Just over a year ago i was part of the British Council’s ‘Through my eye’ project. Writers and photographers worked in pairs creating a photo story with accompanying fiction. It was quite a difficult story for me to write as sand dredging in a world i know nothing about. But i suppose when you really put your imagination to the test something does come out. It’s an old story but for those who haven’t read it, do enjoy.
The sand clung to my feet caressing my toes. Whenever the sun got very hot the sand would cake up and envelop my feet like a pair of shoes. As I walked I left sandy trails until the ‘shoes’ cracked open, freeing my feet once again.
This sand business had been very good to me.
As a young boy I inherited Baba’s rough hands, his strong back and sturdy head. He told everyone he knew that compared to my twin brother Kehinde – whose frail fingers would break open from the scratch of a blunt razor – my hands could bend a hunter’s machete. Baba’s rheumy eyes beamed when he spoke of me. This was why, as we readied to set out for our dives, he would share with me a cup of Iya Yetunde’s specially brewed Apari and perform a libation before it touched our tongues.
Iya Yetunde was our neighbourhood distiller and her infamous Apari, they claimed, came from a secret recipe passed down through three generations. Word was also spreading that inside the Apari gourd was the rib bone of a slaughtered enemy. The rumoured secret ingredient was the enemy’s blood. The story also had it that her apari kept the hands steady but didn’t kill you. This, apparently, was the reason the men in their family lived very long.
Baba and I always paddled late into the night, and just before daylight had fully occluded the darkness we would dive for the sand. Baba had big dreams for me; and with the new developments and housing projects around Lagos the contractors had been demanding for more sand. The Julius Berger people now had competition and we needed more strong hands to keep up with demand. The tipper drivers had told us that big companies had come from overseas to build castles and more bridges in Lagos. From our weekly ajo contributions, we had purchased two large canoes and my cousins Ibikunle and Kajola had come to join us.
Once, Baba had instructed we both take a day off work. It was very unlike him. As far back as I could remember we had never gone a day without dredging. So when he asked that I press our shirts with the coal iron, ensuring the gators stayed firm and sharp, I knew that Baba had something serious to share.
He had told me several times that his strength was waning and that he was nothing like the man he was once, when he was my age. Baba’s bulky shoulders had dropped and so had the once-ridged muscles that now spread over his belly.
That day we rode the bus to the Marina. My senses felt clogged – by people, loud noises, clouds of black smoke and big structures. It was nothing like the stillness on the water or the subdued anger of the sand.
He took me past several buildings. When we saw a very tall building, of the type that seemed to meander into the sky, he would make us stand in front of it and look silently for several long minutes – the kind of silence that brought with it an air of familiarity, yet a certain distance. The type of distance that said to me we had no business here.
Then Baba spoke. ‘The sand will bring you good things and you will own structures that will kiss the feet of Olodumare like the ones you see here.’
A week after that bus trip, my father’s soul ascended while he slept. The night before, we shared our last cup of apari. The day before, we held sand in our palms together.
When I started vomiting a strange green colour and my legs refused to take their accustomed rapid steps, it was then they said that Iya Kajola, my cousin’s mother, had cursed me with her long, hissing snake-tongue that had caused this mysterious illness.
They said she couldn’t bear the thought that, even years after Baba’s death, her son Kajola was still assisting with one of my canoes rather than owning one himself. Apparently, what added to her annoyance was the fact that Kajola was a few years older than me but yet still served beneath me.
Her annoyance was now of little use because this mysterious illness had taken it all, everything that Baba and I had worked for: the canoes, the money and our sandcastle dreams. Yet, for some strange reason, the mysterious illness refused to kill me.
So when Olodumare finally nursed me back to good health, I pressed one of my old shirts and took a bus to the Marina. I paced back and forth right in front of one those tall buildings. It was the very building where Baba and I shared that familiar yet distant silence.
I remembered what Baba had said to me about how the sand would give me good things. I remembered how our canoe overturned once, filled with sand, and how Baba and I had to dredge all over again. I remembered the way the sand caressed the spaces between my toes when it got hot and caked up, then enveloped my feet like shoes as it got even hotter.
I remembered the footprints and the trails. I remembered the feeling of the grains when I held them in my palms and let them slip through my fingers. I knew the sand will always be there.