To the Place of Skulls

Innocent Ilo

What do you take to the Place of Skulls?

Your head, brewing with the thirst for adventure. Your empty stomach to remind you when to come back home for lunch. Your spindly legs, dragging your chapped feet.

Who will you meet on the road to the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know. But we know if we see any simé-simé person; those ugly ones with a big mound of nose sitting between their eyes and mouth, we will hurl stones at them.

What will you do at the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know, let’s get there first.

What will keep you safe on your journey?

Our laughter. Our face smeared with innocence. Our heart bristling with vigor.

We are going to the Place of Skulls; Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Gokana, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Tai and myself. For you to know, this is not the place Bro Lucas said Jesus was crucified when he was spitting into my face from the broken lectern during his sermon, last Sunday. The Place of Skulls is where a stark reality stares us in the face. We all have after-school exhaustion, Babbe’s diarrhea has worsened, Gokana is still nursing the burns on his legs from our last visit and Mama will yank at my ears if she hears fim about it, but we must go. The Place of Skull is that important.

The ground under our feet grumbles, like it’s annoyed we are threading on it, as we run down the crudeoil-soiled paths of Oloibiri. We stop running only when we get to Exxon Bridge because the bridge is rickety and too narrow for us to run across at the same time. Nobody wants to slip and fall into dark mass left of River Brass. I cross the bridge first, my arms spread wide, like petals in the sun, for balance. My friends follow, carefully, not to tread too heavily on the broken planks. I look into River Brass when I get to the other side of Exxon Bridge and it seems my Basic Science textbook just flung open to the page on immiscibility:

“In a mixture of two immiscible liquids (e.g. oil and water), the less dense liquid (oil) floats over the denser liquid (water).”

The water is black-black with heavy punctuations of lobster and fish carcasses. Poor things, they must have struggled to the surface for fresh air and then drank death. Mama warned me never to dream of eating anything from River Brass. We only gather the carcasses to fuel the cooking fire. The crudeoil-saturated lining of the fish’s intestines made the carcasses burn brighter than wood.

“It’s like burning food to make food!” Mama calls it with mock laughter on her pursed lips.

It is mid afternoon by the time we get to the broken fence of Ompadec College where we go to school. From the road, we can see the emptiness of the classrooms gaping through the broken louvers. The desks they brought two years ago only stayed long enough for the Government Inspector to take pictures of us sitting at them for their campaign poster. The desks had disappeared when we got to school the next morning. Tai hurls a stone at a rascal peeing on the wall of headteacher’s office. The little boy sticks out his tongue and scuttles off. Tai picks another stone and aims carefully. This time the stone strikes the poor boy’s head.

“Your mother’s toto!” the rascal yells. He pulls down his flimsy shorts and splays his buttocks. “Your father eats my black ass.” His voice soon fades when he corners onto the road leading to Exxon Bridge.

“Haha, your mother has no toto!” Tai calls after the boy.

We cackle up with laughter and continue our journey to the Place of Skulls.

Our next stop is Nddc Hospital. A wide stretch of muddiness separates the hospital from Ompadec College. Mama said I was born there. That was long before the expatriate doctors and nurses and midwives and all those people who wear smart clothes sewn with calico white fled Oloibiri during the kidnapping spree. The once gleaming white wall of the hospital is now coated with creepers and mistletoes and vines and nasty weed. But we love the hospital. Maybe because the traps we set there catch meaty rodents. Today, only Ueme’s trap caught something—a humongous squirrel. I pick up a wooden club and put our prey out of its misery. We shove our catch into Babbe’s old school bag and vamoose from the hospital.

Just when we are about to hit the road again, Nyo notices that Saro-Wiwa is not with us. Gokana says that we must have lost him at Exxon Bridge. Ken, Nyo and Ueme nod in agreement. This is why we never like going out with Saro-Wiwa, he keeps scribbling on his notepad, slowing the party down.

“Where did he wander off this time?” Babbe groans.

“Maybe to the sky,” Ueme scoffs.

“One day, he is going to get lost in books!” Nyo intones with biting sarcasm.

We laugh even as our eyes dart round the bush looking for any sign of Saro-Wiwa. Babbe whistles. Nyo screams his name. Ueme suggests we continue our journey without him but we don’t listen to him. He is not the strongest among us and so cannot dictate what we should or shouldn’t do.

“Eureka!” Saro-Wiwa’s voice came calling from the bush. “I just finished this piece of fine poem. It has been in my head for a month.” He waves his notepad above his head. “See, let’s read it together!”

We cluster around Saro-Wiwa and read aloud:

They came with new voices,

They said the former was old,

They came with so many tales,

About wealth and brewing gold.

Our faces remain blank when we are done reading. This makes Saro-Wiwa’s glowing eyes dim, he wanted the poem to liven up our faces. It is such a shame we don’t seem to get Saro-Wiwa, the chap behaves like someone living in another universe. I, for one, cannot understand why he would spend so much time coming up with that poem. A month. It took a month for the medicine man to remove the bullet in Aunty Esuene’s calf. And when they brought it out, it was a shiny silver thing unlike Saro’s poem, which is neither shiny nor silver. Nyo wrinkles his nose and yawns, Ueme and Babe exchange knowing glances, Gokana and I try to suppress our laughter. Only Tai pats Saro-Wiwa on the shoulder and says: “I might not understand all of it but I think I know who they are.” Saro-Wiwa’s face brightens. I wish I was the one who said those words.

Opec Estate throws its gates open as we approach. The two soldiers at the gates are snoring away the little life that is left of the afternoon. We tiptoe pass them, holding our breath. If we wake the soldiers up, they will fling us as far as their bulky hands can. The estate has the kind of serenity even heaven could die for. Willowy trees line up the pavement of the tarred roads, intricately patterned terracotta fences guard the huge white mansions and fat, ugly dogs bark all day on the well-tended lawns. This is where the oil workers and their families live. They are mostly purple-haired, red-nosed and they all have an enduring nasal accent.

Tai says he is going to live in the estate, with his Indian wife and biracial children, when he becomes an engineer. Gokana mocks him and mumbles: “Before then, you must have inhaled enough air in Oloibiri to give you lung cancer.” Tai hears this and makes for Gokana’s jaw. The blow misses Gokana by hairsbreadth and lands squarely on Saro-Wiwa’s jaw. Saro-Wiwa holds his jaw. He says nothing because he thinks, in his small head, this is the price to pay for peace to reign.

We continue our march.

“I know the fastest route,” Saro-Wiwa announces out of the blue when we are at the middle of Opec Estate. This is the first time he is offering to lead the way. We are not quite sure of his claim but we still follow him. Maybe this will make him forget Tai’s blow.

Our feet tingle in the sensation of walking on the marbles of Nnpc Street. The little children playing catch on the balconies of those white mansions point our direction like we are dirt, like we are not wanted here. We ignore them, this journey is more important than spoilt-faced children’s melodrama. We continue. This time we waltz through the cobblestones of Chevron County. With the same slippery ease, we saunter down the glassiness of Mobil Lane until we get to the golden streetlights of Shell Close. We dust our feet and make our exit out of Opec Estate.

The world wears a different shade outside Opec Estate. The air here is different, it’s not even air at all. We can see the many amorphous flakes of carbon sailing through space and collecting at our nostrils. The earth under our feet is hot like we are walking on plugged-in hotplates. Our eyes begin to itch. We rub them to a reddened soreness. The Place of Skulls must be very close because my skin is on fire. It is melting on my scrawny bones and I can almost hear its drip drip doing tyang tyang on the boiling earth. I reek with burning death. Confidence loosens its hold on me. I want to run back home and play jara with Dokubo, but we have come too long a way for us to go back.

Now, we are running fast to ease the baking heat of the sun on our naked soles. A thick smog envelops the horizon, darkening our path. Saro-Wiwa is still in front, eating up the hills like a plate of moin-moin. We round up another bend, shooting straight into Pipeline Alley where the crudeoil is pumped out from our veins. We feast our eyes on the web of leaking metal pipes. Plink. Plink. The black liquid deepens into the ground. We don’t linger for too long at Pipeline Alley so we will not end up like Uncle Biriye. They shot him here last Easter. They said he was trying to cut the pipe open and steal liquid gold.

Our hearts start beating in ferocious rhythms, stop and then continue to beat when we enter OBJ:1999 Express. The road is still covered with blood and corpses, lying in mildly contorted poses. The sky here is also dripping red with blood—blood of the townspeople who marched to Abuja demanding a clean and unpolluted environment. They said men in rickety trucks, wearing forest-green uniforms, rained their bazookas on them. Mama told me that was the day Papa was shot dead. Sometimes I imagine Papa; all trimmed and fine-faced, dying with chants of “Give us clean water! We need clean air!” on his lips.

“Look out, on the tree over there!” Nyo points at an eerie-looking tree on the other side of the road.

We stop dead in our tracks. I whimper and hide behind Babbe. Horror stares into our faces when we look up to the tree. Seven men are hanging on the tallest branch, their lifeless bodies swaying to the tune of the wind and buzzing flies. At the foot of the tree, a signpost reads: “The Ogoni Seven: May We Know Them. May We Be Like Them. May They Live On.”

“They share the same names with us!” Ueme shouts with fingers darted at the name-tags nailed to the heads of the dead men.

“Isaac,” Babbe turns towards me. “They don’t have your name, why?”

I look away, not answering the question, sulking that none of the men hanging on the tree bore my name. I shrug my shoulders because somehow I don’t feel left out of the fight. I was named after Isaac Adaka-Boro; the big-big man who started the struggle. I came before the men hanging on the tree. This is what Mama told me but I will not as much as dare to tell my friends, they will laugh my bones to powder.

Fresh energy is filling up my lungs, so much that my feet spring up and start running on their own. My friends join me, begging me to slow down. I don’t know how to slow down because in my mind, I am the wind. I want to be the first to reach the Place of Skulls.

At last, we are at the Place of Skulls. It is in Gelegele, just a stone’s throw to Kolo Creek. A tall-tall fence surrounds the Place of Skulls the way a set of teeth guides the tongue. This is where Phat Oil pumps bright yellow gas into the clouds. Puff. Puff. We sit on the dry mud and watch the long pipes deface the clouds with the yellow gas. Here, the sky is not the sky at all, it is like a slush pile of cotton wool soaked in tar. The fire in the Place of Bones is burning like the hell Bro Lucas talks about during Friday Bible Study. Still, Bro Lucas is not too right, people don’t have to die to go to hell, they just need a trip to Gelegele.

“The tanks over there look like silos,” Tai says. His eyes are gesturing towards the huge metal tanks peeping out at the edge of the fence.

“Taaa! Silos store grains of food,” Babbe refutes Tai’s claim. “This one only has death inside it.”

“How do those oil workers survive working inside there?” I ask, torn between awe and confusion.

“They must have huge AC’s to filter and cool the air,” Saro-Wiwa suggests.

“Do you know that as the gas flares, it bores a hole in the sky?” Babbe chips in.

“That is what Miss Makinde, the science teacher, calls ozone depletion,” Nyo adds as he brushes a fly off his knee.

“I want to stitch the hole in the sky with the words of my writing,” Saro-Wiwa drawls dreamily.

“I don’t think words are just enough,” I clear my throat. “The hole needs to be rebuilt. When I become an architect, I will design the plan.”

“No,” Tai proudly disagrees. “I will be the engineer to build efficient and less-polluting machines.”

“Don’t forget that I am the doctor that will cure your cancer,” Gokana guffaws, dampening the proud smile on Tai’s face.

“I will be the teacher that would enlighten the young minds on the Green Economy,” Ueme adds with so much enthusiasm.

“Don’t you all forget the Human Rights Lawyer who will fight for our cause,” Nyo quips in a matter-of-fact tone.

We all turn to Ken. He does not talk much ever since an oil well exploded near his home. He says he still hears deafening explosions. He looks up now and nods his head; a way of telling us that he would also like to stitch the hole in the sky.

The swallows are coming back home so we know it is also time for us to go. We stand up, dust our clothes and hit the road before the security men start hurling their mean batons at us. They broke Ueme’s nose last week, when we wasted time leaving. All the way back, we are laughing, we are chuckling, we are mimicking the whistling of burning flames and we are nursing dreams of stitching up the sky.

It is almost twilight when we arrive at Oloibiri. The bleating goats are just settling in their pens. We huddle up in Mama Babbe’s kitchen to grill the squirrel Ueme’s trap caught. We light the fire and place the meat on a rusty wire mesh. Babbe brings palm oil sauce for eating the meat. We keep our voices low as we eat. We don’t want to share our food with the girls playing suwe in the next yard.

After the meal, we run off to the latrine at end of New River. We all enter at once, surrounding the pit with our dried-out buttocks. We start off at the same time, the little lumps of our shit going thaump thaump as they sink into the river. Sometimes we brag about whose shit sounds the loudest or smells the foulest. Gokana always wins. Gokana always wins things like that. We head to the other end of New River to drink to our fill. Because we are very thirsty, we don’t seem notice that the water tastes of so many things apart from water.

Soon, darkness starts to call on us in jet-black voices.

I relish the splendour of nights when the moon is in full glistening, the stars in steady twinkle and crickets chirping away the velvety darkness. I lie on my straw mattress, counting time, waiting patiently for Mama’s bedtime stories. Her stories are always unpredictable. Today it’s about Edumare and Chuku battling over the universe, tomorrow it’s about the great tribal wars between Benin and Bonny. This night, Mama’s story is about the rains; endless streams of crystal-clear watery pellets that fall from the sky. She calls it Edumare’s tears. The fields suck it up and ripen into a bountiful harvest. The children play in it for good health. Ma tells this story in a sing-song, like a dirge of the caged bird, with tears tumbling down her cheeks. She talks about how they always prayed for the rains to come.

Me? I don’t want the rains to come in Oloibiri. What’s the use of the misery? It’s like plague falling from the sky. Miss Makinde said it’s acid rain. If the rains come, it will rust the new zinc Mama put up last week. The rains will flood the leaking oilfields and wash into our farms and New River. We never play in the rains because it causes skin yama-yama. Once, we made fun of Saro-Wiwa that he was going to die because the rain beat him on his way home from school. “The acid will eat deep into your stomach!” We taunted at him in ghostly shrills.

Something unusual happens tonight. I dream of myself, Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Gokana and Tai, stitching up the sky in our own way. For the first time in forever, I also dream of the type of rain in Mama’s story—clear, fresh and invigorating rain. It is cascading down the hills of Gelegele, quenching the flaring gases, it is washing the bloodied paths of OBJ:1999 Express, it overflows the banks of River Brass and spurs the fish and lobsters to life, it purges the crudeoil-soiled farmlands and the cornfields sizzle with the greenness of life. I smile in my sleep and tuck my dream under the pillow where nobody can steal it.