Signs of an imminent malaria attack were visible on my entire body system with its usual bitter lips, loss of appetite, mild pains across on the forehead and general joint weaknesses. But like Ulysses, the spirited hero of Homer’s Odyssey of the great English Victorian Poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), in spite of my dwindling health condition, I must navigate to the island of spirits. In some stanzas of Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, he chanted ; “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink/life to the less; all times I have enjoyed/greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those/that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when/through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades/vext the dim sea; I am become a name…’.
It was about 12.30pm, on Saturday, 5th July, 2013. I and James Sampson, my long-time comrade and would-be host, chartered a dark-coloured Hyundai Verna car from a transport company in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital. The car took us to the Ogbia town, about 45 minutes away, located on the east of the state. We had to catch an early afternoon boat to the ancient Odio-Ama community in the Brass Local Government Area (LGA). The next day, Sunday, we had to travel again, to Okpoko – Nabadi Island, the sacred island of the ‘mysterious’ water spirits. This place is also called the Vanish Island.
We got to Ogbia wharf, a small concrete platform built at the shoreline. Small commercial motorized fibre boats (speed boats) and other sea crafts load and unload goods and humans on an hourly basis there. It is located on the south of Ogbia town in the Ogbia Local Government Area. We spent some time in a tiny hut erected with woods and roofed with low quality zinc. It served as some kind of a waiting room for passengers either sailing into the creeks or returning. Some twenty minutes before 2.00pm, a young man, in his mid-30s, average height, with wide chest and extremely dark in complexion, walked confidently out of the waiting hut. Pointing his right hands towards a boat at the waterside, and shouting atop his sharp voice, “all Nembe creek and Odio-Ama passengers make una come dis way oooooooooooo”. He wailed repeatedly. I heard some other of his colleagues addressing him, “Pilot 1”. As we walked into his waiting 15-passanger, four metre long speed boat, and mounted on it, the 75 horse powered engine boat roared away. In and outside the boat, were the cursory words,” Nembe Natuma Biueri Tugha Marine-When God say yes, no one can say no”.
We were only nine passengers on board. It wasn’t up to the fifteen passengers he was supposed to carry; nonetheless, he had to move. I sat close to the driver. James sat in the front row. The boat has five sizeable wooden tables lined across the boat like a theatre where passengers seat. Each row should normally have three passengers. The boat did not have the required safety vests. Pilot 1 rented fifteen red-coloured life jackets from another boat driver. On them, were the even, but uneven engravings, “Oyokolo on Vest”. I came with my personal vest, a fairly neat and new one with red colour too. On it, were the attention-grabbing lines, which the manufacturers had inscribed, “The search horse – work vest only – wears this vest properly. Fasten buckles. Adjust for snug fit”.
At the waterfront is a patrol station. It is constructed at the shoreline. “Abada Oil Nigeria Limited” was the warm marks at the station. Our driver refilled his containers with the reeking, combustible fuel. Some passengers bought fuel too, for their small generators, which are, sarcastically, called in Nigeria, “I pass my neighbor”. We spent about twenty minutes going through that ritual. The boat was set to sail. The driver looked at me severally, smiling lightly and said, “master, I sabi you. I don carry you before”. I couldn’t recollect. “Thank you, my brother. My name is Patrick, and not master”. I replied him and other passengers ruptured into laughter. “No, but you are my boss”. He responded in Pidgin English in his thick Ijaw ascent. “Okay, my brother. We go talk”. He smiled again, and I laughed. It must have been one of my exciting journalistic voyages into the Central Delta creeks in those days when armed violence and the black market trade in small arms exploded in our faces.
He swung his right hand stylishly, and sped off, travelling the southerly course on the Ogbia creek. The creek is a web of fresh water bodies (brackish). Its coastline shapes up forest swamps, undersized mangrove trees and aromatic water hyacinth plants, sagging through the watercourses. I saw two huge fishing trawlers, abandoned at the entrance to the Ogbia jetty from the south. They were said to have been purchased by the government of Chief Timipre Sylva, the former governor of the State, one, named after Margaret Alamieseigha, wife of Bayelsa State first civilian governor. Another had “Patience Jonathan” boldly written on it. Patience is the wife of current Nigeria’s president. Goodluck Jonathan was also governor of the State.
The tide was full and the river calm. We continued our southwards movement through Oguama, a sprawling boundary community between Ogbia and Nembe Local Government Areas. We saw under-aged girls and boys and middle aged women in their various sizes of dugout canoes, pulling them with the aid of wooden paddles along the waterways. Some either returning or going to fishing. Violent ripples from our speedboat tossed their boats unpleasantly. Memories of my youthful days either going to fishing alone in a dugout canoe or in group cruising in the tidal creeks of the eastern Delta sped through my mind. Our racing boat flew like an arrow still southwards, entering the famous Ogbia-Nembe Creek channel. I dipped my right hand into the water to collect some handful and touched my tongue. In this inlet, fresh and marine water (still brackish) clash.
The Ogbia-Nembe creek is about five kilometres long. We vanished through the maze of dwarf and tall mangrove trees, some falling off, others growing luxuriantly. We sailed by Sabatoru and Igbeta-Ewoama communities in the Nembe Local Government Area. These communities sit on the seashore of the Ogbia-Nembe creek. As we broke through into the Nembe creek, one of the branches of the fearsome Brass River, our Pilot 1(the driver) increased his speed. The Nembe creek is a wider creek network. Our boat met vicious waves.We had spent about one hour travelling.
We ran through Edwinkiri, a collection of few thatched houses. Here, artisanal fisher women and women from other parts of Nigeria do the fish trade and services. Clouds of smoke puff around their roofs like a chimney, an indication they were drying their fishes using mangrove woods. It was around the Kinkiama – Bugo community, another fishing camp that I saw the labels on a minor heavy iron stand, “High pipeline pressure. Do not anchor”. Shell owes the pipelines. There was a house boat with several soldiers from the Operation Pulo Shield (OPS) few meters away. We dropped two passengers around a slight settlement near the Shell’s Nembe Creek Flow Station 1. Shell has up to four massive flow stations there. The area is said to have immense oil and gas deposits. The whole area is fortified like a major military base.
After the Nembe creek stop over, we diverted to a fishing settlement called Pipeline Fishing Port. A passenger wanted to drop some cash with a relative, but sadly, the person had gone to fishing. There were kids, numbering eight, and should be between the ages of two to six. They were unclothed and barefooted, chewing dried shrimps. They laughed and waved at us. Giant pipelines belonging to the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), the Italian oil and gas corporation are all over the impoverished fishing village. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any biscuits or chocolate to offer them. I felt bad. I was told that the villagers there arrested two suspected sea pirates two weeks before. They were handed over to the police at Twon Brass, Brass Local Government headquarters. Sea piracy is a major maritime security problem in the region. The routes we journeyed through had recorded several incidents of armed attacks and piracy lately.
I was a bit thirsty, hungry and tired. But we need to spend the remaining twenty minutes to cross the raging St. Nicholas River. The river rests on the southern fringe of the state. The Odio-Ama community lies on the eastern end of the river and south to the Bight of Bonny. It has high salt concentration (estuarine). The driver seemed more resolved than ever. Pilot 1 dared the surging waves with his boat as it shivered shockingly. The cloud over us moved closer, and threatened to pound us into the angry claps and bursts of St. Nicholas River. I enjoy sea voyage, but that day wasn’t too pleasant. When we got to the middle of the river, some strange thoughts overwhelmed me, feelings of a possible mishap. I have had such experiences as a boy. However, I was prepared to accept any costs arising from the voyage. When I saw smaller dugout motorized fishing canoes also confronting the ocean wrath, I was consoled, especially, when its occupants smiled and waved at us.
Around 3.58pm, our boat successfully crossed the St. Nicholas River and landed ashore Odio-Ama creek lane like a distressed aeroplane from the womb of a wild weather.
Naagbanton lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital, Nigeria.
- To be continued.
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