By Bamidele Johnson
On a trip back from the Lagos Island two weeks ago, I saw how sexy Ilubinrin, once a fishing community, has become. It certainly was not the first time of seeing the transformation of the community from a collection of shanties to a gleaming neighborhood, but the first time I recollected my interaction with the fishermen displaced to create the luscious homes currently standing there.
One morning in 1996, I arrived at Ilubinrin a week or so after the bulldozers, on the orders of the late Major-General Abdulkarim Adisa, had chewed up what passed for homes in the community. The aim was a story on the post-demolition experience of the displaced fishermen. The place looked like it had been hit by a high-velocity storm. What I remember most was my interaction with the man who self-identified as the head of the community.
I no longer remember his name, but his face, demeanour and, in particular, how the community’s deities reacted to the demolition remain fresh. I met the man in one of the few shacks still standing after the bulldozers’ intervention. He eyes were sad. He looked shrunken, made more so by the outsized buba and shorts he wore.
As I greeted him, my eyes fell on his arms, which were peeping out from the buba, and his legs. None had more than two inches of smoothness, as they were scab-covered. I asked if that was as a result of the demolition and he said it was. How? Since the demolition, he said, they had been sleeping in the open, granting mosquitoes and other insects unfettered access to their skin.
He told the story of the arrival of the bulldozers, accompanied by armed soldiers, at about 4am and felt really hard done by. He complained that their source of livelihood was in jeopardy, as they’d been ordered to move to Langbasa, a place with which they had no familiarity. His narration, in slo-mo, seared my heart. As sad as he felt, he was keen to show hospitality, asking one of his two wives to bring me water.
I declined. Politely. Contracting a water-borne disease, however minor, was not an aspiration. Three or four other fishermen he had called came in, with each supplying bits of their grotesque experiences and pleading that the public should beg the military government to rescind its decision to evict them.
What followed left me at crossroads between grief and laughter. The community head said when the soldiers came, they demolished the shrines of the community’s deities, leaving the gods in a fit of pique. This, he said resulted in the death of many fishermen, not soldiers responsible for the desecration of the shrines.
On reflection, it was probably insensitive to ask why the deities were going for innocent fishermen instead of soldiers. But asking seemed the most natural thing to do. I did.
The man permitted himself a smile, which sort of said, somewhat loudly, “you don’t effing know what you’re talking about”. He went to explain that fishermen had the obligation to shield the shrines from assault of any kind.
That was where I should have applied the handbrake. I did not and it immediately got unpretty. “Should the deities not have protected the community against invasion and subsequent demolition of buildings as well as shrines?” I asked. His already sad eyes thinned out the more. He felt that was a piss take and he did not have the appetite for such. One of his colleagues seemed like he was brimming with menace.
My heart thumped so much that I felt it was going to leap out of my chest. It was only me against them and I felt since they could take things out on me, given they were already sore from the demolition. They did not, but one of them, very firmly, said: “Aimokan lo n’se yin (you’re naive)”. I quickly said I agreed (I did not), apologized, but wasn’t exactly sorry.
I was afraid, though. Very afraid. To get out of the jam, I quickly asked, as a parting shot, what they wanted the government to do for them, as though they hadn’t told me. They said they wanted to be left at Ilubinrin to continue. I assured them that their request would be published. That improved the mood. I told them I was leaving and we said our goodbyes.
Some two minutes after walking off, I got called back by one of the fishermen, who said their chief asked that I return. Alarm bells immediately started chiming. I walked back and the chief offered me N20 for transportation. The dread evaporated. I told him not to bother, saying: “Oloun a gba aniyan yin (God will make your wish come true).” They chorused “Ase.” Their wish never came true.
*Bamidele Temitope Johnson, journalist and PR consultant, writes from Lagos