposes as one big toilet for the many residents of the area. It was also a hideout for criminals and Indian hemp users.
It wasn’t to be long before we were found out. An old woman returning from an unspecified mission to the farmland saw us huddled together, backs against plantain stems, shivering in the evening cold. She knew at once we were the missing boys.
Word had gone round that three of us were missing after the incident, it was hoped we would return before evening and my mother who had gone berserk had been consoled to keep calm until evening came. By the time night was falling and we had not returned, excitement had risen high. My mother was almost ‘sure’ the truth of what happened at the borrow pit had been hidden from her and was getting uncontrollable. Someone had been sent to the village to see if we went there. The old woman delivered the news of our where about before the situation was to assume an intractable turn.
A commotion of voices began at the compound. The voices grew louder and anxious as they approached our hiding. Tenants and well wishers were demanding in various tones: “Why should they be running away?” “Why the hiding to put people in fear”? My mother was in the lead. She spoke Udu as she called out in the direction of the small cluster of plantain trees. “Please, I beg you to come home. Please don’t run away no one is going to beat you” I noticed she was trying very hard to suppress a sob.
I didn’t make to run for two reasons: first, I didn’t want her to cry. Second, there was just no energy left to even stand up from the position, more so, to move. We were partly carried and partly supported home. We sat on the floor in my mother’s single room. The dull yellowish bulb in the center of the ceiling glowed hesitantly. I drew my knees to my chin and folded my hand around my legs. My knees banged against each other as I shivered from the cold and feverish feeling occasioned by the rain. Ufuoma crept on to the small leather sofa in the room and stretched out. We were very pitied. Indeed, we were more dead than the dead. We had seen and been through a whole day of painful tragedy and stress. We had seen a dear friend die slowly before our very eyes. The shock of it was of no mean extent. The constant sparkle in my eyes that foretold how quick and reckless I could be was replaced by a dull meaningless glow. According to friends, my face was a mask; the sight of every one who came into the room frightened me. I do remember that my mind was also very jumpy. My father was asked to stay out of sight and out of hearing. We were in a great state of shock and didn’t need any further disturbance.
A mat was spread out on the floor and I stretched on it. My mother didn’t like our condition; she covered us with wrappers and kept inspecting us every minute.
“Have they eaten something”? I heard my father ask my elder sister outside.
“Your father is not going to beat you” My mother said quickly, she knew I heard the voice.
“James, I say leave where these kids are, you don’t know their condition, if you see them you won’t believe your eyes.” Fuafugo, my father’s best friend said. He had called on hearing that my father’s two sons had not been seen after the incident.
“But it’s only because they wouldn’t heed my instructions” he said in a soft miserable tone that suggested even the very critical James Orugbo was concerned. I listened to the sound of their receding feet as they walked away to my father’s living room.
Then a shout! “Ufuoma! Ufuoma!!” My mother called as if he was miles away. “Help! Help!!” Ufuoma is dying.
Fuafugo, a very fat man and my father tried to get through the small door at the same time. They got stuck for up to a minute while my mother went wild around the room. I crept to a corner and watched helplessly as they tried their traditional African first aid.
In a moment the room was crowded with men and women, some folding his legs as he seemed to be trying to stretch them, others forced a spoon through his teeth, which he seemed to be trying to close. They flogged him with various painful objects until he cried out for mercy; then they sat him upright, his mouth region badly bruised. Occasionally the black of his eyes will threaten to roll up into his head; then they would slap his jaw sharply and call his name loud.
My mother kept crying and begging him to pity. The little room gave up the crowd one by one as his condition seemed to stable. Later on, hot tea was suggested; we drank a little and tried to sleep after a warm bath. Since we were brought home, no one had spoken directly to us or said something that demanded a direct response from us with respect to the death at the borrow pit. We simply could not speak and did not speak. Now my mother was trying to pick a line with me. My other brothers and sisters squatting at different positions, some on the single armchair, everyone soaked in sadness.
“They said you jumped back into the borrow pit to try to save him?” I didn’t say anything. I knew what she was insinuating. “Do you know how to save a drowning person?” She did not finish before tears started running down my cheeks again. She had unpleasantly dragged my mind to the middle of the incident, the most touching part of it all. I saw the green stagnant water; I saw me drowning and struggling to get to safety amidst cries for help.
“You were told not to bother their minds with it” said sister Patience, my mother’s eldest child. “Why are you asking him this now?”
“He is crying again” Eric said, himself almost crying. Indeed he had cried all day long since he came back from church and was told what had happened. Most Kolokolo boys wept, refused to eat and stayed indoors. The Sunday was bad for us all.
“Sleep, my dear, do try to sleep. I won’t ask you anything about it” said my mother after a brief moment. Everyone else, including my father and Ufuoma managed to sleep. I shouted Mama! Mama!! In my sleep until I sat upright, sweating and shivering. Mama was right by my side, wide awake.
“What is it?” she demanded but I didn’t know what it was either. I would be awake for the rest of the night. As for mum, there was no sleeping at all. That is the African woman for you! Her child’s problem is bigger than any other problem anywhere in the whole world, and is exclusively her problem.
Next day my mother didn’t go to the market, she stayed and nursed us all through the day. Ufuoma could eat a trifle; for me, the malaria fever as usual, had tampered with my appetite. For the subsequent days, fever was treated vigorously, and no reference was made to the incident; we got better.
It was more peaceful to be the one that died rather Than a survivor after The death of a Loved one
It was a month now since Monday died. The effect of time on memory was considerable, life had to continue and it did. As for me, any other kind of fun was okay except the one: swimming. I responded with a shock at the sight or mere mention of a river or any big pool of water; my thought would go reeling back to that unwholesome incident. I had to stay back and be alone in the area when others went for a swim. I gave one flimsy excuse or the other for not wanting to, but they knew better.
Whenever I had something to do that took me after the bridge, I will be careful not to venture close to Orhughworun junction, more so, the borrow pit. The matter was never mentioned when we sat together to crack jokes or tell stories, not even by the most intrepid of us like Ogushi. Surely, I wasn’t going to be the one to talk about it. But when ever we sat for our usual late night story telling, we invariably felt their absence of the two—Monday and Julius Obaro.
That Sunday morning was the last time I ever saw Julius. According to sources, it was the day their father had planned they would move to his new house. The opening ceremony of which was also slated for that same day the first son of the family died. Even if you would call this a coincidence, considering the other signs and wonders of that day, I call it ‘Night engineering’.
The whole family traveled home with their dead and mourned in unquantifiable grief on a day when they were supposed to be celebrating the completion of their new house; they did not come back to Kolokolo.
The journey to and from school was not much fun after Julius left. I felt lonely always, and it reminded me of the simultaneous absence of two great friends. We decided where to go together when we didn’t want to go to school. We roamed about the premises together sharing whatever we bought during break periods on the days we went. To look for another close pall at school, and getting used to someone else, was a painful exercise.
Kamma became my only close friend both at school and at home after the exit of Julius and Idongesit.
Emmagbo also left Kolokolo to far away Ibiamma in river state after a tragically unsuccessful send-off party at the end of his apprenticeship as a roadside mechanic. We were growing up, times and things were changing.
Kingsley was also to leave the area some months later. His father’s car hire business had boomed and their family, with the flock of beautiful young girls had moved to their own building, a single story structure at Okumagba lay out, more or less like the one they shared with the Obaros as neighbours. He was the only youth from the area to witness what happened thereafter at the borrow pit. He had this attitude of joking with practically everything, no matter how serious.
He had a chat with me once when he visited Kolokolo; he did so on several occasions after they left. He said to me as we were gathered in front of one of the bungalows in the Estate near my father’s house, watching the much younger ones slug it out in a mini football match between our layout and another.
“But Ghenemere I didn’t know you could vanish”, I did not understand him.
“You disappeared in the twinkle of an eye” he said with a sneer. I was still confused.
“You should have been there when they brought his body out of the water, he said at last. Then I was ‘plugged’ in. it was now three months after the incident and the first time I was being intimated of what happened after we ‘disappeared’ according to Kingsley. I didn’t like being regulated into a sad mood but I was also interested in knowing what did happen after, especially first hand from the one person fortunate to be placed in the capacity to dish out that quality of information.
“Hem, yes, where did they find him”? I asked unconsciously lowering my voice not wanting to kindle anyone else’s interest. I didn’t want it discussed in detail. I knew no one else, may be only Emmagbo, who was then in the last year of his apprenticeship knew that the event of that Sunday was more than a death at a borrow pit. I didn’t want to have to tell them.
“It took no time to find him Kingsley said gesturing with his hands and smiling as though he was talking about a smashed table tennis ball.
“But where did they find him? I pressed, knowing without doubt where they surely found him.
His description of the spot was in harmony with my imagination. “But you needed to see the display the parents put up at the borrow pit” he went on to try to describe how the mother took the place to pieces in anguish and his father all but somersaulted several times to land head first or any other part of his body, in his sorrowful attempt to ‘travel’ with his son.
According to Kingsley who claimed to have traveled with them for the burial, the mother refused to drink water insisting that water must kill her along with her son, and that throughout that Sunday and the subsequent two days or so he was with them, despite all entreaties from friends and relatives, she had still not touched or drank water till he left.
The story of the death of Monday Obaro will never be less than sorrow and pity. Surely, the immediate family would be tormented more than anyone else. It wasn’t to be too long before a similar incident happened again in Kolokolo, this time the ’Abanga” family would grieve.
‘Abanga’ was a plumy dark Urhobo woman who lived with her husband and children towards the end of first Kolokolo. They occupied a building adjacent to the one Bomboy lived with his mother. Among other things, Abanga was cheerful, good natured and very generous. Her small business was hawking hot rice prepared from palm kernel source locally called ‘Banga,’ hence, her delicacy was called ‘Banga rice’ and her nick name ‘Abanga’.
In the quiet of the hot afternoon she would hail; ‘Abanga’ which was a call out to customers indicating her presence. She would move from street to street till she covered the area and then move on to another area to dispose off whatever was left if anything. She was a great friend of ours and we were her best customers. She even gave credit facilities to us and yours truly was probably her best customer on credit bases.
One hot, quiet afternoon, the news sped through the air of an unfortunate event. What was it? Abanga’s only son, a much younger youth; at least two years below my age group, in the company of others including Bomboy, had gone to swim under the Udu Bridge and had died. It was a hard, searing news that dampened everyone’s happiness for the day. He had not drowned; his skull had been smashed to pieces by a heavy steel pipe of about 30m length, 1m radius and weighing at least 200 tones. The pipes, Stacked into a pyramid on the side of the bridge under it, were a remnant of the materials used in the construction of the pillars.
It was not clear what unsettled their long time balance causing them to tumble downwards with one of them eventually smearing the young man’s brains against the one on which he was resting under the sun after a swim.
The first reaction that ran through my mind was: “Thank God I am not among this time” the boy was not among our playmate, but there were times when we mingled as one. For instance the younger ones were invariably present during inter area football matches and many other events; they ran errands and gave support in many ways so that the death also meant a great loss to us. I pitied Abanga. Her happiness was blown away with the wind. She suddenly became older than her age.
What about Bomboy? I knew better. It was more peaceful to be the one that died rather than a survivor after the death of a close friend. He was involved in a first. The grief had scarcely subsided when he had renewed it with the death of another. I could imagine his state of mind. I wasn’t any better. The news, one way or the other brought me in mind of what happened six months ago.
The night suited the mood. Neither the moon nor the stars showed up. We were neither those that made things happen nor those that watched things happen: we wondered what happened. We gathered in front of an uncompleted building adjacent to one of the buildings that adjoined my father’s at the back. Except for those that had left the area, every other youth in first kolokolo was present. In the dark of the night we discussed what had happened that day in fear.
’Abanga’s only son; ’what a pity; ‘poor woman’ every one made their own sympathetic remarks in sober moods. I kept quiet, having been driven back to the day I saw green waters. We felt insecure. Anyone of us was vulnerable; death seem to have no order, no forewarning. The other day it was Monday, today its Abanga’s son. Tomorrow who? The fear of the unknown hung in the air so much that one could not but as a man regret the situation of earthly beings before the forces of the unseen.
We—that is the others—discussed various issues concerning the sad event of that day. Everyone saying what he knew or what he had heard. It went on to include rumours and speculations about Monday’s death. Too many things were untrue. Almost everything was changed. I saw that they were miles away from what happened to our friend at the borrow pit. The only correct statement was made by Kamma who was delayed for too long by his mother that he could not join up.
“Monday had promised us a free paid entry to a movie that day” he said.
“That is the only correct statement any of you have made about what happened on that day” it was the first time I spoke. They had almost thought I was not among them, for it was most unlike me to be left out of a discussion. Any time it was Monday’s issue or anything to do with any of the Obaro’s, I kept sealed lips.
“You mean all what we heard are not true”? Someone asked from the dark.
“Almost everything you have said is a way off the truth” I replied. Continuing I said “if I tell you what did happen none of you can sleep tonight”
“You think we are children or something”? Ogushi asked “do you know how many times I have seen people drown at the Udu Bridge”?
“This is much more than somebody just drowning” I said. As I spoke, I reflected back on what did happen and the way it all happened. I wondered if I will ever forget that painful experience. My voice quivered and threatened to degenerate into a sob, my countenance was sorrow laden and of a man who saw death prey on a beloved slowly and most meticulously. Merely looking at my face and listening to my voice, they had a premonition of the story they were about to be told. In tears and with a very unstable voice, I told them every detail, the story of how their friend and colleague left them.
They gathered around me in a circle and for the first time, as many as they were paid me their fullest attention, observing complete silence as my voice rang out the story.
By the time I got to the scene at the borrow pit, they were all crowded around me shifting closer and poking their faces into mine in disbelief. I heard someone sob behind me but it didn’t matter now. I was already ‘physically’ at the borrow pit and everything was as real in my mind as if it was happening right then.
“When I looked at the water, it didn’t have the colour it used to have”, I continued, it had a muddy laterite semblance as I used to know it”, I said. “On that day however, it was green, unnaturally green. Not like anything I had ever seen.
At that point Kamma moaned and cried out in front of me “Oh God! Why didn’t you people turn back then”? He said. I wish we did, but we never did.
Even before Kamma would finish, Eric wiped his face with the back of his hand and shouted aloud. “He is a liar. All what he is saying is fogged. These stories are calculated to make us miserable. Eric is a very, very emotional person and is never stingy with his tears.
If they had given me time to protest, it would have resulted into a big fight between us. I was emotionally geared to the fullest and was ready to unwind on anybody and Eric was exactly in the same state of mind. But someone stood for me before I could bark down on him.
“Eric, let him finish, please, let him finish this. He could not have dreamt up all these.” A voice said from the dark, and it fell silent again. Everyone was eager to hear it to the fullest; including Eric who knew I was saying the truth but was only looking for someone to discharge his pent up emotions on. I continued the story through how he sank alarmlessly, without as much as a call for help, to the arrival of the two identical men from nowhere who wore identical jean shots.
“Shegbelegbe and shagbalagba they chanted on stepping into the water” I said.
“My God!” Someone interrupted again. “Was that not what you guys were saying without knowing the meaning as you stepped into water in the swamp between second Kolokolo and ‘White sand’ in the beginning of the story, on your way to the borrow pit? How did they get to know it”?
I didn’t tell them of how we fled and of our painful and exhausting all day long journey back to Kolokolo. We huddled and wept quietly.
For the next few days, one thing battled my mind. I wondered how anyone could dispute those unblemished facts about the incident as I knew them and as I sincerely told them like Eric did. I wasn’t happy. Frightful as they may seem, they were true. I longed for a way to prove the facts, but there was none. The only one who could possibly bail me out was Emmagbo who was no longer in the area. I believed if I did observe anything, Emma saw it as well. Bomboy was not in a position to be asked anything. It was most unwise to try to ask Julius about paranormal intrigues surrounding the death of his immediate elder brother a few months ago. I wasn’t sure Ufuoma observed things as I did, for one thing, he did not even swim.
It wasn’t more than a month later, more like an answer to my prayers, Emma came to visit his parents and two or three days later, when we were assembled on our normal late-into-the-night story telling vigils, someone brought up the issue for confirmation. Eric was particularly anxious to show that he had been right to disbelieve my story. Emma refused to yield, apparently unwilling to go back to that unpleasant story.
But when the voices calling for his account of the event became overwhelming, he said, “We were most unwise to have proceeded beyond that shallow forest at second Kolokolo to the white sand”.
After that, he kept quiet for a while; we waited. Continuing he said, “The way Monday hastened about it all alone was enough to have warned us it was not going to be well. This didn’t mean anything yet to the others. It wasn’t enough confirmation, not what they wanted to hear.
“When we got to that opening at the end of second Kolokolo road, I saw Ghenemere look beyond the shallow forest in a mysterious way, I saw goose pimples overtake his bare skin. There was a kind of cold breeze that blew past us. At that point I really thought about going back. Hmm! I wish I did” he said again and fell silent. He was being both careful and reluctant. I perceived the change in his mood and countenance as he set his mind on a total recall.
For a long time he cast his gaze at the floor. We waited in silence. When he looked up again he shook his head miserably in that peculiar manner of his, and as if speaking to himself, he said, “Shegbelegbe!”
Emma took the story from how he got to the table tennis board that morning omitting no detail, he told it all over again. Indeed, Emma was a first hand privy to all that happened. There was nothing I saw or felt that missed him.
“I saw a bottle ahead of me” Emma said, same colour with the water such that if I had not looked carefully I would have missed it. I was about to wonder why there should be a bottle ahead of me and another one ahead of Ghenemere, same size same distance and submerged to the same levels when I heard Julius crying from the other side and------
“Did you see the third bottle”? I interrupted.
“Yes, I did not forget. It was lying to your left and almost completely submerged.
“Tell us no more Emma” it was Eric who interrupted now. “We know the rest” he said.
Subsequent encounters between me and first Mr. Obaro and then Mrs. Obaro, informed the more reason for writing this book. At the tender age of fifteen I had already made up my mind to intimate the world of some of the otherwise untold experiences of men and hope that Mr. Obaro will come across this book someday and be informed in the most detail of what did happen to his son and how it all went; At least in the eyes of the earthly beings.
The Obaro’s were becoming history in my mind. It was over a year since they left the area and had hardly been heard of. It was generally rumoured that the parents were not happy with us, especially me. But all that had been attenuated by time and had been converted to history.
On that fateful morning, I was returning from an errand on foot, along the main road that ran through Warri from the beginning to the end at the Government Reservation Area. There was a long and seemingly impossible traffic hold up.
All passengers in transport vehicles had disembarked and were walking home. The road was very busy with vehicles forming arbitrary lanes on all sides as an escape from the traffic jam and commuters mingling around at different points and in different directions.
At a point close to Enerhen junction, the Udu River ran parallel to the road on its way to Aladja and thence, into the deep of the delta. I had come to that point and was watching the river from the side of the road with a sort of dejavu. I knew what was fearful and what was familiar about the river. As I watched, a strange feeling crept over my body. I shivered as goose pimples appeared on my skin; I felt I was being watched.
Then it came to pass: in my mind’s eye, I saw me standing at the opening looking towards the same river at about the same time on a Sunday morning. The feeling of being watch grew stronger. I could feel the eyes penetrating the back of my head. Then the cars in the traffic hold up behind me began to hunk. The number of vehicles horn multiplied and grew louder. Instinctively, I whirled around—what do you expect—? Face to face with Mr. Obaro, the last person I wanted to see till I departed the face of the earth. He was glaring at me with eyes bulging out of their sockets, sitting behind the wheel of his white datsun pick-up. His countenance was of someone in total oblivion of the environment he was in. he had forgotten the traffic hold-up, the line had moved and a long space had been left in front of him with cars crowded behind, hence the loud honking. My eyes seemed hooked to his for a moment; I could not look away. I stood transfixed, trembling. The sweat broke out on my face. Drivers and passers-by watched the spectacle for a moment before he engaged gear and zoomed forward with screeching tires. I treaded unsteadily across the road and took a by-street and making sure I never came anywhere in the vicinity of the white datsun till I got home. The experience shook me badly. I didn’t know how I could possibly come to blame for what happened.
A month later, it would be Mrs. Obaro. It was also on a morning. I can’t remember now where I was headed but I was walking towards Orhughworun junction. She was on her way towards the bridge, that is, towards me and on the same side of the road. If I dad seen her first, I would have darted somewhere for cover or turned right back on my tracks. She shocked me because I wasn’t expecting her in the least and never expected that kind of reaction from her. She accosted me as in a confrontation.
“Hey you!” she seemed to jump at me suddenly from among the people on the road.
I reeled back, astounded. “You this boy” she continued, “don’t you ever go to our compound! I hope you are not going to our compound! Don’t you ever! Don’t even think of it!” she shouted and shouted in my face as I stood helplessly, watching her. Her fore-finger dangled in my face as she fumed. Few people stood around to hear what was amiss but she launched no accusation. She spoke in their Ughelli dialect, which is simply intelligible to the Udus.
I didn’t like her actions, if not for what we had in common, the death of Monday, a loss too great to be over-emphasize, I would have shouted back at her. More so, she was Julius’ mother, my big friend. We respected each others parents in those days in Kolokolo. Save for the respect, I would have surprised her. I was simply getting tired of not knowing why so much prejudice should be held against me.
She went on for a moment, turned swiftly and headed in her direction. Limply and hesitantly, I walked on in my direction with a mind too troubled to even remember the destination for which I set out in the first place. It did strengthen my resolve to let them know in detail what happened.
As if I had not heard or seen enough, the very next day I was to meet Mr. Obaro again. Apparently his wife had told him she saw me ‘after the bridge’ walking towards Orhughworun junction and that I could be, or was going to their place. He was probably coming to my father’s compound to warn me personally but I met him halfway.
“Yes!” he said as soon as he sighted me “You this boy” he continued, glaring at me. I was coming to your father’s compound to give you a personal warning: let me tell you something, don’t you ever go to my compound, do you hear me? I don’t want to ever see your leg in my place, I have told you, don’t you ever try it” he went on endlessly.
I couldn’t see where all these were coming from.
Right there and then, I decided I will call some elders to accompany me to Mr. Obaro and I will tell him the story, but that would be telling only Mr. Obaro and the elders who went with me. It would be better to tell it to the world and the only way to do that successfully will be telling it in a book.
I singled something out however among the many things Mr. Obaro said, he eventually launched an accusation, if you would call it that.
A distant neighbour of his, probably confused, not knowing what I could have done wrong that morning asked him the question that brought it out of him.
“Ah! Ah! Neighbour, what has the young man done”? He said rather than asked.
Pointing his index finger at me Mr. Obaro raged. “Is it not this boy who, in the company of others went out to swim with my son who died at the borrow pit and his parents could not even come and express some sympathy?”
He had unknowingly fired an empty barrel with this utterance, seemingly born from ignorance. My father, Mr. James Orugbo was a very considerate and perfect gentleman who could not have committed an omission of such magnitude. He mourned with others when they mourned and will merry with them when there was a thing of Joy. He was a man of peace with a maximum reputation for gentility. He was always called upon to help settle differences between people and families. He had a way of passing blame so that the guilty party does not take offence and a way to commend the vindicated that he may not take the case further. His judgments were always accepted. He was of unsurpassable integrity. In his relationship with God, if any was righteous, it was Mr. James Orugbo; save for issues that had to do with his wives. He was not materially rich, but content. The last man on earth you could successfully describe as greedy, arrogant, aggressive, troublesome or loquacious. Little wonder he was always called upon to head or be the chairman of any organization or grouping he belonged; from traders union leader and village chairman to church elder and chairman of the association of landlords. His characteristic way of life was admired by all; a practical Christian he was.
When Abanga’s son died under the bridge, my father as chairman of the community’s association of landlords led a condolence team to the aggrieved family on behalf kolokolo landlords.
I concluded it was only possible there was a mix-up somewhere. Probably, Mr. Obaro could not discern who was the father to whom among the many condolence troupes that thronged his house in the wake of the incident. I was aware my father had been to see him.
But if peradventure, my father, by any act of commission or omission never visited the Obaro’s to express his sympathy, then it was the one occasion as far as I can remember, that my father ever over-emphasized an obligation outside his family affairs. As for his family affairs, I wouldn’t blame him much, for, the day a man decided to marry two or more wives is the day he took an oath to crucify himself by himself. All men are helpless in this situation, and so, one or more of the wives have to surfer.
In the light of the foregoing; Mr. Obaro sincerely would be right in the event that my parents never visited, but wrong in the event that he was crucifying them unjustly and vilifying their son unnecessarily.
I will conclude by putting all the blame on Monday for departing so unexpectedly, plunging us all, both family and friends into so much sorrow in that unforgettable tragedy. If ever I see Monday again, I would like to ask him many of the questions that have bothered my mind all these years. I would ask him to tell me what he was looking for on the floor of the borrow pit. I would like to know why he died without as much as a cry for help. I would also like to know if there is life after death as some do proclaim, and if so, because I strongly believe there was more to his death than met the eyes, if he was able to haunt down those that were responsible for his death, after he departed to the great world beyond. I would like to know if he knew he was going to die on that day. If so, why he didn’t give his beloved family and friends as much as a warning ahead? At least we would have prepared our minds somehow. Above and beyond all these, I would like to know the meaning of the word ‘Shegbelegbe’.
Indeed, I look forward to that day according to the Lord when the sea and the earth shall give up all those that were in them; the day when I shall see my dear friend again, who departed at the borrow pit; I haste to see that day.