‘Puff-puff, puff-puff, puff-puff!’ the woman calls out between her teeth as she saunters around the dockside selling fried dough balls and sucking on a pink ice pop that hangs like a tongue from her mouth. No Food For Lazy Man says the sign on the glass of the cabinet she carries on her head.
I am squeezed onto a wooden bench with the other passengers, the cloth of my skirt damp with heat and stretched taut, binding me into my seat as we wait in the shade of the tree for the fast boat to Akassa. Travellers arrive and depart, people are seen off and welcomed. I consider buying some puff-puff, imagining the oily sweetness of the sponge filling my mouth, pressing the granules of sugar up to my pallet until they dissolve; but lately my clothes have grown tight from too much jollof and plantain and I can’t even run it off. Not here, in the wringing humidity of the Niger Delta.
The sun is already high, pounding the corrugated zinc shacks at the waterside and releasing a sour smell of hot pepper soup and spiced milk into the stillness of mid-morning. I take a sip of water, my arm slithering past my neighbour as I raise the canteen to my lips. The man on one side of me sits with his legs spread wide, reeking of hair oil and aftershave, cupping two mobile phones in each hand. A woman on the other is taking a nap, her chin resting on the concertina of her bosom, crushing me closer and closer into the bark of the tree behind with the rise and fall of each breath.
I watch as the puff-puff seller disappears in the crowd, scuffing her broken shoes over the grey mud and sand of the foreshore and splashing through puddles rimmed with hard-core. All around us, traders and beggars circle incessantly.
‘Madame?’ A young man approaches me to sell batteries, each cell heat-sealed in plastic and strung together like an artillery belt. My gaze skims the sweaty shine of his face, the jaundiced whites of his eyes, but I don’t allow it to linger, hoping he’ll pass on by. Sometimes I humour the hawkers, making small-talk, asking them how business is going, passing the time. But today I’m not in the mood, too busy brooding instead about work, irritated by the meeting I’ve been to with the visiting donors from Europe in their white linen shirts and safari gilets, dressed up as if to hunt wildlife. They hadn’t allowed any colleagues to join me, saying travel costs were too high. I’d thought about that as I watched one of them run his finger down the menu to select a dish that cost more than most people earned in a week.
‘Yes, yes,’ says another voice from the crowd as I lean on my knees with my elbows to study the crescents of dirt in my toenails. It is a girl this time.
‘Sprite, Fanta, Maltex, Coca,’ she sings out, shoving a crate of bottles into my sight-line. ‘Orange! Tropique!’
I try to ignore her but she keeps holding the crate there in front of me, jiggling the bottles so that they tinkle and tempt me with the cool of the condensation beading their necks. The girl bends down, her face level with mine and there is mischief in her voice as she speaks.
‘Julie Julie! How is it that you do not know me? How far!’
At once I recognise her and jump up from my seat, losing my place on the bench.
‘Aii! Vivvy,’ I say, ‘how now?’ We clap our hands together and embrace. ‘Vivian,’ I repeat her name as we pull back and swing our hands to and fro, our little fingers still hooked together.
Vivian gives me bold, bright smile that belies her usual shyness behind the counter of the tiny painted shack on our compound where she sells candles and groundnuts. She wears a faded black t-shirt that hangs on her like a dress, holes ripped along the shoulder seams as if something has eaten them away.
‘Julie, Julie – what is it you were dreaming? Perhaps it is home you are missing?’
‘Oh no,’ I dismiss the idea with a limp swipe of my hand. ‘Just waiting for the boat.’
‘Good,’ she says, ‘we can travel together.’ She goes on. ‘Now, what did you bring me?’
I can tell from her smirk she’s poking fun so I smile too and shade my eyes. People always ask what you’ve brought them when you’ve been away, expecting a loaf of journey bread or a token that shows you’ve not forgotten them. I do sometimes forget them: my silent protest against the unrelenting demand for favours that are never returned. But I like Vivian, so I pay her more than I should for a Sprite and she seems pleased. In return, she offers me a gum pulled from a pack tucked in the waist of her wrapper. There are only two sticks left.
‘Come, Julie,’ she says, thrusting the packet towards me, so I take one and thank her, unwrapping it from its silver sheath and popping it into my mouth. I fold the stick over on my tongue and feel the fruit flavour prickling my taste buds. Vivian does the same.
‘You see, Julie?’ she says, clutching the empty packet to her chest, ‘You do for me, I do for you. Dat’s the law.’
I grin and chew, asking her how things have been in Akassa while I’ve been away, she asking me about Port and what I think of the city. Too busy, I tell her, I’ll be glad to get back to Akassa. An overloaded market boat sets off, listing perilously as it passes the men who dive deep to the riverbed and dredge up sand for the building sites. I worry that Vivian is missing out on trade while she stands there with me, but she bats away my concern and asks about the cloth being sold on Creek Road.
As we chat, three boys surround us and stare. I glance at them, one has weeping, inflamed eyes, another is lame, one appears to have a mouth muted by deafness. Lanky and ragged, I guess they are teenagers, well on their way through adolescence at least. They plead with me for money, holding out their hands one moment and gently clubbing their lips for food the next. I don’t believe in handouts so I look away and try to ignore them, keeping an eye on the boat driver sitting on the bow of our ride as he bellows, ‘Akassakassakassa,’ tongue and teeth reddened by kola nut.
The boys don’t give up, their pleading and whining intensifying as they grab and tug at the hem of my top. Such hassles are routine so I take a step back and try not to pay any attention. Vivian says something stern to them in Ijaw.
‘You know, these boys,’ she nods towards them. ‘They have the devil inside.’ She is decisive, as if this were a known fact.
‘Yes. It is the devil that makes them somehow deformed. You can see that one,’ she raises her spindly arm to point at the deaf boy, ‘he is very retarded.’
I look down at my feet. ‘But they are just boys, Vivian, trying to make a living.’
‘It is not a living they can make for themselves, Julie.’ She pulls her top lip up over her teeth and squints in the sun. ‘It is for those men there,’ she cocks her head in the direction away from the waterside and out beyond the shade of the tree.
Two men in dark glasses are standing at the edge of the road that runs alongside the dock, one calmly surveying the crowd with his hands in his pockets, the other leaning on a motorbike, fiddling with a mobile phone.
‘These men are bad. Very bad. They lift these small-small children from our villages, telling their parents they must be exorcised, that they are full with sin,’ she talks like she’s chewed on bitter leaf or some such thing that makes her mouth turn down at the corners. ‘They take some small fee from the parents so that their children can be corrected, but it is not the devil they take from them – instead they put it inside these boys and send them to work on our streets. And the boys, they may never go home again.’
Trafficking. My eyes skim over the crowd and I see more boys clustered around travellers in other parts of the dock, outside the zinc shacks, alongside the next jetty where flashes of gold skitter over the keel of the Governor’s yacht.
‘But what about their parents – don’t they come looking for them?’
‘Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It depends. If the parents have no money for fee, there is a debt that has to be cleared. But these are not men you can trust. Any money you give, they will take for themselves,’ she says, quietly now. ‘Yes. That is how it is.’
Passengers for Akassa begin to move down to the water as our boat driver yanks the pull-cord on the engine. Vivian lifts the drinks crate at her feet onto her head and holds her hand out to me.
We move off down the bank and the boys scramble after us, even getting into the shallows alongside the boat as we find our seats at the stern. Their fingertips cling like molluscs to the gunwale and I imagine their bare legs slicing in the propeller.
‘Help me,’ says the lame boy as he grasps the lip of the boat.
‘No,’ I shake my head and try to sound kind, ‘you must go now.’
‘Help me, help me,’ he repeats. ‘Give me money, Auntie.’
‘No,’ I shake my head again, but he doesn’t move. I raise my voice, anxious and annoyed at the same time that no one is stopping him, that no-one cares to protect him, that no-one comes to my aid. ‘Go away!’
The boy won’t let go and I fear I’ll hurt his fingers and hands by trying to prize them away, but he seems possessed with a determination that’s out of all proportion. Desperate, dogged, he keeps on at me, ‘Madame, please. I beg!’ My money is in my bag and has been taken from me to be stowed in the hull as ballast. I couldn’t reach it if I tried.
As the boat backs out of the dock, the boy wades deeper into the water, still clinging on, the back of his head knocking against an adjacent boat. The other passengers begin to bark at him now, waving their fists as if he’s a baboon bringing trouble. Vivian leans over me to knuckle punch his hands and forearms with a viciousness that surprises me. His grip loosens and she sees her chance to shove him forcefully in the chest, hard enough to make him fall backwards under the water. Vivian sits back down and the boy surfaces, staring at me open-mouthed with the shock of it. ‘You allowed this?’ says the expression on his face. As if it were up to me.
Vivian nods to me for reassurance, as if we have done the right thing. But as we pull off on the broad, silty waters of the Delta, it doesn’t feel that way. I look back and see the boy has hauled himself from the water, standing alone on the shore, arms limp at his sides. He begins to cower as one of the men in dark glasses hurries down the bank towards him.
I turn round in my seat to face the distance and the lurching two hours’ journey ahead. Away from the chaos of the waterside there is stillness and calm on the open river.
I don’t say anything to Vivian on the whole ride down to Akassa. It is easy to stay silent since the force of the wind batters about our ears and carries our words away into the sky like cirrus wisps each time we try to talk. As soon as we turn off the dazzling expanse of the estuary and onto the narrow, rattan-frilled tributaries, Vivian drops her head and folds her arms, lapsing in and out of sleep.
I wonder what’s going to happen to that boy. Vivian shouldn’t have pushed him in. I should have just given him some money and been done with it – what does a few Naira matter? But it would have gone into the pockets of those men, paid for them to get to other villages to take away other boys to work in the streets. Maybe I could have bought him some puff-puff so at least he had something to eat and not have to give his earnings away.
Heavy rain starts to fall and we drag a tarpaulin over our heads for shelter. It stops and we lift our chins like dogs to the wind, passing through fishing camps and isolated villages where women sit under bamboo shades selling pyramids of red onions and tomatoes on the turn. Perhaps I’ve been in the country too long, numbed to its demands, to its shocks. Perhaps I’ve become cynical, got careless, succumbed to compassion fatigue.
By the time we disembark at Kongho town in Akassa, the river has stilled to a mirror and the skies are dry-season clear. Solitary dugouts drift over the surface and fishermen cast their nets offshore as children play in bright sand. They giggle and squeal with joy, leaping off the pier fetching shells thrown by passengers perched on the rail of the jetty. In the overhanging tree, weaver birds shrill and thread globes of straw in its branches. Being here feels like reaching firm ground after days on dark seas.
Weeks pass and I get on with my work, but I can’t forget the boys at the jetty. I become vigilant, watching the kids who shoal round my compound, wondering if any of them have the devil inside; which of their parents would pay money to strangers who’d correct them. It’s easy to see how they’d be easy pickings for traffickers. People here believe strongly in their religion, a blend of Christian faith and ju-ju, and don’t always have the education to discern when they’re being deceived. Sometimes the children bring me bugs and giant millipedes from the bush – we paint red dots on their shells, then set them free and wait to see if they’ll return. We start a log book, which the older ones fight to fill in with a careful, faultless hand.
Soon, the European donors come down to visit on a private boat with an armed guard and we lead them through a tour of the nursery schools, the rice farming project, the new market bridge on the far side of the island. With no roads and no cars on Akassa, they are obliged to trek everywhere, their shirts and gilets transparent with sweat, their faces flushed with exertion. They seem excited, gripped even, as they parade through clouds of fragrant smoke from the fish driers, inspecting new pit latrines and gawping at the ringworm casts on the bellies and foreheads of the poorest children.
‘Ah yes, Juliette,’ they say, ‘here is the real Africa.’
I come across Ebi working alone at the office one morning. Shirtless, he sweeps and mops the floor, sweat runnelling down his spine. School had ended for him when his parents couldn’t pay the fees so he’s come to us as an apprentice office boy, hoping one day to work his way up into project management.
‘You are working hard-oh!’ I say in my best Nigerian voice.
The skin at his temples flexes as he smiles at me through the toil of his efforts. ‘It is little by little that a bird builds its nest, Julie.’
‘Well, don’t be making the nest too comfortable – our visitors won’t want to leave,’ I joke.
Chief Botugu and Paul are out on business but I can hear Duwei shuffling around in the back office. He never emerges from the office on days like these, running junior staff around and sending out for soft drinks and fried fish. He barks out an order in Akaha to Ebi who rushes away to him.
I imagine Duwei sitting behind Chief Bot’s desk, hands braced on the table top, taking great pleasure in pacing the room and seeing his own face reflected back at him in the polished toes of his shoes. He barracks Ebi for a few minutes before the door swings open again and Ebi clatters off, out through the kitchen with the mop, bucket and broom. Duwei stands on the threshold to his office and looks at me, nodding and superior.
‘That boy has a friend in Beelzebub,’ he says, ‘but slovenliness has no place in these, our good offices.’
I glare back at Duwei and watch as the juice from half a half-eaten orange drips through his splayed fingers to the floor. Religion has no place in our work. Duwei sucks the pith from his teeth and as he closes the door raises a finger in the air and says, ‘Let him be made clean and righteous before God.’
I find Ebi in the generator house, greasing the parts and wiping down the fuel tank. Unnecessary work – the motor is clean and gleaming.
‘Have you got a shirt with you?’ I ask him.
He stands up from his haunches and cleans off his hands with a rag. ‘Yes ma, why?’
‘The generator can wait. Why not come with me today – spend some time on the projects, have a look at the real work that’s done around here.’
Within minutes, Ebi is waiting for me on the veranda.
Everywhere we go with the donors we are trailed by the curious and the bored, by people who want to know why we’ve come to their village and who will now expect their own project – a new borehole, a health post. It’s good for Ebi to see this, get a taste of the challenges to come. I know there could be trouble awaiting us when promises go unmet, hopes unfulfilled, long after these men have boarded their planes to go home. But I say nothing, playing along with the feel-good game that will assure ongoing investment.
We are watched always by young men from the local militia who murmur about the donors’ ‘hidden agenda,’ suspecting they are oil company agents sent here to assess the advantage to be taken of local people. The militia wear red headbands and from time to time, groups of them run by, their faces smeared with white paint: a show of force, a reminder that they are around. I know very little about them, so I just observe them, hoping they’ll keep their distance. Ebi watches admiringly as they pass through and dissolve into the mangroves and over plank bridges that stretch away to the bush.
‘Heroes, eh?’ I tease and he grins and looks at the floor.
After the donors have gone and Duwei is done for the day, Ebi and I sit drinking cold sodas at the table on the office veranda. The sun slips behind the raffia huts and squat buildings of the town that are spread out before us. All around us, the forest babbles with early night crickets and frogs.
‘Cheers,’ we clink the bottles together and suck on our straws, enjoying the sweet fizz in our throats.
‘Job well done,’ I congratulate Ebi.
He looks so young still, the muscles not yet thickened on his arms, the gleam of his eyes not yet scoured by experience.
‘Thanks Julie,’ he beams, straw clamped in his teeth as he drains the last dregs from the bottle. ‘Now let them bring money.’
We both laugh, conspiratorially.
‘You’ll not be running away from us with these militia boys then?’ I joke, but Ebi just looks at me sideways as he leans on the table and smiles.
I am asleep early one night when Vivian comes, rattling the fly screen on the window to my room, calling me from my bed.
‘Julie-Julie! Come. You must come.’
I draw back the bed net and swing my legs to the floor, peering cautiously through the gap between the curtain and glass. The compound is illuminated blue-white by the moon and Vivian bounces impatiently on her heels in the brightness. She has on the same t-shirt she always wears, the one with the holes at the shoulders.
‘Please, Julie,’ she insists, ‘there are strangers among us. They have come for him – for Ebi.’
‘What are you talking about?’
My head full of sleep, I don’t question her. Instead the urgency of her voice compels me to dress quickly, grabbing up the dress I’d worn earlier and pulling trainers onto my bare feet. I unlock the door - Vivian is waiting for me on the steps, muttering something about corrections. She grasps for my hand and pulls me into the night.
The house on the other side of the village is full of people crowding round. No, it is empty. The walls are made of woven rattans that move like faces, shoulders, arms, in the light cast by candles from the floor. But there are people in the back room, aren’t there? I can hear the shuffle of heels on sand, the hush of waxed cloth on skin. No. I look again and all I can see are pale stands of cane bustling at the back windows. The stink of dried sweat hangs on the rafters. We must find Ebi – somewhere, he must be here.
A shifting form is lain on the ground, but when I touch it and pull back the cloth there are only palm nuts glistening like embers in the dirt. I raise myself up from my haunches but am prevented from moving ahead by a dam of backs. Men’s voices. Their singing builds a heat so intense that I want to run from there, but I can’t, I won’t. Where is he? A flash of red, then white. I hold out my arms in front of me, pushing through with my palms pressed together as if in prayer, making my way into another room where I find Ebi, a man standing over him with arms raised in exhortation. I stare for a moment.
Ebi is on the ground, stripped to the waist, his body twisting one way, then another, eyes shut, his face sick with distress. People are standing around him and there are others on the floor – I don’t know how many, I can’t see.
I feel a cool palm nudging my shoulder.
‘Go –help him,’ Vivian whispers into my ear, urging me forward.
I squat down and reach to take hold of Ebi’s arms. His skin is slick and fierce with sweat. I don’t know what’s going on, what I’m doing here. All I can think is that I must help him, stop him being taken or exorcised or whatever the hell it is that’s going on. I ready myself to take the strain and tug him up from the floor to his feet. He is disorientated, blinking at me open mouthed as if waking from deep sleep. He steadies himself and I pull him out of the crowd.
Outside the sky opens wide and draws off the heat from our sweltering skins. We sprint from the house before anyone can follow, our feet noiseless on the dirt. Running and running, Vivian follows behind us, past shuttered houses and piles of periwinkle shells, past the big mango and the beached fishing boats on the riverbank.
As we reach the foot of the stone bridge that leads to Kongho town, our pace slows. Vivian hasn’t kept up. Ebi wrenches himself angrily away from my grip. I am breathless, bending over to put my hands on my knees, while he paces out a wide circle with hands on his hips. He kicks dust and grit into the water. I look up at him enquiringly, but he doesn’t say a word. He kicks the ground again and there is fury in his eyes, looking like the man he’ll become. Gone are the smiles I’d seen the other night on the veranda.
All thought goes out of my head, like a screen blanked by dead power. My stomach drops and all at once I’m overcome with dread: the kind that broods from your core, filling your chest, your shoulders, your head, your whole body. My breathing slows and Ebi just glares at me. That is all he does. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t say a single word. He just glares and then turns and runs over the bridge, dissolving into the swamp.
I walk back to my house with only the sound of cicadas and the draining tide on the creek to accompany me. I go over what has happened in my head, baffled, knowing only that I’ve made a mistake. I creep up close to the window of Vivian’s shack to see if she’s returned, but no life hums inside. At home, I fill a bucket with water and slowly sponge myself clean as I stand in the bath and stare through the window at the shining crowns of oil palms and rubber. The mollusc-like fingers of the boys at the dock crawl over my conscience and I feel as confused as I did about them. Any discernment I might once have had to know when to act and when not has been buried in the silty, saltwater tides of Akassa.
I crawl under the mosquito net but can’t sleep. I think of Vivian rattling at my fly-screen, of the crowd in the house, of Ebi’s eyes at the bridge. Would I have done the same back home – would I have jumped from my dreams in the middle of the night to help a boy I only half-know? Maybe. But it doesn’t seem like he wanted saving, after all.
Ebi disappears in the stifling rain of the following days - people at the office say he’s taken to bed with a fever. Vivian has travelled. I watch Duwei for clues – was it an exorcism or not, was he involved? I don’t think so. Not even he would be so malevolent. Weeks pass before I even begin to catch my grip on the ragged consequences of my actions which snag me one day as I trek over a bridge and into a tangle of mangroves.