I pointed at what appeared to be a temporary encampment on the shores of an overgrown island. Mkpa, the Nigerian who captained our boat, hesitantly reconfirmed that this was indeed where I wanted to come ashore. We maneuvered between two large river barges that were rusted, battered, and grounded in the shallows just off the beach. These monsters of floating steel had found their final resting place among the other ships that were left for scraps in this “floating graveyard.” We idled towards a partially grounded tanker ship, seeing that a beach landing was impossible, and climbed a rope ladder that dangled off the starboard quarter. A startled group of men on shore appeared confused and threw their hands up in alarm as we climbed aboard their ship. Quickly, my Chief managed to descend another ladder to the trash-riddled shore and peaceably extended his hand as they laughed and realized we weren’t the prowling pirates who routinely attack ships here in West Africa. With a friendship forged and safely on shore, we approached the temporary encampment.
As we moved closer, I could hear shouts of joy from a lot of children running through the tall grass as they closed in on our position. Out of the grass emerged not three, not six, but nine children who served as the community’s ad hoc welcoming party. They held our hands, played with the tennis ball I gave them, and smiled for “snaps” as I started taking their pictures, much like in my previous posts.
Immediately, I noticed signs that pointed towards this serving as a permanent residency instead of the temporary encampment it appeared to be from the water. There were foundations of huts that had been destroyed. Men were hewing the wood of felled trees in a painstaking attempt to make canoes. Ladies in the community were cleaning dishes in the oily and filthy water that lapped the banks of the beach on which we landed. Children poured out from what appeared to be trash piles, wearing nothing more than underwear. Island elders asked why we had decided to stop here of all places and visit them. We stated that we chose this community at random because we could tell it was a welcoming island of friendly people…at least I hoped.
I saw the bright smile of a middle-aged woman who gestured for me to follow her and walk about the small village. I asked her for a brief history of the island. She said the ship building company down river had come in three weeks ago and destroyed all the homes since islanders were squatting on their property, even though they were far removed and out of sight from the shipbuilders area of operations. They left nothing but the foundations. Others in the community told me the shipbuilders had destroyed their homes five years ago. Others said nine years ago. But the largest number of people told me that the razing of their homes had occurred 11 YEARS AGO. The lady who had shown me around and opened my eyes to the encampment was merely trying to save face for a community that was unwanted and told to disappear.
As I learned of their despair, it became apparent that this community had rebuilt itself over the last decade or so with trash and debris as it floated ashore or was gathered by canoe. Any refuse they could collect was added to a “home.” The more trash they piled up, the better shot they had at staying dry during the six months of monsoon season between April and October. It was an incredibly sad state of affairs. Leaking oil drums served as walls for their homes, palm branches thatched the roof, and they were served the option of sleeping on the sand or on the hardness of wooden pallets. Used gas cans collected rainwater. Buckets pulled from the passing river served as cooking pots. Weathered tarps and half sheets of plywood sheltered residents from the 94-degree heat and humidity. Honestly, it was living conditions unlike any I’ve seen in all my travels around the world.
They walked me to a hole in the ground. It was a well the men had dug for the community’s source of freshwater. The maddening problem was the noticeably thick layer of oil and sand that sat on the surface of their drinking water. Another hole in the ground nearby served as an unkempt outhouse for those who chose not to relieve themselves on the ground outside their homes.
The good I sought out in this destitute community was the joy of the people. The parents shielded what they knew of the outside world from their children. The kids and teenagers simply knew of nothing better off the island. Kids climbed on the members of my team, showed us termite mounds that grew to 12 feet high, and played chase with us through the tall grass. The tennis ball and American football we left them were the first gifts they’d been given, and it was as if they’d received that one Christmas or birthday gift you always wanted. Children younger than six or seven rubbed our skin and played with the hair on our arms, as it was the first time they were up close and personal with something different than their own. Kids ran their hands through our hair repeatedly as it was a texture they’d never felt before. They smiled with pure joy for my camera. These moments were beautiful in a way I can’t describe. An innocence I’ll never be able to share through words.
We had personal interactions with every resident in this abandoned and disregarded community. Just across the river—within eyesight—sat the Port of Lagos and the center of the commercial shipping industry. There were jobs. There was a livelihood. A freedom or independence found in employment. A lifelong tease that for this village was unattainable and just out of reach. The river served as a simple metaphor for the great width and breadth that distanced this community from life “on the other side.” A painful reminder that there was lost hope for a community that outsiders saw as a lost cause.
I don’t know where this blog will take me. I share stories and adventures from around the world as they happen. As stated in my first post, I’m out to share truth and vivid accounts of life lived outside the modern comfort zone. We as citizens of a developed country tend to encapsulate ourselves within the bubble that nicely fits our career, our family, and our friends. While I’ll be the first to admit that it’s nice to catch a few routine days back in Williamsburg, Virginia, I know there’s so much to be shared as life takes me from place to place and culture to culture. My comfort zone bubble bursted long ago and as life unfolds and opportunities arise, I’ll be sharing more and more in the hope that others can see the world through this blog. As it grows, ideally I’ll find a way for others to get involved as I step ashore into the lives of people long forgotten.
Thanks for caring and most of all, thanks for sharing your thoughts in the comments below.
Humbled and Determined,