This story does not begin with my birth; neither does it end with my death, but I will tell you of it regardless for I feel it is important you know of how I left this world in a baptism of blood and oil. Before then, I will tell you what happened in 1958 in Ogoni, Bayelsa state.
Brown, marshy mud clings to the bottom of my feet, the dunlop slippers I wear are practically useless, they stick to the mud, making my steps heavy, cumbersome, and each slower than the last. I let out a long sigh as frustration mounts in my chest, bubbling up to my throat and threatening to come out as a scream.
Bassey sees my struggle and begins to laugh.” Just commot am,” he says, referring to the slippers.
“Oga move along.” I push him forward, and he almost slips onto the mud; my grin is unrepentant and his scowl is murderous.
We reach the river after almost an hour of slogging through worm-infested mud and small potholes of water occupied by larvae. At the river, the sweltering heat is even worse, and flies dog our every step, their buzzing is irritating and can drive a man to madness if he is not careful. We swat at them when they come too close, only for them to buzz away and come back seconds later. One would think we were corpses with the way they follow us.
The riverbank is like a minefield, only instead of bombs, there are a slew of plastic nylons and bottles, twisted tin cans half-filled with murky water, wood and some other debris too weathered by age for me to make out what they are. I wrinkle my nose and make a mental note to tell Papa that the village needs a clean-up.
One side of the riverbank is occupied by houses made of wood and zinc raised above the water using stilts, and the other side is where the fishermen dock their boats. Bassey and I head there.
Our fishing boat has already been scrubbed within an inch of its life and pushed into the edge of the river by Dooh; he waves at us, his hand bobbing in the wind too fast for our eyes to follow. Dooh always has a lot of energy. Bassey and I race to the boat, running the unspoken competition of first-to-reach; I get there before him and jump into the boat in a flourish of triumph. Bassey drags himself into the boat and plops down on one of the wooden planks for sitting. “I just say make I let you win.”
We are the only people on the river today just as Dooh has predicted; the other villagers are celebrating the water festival, so fishing and trading in the market has been put off for today. It is only one amongst the many festivals our people hold every year; this one is to honour the water spirits that guide our boats as we go to fish; the masquerades wearing headdresses that imitate fish and water birds are my best part of the festival.
I know that by the time we get back to the village, half of the people will be drunk on fermented palm-wine and gin while the others will be tired out from rigorous traditional dances, and those like Bassey will be too full of oily buns and creamy smooth wraps of agidi to be able to move.
We would have joined them, but the water festival does not put food on the table; fishing does.
Dooh nods his head to a song only he can hear, this boy—always singing and dancing. Without much care, he throws our apparatus into the boat one after the other, making it rock and bob violently against the river water. The only thing keeping it from turning over is the combined weight of me and Bassey.
He hands over a net to me, another to Bassey, and holds the last one for himself. Then he throws a wet black nylon at me; I open it to find buns and agidi.
Dooh’s mother is one of the women cooking for the village festival; he must have grabbed some of her goodies before coming. I give him a thumbs up, “correct guy.” I hail him and take one bun before giving the nylon to Bassey. He wolfs down a wrap of agidi in seconds.
After we have satisfied the growling monster of hunger in our stomachs, we untie the boat from the wooden pole that keeps it from drifting into the river. Dooh and Bassey row us past the edge of the river until we reach the swampy area where the river is bordered by thick mangrove vegetation. The tides are low today, making the mudflat dry and visible.
The air here is thick but moist and perfumed by the sickly sweet smell of green vegetation. I lean back into the boat and let my arm hang freely from outside the edge, relishing the feel of cool serene water against my skin. I smile and close my eyes; this is my place. In the open river, I feel free and not weighed down by the daunting responsibility of being the son of the village chief.
The boat comes to a stop and someone kicks my leg. I reflexively jump up, almost falling into the river. Bassey and Dooh burst out laughing. Bassey laughs and wheezes until thick yellow snot rolls down his nose and he has to clean it with the sleeve of his shirt. I hiss and get my net. “Rough play!”
“See the current,” Dooh says, “fish go plenty today o.”
We nod at him in agreement and get to work. We have done this many times since we were little boys; Bassey arranges the boat’s paddle and ties it to the side of the boat with twine, I balance the square boxes we would use to store our catch between the wooden planks in the boat, and Dooh inspects the water. There is no better fisherman team than the three of us.
Bassey opens the box where we stuffed the worms we had caught in the muddy fields before coming. The worms wriggle over each other, their elongated tube-like bodies partially blackened by the mud we hadn’t bothered to wash off them. He lifts one in the air and pretends to swallow it. “You’re disgusting,” I say to him.
“You and your big big English,” Bassey sneers. I am the only one of them who speaks proper English, I learn from the big dictionary and textbooks Papa buys for me, I think they are a waste of money but Papa says I must read them. He wants me to speak and walk and behave like the white men we see whenever we go to the big city.
I snatch the worms from Bassey’s hand and pour them into the water. It does not take long for the fishes to come, they arrive in a frenzy, and if we are not careful, they will be gone with all the worms before we know it—the fish in this area, gluttons!
We spread Bassey’s net first and throw it over the water; it billows in the air a little then falls like a blanket, entrapping the fish within its weaving. Then we wait until Dooh signals us to bring up the net—he always knows when it is full. One time; another fisherman called him the fish Oga. Dooh’s smile that day had threatened to split his face in two.
The net catches a ton of fish just like he predicted, we all let out a whoop, there’s even crabs and small crayfish in there. We go again, this time throwing Dooh’s net. Mine goes last. It always does.
The sun has already started to descend into the horizon when we decide we have caught enough fish—I and Dooh, anyway. Bassey still wants to get some more. Bassey’s Papa and Mama are dead and as the eldest of five, he has to work harder than the rest of us to feed his siblings and put two of them through school in the neighboring community. Sometimes—just like now—his eyes go tight with the strain of how much he works. I pat his shoulders and tell him to rest, I will give him half of my catch to add to his.
In a rare show of affection, Bassey embraces me. “You be my brother for life,” he laughs.
He is a head taller than I am, so my face ends up in his sweaty, musty armpits; I gag and push him away in disgust, and Bassey loses his balance and falls into the river with a large splash. My laughter is short-lived as he swims up and pulls me into the water with him. We fight, landing a few playful blows on each other’s bellies. Dooh watches from the boat. He does not like to swim—odd for a fisherman, but then again there are many things wrong with Dooh.
He bursts out in a song and a gentle dance. The song is about a boy who has to prove himself as a warrior by fighting an invincible monster. It is a song Dooh composed, and it has somehow become our anthem. Dooh wants to move to the big city and be a singer.
We join him to sing well into the evening; at times like this, we are not fishermen but boys free from the depressing weight of life. Bassey is not an orphan, Dooh is not the man of his family and I am not getting ready to be village chief. We are just three boys no older than fifteen.
A helicopter flies overhead; this is the first time we see one fly so close to the village. It is shaped like a giant metal bird. The spinning of its blades causes the trees to bend under the pressure, ripples to form in the water. I marvel at the technology behind the helicopter. I read about them in a textbook; I want to build one someday when I finally leave this village. I say this, but I know it’s never going to happen, my people—we never leave. It is as if our souls are tethered to the land.
My eyes follow the helicopter as it flies further into our village. I squint in an attempt to make out the letters painted on it. “S-H-E-L-L D-A-R-C-Y,” I spell out loud, then look at Bassey, who shrugs; he is just as confused as I am.
Dooh stops singing and gestures us to come back into the boat, and we do as he says. Somehow, our spirits have been dampened by the helicopter’s passing. I cannot help but feel as though it comes with trouble. I shake my head, Papa says I worry too much. That must be it, I agree with my thoughts, but begin to row faster back to the riverbank.
We find Deki—Bassey’s little sister—waiting for us there. She holds buns in both hands. Oil drips from her palm and runs down her arm. Bassey gets out of the boat and carries her, he throws her in the air then spins her around. Her squeals are loud and contagious. We all adore Deki, she is so pure and untainted by the strife we have seen in this village, she is the reason Bassey works so hard and she is the reason I let him throw his fishing net first. Deki will leave this village. I want her to because I cannot.
She wobbles to me and pouts with lowered eyes. “Brother Mene won’t you carry me too?”
“Why won’t I?” I oblige her and spin her around just like Bassey did. Before she is able to ask the same of Dooh, Bassey stops her.
“Wetin you come find for here Deki.”
“Erm they’re looking for brother Mene,” she twists her toes in the sand, a clear sign that that’s not the only reason why she’s here. The water calls to Deki just like it calls to me, we are kindred spirits so I understand that she cannot help it.
I interrupt before Bassey gets it in his head to scold her, “Who is looking for me Deki?”
“Brother Mene’s Papa,” she says and skips away like a little imp just as Bassey attempts to grab her. Bassey sighs and says something about how she’ll be the death of him someday. The boys agree to go into the city without me, they will sell the fish and bring back my share of money. Meanwhile, I carry the fish we caught for our families and head back into the village, passing by the helicopter on my way.
When I get to the village centre, another villager informs me that my Papa has been searching for me. I wince; if everyone knows then it means he is already angry—Papa’s temper can rival that of a bull. I hurry home, stopping briefly at Bassey’s and Dooh’s houses to drop the fish for their families. Dooh’s mother thanks me profusely; I notice the bones in her collar are jutting out more than usual, and the creases in her forehead have deepened.
There are two white men and a boy in the sitting room when I get home.
The boy looks to be around my age, he is dressed in yellow khaki shirt and shorts paired with brown boots—he sits so proper, like a picture, frigid and unmoving. He looks at me, up and down, then turns away, dismissing me as if I hold no interest to him.
My eyes shift to the two men with him. Their faces look weather-beaten and reddened by the sun. I spot a mosquito bite on the nose of the taller one with a camera hanging from his pale neck. I don’t know why but it gives me satisfaction because I know the mosquitoes are just starting with them.
Papa and the men finally spot me standing in the doorway. “Mene! where did you carry your legs to?”
“Sah, fishing Sah,” I answer in a rush. Papa waves my answer away and tells me to come sit beside him, he does not even let me rest my bottom fully before he leans into me and begins to whisper in my ear. His breath is hot and stinks of tobacco.
“I don’t know what this men are saying, they speak through their nose,” Papa complains. I hold back a smile at his genuine frustration. “Talk to them and see what they want! They said something about black gold.”
Black gold. Our village—Ogoni—is a swampy, small and remote creek village, so the presence of the white men here is rather strange, and they are here for gold? I know for a fact that there is no gold here. So I scoot forward and address the taller white man, my mind equates height to superiority.
“My Papa says you are here for black gold correct?”
“Yes,” he answers, in a nasally tone making me understand what Papa meant, they really do speak through the nose, but unlike my Papa, it fascinates me. “My name is John by the way; this is William, my son,” he gestures to the boy whom I look at dismissively just as he had done to me. “And this good man here is Sunday.”
My ears perks up. “That is an unusual name for a white man,” I comment; I have never been good at swallowing my thoughts.
“Yes,” Sunday answers, “my father named me after his Nigerian friend.” I have nothing to say to that so I move on to the black gold.
“This gold, you have proof that it is in our village?”
John nods profusely making sweat fly off his forehead and onto the table that separates us, my eye follows it; so does William’s. John continues, “well, black gold is a pseudonym, it is actually oil. Crude oil.”
“Oil,” I say flatly, trying to sound uninterested as I rack my brain to see whether I have come across crude oil in the textbooks Papa bought for me; sadly, they have only been about aircraft and the white man’s etiquette.
“Erm, the oil is deep inside the ground. When we extract it, we can process it and sell it for money, huge money.”
Papa sits up at this. It does not matter how a person says it, once money is mentioned, my Papa will understand. The villagers call him money chief behind his back. “Huge mo
ey eh now you’re talking. This black-gold-oil-something, is it like palm oil?” he asks.
“Exactly, just like palm oil,” Sunday says and takes over from John, it is as if they have practiced their speech before coming. “If your village agrees, we will set up oil drills and wells here, don’t worry, none of our activities will disturb you people. You wouldn’t even notice that we are here.”
“Okay, what of the money?” Papa says impatiently. I reach behind him and pat his back so he can calm down. I do not trust these people and I will not let Papa’s unhealthy love for money put this village in trouble.
“How do we get the money, I am guessing it is your company that will set up these oil wells, why will you give us money from that?”
Sunday coughs violently into a handkerchief before he answers, “Well, it is your land, so it is only fair we compensate for borrowing your resources, and then we will also employ some of you, boys like you,” he says pointing at me. “If all goes without a hitch and we are able to sell the refined crude oil, then the village gets thirty percent of all profits.”
“Just how much is thirty percent?”
“You speak very well for a village—er, for a boy living in a rural area,” John says. He says it like it is meant to be a compliment but I see the veiled insult within it. They did not expect to meet ‘educated’ people here.
“Thank you,” I utter regardless, “thirty percent?”
“Ah-yes—yes it is a lot of money. It will be enough to develop your village, turn it around. Build a few schools here and there, a hospital too, and a borehole for clean water.”
The white man has finally said something that interests me. I lean back and whisper to Papa, explaining all they have said. The boy—William—stands up and announces that he is going back to wait in the helicopter; he stomps out before we can say anything. It is rude, nevertheless it makes me like him a little bit. I often walk out on Papa when he and the other village elders have meaningless meetings.
Papa wants us to agree. “What’s the harm there?” he tells me. “We get money, schools, hospitals, and clean water while they get their oil. I don’t see how we won’t gain for this.”
“Okay, but let us not sign any contract yet, I want to see what this black gold is.”
“We will agree after we see the oil.” Papa pushes me away and tells them. William and John look visibly relieved by our words, as if our disagreement would have been a problem, not for them but for us.
“Come let us show you around our village.” Papa gets up and leads the white men out of our house; I follow closely behind.
We take them round the hug of zinc and wooden houses that make our village; the entire village follows us around like an entourage. They titter and gossip; this is the first time most of them are seeing a white man.
“Oyoyoooo see oyibo, see oyibo,” they chant as they follow.
The more daring children run up to Sunday and John to shake their hands; Deki is amongst them, she does it and runs back to me huffing and puffing, “I touch his hand,” she giggles. I pat her head and send her away. I am becoming more uncomfortable by the second.
John untangles his camera from his neck and begins to take pictures. A click here and a click there. I know what he will do with those pictures later, he will carry them with bare-fisted sanctimony and give to a journalist. The journalist will then do her part as an agent of piety, she will publish the pictures with the headline, STARVING AFRICANS, WE MUST SEND HELP!
Much to my annoyance, the older women put their faces in the camera while the girls smile and wave shyly. The children arrange themselves so that John can snap them one by one. As expected, Deki is first on the line.
Finally, since the whole village is gathered already, Papa decides to announce the reason the white men are here. He tells them of all the benefits we stand to gain by allying our village with John and Sunday’s Shell Darcy company. He tells them that they are here for palm oil. I do not bother to correct his misconception, it would be even harder to explain to the villagers.
I blame Sunday for saying it is just like palm oil; I know for a fact that palm oil does not grow beneath the soil and it is neither black nor gold.
The villagers begin to clap and dance and jubilate, they sing and thank the gods for the white men. Someone begins to dole out bottles of gin and leftover agidi; the celebration begins anew. I see Dooh’s Mama, who suddenly looks full of energy, try to teach Sunday the Seki dance. He fails woefully at it. His name might be Nigerian but those dance steps—ah, his feet are not.
I spot Bassey and Dooh and push through the crowd to get to them. “You sold everything?” I ask, surprised they are back so quick.
“Plenty buyers dey today,” Bassey replies, “wetin dey happen?”
“The white men say there is oil in our village. They call it black gold and say it will bring a lot of money for us. We will have schools, hospitals and clean water.”
Bassey makes a face at the white men. “You dey sure, I no trust them at all.”
“Me too,” Dooh agrees.
“Me three, but Papa thinks it will be good for the village. I told him to wait until we see the oil first.”
“Mene Mene, smart boy! In fact, na man you be,” Bassey praises me, and I smack his head in return.
“Who is that one and why is he there alone, standing like tambolo ant?” Dooh turns my head to the opposite end of the village square.
“That is William,” I say simply and look away.
Bassey and Dooh give him one last glance before going to seize the opportunity to dance and flirt with girls.
When I turn back again, William is watching them dance with a shadowed frown.
In the morning, I am roused from sleep by the lumbering sound of heavy machinery.
The events of last night play over and over again in my head; that’s when I remember the white men and their black gold nonsense. I rub at the sleep in my eyes, smearing the yellow mucus between them down the bridge of my nose. Yawning, I fetch a bowl of water and go outside to wash my face, armpits, private area and legs.
Looking up at the sky, I realize that it is barely 6AM, so who and what in the name of everything holy is making such a ruckus this early? “Papa! Papa o!” I yell out for my father but only silence answers me. I go to check his room, expecting to find him still enclosed in a cocoon of sleep but Papa is not there. It seems the noise woke him up before me.
I shut his door and go back to my room where I change into an it-was-white singlet and distressed shorts; my dunlop slippers are by the corner of the entrance still caked in mud. I beat them against the wall outside until the thick clumps of hardened mud fall off, then I put the slippers on and follow the noise until I reach the mud fields. I look down at my feet. Not again, I sigh.
Further down the field, I find Papa and Sunday; they look to be in a serious conversation, which is strange because I know Papa cannot understand anything Sunday says properly. They are surrounded by trucks; these look different from the ones I read about in my books, I’m guessing they are special trucks made for the oil.
“Good morning Sah,” I greet Papa, “good morning Oga Sunday.” John joins us but I don’t bother to extend any greeting to him; I have exhausted my fair share of good mornings and the noise of the machinery has made me irritable, I press my fingers against the side of my head as if to push back the headache that is threatening to form there.
I turn to John with a scowl, “I thought you said we would not even notice your presence here.”
John chuckles and waves my words away. “Yes yes but this is necessary, it is a one-time thing.” He proceeds to explain the process of oil exploration; I am not happy that they have already carried out prior testing on the land without our knowledge but I don’t mention it. Instead I wonder when they had the chance to do so that nobody from the village noticed. He tells us not to worry about the trucks, they will soon be out of our way as their target is not the mud fields but the forest.
The trucks are called thumpers and they are used to create sound waves that will help obtain structural information about the land without drilling a well. It saves time, John adds.
Just then, he signals to the truck drivers and yells over the racket, telling them to cut the engines. The headache in my temple recedes when they do; I let out a sigh of relief. John introduces us to the truck drivers who are engineers, one of them has skin darker than mine, he says he’s from Lagos and his team will be arriving as soon as they are done with initial explorations.
The rest of the engineer team consists of men from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands; the men are friendly and easy to talk to. Before I know it, we are joking and jesting while they answer a lot of questions from me about their country. My inquisitive nature has overcome the initial skepticism I felt.
Sunday shows Papa around the trucks, teaching him how to start and move them. The expression on Papa’s face is similar to that of Bassey’s when we catch a lot of fish. When they are finished, Papa practically skips over to let me know he will be going back home. “The rest of the village will be waking now, I must make sure they don’t disturb the white ogas.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
“No no, you will go with them, Oga Sunday talk say him go show you the oil.”
Papa leaves. In his absence I remember William. I don’t know why but I begin to search around the field for him; I find him skulking behind one of the thumper trucks. “Good morning o William how are you today?” I ask with glee in an English I believe is proper and stiff enough for him.
He looks taken aback. “Er good morning Mene.”
“So you even know my name and you pronounced it well too, not like your father and Sunday that pronounce it like they have nails in their mouth.” I expect him to be angry at my jest, but William grins, revealing rows of sharp white teeth and making me see that he is even younger than me.
“I’m sorry about being rude yesterday, I didn’t want to come but father made me.” He shrugs, “I don’t have interest in oil, I think it’s quite messy.”
“It’s okay, my Papa forces me to do some things I don’t like too, I understand.” William tilts his head at me and in that moment, we form an unspoken bond. I let him know he is more than welcome to come fishing with me anytime and he actually looks excited by the prospect.
We—I, Sunday, John, William and a woman who appeared out of nowhere—use a boat to cross to the forest while the engineers drive around the river.
The woman holds an umbrella-like thing over her head; it looks familiar, the name it’s called rests on the tip of my tongue but refuses to come out. I stare and stare at it until finally I tap William to ask, “William, what is the name of that thing?” I say, inclining my head at the woman.
“The thing she’s holding?”
I nod, “I’ve seen it in one of my textbooks but I don’t remember the name.”
“It is a parasol,” he replies. “Women use it to protect themselves from exposure to the sun.”
“Why not just use an umbrella?” I frown.
“The parasol is more ladylike,” William states, matter of fact.
“Oh,” I nod even though it makes no sense to me. The parasol looks like it could be blown away by the slightest breeze, and so does the woman. Lucky for me, I don’t say it out loud, because William tells me she’s Sunday’s wife.
We get to mangrove forest before the thumper trucks do. Once the boat is docked, John wastes no time in exploring, however, the lady stays back in the boat and so does William, making me wonder why they came in the first place.
John points to some areas, then whispers to Sunday. The secrecy makes me feel uneasy, I am about to ask what they are whispering about when something draws my attention.
A tree far off where John had pointed to seems to be shaking; it tilts to one side, and in a yawning split second, the tree falls to the ground. Gbam. The tree is followed by another and another and another. For a moment, I am struck silent. Is this an earthquake? But if it is, why do John and Sunday look so relaxed—excited even? Then it hits me.
“What are they doing?” My voice trembles with unbridled anger.
“Why, clearing the area of course, how do you think the trucks and other equipment will get here?” It is John who answers.
“You said nothing about this yesterday!”
“Are you daft boy?”
Ha! These men have the audacity to destroy my forest and ask if I am daft. I fly at John but he sidesteps me. “You said nothing about falling the trees,” I yell using my finger to hit his chest and punctuate every word. Another tree falls, closer this time; how are they even clearing the trees so fast?
John pushes with more strength than I thought he had; I land on the ground with my bottom, the soft earth breaks my fall. I hear a rustle then a click. When I angle my head up, there is a gun pointed at me. “Our actions here are sanctioned by your government. Do not overestimate your father’s authority young man. If we have to use force, then we will.”
Sunday lowers John’s hand, then comes to kneel beside me. “You do understand that your people never had a choice, don’t you?” I nod, bending my head to hide the angry tears that struggle to spill from my eyes. “Go back to the boat, you will be summoned when we find oil.”
I stomp away, wondering how to get back to the village to warn my people. Ah! I should never have let Papa agree to this. “William, get out of the boat, you and that woman, now!” Grabbing the oars, I begin to furiously row into the river, not even waiting for them to get out fully.
“I told you it was messy,” William says in a hush that rings in my ears all the way back to the village.
The villagers are consumed with outrage at hearing that the white men are destroying our ancestral land, our sacred forest, for oil. They still think it’s palm oil. Many of them suggest that the village boys take our boats and go to stop them. Bassey and Dooh are ready to but Papa stops them.
“Papa why now?”
“And lose the money? Think of what it would do for this vil
age and for our people Mene.”
“You knew,” I say, not a question but a statement, and Papa looks away. The villagers cry out once again, Papa calms them down, filling their heads with promises of better food and water, technology; the entire village is on his side the moment he mentions television. Only a handful of us have seen a television, the screen where people move and talk in, it fascinates them. Even Bassey and Dooh are sold.
It seems I am the only one who does not see any good in this, maybe I am overthinking things as usual, but then I remember the gun John had pointed at my head, I remember Sunday saying our people have no choice. Before I leave, I tell the villagers one last thing. “This people, they will destroy us.”
Night time brings the white men back to the village, this time they arrive with more men—some dressed like soldiers. These ones are from Lagos, they treat us the way I expected the white men to. Like rubbish.
The men set up camp at the riverbank in something that looks like a house on a boat; we hear jubilation from their end. They found the oil, lots of it from the sound of things.
The engineer from Lagos comes to invite the village to see samples of the oil they found. My people are quick to light their kerosene lamps, more interested in the merry partying than in the oil.
As village chief, Papa is the first to get to see the oil. There are just two barrels, painted in the same colors as the helicopter, with the same letters, S-H-E-L-L D-A-R-C-Y, written in yellow just below the opening of the barrel.
Papa dips his right hand up to his elbow into the barrel and draws it out, the Lagos engineer points his torchlight at Papa’s arm, hisses of exclamation flare up from my people. Even I cannot hold the “heii” that escapes my lips.
“What is this?” Papa shoves his hand at John. “This is not palm oil.” Papa’s hand is covered in viscous, black and slightly brown liquid. It clings to his arm like thick tar. Evil, that is the word that comes to mind, it looks evil. Like it is alive and ready to consume anything in its path.
John swallows from the bottle in his hands, he gestures to the Lagos engineer. “Explain to these illiterate people just what exactly crude oil is.” He staggers back to his boat-house, leaving my people to stare at the oil on Papa’s arm as if it will attack them if they dare turn away.
The SHELL DARCY people fully start drilling oil the next day. My people are barred from going close to the forest area, our fishing limited to the shallow waters near the riverbank—just for now, the Lagos engineer explains.
Bassey and Dooh go to sell their catch. I do not have the mind to fish today so I stay at home. From the village, I hear the falling of more trees and the ruckus from yesterday continues. No matter how hard I try, my textbooks cannot distract me.
Unable to sit still, I wear my dunlop slippers and go to the riverbank. The boat-houses are empty save for one; it is William who occupies it, I ignore his greeting and he makes no further attempt to talk to me.
The sight here causes my chest to ache. It is much worse seeing the destruction than hearing it: the screeching of the birds as they fly away to seek shelter elsewhere, the cries of the trees as they fall, the teeth-jarring noise of the drills as they break into the ground.
“This people will destroy our village now,” I cry.
“I’m sorry,” I hear William say behind me. I did not hear him approach. “This is just the beginning, this destruction, I’ve seen them do it in the other countries. I hate this!” he spits with venom.
His words anger me even more, his privileged words; I am angry that he has the privilege to say he hates something that does not affect him. “Wetin be that?!” I exclaim, forgetting my proper English. It feels like a sham now, to speak the words from the books of the white men.
The thing I ask about is a black oily mass floating across the edge of the riverbank. I scoop the thing out of the water, part of it comes away but more remains in the water, floating away from me. The oil clings to my hand, squeamish and tar-like in a kaleidoscope of colour. Why do the white men call it black gold when the oil is a mural of paint, splashed with red, orange, yellow, and blue.
The oil, it is a rainbow.
“This is just the beginning,” William mutters as he uses his starchy brown shirt to clean off the oil from my hand. It doesn’t clean off completely, I don’t think it can, don’t think it ever will.
William was right. That was just the beginning. Oil is a curse.
In just two months that the Shell workers have been here, they have cleared out almost half of the forest. Before, you could not see the other side of the land because of the thick mangrove vegetation, most of it is gone now and what remains is coated in bitumen.
Worst of all, the workers are careless and nonchalant. They have started to bring in pipes that would be used to transport the oil to the refineries in the big city. Sometimes the pipes will roll off their trucks and onto our farms, flattening crops; one time, it fell on top of an elder’s home. Almost crushing the poor man to death.
The white men and Shell workers have moved their boat-houses to the other side of the river, closer to the forest and farther from us. They live in blatant splendour, a vast contrast to our village.
As if that is not enough, they treat us like animals. Shoving us when we’re in their way, harassing our women and taking food from us without paying. The villagers grow angrier as days go by, they do not say it out loud but I know they blame Papa, they think he connived with the white men to sell the village and is secretly eating the money alone.
If blame falls on Papa, then ultimately, it falls on me.
I dodge an errant Shell worker on my way to the riverbank. “Idiot,” he mutters. I pause but continue on my way: Bassey and Dooh would be waiting for me already. Today is Bassey’s birthday, we have decided to fish for only half the morning then celebrate in the big city when we go to sell. A little bit of happiness blossoms in my chest, it has been long since I felt this way.
“Oyoyoooo, big men,” I shout in greeting, ready to resume the day with jesting and play fights. Bassey and Dooh do not respond. They are staring at the water as if they have seen a ghost. They and the other fishermen. My heart falters a bit, what is it again?
When I get closer, Dooh points at the water to show me what they are staring at although there is no need for him to: bloated dead fish float belly up, hundreds of them. More white bellies pop up father down the river, so maybe more than hundreds. The bodies are tainted black with oil; it is an obscene image. Dead fish floating in rainbow patches.
Bassey claps and folds both his arms across his chest with a huff. “Ah Mene, see wetin these people don do o, see wetin them dey do us Mene.”
I reach into the water and pull out the dead fish closest to me. It is slimy and cold. I throw the fish on the sand and bring out another one. The fishermen follow my cue, taking out dead fish one after the other until the area is clear. Then we get our nets and untie the boats and row into the river. Not a word is uttered.
Dooh is the first to throw his net today, his mother’s sickness has worsened and the herbs he bought no longer take effect. “Nothing dey this water,” Dooh says sadly as he tells us to bring up the net. As usual, he is correct. The net comes out empty, but heavy with the dark oil that clings to it.
The other fishermen gape at Dooh’s net. Never! Never in our lives have we seen a net empty after it goes into the water. A headache blooms in my head as we row back to the riverbank. There, we burn the dead fish we had gathered.
“This night, I am coming back here,” I say to them, “and I will row to that place and destroy whatever I see.”
When I come back under the dark cloak of the night, I meet all of them there, in addition to some of the farmers and younger boys. We row as quietly but as fast as we can to the forest area. We leave our boats a little bit far off the shore and swim the rest of the way.
The lights in the boat houses are off, but still, we lighten our footsteps. I am surprised to see that there are no soldiers, I expected to meet some resistance. It seems the Shell workers grew complacent since our village showed no signs of rebellion before.
We are met with trucks and barrels upon barrels of oil. The pipe closest to the water is broken and oil gushes out of it like a geyser and pours unrestrained into the river. It is an absolute mess. We don’t waste time; Bassey, Dooh and some other boys tinker with the trucks—cutting wires and stabbing tires with sharp nails. I lead the rest; they want to destroy the pipelines but that would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
This resistance, though small and perhaps practically unreasonable, leaves us feeling triumphant as we head back to the village. I know that we will no longer sit and watch as they abuse our land and pollute it in their selfish quest for oil money.
A soft, hoarse voice wakes me. “Mene, Mene, stand up, you have to run.” It is followed by a heavy slap to my face and that is enough to send away the sleep I sorely crave.
“What is it?” I crack my eye open to see the pale white skin of William. William? What is he doing back in Ogoni? He had left with Sunday’s wife a week after the white men showed us their black gold.
“You need to run Mene, my father is coming with soldiers, they will arrest all of you,” William coughs out as he pushes me out of my bed and hands me my dunlop slippers. “I heard of what your people did, you shouldn’t have done that.”
“Eh William hold it! You don’t get to tell us what we can and cannot do.”
William shakes his head and drags me out of my house. “Shit,” he mutters into the gun barrel pointed at our heads. It’s too late, the soldiers are already here. They bang on doors and drag out any boy they see, even those that weren’t part of our little sabotage team.
They round us up, pushing William to the side, where John grabs a handful of his shirt then hits him. William staggers to the ground, then gets up and squares his shoulders in defiance. John hits him again and this time, he does not get up. His father signals one of the soldiers to take him. Our eyes meet as his limp form is dragged away, and I know I will never forget William—I know I will never see him again.
Papa limps out of the house—he is still recovering from a farming incident with a hoe—his ire is directed at John. “Have you not done enough to this village? You deceive us, spoil our means of livelihood and do not give us the money you promised. I say is it not enough Oga John.”
John sneers at him, “Go to your corrupt government and ask for your money.” He instructs the soldiers to bundle us into their trucks.
The entire village is silent, in shock. How did we go from a tiny prosperous village to this? I see this question in their eyes.
Deki runs at the soldier that has Bassey. “Don’t take brother Bassey, please leave my brother alone!” Her cries are cut off as the soldier pushes her away. That is when all hell breaks loose. Bassey struggles free from the hold of the soldier restraining him and punches him. Fueled by his actions, the other boys begin to jump out of the trucks and fight back. I join them.
A gunshot is followed by a scream, a body thuds to the ground. Another scream, “Dafe!” The boy on the ground is Bassey’s brother, his immediate younger one. I don’t need to check to know that he is gone.
The hushed silence is broken by Bassey’s sorrow. “Why you shoot am! Wetin the boy do you wey you shoot am!” Bassey cries out in a guttural cacophonous voice that does not belong to him and goes for the soldier with the raised gun. The soldier easily restrains Bassey and hits him with the butt of the gun. Bassey crumples to the ground.
I blink, how did we get here? How?
“Enough.” Papa limps to John and leans into him, close enough for their noses to touch. “I am the chief of this village, this boys act only under my command. Leave them and take me.”
John and the white men leave us in clouds of dust flared up by their trucks. Blood seeps into the earth where Bassey’s brother lies unmoving. Deki lies on top of him, her body heaving with heavy sobs; her remaining siblings carry her away. They go into their house and do not come out again.
We bury Dafe after Bassey rouses. Just the three of us and the rest of his siblings. Dooh sings that song, the one about the boy who has to prove himself as a warrior by fighting an invincible monster.
At first, I think the song is inappropriate—the white man John and the soldiers are not invincible—but when it’s time for us to cover up the shallow, hastily dug grave, I realize it is, because John and the soldiers aren’t the monsters, SHELL DARCY is.
“Wetin we go do about your Papa?” Bassey asks me after he throws the last piece of sand on his brother’s grave. Dooh and I exchange looks.
“Why don’t you go home with your siblings first, console them, then we will—”
“Mene no dey speak all this English for me.” Bassey swivels around. “Them don take my brother, you go allow them carry your Papa join?”
That’s when I understand that Bassey somehow wants to get his brother back through my father. I wish desperately that he will choose another way to express his grief. I am not that lucky; I see the look in his eyes, Bassey wants revenge.
“Tomorrow,” I assure him, “we will go and protest in the big city.” Bassey nods but I can see that a protest is not what he wants.
We leave in the morning; the only people left behind in the village are elders too old to manage the trek and children too young to be exposed to the cruelty we might encounter.
The big city introduces itself to us with Shell refineries where thick black plumes of smoke curl out of tall cylindrical cement buildings.
Our protest is a silent one. I do not want the government to have another excuse to pack all of us like sardines to jail. We carry placards with daring words mixed with curses.
Shell is killing
us and killing our land
Leave our village alone
Glass flaring kills Ogonis
Assassins, go home
Shell is hell. This one is mine.
A group of soldiers approach us, I turn back to find Bassey to hold him from doing anything rash, but Bassey is not amongst us. Dooh notices this too and shrugs at me. I tell my people to relax while I have a few words with the soldiers.
They laugh at us after I explain why we are here, then they let us continue our protest. I see why much later when our protests are met with silence. Occasionally, cars drive by and bathe us with mud water. No government official comes to address us like I had expected.
We are nothing to this people. This affluent people in the city who live in houses of brick and mortar while we live in sheds. Their wealth is an affront to us, it protests for them so they don’t have to.
This becomes our routine for the next few months, wake up, go to the city, protest, be ignored. We do it over and over again until our voices become weak and scratchy and tired. The number that follows me dwindles every day but I go regardless until one day it is just me and Dooh, with Bassey who disappears like he always does.
Papa is never returned to us, to me. I know the villagers think good riddance to bad rubbish. He is the one who agreed to the lies of the white men. They do not remember how they danced and posed for John’s camera. But I point no fingers. No one is to blame except Shell Darcy and the conniving white men and a government who sold us out to Shell.
One day, when I stop at a bar to buy pure water, I see on the news that our village is not the only one that Shell has destroyed and we are not the only ones protesting, however, some communities use a different form of protest, they are not as peaceful as we are. In place of placards, they carry guns.
Word spreads like wildfire about this people who choose to fight back, even our small peaceful protest is added into the mix, the government is quick to label us Niger delta militants.
Militants: the word leaves a bad taste in my mouth. We are so much more than that, we are people who were cheated and stolen from. People who simply want their land and source of livelihood back, but the thing is, when the world gives you a label, it is impossible to shed. They say that is what you are, so you must become.
That is how we become the Niger delta militants, and from there, we become a national threat.
There is a structure.
Its design is rudimentary, consisting of old corroded pipes and drums welded together. Within the drums, oil boils and releases fumes that sting my eye. On the oil cloaked ground just beside the drums is a gun.
Someone is speaking to me, but the words fade in and out, I put my finger in my ear and twist it three times to make sure my hearing is still alright. It is, but there’s a slight ringing.
“E make sense abi or wetin you feel?”
Bassey, he’s the one talking to me. I look at him with my brows furrowed in the middle. “What do I feel about this?” An illegal oil refinery. He’s asking what I feel about an illegal refinery. “You want to know what I have to say about you committing a crime?”
Bassey kisses his teeth and shoves my shoulder, not hard but with enough force for me to know I’ve angered him. He goes to one of the two oil drums and connects another pipe to it.
“Dooh,” he calls out to Dooh who stands mute beside me, “come make I show you this thing.” Dooh doesn’t move. I can see the gears in his mind, whirring and clicking, trying to reconcile the Bassey who holds a gun with the Bassey we knew.
When and how did he even get the money to build this. Then I remember that each time we went to the big city, Bassey disappeared, and when we came back, he wouldn’t be in the village. I’d been so caught up in my protest that I hadn’t taken the time to process everything.
“The money, who gave it to you?” First things first.
He stops tinkering with the barrel for a second to look at me, deciding if he should answer. “E get one politician.”
I raise my brows urging him to continue. Bassey groans and drops the rubber pipe in his hands. He coughs and cleans his blackened hands on his shorts. “That day wey we start protest, e get one politician wey call me. He talk say he know wetin dem do my brother and your Papa.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dooh peer into the oil drum. He does it again, distracting me. “After that?” I say, returning my attention to Bassey.
He shrugs. “Eh him say he go give me money to do this thing, and we go share the money half half.” Bassey presses his mouth into a thin line as his shoulders go rigid, he goes back to working the pipes. He’s dismissed me.
“Bassey, I know you’re grieving and that’s why you made this decision but ah, e no good.” I point to the other side of the river. “See now, what will happen when they reach here?” I ask, referring to the Shell Darcy people.
“We go move.”
“We? You want us to put our lives in danger to make money for a politician who probably had a hand in what happened to us in the first place? Think now Bassey! I’m not doing this with you o.”
Bassey pauses, the air between us goes frigid, curling up in my nostrils and threatening to choke me. “Why?”
I lose my patience, this boy can’t possibly be serious. “Are you crazy, this is illegal, if they catch you—no I don’t even care about that. It’s too dangerous, what if there’s a fire!”
“That one no concern me. If you no want do—dey go. After all na your Papa cause all this thing wey dey happen.”
My heart lurches. There it is, the unspoken words no one dared to say to me, out here in the open. I should have known it was Bassey who would dare to tread where no one else would. Dooh flinches at his words but does not say anything, like I expect him to, but it’s fine—Dooh is a peacemaker.
“If I remember well Bassey, you were among the people who agreed with my father’s decision.”
“So? Na still your idiot Papa cause am.” He comes up to me and draws up to his full height, daring me to say a word.
The feeling in my chest is inexplicable, I’ve never felt this way before so I can’t quite put my fingers on it. I want to say this is rage but I’m not sure, but what I do know is that it has a touch of sorrow to it.
Our fight is like a flurry of choreographed moves, like the steps have been set up for Bassey to win, although I throw the first punch. With blow after blow, he releases all of the pent up anger in him. At some point, Bassey begins to cry and I do nothing but let him use me as an emotional crutch. When he is done, he tosses me aside like a rag.
“Mene I—” he begins to say, but I cut him off, I can’t bear that slight apology I see in his eyes while his fists say otherwise.
“No be your fault Bassey, no be your fault at all.” It is as if he has beaten all my proper English out of me, the thought almost makes me laugh. “Dooh make we leave this fool, he will find what he is looking for very soon.”
Dooh does not follow, he stands beside Bassey, declaring silently whose side he has chosen. “My Mama dey sick Mene, we need money for medicine.”
I blink and shake my head, making a flash of pain dance in my eyes. “Okay, okay o, good-luck to both of you.” That is the last thing I say to them even though I want to say more.
We don’t see each other much after that, I keep to my house when I’m not protesting as a one-man squad in the city. It’s difficult but we manage to do it—avoid each other that is. I wish I could hate them.
Instead, I read the bible I found in my Papa’s empty room, then I pray every day to a God I do not believe in. I beg him to send us back in time, back to before when John and Sunday came. I tell him that if he does, I will take a rifle and shoot both of them without hesitation. “I no be killer o God but I go do am.” I have turned to pidgin, let the white men have their language!
If there is one thing I’ll never let the oil take from me, it’s my river. It does not matter that the oily mass clings to my skin each time I get in, it does not matter if there are no more fish, this river—it’s still mine. So I trade my nets for buckets, the fish for sand, and become a sand fisherman.
It is just me and five other men. The rest of the fishermen and farmers have joined Bassey. I don’t blame them either, especially our farmers; it must have been painful to watch the oil seep into the soil and eat their crops. To see their livelihood stolen in the blink of an eye. All their hoeing and tilling overtaken by marshy black oil.
Over the next months, I fall into a routine. I get up as early as I can and head to the riverbank. There I strip and enter the water, naked as the day I was born. I use a bucket to swim to the bottom of the river, gather sand with it, then swim up and empty the sand in my boat. It’s delicate work but not hard to get used to.
Then I sell the sand to the cement factory in the big city, luckily I don’t have to find how to lug the sand all the way there, the factory sends a truck every day, I and the other sand fishers fill it up and get paid. The money is not much but it keeps our bellies full.
After this, I jog back home, change my clothes and carry the Shell is hell placard. I protest every day while my people remain in the village sick and dying from the pollution. Still, my father is not returned to me.
The sun is cruel today, its rays nip at the back of my neck, threatening to melt my skin off.
I try to work faster but the hard labour is beginning to take its toll on me, my limbs feel loose and separate from my body, the swelling of my legs should feel heavy but it does not—not to mention how deep my eyes have sunken into my head, red and swollen and contrasting with blue-tinged lips.
“Mene e don do, no kill yourself.” Inengite, another sand fisher, calls out to me as he pushes his boat past. Both of us have established something of a partnership, similar to what I had with Bassey and Dooh but never the same. God I miss them! They do not come to the village anymore, sleeping and eating in that illegal refinery like their very lives depends on it.
“Mene I say your sand don dey OK!” Inengite warns again, but I tell him to go ahead, I need to work this exhaustion out of my body. Poor boy, he says as he leaves, and I am reminded that today is the day I turn sixteen. I am now a full man, as my people would say. I feel older than that sha.
Struggle: it has a way of ageing you beyond your years.
“One more,” I say to myself, ignoring the heaviness in my hands, then I grab my bucket, but a sudden cough seizes me. My abdomen constricts painfully and I bend over to release the cough, what comes out is a chunky glob of blood. I stare at the blood as it melts into the river water and flows away, then I take my bucket and swim down.
It still managed to shock me a little—the blood. “Chronic bronchitis,” the doctor in the big city had announced with a grimace on his pockmarked face. I had not bothered to ask him what it was, I knew instantly that sand money could not treat it.
Above the water, a boat flies past, followed by another. This one goes so fast it causes ripples in the water; my boat overturns, pouring all the sand on me and back into the river. The sand sinks, pushing me down, taking hours of labour along with it. I bite my lips and continue to swim up, willing the tears that form in my eye to go away.
As I swim up, something catches my eye through the murky water, I see it clearly because it gleams in the sun. A gun. I swim under my boat, using it as cover. I’ve had too many traumatizing moments with guns to let these men catch me even though I don’t know what they are here for.
I watch from the cover of my boat, three boats with the Shell Darcy logo, each with at least five army men loaded with guns and bullets strapped around their shoulders. They are headed in one direction; my mouth says it before even my brain can come around: “Bassey, Dooh!”
My following actions are like an out of body experience, somehow I find myself swimming across the river with long but slow strokes. The soldiers are long gone now, and only the slap of my heavy strokes disturbs the river. I make it to the illegal refinery coughing and hacking.
Hot pressure builds in my chest but I ignore it as I pull myself out of the river.
If ever I needed an accurate image of chaos, this would be it. The men from my village take unpracticed aim at the soldiers, lucky if a bullet hits, unlucky if it doesn’t. I see one of them go down, I recognize him. His wife gave birth to his sixth child just yesterday.
Another man takes a bullet to the head, his body hits the ground, his mouth open in a silent scream. Through all this, I do not spot Bassey and Dooh from where I stay hidden. The pressure in my chest spreads.
I force myself to think over the deafening sound of gunshots and war. Dooh is smart, Dooh wouldn’t let Bassey stay behind to fight no matter what. My eye drifts to the other end of the refinery, the part that serves as a shortcut back to our village.
Again, my body moves before my mind is ready, I am half running, half crawling through the bushes hoping I do not get spotted by a soldier. My prayer is short-lived, because just as I utter it, a soldier slams into me, tackling me headfirst to the ground. He flips me over and pushes my head into a deep puddle of oily water; I make the mistake of inhaling as I struggle. My lungs and nostrils are filled within seconds, my chest burns.
The soldier raises my head up; I don’t have enough time to gasp before he pushes it back down, this time into the earth, and I swallow a handful of mud. If I wasn’t being suffocated to death, I would be irritated by the earthworm I also swallowed.
Darkness flashes across my eyes, briefly, but I understand what it means and I make my peace with it. I always thought I would die with a lot of regrets; wishing I had found a way to leave our village, a way to bring my Papa back, a way to turn back time to before everything. But none of that crosses my mind. Instead I think about Bassey and Dooh and how I would die a thousa
d times over for them.
Then I hear someone shout my name, and the soldier is no longer pressing my head into the mud.
“Hold his other hand, fast!” That’s Dooh, I recognize his voice even though he sounds different. Older and tired.
They wipe the mud from my eyes, it stings but my vision returns immediately. “Let’s go.” Dooh hoists my arm over his neck and pulls me along.
“Mene, wetin you come find here,” Bassey says, out of breath.
I suddenly feel the urge to laugh, what else does he think I came to find? “Don’t be stupid Bassey,” I reply and sling my arm off his neck. We begin to run faster.
It is getting darker, so we have to squint to see where we are going, which is why we don’t see the soldier or the yawning mouth of his gun until it’s too late. “Bassey!” Dooh moves to push Bassey away from the line of the bullet, I get there before him and shove Bassey, we both fall to the ground with a grunt.
Something lodges itself in my chest, it feels like an errant pebble has been chucked at me. A burning, aggravating sensation grows in my chest. Another bullet fires; Dooh has killed the soldier. My Dooh killed a soldier.
When I roll off Bassey, blood covers his shirt, staining it red. The feeling in my chest tells me the blood is mine not his. The realization hits him and Dooh at the same time, just when I collapse to the ground and black out.
I come to and the first thing I see is Bassey crouched over me with tears and snot rolling down his face. I turn his head a little to see that we are in a small cave and it is completely dark outside.
“Mene why you come that place, why Mene ah.” He grips both sides of his head and drags at his hair.
I make a frail attempt to hit him. “You be my brother for life; both of you, abi you no remember.” And I mean it. “Bassey no be your fault. I don dey go small small since before now,” just then my throat fills with liquid and I cough it up; it is red and thick as if to punctuate my words.
Bassey is a mess, a crying snivelling mess, I expected him to be braver than this. “Mene abeg I tey god beg you, stand up.”
“You go promise me something first.”
“You go commot this village after today, carry Deki and your siblings leave this place.” I turn slightly, “Dooh you too. This oil na curse, leave am!”
Dooh scoots closer to me and puts his hand on my forehead, then he closes my eyes because Dooh always knows. He begins to whisper our song, the one about the warrior boy. Bassey joins him.
“Of sticks and stones he was not made
yet the boy remained brave
against the monster; invisible it was
how would he prevail against the unknown
the boy cries as claws of steel rake through his heart
See how the boy bleeds
proclaimed a warrior
but only by his death”
I sing it with them, my voice fading in and out.
Once I read a book that was not given to me by my Papa, it was about death. There was a part that stuck, the words imprinted in my memory like ink on paper. It said, when a person dies, his soul carries on the memory of how he died.
I imagine it is true as I sing the last line of our song. That my soul will come out to carry the memory of how I died, that my soul will never forget the image of me ravished by life and covered in black gold, my feet tinged with a kaleidoscope of colors where the oil has mixed with water.
Yes, my soul will hold the memory of me leaving this world in a baptism of blood and oil.