(An excerpt from the novel AFTER THESE EERIE DAYS by Abiose A.Adams… continued from last week)
On the day I was to cross the Mediterranean sea, I did not know that this gentle-looking, turquoise blue sea, which for vacationers, is solacing, is for migrants, menacing. While vacationers go kayaking, canoeing and luxuriating in its magnificence, maleficent smugglers, put migrants through excruciating pain, in fishing canoes, unfit for humans. While vacationers adore it, migrants abhor it.
I stood by the anchorage, that Monday morning, in Libya, shuddering at the prospect of what would become a perilous crossing. The sea was boundless. Its waters spread to infinity. Despite my familiarity with Lagos and its aquatic splendour, nothing I’d seen compared to this endlessness. The more I looked at it, the more I feared I was going to tumble into it. I imagined its depth. I had heard here and there, of how it had sunk thousands of lives and dreams. It must be deeper than the abyss, hungrier than hell, and more punitive than purgatory.
I imagined it hungry for my soul or Chelsea’s or Ahmad’s, a little Somalian boy, who was standing beside us, clutching at his mother’s skirt. He was wearing a hoodless-winter jacket. His mother must have been told Europe is very cold, so she had prepared him in advance, not taking into cognisance, this hellishly hot route. His tiny legs, which looked out from a pair of brown, dusty shorts, were scaly and had a crust of Sahara sand etched on them. He talked throughout, saying ‘bah bah and mah mah’. Sometimes the mother would giggle rather than laugh because it was a chore to laugh under such discomfort. Sometimes, she would say a ‘stern’ something to him in Arabic- and the boy would yell, rather than be quelled.
With those little hands of innocence and hope, he pulled Chelsea, who was beside me. Rather than respond to the boy, Chelsea looked at me with mournful eyes. That was the first time I saw her remotely sorrowful. The death of Somto must have taught her hard lessons about the vanity of life. I remembered a few days ago, Somto’s body was wrapped and thrown across a sand dune. By now she must have started decomposing. The heat of the Sahara was that hasty and efficient in decimating bodies into skeletons. So that was how I would have been thrown away if I died? Just like a useless piece of nothing? So unceremoniously? No requiem. No testimonials. No dirge. No liturgy.
The smell of death in the air was indeed getting stronger. Uju was gone, Zainab too, now Somto, who would be next? The smell of death, the stench of pain, sufferings, discomfort, hunger, danger, hopelessness- the potpourri of human misery.
To further spell out the looming doom, Kabir, one of the human smugglers -a small and slim, unkempt man, stood behind us, with an AK-47 in his hand. No dissent.
I checked my time, and it was half past eight. The sun lifted higher, and like a big ball of fire, beamed its orangish light on the sea. And then a rickety yellow-green rubber dinghy, caulked at several leaking spots with old tires, sailed towards us. The gushers, announcing its arrival, sounded like the angry gaggling of millions of people.
A very hairy Euro-Asian man with tanned skin and murky beards hollered to Kabir and his colleagues. And as though on cue, they began whisking eager migrants into the boat. One, two, ten, twenty, they kept filling the boats.
When it got to my turn, it felt as though my feet were immobilized in an iron cast, but Chelsea shoved me forward. “I think I want to return to Nigeria,” I told Chelsea.
I knew it was the most stupid thing to say, but I said it anyway. I had a strong urge not to join them to cross.
“Tell me say na joke?” Chelsea’s hitherto sorrowful face suddenly changed to a sneer. “… Angel… you dey craze o?…after all these suffering?”
“Hmmmh,” I said, shaking my head…. “It’s better to return safe and alive than to attempt to cross and die in the sea.
“That is you ohh…Me! I must enter Europe oh… it is quarter to enter. My aunty crossed three years ago, today she is making it big in Europe. My big brother too. They are waiting for me at Bologna. This is one opportunity, I will seize it. Make poverty no come kill me for Naija.
Kabir threw the life jacket at me, I fastened it on and dumbly followed. We were stuffed, head to head and breath to breath arrangement that evokes the memory of transatlantic slaves. Could history be repeating itself?
Finally, the boat set sail. The cabin was partitioned into several rows with wooden planks. I sat by Chelsea on the cabin close to the pointy end.
The boys sitting next to us were very excited and chatty; one of them, in a red polo shirt, which carried the message, ‘Europe is the Hope’, spoke of how he used his life’s savings to get on this boat.
A family man from Darfur said one of his sons died of malnutrition, his wife of ulcer, while the three others are hospitalized. Medussa, another man from Togo, collected skeletons and fossils from the desert. He spoke of how he was going to write his PhD thesis on it. Medussa claimed to have a master’s degree in archaeology. As he examined the skeletons, he would draw the hip bone, adjust his glasses, and jot notes on his pad. And then he would excitedly speak with a loud voice, addressing no one in particular, of how this was a dream-come-true trip, after years of joblessness.
What an irony- to embrace death with a smile! I couldn’t fathom how anyone in their right senses would be excited under such circumstances. Either their desperation has intoxicated them, or anaesthetized them, or both. These are people, who would consider the risk of crossing the sea feather-weight suffering compared to their previous experiences. For them, it is the easiest, not the deadliest, part of their journey- just a cardinal point away from their dreams.
“I welcome you on board to this trip to the promised land,” one man suddenly jolted me out of my reverie. I turned to look at this man outfitted in a long, brown overcoat over a green knit cap with a pompom. In his hand was a brown leather bible whose binding was patched with a poster that read, ‘No competition in destiny.’
“This is our dream come true. We will all make it in Jesus name.”
“Amen,” chorused the migrants.
“This Sea is I,500 meters wide and 4,900 feet deep, but we shall scale through,” he said rubbing the tip of his tongue over his blistered lips. “Shake your neighbour by the shoulder….tell him, tell her…we will not sink, but will scale through.”
At his word, everyone seemed to be thrusting one neighbour or the other with the elbow, and chortling with delight. Chelsea shoved my shoulder on the left and another migrant on the right.
After almost an hour of rambling scriptures, he sat. I closed my eyes because the more I looked into the endlessness of the waters, the more it appeared to me like a monster, frightening. So I closed my eyes, waiting to just open them in Italy.
All of a sudden, I heard a cry from the wider end of the boat.
“Hey, Jesus! God help us! What’s going on,” I asked Chelsea with eyes darting around.
As we kept trying to figure out, news reached us that the engine had stopped working and water was beginning to enter the boat.
I looked at the sky, the sun was setting. There was no land around us, but all water. The boat stopped and the whole sea turned dark. Darkness so deep and tangible, you could cut a chunk with a knife. I was visibly shaking. Chelsea was rattling, scampering and hysterically calling on the Almighty as well as other demigods to save us.
The preacher began praying for divine intervention. He called on Angel Gabriel and Angel Michael. He called on Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as Mary Magdalene.
From shaking, I began to gnash my teeth. The men began to dive. I kept shaking, waiting for Jesus to take me home. I no more knew what to think. I no more knew what to pray. But one thing I knew that day was that suicide has many shades of meaning. And one of it is crossing the Mediterranean sea.
Abiose A. Adams is a novelist, investigative journalist and programme officer at TheCable Newspaper Journalism Foundation. She can be reached on [email protected], @abioseadams, 08174217144(WhatsApp only).
Synopsis (After these eerie days)
She is ambitious but unschooled in street-wiseness. Seventeen-year-old Funto Colesworth did not know the trip to study her dream course, Medicine, in France, is one to nowhere until she finds herself in a brothel in Cotonou.
Rather than remain there to hawk sex which she is mandated to do, she escapes and joins another set of human traffickers to cross the ghoulish Sahara Desert with ten other trafficked girls. On surviving, she continues her flirtations with danger; gets into a close-shave with death in the Mediterranean Sea, where she is the only survivor amongst the girls. Arriving Italy breathless, Funto is introduced to Rome’s red-light district, where she subsequently meets a rich and snazzy footballer, Khalil.
Their whirlwind romance would have resulted in marriage and landed her a fortune, but her hopes went up in flames again when he is killed by his irascible, psychotic twin brother Hamil. Then she realises the more ruinous cost of naivety when Hamil implicates her, leading to her imprisonment in Germany. Thrown in gaol, and with no clemency in sight, Funto felt defeated until she meets a Ghanaian missionary, Duncan Melanby, whose romance with her leads to the fence-mending between father and daughter, after twelve eerie years.
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