I signed up for a youth awareness and cultural integration program organized by Scripture Union Nigeria. My group, 58 boys and girls ages 14 to 17 is to embark on a week-long voyage to a tiny fishing island town deep off the S.E. Atlantic coasts of West Africa. Kola Island, about 450-person population, is a completely unknown piece of humanity. The day was Monday. Sail sets off at historic Buguma Wharf, Port Harcourt. At 7 am, the massive wooden boat coasts away into the open seas. Some of us just didn’t know what to expect.
You could have touched the thickly chills and mounting concern belted home on faces so pale, so blank. My heart raced in my shoes. And so did Frank’s, Yinka’s and three of girls closest to us. Some had never crossed a river on foot, ever before. Is this really a good idea? Are really going to be okay? Safe? Hey, someone is throwing up already! Charles “Emperor” is the one. Three rows behind us. But he is going to be fine. Forty five minutes into the deep, Lucy steps into her crying shoes. Like if hit by a sense of guilt for begotten charities unsure, there is suddenly a crying spree and a stage set for comedy and satirist folklore.
Three other girls and one of the guys at the back of us are sobbing away. I am not the bravest in things like this. I pull Yinka to myself. Lucy stepping over to our berth, holes up with me and Yinker. And I build the emotional fort as we squeezed each other hard along. We have earnestly hoped and prepared for this day. But like in the story of the elephant, “the hunter’s boast while at home is never repeated at the sight of this monstrous beast of a guy!” We were (or should I say, I WAS) overwhelmed with fright and delight! All at the same time! Huge bumpy skids, monstrous boisterous waves, scary splashes of sharks and friends.
We sing church and war songs, motivational chants, anything that could take our focus away from the rage beneath and around us. The captain and his crew address us, relaying intriguing facts about the waters and different locations as we steamed up and down the mighty waves. Half-way into the journey, our boat suffers a major engine snag. The Captain attempts every troubleshooting technique, sends up an SOS, and for two hours we are stranded. Tossed sore by mighty waves.
Half-a-dozen boats sail by. No sign of interest was shown by any, to even know what the heck we were all about. “Fear of high-sea pirates!” explains the crew who like us is losing hope! At last, a Coast Guard boat sights us from miles, cautiously circles around, establishes communication and approaches. They artfully hook our boat to theirs, pull out some huge equipment and crank our engine back to life. You should have seen the relief, the celebration!
At 4 pm, against all ungodly odds, we anchor at the makeshift wharf that we learn only receives 2 to 3 boats per week from distant lands. We are helped out of the boat by the police and some fishermen. Dozens of locals have filled the arena to welcome their “alien relatives”. For so we looked to most of them! The police set up a PA system, chairs and tables for a special official welcome to us. Police Chief Zubeiru mounted the podium to address us, calling us “our young friends from dry lands, who have braved the waves…”
A certain sad feeling suddenly comes over me. The possibility that we might not make it back to civilization stares me in the face! But that is over now! The police chief handed us our brief about the Island. Our camp is the school. We walk through the sandy streets, house-to-house, two times daily and converge at the public arena in front of the police station every 5 pm. Aside from the dread of another sail back to land, the biggest menace, was sand flies. These almost-invisible creatures bit us sore. They are everywhere. The Island is so small that we touch every house and everybody that lives there. We are served roasted fish and soda in every home.
We are fed off of a makeshift kitchen at the school by team members charged with that duty. Generous supplies of water and firewood come readily from local volunteers, all coordinated by the police and the Island’s council. All our food, bedding, laundry and sanitary supplies came with us in the boat. The people are so accommodating. To them, it is a privilege. To us, an experience of a lifetime! The sail home equally precarious…hours of freezing rain and another bout of prolonged fear and concern about our safety and all the unpredictable escapade down the tumultuous sail! But we are safe home to the warm embrace of all.
Steve C. Ibeawuchi, M.Com.