After class on Friday, our students changed out of their uniforms and told my team, “It’s the weekend! We will take you to party and a new place to explore.”
We piled onto boats, laughing and listening to a mix of English and their native tribal languages. Here I sat, on a boat with armed escort, off to an unknown destination, with 15 Nigerians for an afternoon of adventure. It doesn’t get much better.
The engines roared to life as we turned upriver and moved into coastal wetlands. We passed abandoned ships, island communities, and villages built around the sand harvesting industry. In shallow bays like this, islanders craft boats for the purpose of filling them to the brim with sand. They move up and down the river finding shallow areas where men can dive with buckets and collect the sand that is then sold to other villages and homebuilders. It’s a very dangerous profession, as these boats are loaded down with several tons of sand and ride just above the waterline. The smallest wake from a passing boat can swamp the sand canoes, thus sinking their vessel and wrecking their livelihood. Many people die in this industry because they’ve never been taught how to swim when their boat succumbs to waves.
As we slowly idled by each sand boat, we moved closer to our destination…an island village known as Ibeshe that sits on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a community that survives on a niche they’ve developed. They use their sand boats and handcrafted canoes to supply the massive cargo ships that sit at anchorage on the horizon, awaiting entrance into the port of Lagos, Nigeria. Villagers set out at dusk or dawn and spend hours motoring miles through the ocean and offshore to ships well over 1000 feet long. If the sea and currents cooperate, they arrive to deliver food and freshwater. I spotted massive storage drums attached to these handcrafted delivery boats and assumed they were for the delivery of water. While that’s true, I learned that many also hold illegally purchased diesel fuel from the ships out at sea. The community provides potable water to the ships and the ships in turn hustle fuel, which locals use or sell at a higher rate. It’s a unique give-and-take enterprise that enables the village to survive.
As I learned about life on Ibeshe, I also delved into the personal stories of the students I’ve been training these last few weeks. One student, a quiet and reserved man named Egwu Sunday, wasn’t body surfing or battling the ocean waves like the rest of us. When I asked him why, he somberly explained how his story on this beach was dramatically different than the one I was creating today with students. At this spot three years ago, he lost his firstborn son, Calvin, and his son’s best friend when they were carried out to sea and drowned. He shared the events of that day and how it has impacted his life. He tenderly supports his other five children with a renewed since of devotion. He is a pillar of strength for his family. He lives with a better understanding of love. It was sobering to witness him partake in all the fun of a party—while only myself and two other guys knew how this sandy strip of beach had changed his life forever.
Locals from the community made their way out to us on the beach. Here, I was introduced to local whiskey and the skin-baking sun of West Africa. I can confidently say those are two things I don’t need more of. Students danced, we played soccer, and some guys “fell in love” with the local women. After hours on the beach, we loaded up the boats and raced back to base.
Yesterday left me wanting more time on this great continent. I love the culture. I love the people. I love the happiness they exude. It’s the true spirit of Africa and while I was faced with a father who’d lost so much and a community sustained by illegal bartering, I was still captivated by the fullness with which they embrace life—albeit, a hard and trying life.
Burned and Baking in Bed,