Bottom of the Food Chain

Adaora Raji

Papa Tee

The water is as dark as midnight and smells of coal tar mingling with gas when I cast my net. I do not need any bait to lure the fish. They congregate on oily surfaces: Limp, swollen, and dead. I gather them into my canoe, sorting them by their sizes into three baskets. I know they are not suitable for consumption, but I continue sorting them. I reserve some that don’t look so dead in a black poly bag. Then paddle back to shore to sell them to the middlemen who will, in turn, sell them to the restaurants and supermalls for double the price they are buying from me. 

It is late evening when I make my way home. Smoke from the firewood burner seeps from the tiny kitchen detached from the house. The smoke ascends upwards, forming a thin cloud over the thatched roof. My second daughter, Agunoyie, races to hug me. Her orange and white coloured gown twirls when I throw her mid-air, and she dissolves in fitful giggles as she settles on my shoulder. When I bring her down, my son Tee Boy and his sister Adango grunt a “Papa welcome” and continue playing ludo on the wooden bench on the veranda.

“Use this to prepare the soup,” I say to Mama Tee when I enter the kitchen to give her the black poly bag. She tears the bag open expectantly, but her face falls flat when she sees the content.

“What is this?”

“It is not me that turned them that way, it is what is in the water.”

“So they still dump waste into the river?”

“I don’t blame them. It is our people that allow these things to continue that I blame. How are things at the farm?”

I stand arms akimbo, waiting for her to reply. But her silence is as thick as the smoke we are engulfed in. She keeps stirring fufu over the glowing logs with a long wooden spoon as if she did not hear me. I move away from the kitchen to my bedroom and Agunoyie walks slowly behind me.

We stay huddled around the small wooden table on the veranda. The kerosene lamp at the centre of the table provides a dim illumination as we dip fufu balls into very steamy odu fulo. The fish now cooked with cocoyam, prawns, palm oil, and uziza leaves melts in my mouth. I put some of my fish into Agunoyie’s plate and Tamara quickly snatches it from her when he thinks I am not looking. When we finish eating, Adango clears the table and squats in front of the kitchen to wash the plates, and Agunoyie rinses the plates and puts them into a stainless steel basin.

Mama Tee sits at the extreme of the wooden bench, picking her teeth with the soft end of a broomstick. She clears her throat and says, “My cousin has found a spot for me to roast plantain and fish in Rumuomasi. She says the place has a lot of foot and car traffic that I can sell quickly and make returns.” My heart skips a beat and pounds somewhere in my chest.

“So you will leave your big farm here for a tiny spot in Port Harcourt?”

“Of what use is a farm that cannot produce a harvest? Corn, cassava, yam, plantain, even grass – nothing grows.”

“Have you tried the fertiliser that Abbey uses?” I ask, waiting for the pounding in my chest to stop.

“It will be better if we all move.”

“My ancestors will be unhappy if I abandon their land.” 

“Your ancestors are not even happy that all you catch these days is dead fish.”

“The oil will run out one day, and these companies will leave. By then the land and river will recuperate.”

“It is the fact that you think you will still be alive when they leave that worries me.” She gets up with a start to enter the house. The pounding in my chest continues because it hurts to see that she has made up her mind to leave. It hurts even more to think that I am not enough, that the land is also not enough. That a new life in the big city awaits her, where she can be anything but a farmer on a barren land.

The morning that she is set to leave, Agunoyie wraps her arms around my waist, and says defiantly to Mama Tee, “I want to stay here with Papa.” 

“No. Tee Boy will stay with your Papa. You and your sister will help me out at my stall,” Mama Tee says, trying in vain to zip a Ghana-must-go bag crammed with clothes. The zip goes halfway in and opens again. Agunoyie begins to cry and I carry her to the front yard where Tee Boy is loading their bags into the Keke that will take them to the motorpark. Agunoyie stifles her cries when I hand her a chocolate biscuit I have been saving and place her in the backseat of the Keke. Mama Tee looks like she wants to hug me, so I put my hands in the pockets of my trousers. I stare at the ground as she hugs Tee Boy, because I do not want her to see the tiny tears converging around my eyes.

Tee Boy

In my dog-eared biology notebook, I write that pollinators balance the ecosystem by stabilising the soil and weather, and by providing food for other animals. I struggle to catch up with the dictation as Aunty Nkechi reads hurriedly from her notes spread on the table beside the blackboard. When she picks up a chalk and turns to the blackboard to draw types of pollinators, a heart-shaped paper lands on my desk. Ibinabo’s scrawling handwriting reads: “Looking forward to seeing you after school hours. xoxoxo”. Tiny hearts drawn with red ink are scattered around the paper. I turn to the blank side and write: “We can’t see today sweets. I have an errand to run. xoxoxo”. I squeeze and throw the paper to Ibinabo. Another paper comes back very quickly. This time, Ibinabo writes “GOAT!” surrounded by two horns shaded with black ink. I chew the paper and spit it outside through the broken window louvres. When Aunty Nkechi’s class ends, I skip Further Maths and Physics classes to go to the swamps.

“What took you so long?” Elder inquires in a brash tone. I stare at the long gun with binoculars lying in front of him that I have not seen before. Three of his boys are sitting on the ground and inserting bullets into smaller guns before putting them into two black bags.

“We didn’t finish biology class on time,” I say, short of breath from running and walking at the same time.

“You people that think school can save you,” Elder retorts, and I shift my weight from one foot to the other and watch his boys unearth more guns from the ground covered with shrubs, putting them into the black bags. When they finish, Elder zips the bags, slings one of the bags over his left shoulder, and carries the other bag with his right hand. He beckons on me to follow him and we make our way through the swamps to get to the bank where Elder keeps his speedboat. He dumps the bags into the boat and says, “Those my boys, I no sabi their way again. Small children wanting to reap where they have not sown. You are the only one that I can trust with this.”

My school bag with two notebooks and a pen suddenly feels very heavy on my shoulders. I remove the bag and place it beside the black duffel bags, then strip down to my boxers to change into the black t-shirt and grey shorts Elder brings from the boat. I stuff my school uniform into my school bag.

“Take my boat to Amadi Creek. Dock it there and go home. Later, the boys and I will use it to pick up some people.”

“Yes sir,” I say, jumping into the boat. He dips his right hand into the left breast pocket of his camouflage jacket and gives me three 500 naira notes.

This is not the first time I have run this kind of errand for Elder. He is the one who taught me how to monitor the wind and water currents to drive this speedboat that he uses for pick-ups and delivery. I know that the people he is picking up later are oil workers, who are unaware that they have already been targeted. Elder and his boys will ask the workers politely to come with them. The speed boat and the guns in the duffel bags are for Plan B, in case any of the oil workers or their security detail does or says something very impolite, or the Navy gets involved. As soon as the workers are safely in Elder’s bunker, a ransom will be demanded from the company the oil workers represent. It is only when a complete payment is made that the oil workers will be released. The ransom will then be shared between Elder and his boys, until one of his boys decides the payment isn’t sufficient, and then goes on to form his splinter group. The same way Elder split from his former group two years ago.

The stillness of night interrupted by croaking frogs and a hooting owl greets me when I get home. Papa is lying on the wooden recliner on the veranda as I attempt to tiptoe into the house, silently praying that he is asleep.

“Where are you coming from?” His voice thunders through the darkness.

“Errhh school, no lesson. The lesson took long.”

“You are not even wearing your school uniform.”

“It is dirty.”

“Tamarakpo Ebidisebofe Ebiowei. This night ehn, you will know why the okro tree does not grow taller than its owner.” He gets up from the recliner to remove his black leather belt from his trousers.

“Lie down on the ground fast! You cannot turn rotten while you are still living under my roof.”

I want to endure the sting of Papa’s belt, but I am really tired and just want to fill my stomach and sleep afterwards. He raises his hand to land a strike.

“I helped Elder take his speedboat to Amadi Creek,” I say quickly.

“When?”

“This afternoon.”

He lowers his hand without saying another word, then places the belt on the ground and settles back on the recliner. 

When I write WAEC, there is plenty of talk in the papers. Talk that says the oil companies ought to take social responsibility for the communities they profit from, the others talk about stopping gas flaring and spilling toxic waste into the water. Then President Yar’Adua decides to forgive all our sins of kidnapping for ransom and oil pipeline sabotage. The talk in the papers becomes very real when he grants all the rebel leaders and their boys amnesty. But for this forgiveness to happen, Elder and the other group leaders must surrender their arms and ammunition on national television. After that, the Federal government can send their boys to study abroad or apply for fully funded scholarships to Nigerian Universities. The day Ibinabo let me reach second base with her under the mango tree behind the school compound, Elder put my name as one of the boys from his group that will study petroleum engineering at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri.

Elder 

You can be anything you want to be. Not merely if you believe, but if you have the guts and charisma. I have become a public servant, rebranding myself adequately so that people can replace the bearded stocky man in camouflage shorts and a sleeveless jacket working from the creeks with a clean-shaved, stocky man in fine-fitting clothes working as the director-general of the south south agency. Because I haven’t completed some advanced degree at some university, people think that I am unworthy to head this agency. As if leadership is about certificates and abbreviations behind one’s name. I have secured deals with the federal government and other foreign agencies that those people questioning my worthiness can only fantasise about. I am venerated by the local communities as a mediator and grand commander. Do they know how many boys I have taken off the streets and put in strategic positions?

See my Tee Boy for instance. Tee Boy graduated with a first-class degree. Still, he roamed the streets looking for work. None of the companies would absorb him. Even the oil drilling facilities that needed his expertise said they were over-saturated. So I took him in, created an office for him that says he is my senior special adviser in everything but finances, and the boy does his job well. He arranges my schedule, writes my speeches, and represents me at the meetings and occasions that I am too busy lounging in swimming pools and bars to attend. He even decides which colour of bowler hat goes with my attire when I have to appear on television.

People still want me to prove my worth by paving roads, building schools and hospitals, and stopping oil spills and gas flaring in our communities. Then part the Red Sea for them to enter Canaan. It is not as if there are no contracts already in place for them to cross that sea, but the execution is not entirely in my hands. Before the other buffoons sitting at the board meetings can get their brains and act together, the money for the contracts has disappeared and we have to start planning again with a new budget. People are starting to point fingers, asking questions about the impact of our multi-billion naira budgets. One writer from some international magazine has been pressing me for an interview to ask me those same questions. Add that to her fascination with a rebel leader turned public servant. She will want to place me on the hot seat so that she can shine. God forbid that I will give her the opportunity to embarrass me like that. I am delegating this task to Tee Boy, he is the one who can speak and argue grammar with that kind of person.

Andrea

The December heat reduces my mascara to thin black smudges around my eyelids and I use a forefinger and attempt to straighten the smudges out. I am becoming nervous that the director-general of the south south agency is 35 minutes late for our noon appointment. Even though his secretary, who looks a lot like Agbani Darego, repeatedly assures me that he will see me shortly. The director initially ignored my requests for an email interview. Because I just finished covering the Calabar Carnival, I reached out to him again for a one-on-one interview and he finally agreed. I cancelled a return ticket home to meet him at his Port Harcourt office. After mentally ticking off and rearranging my questions and counting the number of ceiling boards in the reception, a dark-skinned man in black pants and a short-sleeve Ankara shirt approached me.

“Hello. I am Tamara, the special adviser to the director general. You must be Ms. Andrea?” I nod a “yes” and he stretches his right hand to shake mine.

“Please come with me,” he says and leads me through a wide corridor with fluorescent bulbs into a conference room where a huge mahogany table occupies the entire room, surrounded by red-coloured cushion seats. A chandelier hangs elegantly from the centre of the room. He waits for me to sit before he sits on the chair opposite mine, and effortlessly crosses his left leg over his right leg.

“I was under the impression that I would be having an interview with the director general,” I say, flustered that the idiot bailed on me at the last minute.

“He was called to an emergency meeting at the capital territory. He sends his sincere apologies. I am here to answer your questions.” He speaks calmly and deliberately as if he has said this line to many other people today.

“I really want to speak to him in person, can I come back tomorrow?”

“My boss is a very busy man, doing the Lord’s work on behalf of the people of the south south. He is unlikely to reschedule. I am certain that I have the answers to your questions.” His gaze shifts from my hair tied in a messy ponytail to the freckles on my chest, standing out under the glare of bright lighting. I am well aware that I am losing the battle. So I reach for my phone in my brown leather sling bag and place it gently on the mahogany table. Then click on the record tab.

“Why is your region still under-developed even with multi-billion naira revenue allocations?” I ask, deciding right on, that I will not suffer this fool gladly.

“You should not call us under-developed, we are still developing. Besides, development is a process and not a destination,”’ he replies curtly.

“In this process that you speak of, what have you done with those funds?” I tilt my head sideways and begin to nurse a pout.

“There are many projects this agency has embarked on. Some have been completed, others are ongoing. We are investing in the communities by building formal schools, hospitals, vocational training centres, and are empowering our people by paying university tuition for thousands of indigenous youth from the south south. The records are there to speak for us.” He counts the achievements with his fingers as if they are units of measurement.

“Will you say that the amnesty program has achieved its goals?”

“I am a success story.”

“But you still work for a former rebel leader?”

“I am fortunate to have this job.”

“What do you think will happen to your allocations when the oil reserves dry up around 2045 as recent studies have shown?”

“We are currently exploring other export revenue sources.”

“Sources such as?”

“Cassava, maize, and coal.” He is scratching his temples and over-processing this answer. 

“But those will never be as profitable as oil.”

“We will have to wait until then to find out.”

“I would like to take pictures of some of the completed projects to accompany my article.” I feel sweat gathering on my forehead and spine despite the buzzing sound of an air conditioner.

“Of course, I will take you on a tour of three communities tomorrow, including my community. So you will see that all of this is not mere talk.” He stands up as soon as I do and I scribble the address of my hotel and phone number on an A4 paper and hand it to him. He walks me back to the main entrance, and I feel the weight of his intent gaze on me as I settle into the waiting taxi.

The sun forms a large golden glow in the sky when I meet Tamara the next day at the parking lot of the hotel. He is well prepared for the weather, in a beige v-neck tee shirt worn over brown shorts and black palm slippers. I struggle to hold the ends of my free-flowing white kaftan with my sling bag hanging down from my shoulder and a DSLR camera dangling from my neck. Tamara sits on the driver’s side of a white van with the words “South South Agency” printed boldly in green on both sides. I settle on the front seat, mouthing a “good morning”. We ride in comfortable silence, snaking through rush hour traffic, and finally leave the tarred roads of the city behind for the dusty roads leading to the interior communities. I ask him to slow down so that I can take pictures of some shanties that line both sides of the road.

“Those are not the projects we were talking about yesterday,” Tamara says.

“Is this axis not part of the agency’s jurisdiction?”

“No, it is not.”

The recently completed roads in the first community have no gutters or drainage systems. Still, I take shots. Then continue with wide-range shots of three transformers and a new school building with no chairs. Tamara stops at a community health centre and he presents his ID to the matron before I am allowed to snap the reception area where many patients are waiting to see a doctor. We head further, navigating potholes and passing through a rickety bridge I feared might collapse at any moment to get to the community that Tamara says he is from. I get down to take pictures of a huge school building with well-kept lawns. A large banner supported by bamboo sticks reading South South Agency Intervention Project stands beside the iron gate.

“This used to be my secondary school. During my time, there were leaking roofs and broken windows. We didn’t even have proper laboratories. Now see how beautiful the place is.” He walks through the sidewalk, beaming with nostalgia. Students in blue and white coloured uniforms come out in droves to stare at us. When Tamara sees a teacher he knows, he embraces her and takes a selfie.

We drive further and come upon what appears to be a river that has dried. I try in vain to hold my breath because the air reeks of what I strongly suspect to be hydrogen sulphide.

“My Papa used to fish here when I was a boy. I can’t believe that there is no water left.” I want to say climate change instead I adjust my lens to take pictures and he tells me he wants to make his way home.

A frail man with a wrapper hanging loosely from his narrow waist stands at the door of the living room. His collar bones hang like miniature rungs of ladder from his chest and he leans heavily on a metal walking stick as if his life depends on it. Tamara envelopes him in a fierce hug and I sit on one of the flowery patterned suede chairs in the living room and watch as they size each other up in mutually penetrating gazes, before settling on the couch to converse in their dialect. As their conversation becomes more animated, I change the camera lens and steady my hand to capture the moment. Tamara stands up quickly and leads me outside the house.

“Please do not take pictures of my Papa. He is going through a difficult time.”

“I am sorry, seeing you two like that, I thought I should preserve that moment.”

“He recently finished chemo at the teaching hospital and has refused to remain in Port Harcourt with my mother and sisters.”

“Why?”

“He says he doesn’t want to die in the city.”

“What kind of cancer?”

He doesn’t reply but moves away from me to stand beside three wilting plantain suckers at the far end of the compound. I walk towards him and see that he is crying into his palms.

“What happened?” I ask, confusion plastered like a second skin on my forehead.

“He is so stubborn. He had a chance to move with my mother and sisters but he said he didn’t want to leave. Many of our kinsmen moved elsewhere when the air and water was no longer safe. Still, he did not bulge. See what he has brought upon himself.” He blows his nose vigorously into his white handkerchief before heading back inside.

The sun is setting steadily on our way back to Port Harcourt. It is as if there are more potholes on our way back than when we were coming. Tamara swerves quickly to avoid a huge pothole in the middle of the road, nearly entering into the bush on the other side of the road. I am suddenly grateful my seatbelt is in place or it is very likely that my head will have hit the dashboard.

“Damn these hellholes they call roads,” he yells, slapping his left palm on the steering wheel.

“You do realise that your agency and those heading it are part of the problem?”

“It is an irony that you will write this article that will likely paint our agency black, then go ahead to write about the rot in the communities, even though the magazine you work for is a subsidiary of one of the oil companies that is causing environmental pollution in those communities. No matter how lowly you think they are, they are very important. Because guess what? The animals that carry pollen for flowers to bloom and the plants to set fruit are always at the bottom of the food chain. Why it happens that way, I have no fucking idea.” He snickers in a restrained self-conscious manner.

“It still doesn’t explain why the roads are in terrible condition,” I say, shaking my head at his analogy.

“I am not done. You are in a van with me that runs on fuel. You will go back to your country in an aeroplane that runs on jet fuel and depends on crude oil to serve your energy needs. Still, you will find the time to attend conferences and meetings that worry about greenhouse emissions and climate change. So baby tell me, how are you not also the problem?” He suddenly falls silent as if startled by his outburst and starts to turn the knob of the radio until he gets a clear signal.

I swallow hard to suppress the urge to slap him. I think he is saying these things because I have seen him cry uncontrollably in his Papa’s house. Asa’s fire on the mountain filters through the speakers. I sing with her in my head until the female presenter on the radio interrupts to ask if we are all having a wonderful evening. The song comes back on and I start humming along. When the presenter interrupts again to know if we achieved all our plans for the day, I prop my right elbow on the open window. Using my palm to support my head, I drift off to a fitful nap. When Tamara nudges me on my shoulder, I wake up to see that we are at the gate of the hotel. Securing my camera and bag, I climb out of the van without saying a word to him. 

In the room, I peel off my kaftan, bra, and panties and toss them on the bed. Before I turn on the shower, I stare at my reflection in the mirror above the wash hand basin. My phone vibrates incessantly on the bedside table. I know who is calling even though his name is not saved on my contacts list. I will pick up the call and let my left hand run over my neck and chest. He will ask if I am feeling well or if I need anything, I will say I am fine. He will say he is sorry for this afternoon but that he is not sorry for calling me baby. I will chuckle and he will laugh. When he asks if he can see me again before I leave Port Harcourt, I will say yes.

Adaora Raji works as a scriptwriter and content producer. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Benin, Nigeria. Her work has appeared in Fictionable, Arlington Literary Journal, Midnight and Indigo Literary Journal, the Coachella Review, the Bookends Review, Loving Gaze Poetry and as 1st runner up in the 2022 Kendeka Prize for African Literature.

 

*Image by Tengyart on Unsplash

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