Ibadan Sodowari was my friend. He was an Ijaw, a tribe that lives in the mangrove swamps of coastal Nigeria and Cameroon principally by fishing, but also by smuggling contraband.
Ibadan lived with his wife and numerous family in a small village amongst the mangroves a few miles downstream from N’dian. He sold his fish at the place where the red and black rivers meet. Mostly the fish were of modest size but sometimes they were enormous. Once, on the same day there were two gropas and a shinose all over forty pounds in weight.
Ibadan was tall and very handsome and as black as the ace of spades. Sometimes Ibadan would bring his fish to Mundimba House and he would stay a little while for a beer. Once he brought me a Night Heron, nycticorax, whom I named Lawrence. I don’t know why. Lawrence was an agreeable companion and he would pace with me up and down the verandah after dinner, during a period of solitude.
One had to watch Lawrence, however, as he would not hesitate to stick his extremely sharp beak into one’s ankle if nourishment was not forthcoming as fast as he desired. Later he must have felt the call of the wild, because he flew back to the swamps leaving me to wish that I had the sense and the wings to do the same. A night heron has enormous eyes, and makes his living paddling about the mangrove swamps in pitch darkness devouring various fishy morsels.
One day I suggested to Ibadan that we go on a fishing trip down the N’dian River and he was delighted with this proposition. Before we set out however, I must describe for you the various pieces of equipment involved. First of all was the canoe, and this was not the kind of fiberglass lightweight that you are probably thinking about. It was made by felling a mahogany or ironwood tree, and a fire is kept burning along a groove cut on the upper part. The embers are hacked out, bit-by-bit, and gradually the canoe assumes it’s predestined shape. Many hazards await the canoe builder, and sometimes the fire can burn a hole straight through the bottom of the boat to be. Over exuberant work with the machete can result in similar misfortune. If due consideration is not given to the siting of the launching pad, it may not be possible to launch the craft at all. Then there, on dry land, the woeful monument to one’s incompetence must remain.
The Ibadan canoe was a two person affair. Ibadan sitting at the stern with the paddle and Mrs. Ibadan sitting or standing on a precarious platform at the prow, depending on the operations of the moment. I had made the acquaintance of Mrs. Ibadan before because she suffered from fits, and sometimes came round just as she was going down for the third time as it were, in the murky waters of the N’dian River. I was amazed at the opulence of the Ibadan residence because I had not hitherto associated fishing and mangrove swamps with the wealthier echelons of society. Their house was constructed of bamboo piles driven into the mud of the river bank. The children were housed in various small bedrooms and the main bedroom, in the center of the house, contained a brass four poster complete with mosquito net and all the trimmings.
On this occasion the two person canoe became a three person canoe, as I was seated on an upturned box placed amidships. Mrs Ibadan was ousted from her position and her place was taken by a taciturn fellow, whose name I now forget. We set forth at sundown just as the tide turned and carried us down river. Very soon we came to some long stretches of open water that Ibadan considered suitable for long lining. First he netted the side channels with nets that he would retrieve on the flood tide, and having done that he set the long lines. A hook every ten feet, and a gourd float every thirty. How he managed to do this without getting everything irretrievably tangled together is a mystery known only to Ijaw fishermen and their wives.
As they paddled, the canoeists sang songs of the river, of love and death and crime and punishment, as they would be the world over, tied to the rhythms of the river. Slack water was at approximately midnight, and we ate our supper by the light of carbide lamps. This done, we prepared for the next exercise, of whose nature I was entirely ignorant. There was a long spear lying in the bottom of the canoe and Ibadan drew from a pouch a brass trident, with barbed hooks about three inches long which he bound to the spear. Our innocent fishing expedition was now transmogrified into a hunt at dead of night amongst the mangroves for the Nile crocodile, the dreaded killer of the African rivers whose adults can weigh two tons and whose progeny leave the egg with wide open jaws, needle sharp teeth, and a taste for flesh. I know all about baby crocodiles because at one stage we kept a couple in the bath.
With Ibadan noiselessly guiding the canoe through the alleys and backwaters of the swamps, we prepared to come face to face with our respective destiny. Yet it was not ours to kill or be killed that night. I was privileged to watch Ibadan launch his harpoon at some creature of the swamps, but it lodged in a tree trunk with a smack and such force that it took some time to prize it loose.
We later returned home on the flood tide with my friends still singing, and with every stroke of the paddles they seemed to lift that heavy boat half out of the water. One of the songs that they sang seemed to be based on almost a revolutionary zeal:
Make he wake up
Fowl he done grow, una no de hear?
All another nation
Where small-small nation
Where no de plenty he reach like we
Them too he done wake up
How una still sleep?
Make una wake up now!
I was away after that fishing trip for some time. When I returned, on the way back to N’dian someone said to me “Your friend, Ibadan Sodowari, has murdered three children, chopped them in pieces with his machete.” The people around were silent. There was a letter from Ibadan for me. He was in the convict prison Kumba and he wanted to see his friend and he wanted a pair of long trousers.
When Africans of this area were in trouble with the law, they always wanted a pair of long trousers. They could not abide the thought of appearing in court dressed only in a pair of black shorts. I took a serviceable pair of long trousers to the convict prison at Kumba and I also took a few cans of fish, pilchards and sardines, which are much appreciated by the inmates of hospitals and prisons. Much better than flowers or silly cards.
Some of my friends were critical and said they would not have taken the long trousers or the fish to the prison, because Ibadan was a murderer. I paid them no heed. A hangdog Ibadan, in the company of his warder who put in a word of counsel from time to time, told me the story of the murder. Ibadan got caught up in an argument about the ownership of a mahogany tree, which would have been worth a King’s ransom. He then suddenly lost it, picked up his machete and butchered the three children of his friend. He could not explain why he had done it, and he was not insane. It was a hideous crime, and there was no defense.
In the time that I knew Ibadan, he was not prone to senseless violence of this kind, and was more of a gentle creature. I have spent a lot of time wondering about this, down the years. I never knew what tribe those murdered children belonged to, what their parents had to say about it, and whether there was ever any mention of revenge. Perhaps they were acquainted with, and were afraid of, Ibadan’s attacks of murderous rage. Perhaps there was an element of genocide in the murders. I was not present in the Court, and had to return to N’dian, so I don’t know the end of the story. Probably they hanged him, and the prison warders partitioned among themselves his trousers and cans of fish.
These events happened in the 1950s, but I carry them with me like the notch between a crocodile’s eyes.