We all rushed out to the shout from people at the riverbank. I saw my mother with her hands on her head, my father standing akimbo.
“Excuse me,” I said as I tried to push my way through the crowd, but the people would not even hear my tiny voice. I stood wondering what the cause of the wailing could be.
“Call the community chief,” a woman screamed as she turned to leave.
“This is sacrilege. We must find out what happened,” Wariso, the head of the fishing settlement, said in a low tone as he also left.
One by one they left, and I got the chance to get close to riverbank. Just then my mother pulled me off as she, too, turned to leave. We walked back home quickly but in total silence. I turned occasionally to catch a glimpse of the riverbank.
“Who has contaminated our water, and killed our fish?” I kept asking as we settled back into our house. No one had any answers. “Why don’t I rush to market to sell these off before they get rotten too?” my mother asked pensively as she sorted through her remaining smoked fish. My father simply nodded.
She carried the basket of fish and beckoned on me to follow her.
“Mummy, what happened at the riverbank today? I couldn’t get a glimpse of the whole area,” I asked, looking up at her. She was too upset and lost in thought that she didn’t respond to my question. I knew I shouldn’t press her.
It was quite unusual to find so many traders at the market square as it wasn’t a market day. Theresa, my mother’s friend came by and greeted while we arranged our wares.
“Mama Tari, you came out today?” She asked.
“I can’t afford to lose these fish. If I wait till market day, people may confuse them for the ones we saw at the riverbank today,” mother replied sadly.
“I have sent my children to pick some for me,” Theresa whispered. “You never can tell; they may be a blessing from God. Have you ever seen fish been washed ashore?”
My mother kept quiet. I knew she was pondering on the statement, but she knew she wouldn’t dare bring up the idea of picking up dead fish in front of my father.
“You may be right, but my husband will not have me do that. Can your children pick some for me? At least I can use them for soup tonight.”
She nodded in agreement to my mother’s request. Just then we heard the gong from the palace guard followed with the messenger’s announcement.
“The king has ordered that nobody should pick, sell or eat from the dead fish that were found at the Kiama waterfront. They are to be taken for testing to know the cause of the death before we can say the next line of action. Be warned that if you are caught picking them you will be heavily penalised.”
The market became very noisy as everybody spoke at the same time. People argued over whether eating the fish would kill. Others said that the cause of the death was pollution from the big oil company in our village. Some others said it was a result of having too much dirt in the river.
Father returned with an empty basket, a frowning face and a heavy heart. It was obvious he couldn’t catch any fish. It’d been five days since the dead fish washed up our shores. They appeared to have scared every living fish away. The smell that oozed from the dead fish was lethal. Our air was contaminated. Hunger took residence in every home.
“Welcome Dede,” my mother greeted as she stood up to get father’s basket and fishing net. “Another failed attempt today. Why don’t we do like the others?
We can’t keep eating palm kernel, look at your children. I can’t stand seeing my children suffer because you want to maintain an upright position. Have you seen anyone being caught?” She queried.
“My children will not contaminated fish. Are they dead from eating the kernels? Are they sick? No one will know what they eat if you keep your mouth shut. I have made my point and I will say it again. I will not have that dead fish in my house, never.” Father was exasperated.
He stormed out of the house.
That afternoon, we saw some people from the city who came to take pictures and ask questions about the dead fish. They promised to get the government to address our plight and bring solutions.
I and my siblings had not had good food in the last five days; hunger had become a normal part of our lives. We became used to drinking garri with palm kernel.
One evening as we were eating, we heard a very loud sound from the river that caused people to take to their heels. We also ran for safety. Soon, we realized it was a big pipe in the river that ripped open and gasses were leaking into the air. No fish in the river and now we can’t even have safe drinking water. How bad can things get!
“Tamuno, Tamuno, wake up. It’s morning” Theresa called as she opened the windows of their small bedroom. When there was no response from her husband after the repeated calls, she went close and… he was dead.
Theresa couldn’t stop screaming as his corpse was taken out of their thatch house to the community mortuary. Tamuno had died in his sleep after he complained of a little fever before he went to bed the previous night.
We heard of more than seven deaths with three days. Kiama was becoming a ghost town. Fear enveloped the entire community.
We did not know who would go next. We did not know the cause of the deaths. The government had said our fish died from a natural cause and the big company in my village said the damaged pipe did not cause harm to anybody. Did we believe them? Can we trust them?
“There is a big sickness in the country. My papa said several people have died from it and many more will die. I pray it doesn’t enter our community” Diepreye my friend in the neighbourhood said as we walked along the seashore.
“You pray it doesn’t enter?” I looked at her sadly. “The sickness is here already. What do you think killed the seven people that died last week? I hear eight other persons have died since then, and the government is planning to bring an army of gun men here to keep us from going out. The sickness is called Covid-19 and we must learn to wash our hands and clean our environment regularly.”
Father is doing his best to enlighten my younger ones and 1 as well my mother. He stresses on the need to wear face masks. He takes social distancing seriously, saying that we have to stay far from people because the disease can easily be transmitted from person to person.
Fourteen days after the government enforced the total lockdown in the country including in Kiama, we have totally run out of food stuff. We don’t even have garri to drink.
Something has to be done. And fast. Our community desperately needs help because we suffer from more than the pandemic. We have nothing but hunger, poverty and a degraded environment to show for the many years of exploration of crude oil from our land. Now with COVID-19, we may as well all die.
Odhomor is a practicing Journalist with a first degree in English language and Literature Studies from the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria
“The Fisher’s Pain” is extracted from “A Walk in a Curfew and other Pandemic Tales”, a 2020 publication of HOMEF
Readers can download the full eBook at www.homef.org