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Irekefe Island


ISSUE:  Winter 2010

Boma was alone when I got home in the evening, and I could tell she had been crying. I had gone straight to the office to write my report for tomorrow’s paper, my legs still wobbly from standing all afternoon on the ferry. We had made so many stops on the way that I had begun to think we were never going to reach Port Harcourt; we had picked up women carrying chickens in baskets and crabs in buckets and leading squealing goats by ropes around the neck on their way to the market. The air in the ferry’s central lounge soon grew foul, forcing me to abandon my seat next to a fat, laughing, gesticulating woman and her two children to stand outside by the rail, my eyes focused on the receding coastline, my mind contemplating what awaited me in Port Harcourt.

Boma was seated in my wicker armchair, facing the TV, but in such a way that her profile showed the undamaged side of her face, and even when she looked up as I entered she still managed to keep the burnt, badly healed side hidden. She did it unconsciously, but the scar always dictated how she stood, how she sat. It made me sad when she did that. How could I tell her that she really needn’t do that with me? Only with John, her husband, was she ever able to sit without regard to where the light fell. But two months ago John had left her, and now she had taken to stopping by more often, even when I wasn’t around. She’d clean the dishes and cook and sweep the room, but sometimes she just sat and cried.

Today her bags and crockery and TV and other household things were heaped in a corner of my tiny living room.

—The landlord kicked me out.

She lived in a tenement house similar to mine, in a room-and-parlour, owned by the same hard-faced, unsmiling landlord. The landlord had started hanging around outside their door soon after John, who worked as a mail sorter till six months ago when the courier company closed down, had lost his job. Since Boma was only a trainee typist and didn’t receive a salary, I had shared my monthly pay with them, knowing that they had only me to turn to as I had only them. I went to the bathroom and when I came back she stood up and went to the stove and dished out some rice for me.

When the silence grew too heavy, even with the TV on, I told her of the kidnapping, and the devastated island. When I got to the dead bodies, she burst into tears.

—The poor people, they could be anyone, just anyone.

I knew she was thinking of John. He had become very political, hanging out in backstreet barrooms with other unemployed youths to play cards and drink all day, always complaining about the government. He had been full of anger before he left, the kind of anger that often pushed one to blaspheme, or to rob a bank, or to join the militants. I had seen that kind of anger in many of my friends before, people I went to school with; some of them were now in the forests with the fighters, some of them had made millions from ransom money, but a lot of them were dead.

—Boma, John has more sense than that.

John had married her when others had cringed and recoiled at the sight of her red, constantly watery eyes and curdled cheeks. We had grown up together, the three of us; fought the bullies together in primary and secondary school, parting only when I left home, the first time to become a photographer’s apprentice in Port Harcourt, the second time for journalism school in Lagos. At first I thought John had stuck to Boma out of pity, and I resented him for it; I really truly believed only when I saw the exchange of rings, and the joy on my sister’s damaged face.

She slept on the bed and I spread a blanket on my old and tattered carpet in the living room after moving some of her things into the bedroom. Boma went to sleep immediately, but I couldn’t sleep, and when I got sore from endlessly tossing and turning, I turned on the TV and watched a science fiction movie about a submerged world. The polar ice cap has melted and land has sunk under water and is now only talked about in legends. The star is a hated mutant, with gills and webbed feet, and he is clever with contraptions and devices. In one scene he takes the heroine under water in a bell jar and shows her an inundated city. This is it, he tells her, there is no dry land, so quit hoping. There are long and beautiful shots of endless ocean, with only the mariner’s frail boat on it, dwarfed by the liquid blue vastness of the ocean. I fell asleep with the movie still playing, thinking there was something sad about people who were born and lived and died on water, on rusty ships and boats and fantastic balloons, their days and nights filled with the hope of someday finding dirt, their wars and industries and relationships and culture all driven by the myth of dry land.

The Reporter was a moderate, middlebrow daily occupying the two bottom floors in a five floor building in central Port Harcourt. The paper had been in existence for over seven years now, and in that time the staff had grown from twenty to two hundred, the print run from one thousand to over ten thousand. It was owned by Godwin Amaechi, “Chairman” to his employees, a seventy-year-old veteran journalist who still came to the office earlier than everyone else and stayed till 10 p.m. after the next day’s issue had been put to bed. He controlled every aspect of the paper, from its accounts to its editorials, with a dictator’s hand, albeit a benevolent one. I had seen colleagues who were currently out of favor duck into a doorway at his approach; I had seen line editors make a sign of the cross before going into his office for a meeting. At midday, every day except Sundays when he stayed home, he’d carry out what we privately called the “ceremonial inspection of the guards,” starting from the long, rectangular newsroom where he’d accordingly chastise or praise a deserving reporter, and ending up at the dining room on the ground floor an hour later. For the next hour he’d sit at the head of the table, surrounded by editors and other senior staff, each doing his best to outshine the other in suggesting ingenious story ideas. The day’s favorite reporter usually sat to the Chairman’s right at those grim lunches—an honor said to be painful as torture.

Today, for the first time, I was experiencing it. For over an hour I answered the Chairman’s questions, giving as many details as I could, hardly blinking, hardly breathing, mostly swallowing without chewing, gulping down mouthfuls of water to stop myself from choking on my pounded yam. Now I understood why some colleagues called these lunches “The Last Supper.”

—You have done a great job. Good pictures.

—Thank you sir.

—And tell me about Zaq. I understand you were there with him?

He waved the morning paper which carried my article.

—Yes. He was very helpful. He is still out there, on Irikefe Island. He needed the break.

—I knew him, once. We used to work for the same paper. But that was a long time ago.

The kidnapping, which had receded to the inside pages over the past couple of days, had inched back to the front page once again, mainly because of the violent gun battle on the island. Some of the men, like Nkem at the Globe, speculated in their report that Mrs. Floode might be dead, using garish pictures of dead bodies and burning huts to support their speculation. My story, which the Reporter brought out in a special edition, had captured more attention than the other reports, perhaps because I had referenced and quoted Zaq a lot, and also because, due to my training, I knew how to use pictures better than the other reporters. The shrill urgency and tragedy that my text tactfully refrained from mentioning, I used my close-ups to convey with twice the impact. That morning two Reuters reporters, after reading my story, came to the newsroom to chat with me.

After the meal, which I could still feel suspended in a hard lump between my chest and my stomach, I sat in the deserted newsroom to recover. Most of the reporters were out on their beats and would only start trickling in late in the afternoon to write down their pieces for tomorrow. When I felt the strength return to my legs, I stood up and crossed over to the editor’s office. I found him seated behind his desk, the fan in the corner focused directly at his face, his tie loosened, exposing his lumpy neck, a toothpick stuck between his lips.

—Ah, here comes our star reporter. When are you going to see the husband?

—Right now. He is expecting me. I just came in to let you know . . .

—Go, go. Make sure you get a good interview.

—Well, he said no interviews, till after everything is over.

—Well, once it is over then it is over, isn’t it? Anyway, go get whatever you can out of him, then take the rest of the day off. Come back early on Monday and we’ll find a nice exciting assignment for you.

He stood up and shook my hand. His behavior toward me had dramatically changed since I’d returned from Irikefe.

—The Chairman is really pleased with you. He thinks you’ll make a good reporter. We shall see.

The Floodes lived in one of the many colonial style buildings on the Port Harcourt waterfront where most of the wealthy expatriate oil workers lived. It was hidden behind a tall, barbed wire-topped wall, and I passed two gates and about a half dozen security men talking to each other on radios before I finally saw Mr. Floode.

I was led in by a uniformed guard. We crossed a huge lawn to the front door, which the guard pushed open without pressing the bell. I followed him into a spacious living room dimly lit by shaded wall lamps, with an ornamental fan turning slowly in the center of the ceiling. We came out through a back door onto the patio where Floode waited, seated on a wicker chair, a cocktail on the glass table in front of him. He waved the guard away, then he stood up and took my hand.

—Thank you for coming, Mr. . . .

—Rufus.

—That is a good name. Is that a common name around here?

—I know a few.

He waved me to a sit.

—I haven’t been here long, you know. This is my second year in the country and I am still trying to understand the place and the people. I think Nigerians are very nice and hospitable . . .

—You think so, even after the kidnapping?

James Floode looked momentarily surprised at my directness, but I wanted to get to the point as quickly as possible. He sighed and his eyes turned dark as he reached forward and picked up his drink. He must have had a few before my arrival; his movement was slow and deliberate, just like his speech. So far he had refused to talk to the media, including his country’s media, apart from a few prepared comments about missing his wife and his hopes that the kidnappers would release her soon. I was aware how important this moment was, even though I was here by default.

—Tell me, are you married, Mr. Rufus?

—No. Please call me Rufus, it is also my first name. No, Mr. Floode. I am not married. I am only twenty-five.

—Call me James. Well, a lot of you chaps do marry rather early, is it not so? A few of the workers I know, very young, but they always talk about their families. Children and all.

—Yes, there are a lot who marry early.

He sighed again and went quiet, as though he had lost interest in that thread of talk.

—Let’s go inside. I’ll show you something.

Drink in hand, he led the way into the living room. He picked up the remote and flicked on the TV and there, on the BBC channel, they were talking about the kidnapping. Isabel Floode, a British woman, had been kidnapped one week ago by rebels in the Nigerian Delta, an attempt to make contact was spoiled by an unplanned military intervention, and now it was doubtful if Isabel was still alive. Some oil companies had already stopped sending expatriate workers to the region, and were even thinking of shutting down their operations because the cost was becoming higher than they could bear; prices were expected to rise in response. He turned off the TV.

—It’s like a circus. I can’t go out, not even to the office, reporters stalk me everywhere, and the funny thing is I don’t even know what to tell them, I don’t know what is happening to her. That’s why I wanted Zaq to go in there and find out. And now you say he is not well. What’s wrong with him? Is it serious?

—He needs rest. The air out there is good for him.

James scratched his stubble, again looking at me strangely, waiting for me to say more, but I returned his look and kept quiet.

—But we had a deal. He agreed to go out there and be my eyes and ears.

—Mr. Floode . . .

—Call me James.

—James, there really isn’t anything to report, or he’d have come himself.

—But what did you see? What do you think? Is she alive or not? You said you have some pictures for me. Did Zaq give you any message for me?

I showed him the pictures, the ones not published in the papers: the burning boat, the houses, the sculpture on Irikefe, and finally a picture of myself with Zaq under a tree. Zaq had suggested the last just for proof. Floode put them back into the envelope and placed them beside his drink on the table.

—Let’s get you a drink.

He picked up a bell from a side table and rang it loudly. Then, unable to keep away from the news, he turned on the TV again. The screen was filled by a blown up photo of a smiling Isabel; behind her was a crowded street, a bridge, and far in the distance was Big Ben. Next, there was a shot of picketing youths holding placards in front of an oil company building in Port Harcourt; this segment was accompanied by a long, rote-like voice-over about poverty in Nigeria, and how corruption sustained that poverty, and how oil was the main source of revenue, and how because the country was so corrupt, only a few had access to that wealth. Floode turned off the TV and turned to me.

—Such great potential. You people could easily become the Japan of Africa, the USA of Africa, but the corruption is incredible.

I said nothing. I looked to the door to see if the maid was coming with the promised drink. He warmed to his topic, scratching his chin vigorously as he spoke.

—Our pipelines are vandalized daily, losing us millions . . . and millions for the country as well. The people don’t understand what they do to themselves . . .

—But they do understand.

—What?

—Have you ever heard of a town called Junction?

—No. I don’t think so . . .

—I am from there. Almost three years ago I came home from Lagos after graduating from journalism school and found half the town burned down. The newspapers said the villagers brought it upon themselves by drilling into the pipelines to steal oil . . .

—Yes, I have heard of that.

—Well, this place, Junction, went up in smoke because of this vandalism, as you called it. But I don’t blame them for wanting to get rid of the pipelines that have brought nothing but suffering to their lives, leaking into the rivers and wells, killing the fish and poisoning the farmlands. And all they are told by the oil companies and the government is that the pipelines are there for their own good and what great potential they carry for their country, their future. These people endure the worst conditions of any oil-producing community on earth, the government knows it but doesn’t have the will to stop it, the oil companies know it, but because the government doesn’t care, they also don’t care. And you think the people are corrupt?

—Hmm, well, I must say I didn’t know you were from that village. I’ve read about it before. A tragedy. But it does illustrate my point . . .

—No, actually, it illustrates my point.

—Ha ha! You argue rather well, I must give you that. Now, where’s that . . .

He picked up the bell and rang it again, impatiently. After a while the door to the patio opened and a maid entered. She was dressed in a blue uniform, a dress reaching down to just below her knees, with a white apron around her waist. She stood next to the TV and stared at Floode, her head inclined, not saying a word.

—Get my guest here a drink, Koko. What can she get you?

—A beer will do . . . Star.

—And a refill for me.

I watched the movement of her full waist beneath the close-fitting, knee-length uniform as she turned and disappeared into the kitchen. She returned a moment later with a tray bearing my bottle of Star and a glass of whatever Floode was drinking; she set the bottle on the side-table next to me. She was young and plump, not fat, but very heavy around the hips, and she looked more like a student than a maid, and though she was not conventionally pretty there was a compelling sexuality about her. I was sitting across from Floode, watching her as she bent forward to place his drink next to him, and I saw his left hand almost absently but gently brush against her thigh; if she hadn’t turned and flashed him a quick smile I would have dismissed the gesture as an innocent accident.

—Thanks Koko. That will be all.

My reporter’s mind was already in overdrive. Is there an affair, and if so, what kind of person was the wife, Isabel? Would such a thing bother her if she found out, or would she shrug it away as one of those things that happen when a man has to be away from his wife for a long time? The papers said she was taken while returning from an exclusive oil executives’ club not far from the waterfront, a place patronized mostly by foreigners. There was no struggle, no gunshots. No witnesses. The only suspect was the driver who had disappeared soon after the kidnapping.

—Mr. Floode, Zaq said I should ask you if everything was okay between you and Mrs. Floode? Was there a fight, or . . .

He looked long at me, sipping his drink. I stared back at him. I loved the way his face turned meat red, and the way he used his glass to cover his mouth which had suddenly tightened; I loved the debate in his eyes: to kick out this nosy African or to tolerate him. He smiled.

—I should tell you to go tell him that it is none of his business.

—He is just trying to . . .

—Aw, what the hell. Things were far from well between us. We had agreed on a divorce, then the kidnapping happened. She shouldn’t have come.

—Why?

—She came hoping to save our marriage, but we had drifted apart long ago. We met at university, you know. But then, after the marriage, I got this job. I was posted to all sorts of places and I guess she must have gotten tired of the change. Some people like it, some don’t. We agreed that she should wait in England. And I, I was just beginning to discover how good I am at my job. I am a chemical engineer, and I am one of the best. Then the transfer to Nigeria came, I left and she remained in Newcastle, and all the time we were drifting apart. Then six months ago she came, but by then it was too late. There is another woman, you see . . .

—Did you tell Mrs. Floode about this woman?

—I did.

—This woman, is she local?

—Let’s just say she lives here in Port Harcourt. I want to protect her identity as much as I can. She is expecting our child.

—I see.

—Do you, young man? The irony is that Isabel thought we could save our marriage by having a child. That was her plan. The day she arrived she said let’s make a baby. What was I to say?

I opened my mouth to ask another question but I closed it again when I saw what looked like a tear leaving the corner of his eye. Too much emotion, or too much whiskey. He wiped his eyes and looked up.

—So, will Zaq be all right?

—Yes, he will be attended to by a nurse at the shrine.

—I wonder if I can prevail upon him to seek a little further, not to hurry back? He is an excellent reporter, and I am sure if anyone can get to the kidnappers, he will. Can he be persuaded, do you think?

—You will have to ask him, I guess.

—As you can see, my mobility is a bit restricted. Can I ask you to find out for me?

—How?

—Go back to this Irikefe place, talk to Zaq, see what he says. I am willing to pay him, and you of course, for your trouble. Go tomorrow, you can return that very day, it is a weekend, you won’t lose a day at work.

—I can’t . . .

—Why? You are a reporter. I thought you’d jump at such an opportunity.

—I . . . have a few personal issues to take care of.

I was thinking of Boma in my room, her eyes still red from yesterday’s tears, waiting for me to return with some sort of solution to her housing problem. He misread my reluctance for bargaining.

—Look, dear chap, I’ll pay for your time. I know you’ll need to prepare, buy equipment and so on. How about a hundred thousand naira? All you have to do is go back to the island, give Zaq my message, and come back.

My mind flew in many different directions: I thought of the dead bodies covered beneath bamboo leaves, and I knew anything could happen to me on such a trip. I had been lucky once, I had gone and returned safely, I had published my story, I had been praised by my editor and the Chairman. Why push my luck? But on the other hand, there was the money. I needed it to pay Boma’s rent, and my own rent, for that matter . . .

Of course I could take the money and not go back to the island. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of that possibility. I could tell him something came up and that would be it. A hundred thousand was nothing to a man like him. Besides, I didn’t really think much of Mr. Floode; if he really cared for his wife shouldn’t he be out there in the jungle with Zaq instead of here, drinking cocktails, watching TV, sleeping with the maid? I could take his money and walk out and nothing would happen. Wasn’t he in my country, polluting my environment, making millions in the process? Surely I was entitled to some reparation, some rent money from him? Even as I took the money, and an extra hundred thousand which he said was for Zaq, I still wasn’t sure what I’d do when I walked out of his gate.

—Tell Zaq he has my permission to negotiate with the kidnappers. My embassy has warned me against paying ransom just yet, but there’s no reason why we can’t start negotiating. I just want to end this whole thing as quickly as possible. Do you understand?

I took the two plain brown envelopes and put them in my jacket pocket, feeling their weight.

—I will send you a receipt.

He shook his head and took my hands and looked into my eyes earnestly.

—No need for that, Rufus. I have to trust you. You are my only hope, you and Zaq. My wife’s life is in your hands. I know things are not that good between us, but she is a good person and she doesn’t deserve this.

I avoided his eyes as I left him to his cocktail, his split-unit air conditioning, his beautiful maid, his BBC news, his stubble, his double-gated sea-front house, and made my way back to the city.

I found Boma seated on a chair in front of the open door. She was staring ahead at nothing, her head bowed. She looked up and smiled when I touched her on the shoulder. I sat beside her and we watched my co-tenants come in one by one, back from work, their eyes tired and vacuous, their shoulders bent. They waved or grunted briefly at us as they went into their rooms to take off their shirts and hang them on the nail behind the door to be picked up again tomorrow morning on the way to work. Today we had electricity; those with TV would flop into a chair and stare into the flickering surface as they soaked garri or whatever food there was at hand. Eating and watching mindlessly till they fell asleep. Those without TV, or those who simply couldn’t bear the steaming heat in their rooms, would come out and sit on the veranda to catch whatever breeze was passing by.

—Hey, Rufus, my countryman!

Isaac, my neighbor. He was Ibibio and for some reason he thought I was from the same village as he, and though I told him I was not, he always laughed and said he was sure he knew some of my cousins. And every day he would greet me with his loud, booming call—My countryman! How life? And I had taken to answering back with as much cheer as I could muster after a full day—My countryman! Life de turn man. Family is worth clinging onto wherever one can find it. This way he felt easier asking me for a loan when he ran short in the straight and narrow days just before payday. Across the compound Madam Comfort and her husband, Mister John, and their six children were seated on stools in front of their open door, having their evening meal. All along the length of the veranda other families had similarly turned this narrow space into an extension of their living rooms, eating and calling across to each other or just staring into space.

—I have to go back to Irikefe tomorrow, I told Boma.

—You said it is very dangerous out there.

—I will be fine. What of you, what are you going to do?

—I don’t know.

She got up and disappeared into the room and then reappeared with a plate of jollof rice, which she handed to me.

—More and more I am thinking of moving to the village to stay with mother, she said.

We had discussed this many times before. Mother was still unused to Boma’s scarred face—it was as though she expected it to one day disappear, and with it the memory of that tragic day. Whenever they met, mother always broke down at the sight of her daughter’s once-pretty face, now a total scabrous mess. The last time she’d run into her room and cried and cried, and eventually Boma had joined her and the two had cried together till their voices had gone hoarse and they couldn’t cry anymore.

—Is that what you want?

—But what is there to do? I am beginning to get tired of waiting. Sometimes I am not sure anymore what I want to do.

I took out some money from the brown envelope and handed it to her.

—Here, use this to pay your landlord.

—No. I am not going back there. I will look for another place.

—Of course you can stay here till you find a suitable place, I just want you to be sure what it is you want.

I moved my chair out of the way as my next-door neighbor came out of her room to go to the kitchen.

—Hello, Rufus. Na your sister be dis?

—How now, Grace. Na my sister.

Boma lowered her face, instinctively.

The Lucky One, that was Boma’s name for me, Mr. Lucky. Growing up, I always had a knack for coming out unscathed from the scariest accidents. But in this one case I wish I had been unlucky. I wish I had been there when it happened, to share in her pain, my family’s pain. Instead I had been away in Lagos, and it was John who had been by her side as she was taken to the hospital screaming and shouting that she was blind, that she couldn’t see. When I came home, proudly clutching my journalism certificate, he pulled me aside and told me they were getting married as soon as she was out of hospital. They had two very good years of marriage. I could vouch for that but it would have been better if he had quietly broken up with her after she had left the hospital, as soon as she was able to look in the mirror without crying, and left her to create her own thick skin, her own defenses.

I had never seen Boma so broken, so defeated as on the day she told me he had gone.

—Maybe if we had children? A nice little boy to make him feel proud? It is my fault. I kept telling him to wait, wait . . . I know it is this face. He used to run his hand on my face and say he didn’t care, that as far as he was concerned, I was still the same beautiful girl he met when we were kids, when they moved into the house next to us.

Now it was dark and cooler, and the neighbors one by one got up and took their chairs inside. In one of the rooms a man and his wife were fighting, their words loud and full of hate. In the background their children were crying, there was the loud sound of a slap, the crying stopped, the shouting stopped. Peace reigned.

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