The God of the Sea

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Table of Contents

The God of the Sea

By Barakat Akinsiku

My father says if we don’t appease the god of the sea often, he will one day wash us all away. And it appeared the deity had been angry for a while, because he sent his waters to us recently. His emissaries paid us a visit a fortnight before I was enrolled at the Community Model School.

I was fast asleep when they came, in the tiny room I lived in with my father. We lived close to the sea and were part of a sprawling beach community made up of crude wooden shacks packed close together on a windy shore.

I was on my mat on the floor, close to the rickety bed my father sleeps on, when I heard the sound. It came from outside our door, muffled and indistinct. Then it became distinguishable as a mixture of shrill voices. Soon, it wasn’t just the voices but the padded slap-slap of running feet and noisy drag-drag of objects being pulled across the ground. A thunderous rap of fists sounding through the thin wood of our door sent my heart thumping, and Baba Muri’s high-pitched voice followed in quick succession.

“Daddy Layi, dide o, dide o. Omi Okun ti nbo!” our garrulous neighbour screamed through the wooden partition. My father jumped up, gesturing at me to do the same. He grabbed a weather-beaten suitcase at the foot of the bed, opened it, and threw in most of our clothes and a few things from underneath the bed. Then, turning to give the room one last scan, he took hold of my hand and we made for the door.

Once we stepped outside, it looked like the world was truly coming to an end. People were running about, carrying huge trunks on their heads and talking in fast, clipped tones. I saw a mother drag a half-sleeping toddler with one hand while strapping a baby on her back with the other. Another lady, whom I recognized as Sister Rosie from next door, packed pots and cooking utensils into an iron bucket before deftly placing it on her head. Others shouted at the top of their voices, knocked on the doors of sleeping neighbours, and gathered personal belongings in haste.

My best friend’s grandmother had explained it to me once. Several times, early in the morning before our little community rose in readiness for the day, Shanty’s grandma, Iya Oloja, carried a bell, ringing it loudly while walking around the shacks. She usually wore a white garment and clutched a thick piece of book curling at the edges, which she called the holy book or bibeli. Then she screamed at the top of her voice, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, for the Last Days are upon us!”

When I asked her to explain what the Last Days were, she told me they were days that signified the world coming to an end. She explained that everyone would be running helter-skelter and that there would be pandemonium around the world. Shanty and I always listened with rapt attention when Iya Oloja started her lectures, because she gave a good smack if we didn’t. A huge woman with fleshy upper arms that flapped about when she spoke, Iya Oloja’s piercing eyes had a way of sending darts of fear into our hearts even before she opened her mouth or doled out a generous sting from her palm.

Shanty has been my best friend since we were five. Like her, I never met my mother, who passed away when I was a baby. And as eight-year-olds, Shanty and I had never been within the four walls of a school. We learned all we knew from Iya Oloja and from the things we saw around us.

Amidst the chaos of the night, I managed to ask my father what was going on. Were we all going to die and go to the kingdom Iya Oloja often spoke of? I tried to imagine it. She had said we would all be dressed in white garb, the type she so often wore when she did her early-morning kurusade. She said our feet would feel light and we would suddenly start floating into the sky.

I looked down at my feet. They were covered in the loose grains of the white sand I was walking on, and were still tucked into the worn rubber sandals I wore.

They did not feel light at all.

I was also in my flowery print dress, same as everyone around me. No one was floating yet or donned in white garb. I looked around the crowd, hoping to catch sight of Shanty or Iya Oloja, but it was too dark to see properly. I could only make out the silhouettes of people, and the trunks and boxes they dragged after them. Everyone was walking resolutely ahead. Suddenly, there was a shout from behind and people began to run. My throat choked with fear and I asked my father what was happening.

“Olokun. The god of the sea,” he muttered, his face twisted in a frown just before he picked me up and swung me onto his back.

Then, he lifted the suitcase and placed it on his head, and broke into a sprint. I was still wondering what he meant when a flash from someone’s torchlight beside us cast a glow on the thick white sand.

The sand was wet and it seemed the sea was running after us.

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We trekked several kilometres through the night, away from our homes to higher ground to escape the ocean surge, and spent a few days at a makeshift settlement in another clearing far from the beach. We were going to wait there till the waters receded and we could return to our homes, my father explained when we arrived at the camp. I asked him if this had happened before and he told me yes, a few times when he was younger. Which got me wondering if Olokun, the god of the sea, was no longer being appeased.

According to my father, there are several water deities called Orishas, with Olokun the most powerful among them. He is the leader of the Orishas, closely assisted by Yemoja, the mother of the sea. Yemoja protects children and fishermen away at sea. All of the Orishas must be appeased through certain rituals, or Olokun would get angry and flood our homes.

Maybe the rituals to appease the water deities had not been carried out, and the result was the turmoil we just witnessed.

Darkness turned into light and the night gave way to the day. Everyone was in high spirits, glad to have escaped the flood waters. We reconnected with friends and families we weren’t able to meet up with when the cry of alarm rang out. I found Shanty and Iya Oloja, while my father found his friends and distant family members. Everyone was safe and sound.

Iya Oloja led a praise and worship session right there on the clearing to thank the Lord for saving our lives. I was surprised that my father, who never attended Iya Oloja’s Sunday-morning worship, was the most vocal in the prayer session.

Like I said, everybody was in high spirits that morning.

However, as the day progressed, gloom set in as families took stock of all they had lost to the floodwaters and all they would still probably lose to pilfering. It wasn’t long before a fight broke out over missing items between Brother Segun and Brother Ajayi, and then between Aunt Sarah and Iya Bose. Soon, the camp became noisy and rowdy, just like it usually was back home.

I wondered: if things could be this bad when we were still on land, how would it be if we were all swept off to sea?

Would we survive?

Ah! Ewo!” Iya Oloja exclaimed, swirling her hands round her head and snapping her middle and forefingers in a God forbidden sign when I asked her the question. When I pressed for further explanation, she got irritated, telling me to stop asking her silly questions and allow her to get on with her chores. She was mashing some bell peppers and tomatoes in a tiny mortar, so I let her be.

But I discussed the issue with Shanty.

“The fishermen get fish from the sea, right?” I asked, and she nodded. “That means fish survive in the water somehow.”

“That is correct.”

“So, we need to find out how fish survive in water to know how we can survive in water when the god of the sea pulls us all into the ocean …”

“Ah, is that going to be possible?” Shanty stared at me with eyes that seemed to grow bigger by the second and I was deep in thought. I tried to remember all I knew about fishes.

“I’ve watched when the fishermen pull in their catch in the evenings,” I began. “The fishes glide about in a sleek way inside the fishermen’s net. That must be how they move in the sea. You know they have no legs, so we must first learn to glide like they do.”

I leaned forward to whisper into Shanty’s ear and she grinned.

We had a plan. When we got back home, we were going to find a secluded spot on the beach to learn how to glide in the sea.

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We did not leave the settlement until four days later. The day before we left, my father went with Baba Muri and some other men to check if our homes were safe to return to.

When they left, I stayed with Shanty and Iya Oloja. Iya Oloja had an errand to attend to, so Shanty and I were alone, unchaperoned. We decided to make good use of our time by exploring our surroundings. The new settlement we were in was far from the beach but very close to town, a place Shanty and I hardly ever ventured to. My father only took me there when I was sick and needed to see a doctor. I had not been seriously ill in a while, so there hadn’t been a reason to go into town. Once, I asked my father why we had to live on the beach and he told me we had ancestral ties to the beach land. When I asked about school, he said it would require money and he didn’t have a lot of it. My father worked as an entrance-fee collector from tourists visiting our beach, but he complained about never making enough money from the toll fees collected. So, we continued our beach life with me never going to school.

But as Shanty and I strolled on and reached a tarred road, I couldn’t help wondering if life would have been more interesting if we lived in the town instead of on the beach. There were huge buildings all around us and cars that moved pretty fast on the tarred road. We walked on for a bit, excited and scared at the same time, when Shanty said, “We should turn back. I don’t want Iya Oloja to get angry.”

I nodded. Iya Oloja was scary when she was angry.

We turned on our heels and walked back the way we had come. We had not gotten very far when we heard a bell ring. Its sound was similar to the one Iya Oloja used every morning. We stopped to take a look. But rather than seeing a white-garment-wearing worshipper clutching a bibeli, we saw the gates to one of the buildings across the road open. Children of different shapes and sizes trooped out, all dressed in similar outfits.

“A school,” I mouthed to Shanty excitedly, and she nodded with a smile. For a second, I wished I was one of those kids. Then, another thought struck me. Were these children, those buildings, and the town in general safe from the wrath of the sea god? Could moving here be another safer option for us, keeping us from being swept off to sea?

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When we returned home, things were not the way we had left them. Our wooden shacks were damp and smelly, with some parts of the wood already mouldy and flaking off. The floors had a dank feel, and our door was coming undone from its hinges. My father’s mattress was soaking wet, and we had to spread it out to dry. It was the same in the other houses. Everyone had one or two items—sofas, bedding, draperies—which they had to hang out to dry. Items that couldn’t be salvaged were thrown away.

On the second day after our arrival, Shanty and I found a safe, secluded spot on the beach to practice our gliding skills. Shanty sat on the sand, a safe distance away, with her hands propped on her chin.

“Now what?” she asked, looking up at me.

“We lie down as close to the water as possible. Then we stretch out our hands and feet so we’re stretched straight, just like the fish. When the wave crashes close to us, we’ll try to see if we can twist our bodies and move the way fishes do,” I explained.

Shanty rubbed her chin, a slight frown on her face as she contemplated all I had just said.

“I’ve seen Bro Taju and some of his friends swim in a different way at the mouth of the ocean when they get back from fishing. Why don’t we ask them to teach us that way instead?” she said finally.

“Because that doesn’t look at all like the way fishes move. Here,” I pointed into the distance, “there’s a giant wave coming.” I moved close to the shoreline, preparing to lie prone on the ground and practice gliding, when the wave hit my leg with such force that I was knocked over into the icy water. I spluttered and gasped as water filled my mouth and nostrils. I dimly made out the sound of Shanty screaming as the current pulled me away with invisible hands. I flailed about, trying to reach for something to hold onto, but there was nothing close by, as I was surrounded by water. I was a speck in the giant mass of blue liquid.

Keeping my head above the water while holding my balance proved a chore, and terror gripped me as I wondered if I was about to be washed off to sea, just as I was trying to learn to survive in it. We had been warned several times not to play near the ocean because Adesola, Baba Muri’s youngest daughter, had drowned in the sea late last year.

Was I about to suffer the same fate?

I was still pondering this when I felt a strong grip on my arm. I looked up. It was Mr. Adams, one of the local fishermen and a close friend of my father. He wrapped one arm around my middle and tore into the water with the other, in strokes that soon brought me to safety—out of the water and onto the sandy shore that now looked like paradise to me. My arms and knees shook as I took stock of how close I had come to drowning. My wet clothes clung to me and I shivered as a gentle wind blew on my bedraggled form. Then I heard the patter of running feet.

It was Shanty and my father.

“What is wrong with you, Layi, what is wrong with you, eh?” My father’s welcoming act was to drag me up and give me a good shake. “Have I not warned you never to play near the sea?”

“Don’t mind her,” Mr. Adams said, dusting the sand off his hands. “These children never listen. You have to keep a close eye on her. It’s a good thing I saw her from afar while pulling my boat in. She was actually walking towards the water purposefully and trying to bend and sit down or something.”

What?” My father was incredulous. “Have you gone mad? Why would you do that? Answer me right now.” His hands clasped into my shoulder blades as he prepared to give me another shake, and I stammered, “I w-was trying t-to learn how to glide like a fish.”

“Glide like a fish?” Eyes narrowed and brows bunched together in surprise, my father studied me. “What do you mean? And why would you want to learn how to do that?”

“Because we need to know how to survive when the god of the sea sweeps us all off to sea!” I blurted out.

My father and Mr. Adams appeared stunned for a while before they threw back their heads in laughter.

“These children …” Mr. Adams said finally, his voice light with mirth. Then he turned on his heels. “Better take her home to change out of her wet clothes.”

“Indeed, my friend,” my father agreed.

We set off for home with Shanty following close behind us.

“You must never go near the sea alone again, the two of you,” my father warned as we strolled along the shore, and we nodded. Then he gave me a puzzled look.

“Whatever gave you the idea that you could learn how to swim, or was it glide you called it, all by yourself? Next time you want to learn how to do something, you must tell me first, okay?”

“Yes sir.” I bobbed my head in acquiescence.

The serene sound of the waves lapping at the shoreline surrounded us as we continued the trek home. An idea lit up my brain and I turned to look at my father.

“Can I go to school, sir? It is something I’d really love to do. Shanty and I saw one close to where we stayed after the sea flooded our homes. I’d really, really love to go there.”

The words tumbled out in quick succession and my father was quiet for a while.

“I already told you school costs a lot of money,” he replied finally, and the bulb switched off inside me.

Yet again, I wouldn’t be able to go to school.

I dragged my feet on the sand; it felt like a heavy rock had been fastened onto them. Then I realized my father wasn’t done talking yet.

“Never mind,” he said. “I’ll make some inquiries to see if there are workable options for indigent families. At least, school should keep you busy and stop you from trying to kill yourself.”

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Shanty and I were enrolled in the Community Model Primary School some days later. It was the same school we had seen on our walk the previous week. We were excited, and on the first day, we dressed in old oversized uniforms a kind teacher had provided for us. It turned out there were no fees to be paid other than my father and Iya Oloja providing school books and writing materials for us. My father promised to get the books later, so I arrived with only a pencil and a roll of paper Iya Oloja found at the bottom of her trunk box. Shanty and I were put in primary one.

We were the oldest in the class of five-year-olds.

We felt odd and out of place, especially because the children knew a lot more than we did. For instance, they had their alphabet and numbers down pat and were already at the beginner stage in reading. We had a lot of catching up to do, and we worked diligently.

During our second week, we had some guests address us during morning assembly. The head teacher, Mrs. Olayiwola, introduced them as Mr. Patrick and Miss Chidera from the Institute of Oceanography. It was World Oceans Day and these two were going around to different schools to enlighten and teach about the importance of keeping the waterways and drains free of refuse and plastic waste. Miss Chidera held up a PET bottle, the sort used for soft drinks, which a lot of tourists buy from Mama Chi Chi’s stall at the beach.

“These bottles in particular are very dangerous to the marine environment because they are not biodegradable and can lead to the death of sea animals,” she explained. “We must learn to sort them from our waste and take them for recycling.”

I did not attach any particular importance to what she said until a few days later.

Shanty and I had just gotten home from school when we noticed our neighbours in an excited mood. They were talking with animated expressions, running and pointing towards the beach front. Some carried buckets, basins, and bowls, while others were armed with cutlasses, machetes, and long, sharp knives.

Shanty and I couldn’t understand it, so we went to our respective houses.

My father was rummaging about under his bed when I walked in. He was pulling out a basin, which we usually used to store dirty clothes, and another we used for bathing. Then he looked up and saw me.

“Welcome, my daughter,” he said with a wide grin, emptying the dirty clothes in the basin on the floor and plopping a giant cutlass and cleaver into it instead. “You are just in time for good news. Olokun has decided to compensate us for last month’s pain!”

“The god of the sea? Compensate us? How? And why is everyone carrying buckets and running towards the beach?” I asked in quick succession.

My father smiled. “The god of the sea has decided to bless us with bountiful food. Meat that will last us weeks and fill our hungry bellies!”

“Food? Meat?”

“Yes. The benevolence of the sea god. Sometimes he gets angry and floods our homes. Other times, he washes up food ashore for us to eat,” he explained, rubbing his hands together in glee. “Get changed quickly and come meet me at the beach. I need to get going before the others scavenge all the meat.”

With that, he plopped the smaller basin containing the knives into the larger one, and lifted both basins onto his head. Then he dashed out of the door.

I changed out of my school uniform, all the while pondering what my father had said. I checked on Shanty, but there was no one at her house, so I strolled down to the beach alone.

It was almost like a carnival was happening right there on the beach front. There was a huge crowd—men, women, children, the elderly and young all milling about. Faces I had never seen before mixed with those of locals, and everyone toting basins, knives, cleavers. People gathered in small groups, talking gaily while little children chased after one another. The atmosphere on the beach was that of joy, all because of the benevolence of the sea god.

I was eager to see it.

I moved closer, weaving through the crowd and pushing through the damp, sweaty bodies of onlookers.

Then I saw it.

On the shore, surrounded by more than a dozen people who were busy butchering and cutting off body parts, was the carcass of the biggest fish I had ever seen in my life. It was about the length of a fisherman’s canoe, and was huge and fat.

I later learned that it was a baby whale. Its peeling flesh was black, shiny, and reflecting back the glint of the afternoon sun. Giant fins lay by its sides and big chunks of its flesh were being cut off by the hungry villagers. Someone moved behind me, pushing me forward, and my toe stuck on something.

I looked down to see I had stepped on a plastic PET bottle embedded in the sand. Then I noticed several more, strewn in all directions on the shore, and some by the whale carcass.

Some of the bottles were half buried, while others were clearly in view. Some were stomped on and flattened out, while others retained their cylindrical form.

They were all of different colours and sizes.

Miss Chidera’s words came back to my ears and I grew puzzled. I did not know what to believe.

Was this baby whale really sent by the god of the sea as an act of benevolence, or did this plastic waste find its way into the ocean and contribute to its death? Could my father be right, or were he and the other villagers just plain ignorant?

Did the god of the sea even really exist?