Though he’d slept late, he still woke up earlier than was usual. The excitement at the unveiling of the next phase of his life was largely responsible for that. He was ready when the car came to pick him to see his would-be employer that morning. The meeting with her was very short. She’d drafted a letter stating the conditions under which he would run her dental clinic in Bonny Island, which he signed without let after glossing through. He was too excited about the future to bother about reading between the lines or getting a lawyer to ensure that his rights were not in anyway breached by the agreement he’d penned his signature to.
Thereafter he was driven to Nembe waterside, one of the many ferry terminals in Rivers State. He had an escort that was to go with him to Bonny, introduce him to the staff there and return to Port Harcourt. Though there are better organized terminals like those going to locations where Nigeria’s oil and gas exploration infrastructure are located, many people especially the low, average and sometimes high income earners prefer to go through the unorganized terminals like at Nembe because there are less hassles, security checks and most especially the fact that no PASSES are required as would have been had one gone through the “LNG” (Liquefied Natural Gas) jetty, and would need a pass to exit the LNG complex on arrival at Bonny, to one’s final destination.
Most of the boats at the water side were engine (single or double) powered propeller wooden (or some other synthetic boat material he knew nothing about) boats, (outboard) stern drive types.The double engined boats were usually faster and carried more passengers than the single engined hence many preferred those. Besides, the fear that the single-engine boats may breakdown midstream without a spare is another reason why unless there’s no other choice, the passengers would rather not board them.
The ticket read that passengers were insured without stating the monetary incentive thereof. He wondered if anyone or dependants of victims of marine disasters via these boats had made claims and had them settled after the demise of loved ones. He felt the probability that it’d be none to very few will be very high considering the lackadaisical attitude people in these parts pay to issues associated with insurance, and they have good reason too considering that the history of insurance in Nigeria is replete with insincerity of the insurance companies such that should ones life depend on the remittance from claims made, one is likely to die before such claims are settled. Though the situation is changing for the better, many Nigerians still view insurance with great apathy.
There were life jackets but only a few opted for them. Many Niger Deltans consider themselves very good swimmers, and those who have the good sense to wear life jackets are considered not man enough to “weather the storms”, unfortunately on so many occasions when the boats en route Bonny capsized the cases in which passengers without life jackets swam to safety were few and far between.
The boat that was “loading” as he approached with his escort was a twin-engine boat. The boats, unlike the ones at the LNG terminal were uncovered and passengers exposed to the elements. There were wooden slabs placed in the middle section, these slabs were hooked to the sides of the boat. The slabs could be about 6 to 8 depending on the size of the boat. The one he boarded had 8 slabs, and apart from the first and last slab that sat only four passengers, the others sat five passengers each. As the boat set to move, the four passengers in front were implored to go hold down the bow of the boat to prevent it from overturning from the initial force with which the boat is propelled out of the terminus by the boat driver at the Stern, who then steered the boat right as it headed out into more water and onward to Bonny, before hitting calmer waters and the front passengers retaking their seats.
When his escort told him that the journey to Bonny will take about two hours, he was indifferent, he was slightly disappointed though that it will take that long to eventually see this much talked about island of possibilities. Many of the passengers were now straightening up themselves after bowing to offer some prayers. He soon understand why many prayed.
Though, this wasn’t the first time he’d be traveling over a water body, he however found that this time around, he felt totally emasculated surrounded only by the expanse of water on all sides. He wasn’t afraid but he was mystified by the presence of nature humbling him to accept the fact of his immortality. He looked in the faces of his fellow passengers, even in the face of his escort beside him, and except for one female two seats behind him who wore a pensive look, every other person was at peace with themselves. He hoped his face didn’t betray the riot in his mind.
They soon met fishermen going about their business, one paddled slowly, while the other made to cast the net into water. A big ferry traveling slowly though also motor engine-powered piqued his interest. It was loaded to the brim with goods with some men and women loitering within and atop the wooden cover. His escort told him that the ferry called “COTONOU” amongst the locales move goods, consumables and all to places like the islands of Bonny, Brass, Opobo and other riverine areas cut off from mainlands like Port Harcourt. It usually takes about two days for the ferry to eventually get to Bonny from Port Harcourt and vice versa. Many poor travelers who couldn’t afford to pay the fare for the kind of motor boats that was conveying him to Bonny paid only a fraction of the cost he paid to board the Cotonou to Port Harcourt and back, and if they were persuasive enough they could even join the crew without paying.
His escort told him that many who’d had their hopes of a better life in Bonny dashed returned via the Cotonou boats empty handed praying that such would not be his portion. He pondered on this, but muttered a subdued “Amen”, not because he had anything against the prayer or any form of prayers for that matter but rather because he was too free minded to believe that all started and ended with prayers even when attitude and actions totally negated what was been prayed for. For the second time, a second person has now warned him about Bonny Island, he looked at his backpack and promised himself that he’d work towards ensuring he returned with something more tangible. That, was his prayer!
The calm and quiet ride soon gave way to turbulence as the boat made it’s way into the Atlantic ocean while keeping as close to land as possible. The waves generated by a passing ship rocked the boat violently, but the driver was experienced enough to navigate the boat to safety into the creeks where they careered for about thirty minutes. The driver slowed down when he noticed the hovercraft of the JTF (Joint military Task Force, made up of members of the police and military arms, set up in the wake of militancy, piracy, pipeline vandalization, and oil bunkering in the Niger Delta region) appear out of some creek and making its way towards the boat, and passed besides the boat to inspect it. The gun-totting, stern-looking men kept staring at the faces in the boat after which their craft sped off out of sight within minutes. Interestingly, just moments after the JTF men left, another boat heavily laden with petroleum products, which some of the passengers said came from illegal refineries passed them by. He wondered why the government should be about destroying so called illegal refineries when the country was wasting huge resources importing petroleum products. Many of the passengers found it interesting that the JTF hovercraft had come via the same direction from where the boat hauling petroleum products came from. They didn’t find it unusual that the security agents had gone to collect their cut of the illegal business, so that they could look the other way.
Before the boat made it out to the ocean for the final stretch into Bonny the driver maneuvered the boat into the creeks to buy some fuel from some boys who had large plastic drums filled with fuel atop some wooden structure floating very close to mangrove-colonized part of the mashy piece of land. The journey had been without incidence so far, and everyone hoped it will remain so, if not better for what was left of the journey.
He was tired, after about an hour and half of roaming over what he sometimes feared could be his watery grave, he couldn’t wait any longer to be in Bonny. He decided to take his thoughts away from the present to his past, to the pleasant and unpleasant. Soon they were off again this time into the turbulence of the Atlantic, and then he saw this structure spewing flames and thick black smoke into the skies in the distance. That must be GAS FLARING, the same Nigeria had been missing several deadlines to halt for years now. He figured it must be coming from the LNG plant at Bonny. For the first time since the journey started, his mind came to some sort of peace, nothing could go wrong now, he thought!