By A. Igoni Barrett
The sun burns brightest on the morning after a night-time rainstorm. That Thursday in June, when my partner and I awoke to find our Surulere apartment windows washed clean by rain, with the glass slats sparkling in the sunlight and the floor tiles as dry as an ark’s insides, we decided to celebrate our good fortune at the beach. We hadn’t attempted the journey to Lekki ever since the seasonal rains began flooding the roads again. In the rainy season any splash of sunshine was an excuse to hang out the wash or bask in the sand.
The drive from Surulere to Lekki can take thirty minutes on a Sunday, when Lagos roads are freest. But on this weekday of traffic jams worsened by rainwater puddles, it took four times longer to reach Elegushi, the trendiest beach in Lagos ever since the ocean waves at Bar Beach had been pushed back with dykes, and the tamed waters drowned with sand, to create Eko Atlantic City. And just like that, the beachside setting for countless Nollywood movies was forever lost to concrete and steel, the hard currency of urban spread.
Elegushi Beach was barricaded by battered oil drums and a bamboo pole that seemed salvaged from some high-rise scaffolding. This makeshift gateway was defended by a troop of hard-faced touts who demanded entry fees to the public beach yet offered nada in return, not even a receipt. Already we could hear thunderous dancehall music from the oceanfront bars, and we could see scattered groups of competing hustlers waiting to misguide us to the best spots with tattered parasols and overpriced beer. Our fanciful notion of a quiet day at the beach was dissolving into the ether like sea foam. In a frantic bid to rescue shreds of romance from reality’s chomping teeth, we decided on the spot, at the gateway of Elegushi, to journey farther afield and seek out another beach undiscovered by bullies and their willing victims.
We found out that Alfa Beach no longer existed, its sands and seaside houses washed away by the rising tides. By then it was too late to rejig our plans and catch a boat to Tarkwa Bay. On we drove past Ajah, directed by Google Maps; at last we turned off the Lekki–Epe Expressway at the intersection of Abraham Adesanya Estate. Cars and pedestrians grew ever fewer as we cruised down that endless winding road, until we agreed that our intended sunny day at the beach had become a deflated expedition into a swampland forest, which lined both sides of the asphalt strip bearing us to the very edges of mankind’s empire.
Down this road, we came across a wooden shack mounted on bamboo stilts. Four hours had passed since we left home—and so this bush-meat bar was isolated enough for us. We braked, reversed, eased the car off the asphalt, and parked beside the roasted grasscutters spread-eagled on spits. When we clambered out of the car and began stretching our stiffened muscles by the roadside like zealous yogis, the giddy scent of palm wine from the cornucopia of calabashes dangling on palm-frond rafters, impelled us forward on sleepy feet. A shirtless man waded through the muddy swamp to welcome us with a smile that shone like bleached whites, and then ushered us to armless plastic chairs on a floating wooden deck in the shade of a colossal tree. He was the hunter, barbecue chef, palm-wine tapper, and bartender of this self-owned enterprise. At our final question about cold drinks, he tossed his head in triumph and waved a sinewy arm in the direction of a tiny generator sitting in the shack’s doorway.
That’s when we saw the tortoise tied to a tree.
Our host had found it that morning in one of the many traps he laid in the surrounding swamp. It was for sale, of course, and his wife would cook its flesh for us in twenty minutes. We agreed to the price he wanted (about the same we were paying for a gourd of palm wine), but declined his offer of tortoise peppersoup. By the time we finished our drink it was getting to rush-hour in the faraway concrete jungle, and so we drove off with our tortoise, which had been hiding in its shell ever since we cut the rope around its foot. We had decided to seek out that quiet Lagos beach of our fantasies at another time. But for now, on the drive homewards, my partner and I were fixated on something else. And it wasn’t the go-slow ahead.
Somewhere along that enchanted road that will surely be swallowed up by the greed for land, we released the tortoise into its shrinking habitat. We hunkered by the wayside until it poked out its wizened head, spread out its clawed feet, tottered towards the wetlands, and paddled away with a nymphean grace that was reward enough for us. Having learnt a lesson about free meals and human traps, we hoped it would escape the fire next time, so long as its home existed. We believed in its survival like we wanted to in ours. The rising oceans across our world, sinking beaches and burning forests, were all lessons that we hoped would spare us when, at last, like a lucky tortoise, humanity poked its head out of its oil-stained shell.
As ever, hope springs eternal that mankind will not march blindly to our end.
But hope also comes from seeing clearly after the rain has swept away the filth.
Hope is the search for an empty beach in a congested city, too.
Or a tortoise swimming free for all eternity.
And so, if anyone sharing this memory should visit that part of Lagos within the next hundred years and come across a captured tortoise with faded writing on its shell, try to make out the message and know that our hope deserves to be freed again. E
A. Igoni Barrett lives in Surulere, Lagos. He is the author of the short-story collection Love is Power, or Something Like That and the novel Blackass.