The tide was rising and a cloak of frigid air enfolded the Degema area. It was close to mid-night and the moon soared high into a nude sky. Standing on the veranda of the lower deck of our houseboat which had been carefully moored on the banks of Sambreiro River, somewhere between Nkpor and Ilelema communities of Niger Delta, Nigeria, I leaned on the rail, staring at the flowing river and marvelling at the beauty of the sharp meander the river makes at a distant. The forests which form a verdant band of alternating high and low mangrove forests on both sides of the creek, swayed gently to the sweep of the passing wind; their shadows lie sprawled across the waters.
One of my crew members, Franklin, was walking past behind me and he suddenly stopped a meter to my right side. I noticed the pause in his footsteps and guessed he wanted to talk to me. I turned to his direction and there he stood, starring at the metal cross-bars on the roof of the deck. He bent his head, held the railing and gently moved further away from the wall of the boat. He docked a little and stretched forward, now starring at a dingy corner of the roof. While still looking up, he took a slow step backward and stretched out his hand as if to tap me and call my attention.
I smiled, “wetin dey happen, guy” (what’s happening), I asked sarcastically. “This one wey you dey fear like this, na snake you see or na wetin?” (it seems you just saw a snake or what?).
“Come see this thing, I no sabi wetin he be o,” (come and see this thing, I don’t know what it is) he replied with a tone of seriousness. I moved closer to him to take a look at the corner of the roof. An animal crouched in the shadows of the ceiling. It had a subtle appearance of a monkey but in another way, it didn’t look like a monkey. I narrowed my eyes and slowly moved closer to have a better look. Its fur was brown and thick with the layers of hair resting gracefully and smoothly on one another, shining mildly from the rays of reflected light cast on it by the metal floor of the boat. It held tight to a set of metal pipes running along the corner of the ceiling. Its locked grip revealed its ape like hand but nails that looked like that of man. The creature seemed very shy as it hid its face away from our view and locked it deeper in the shadows.
Again, Franklin flinched and stepped back a little. “This thing na bush baby o,” he said in a low and doubtful tone.
“No ooo,” I protested, “it is a monkey joor.”
Both of us stood there for a moment longer, silent and carefully observing the gentle and beautiful animal; wondering what exactly it was and how it got on the boat. As if he had just seen another evidence to back his claim, “guy, I dey tell you, this thing na bush baby,” (I am telling you that this thing is a bush baby) he said again.
“Are you drunk? Can you see any mat in its hand? Can’t you see this creature looks like a monkey? Maybe it is even a koala sef. “
Immediately I said this, he looked at me shockingly and fell to his knees in laughter, then climbed the railing back to his feet. “Koala koo, tapioka nii,” he said, amidst his reel of mocking laughter. “…and who told you that bush babies carry mats?”
I became confused. Being a Yoruba boy from south-west Nigeria, I had heard many fables/myths about bush babies right from my childhood days. I had been told that bush babies are nocturnal pygmy ‘human-like’ creatures that walk about naked in the forest at night, carrying mats and lantern and crying like a baby. It was also said that if one is lucky to find one and snatch his mat, one would become very rich. In those days, I often got lost in my imaginations, envying those people living in the far-flung rural areas. I used to think they were luckier than those of us living in the cities, as they’ll have higher chances of encountering and capturing a bush baby. This belief is one that has woven into the fabric of the mentality of most Yoruba people in South-west Nigeria. But being an Ijaw man from a riverine community in the Niger Delta, southern Nigeria, Franklin found my knowledge about bush babies extremely hilarious.
I wouldn’t allow his mockery to distract me, so I shifted my gaze back to the mystery animal which had now turned its face towards us. From the shadows, two big orange blazing eyes stared at us, sending a shockwave of shrill through my body. I shuddered.
“Wetin be this?” I exclaimed. I had to wipe my face with my right palm and blinked my eyes in order to be sure that my eyes and mind weren’t playing tricks on me. Franklin was still staring at the animal. I turned and ran to my room to get my camera. On getting back, I met two other people with Franklin observing and arguing about the animal. It was Ejiro, another Niger Delta pikin and a member of our exploration crew and one of the local security guards on board. The local guard confirmed that the animal was a bush baby. They all agreed and concluded that it could have swum from the thick forests across the river to our boat. Ejiro thought the creature was demonic, so he advised that we capture it, burn it and throw it inside the water. The rest of us made jest about his pusillanimity and disagreed about killing the poor animal.
I got even more confused. “This thing can’t be a bush baby naaa,” I thought again. I had to clear my doubts. So, I flipped out my mobile phone and googled ‘bush baby’. The images loaded in the search result page left my mouth hanging in shock and amazement. The pictures looked exactly like the animal clung to the roof above me. “Na him o…na bush baby o!” (It’s a bush baby!). I couldn’t hold the excitement and surprise. Everyone turned and enclosed me as we all observed the pictures of bush babies on my phone. Franklin was particularly feeling happy and victorious since his guess was right. Then I narrated the folktales, myths and popular beliefs of the Yoruba people about bush babies. They laughed uncontrollably and told me they had never heard such stories before about bush babies.
That night, the local guard brought a big plastic basket, and with a big stick he forced the animal inside it, covered and sealed it with perforated polythene and kept it under the staircase located at one end of the boat.
We woke up the following morning to meet the basket still carefully sealed but empty. We were flabbergasted.
“I knew it! I knew that animal was demonic. We should have killed it last night when we got the chance, you see.” Ejiro said angrily.
“Calm down joor, demonic koo, camonic nii!” I replied sarcastically. “That animal was just a lovely, cute and innocent animal. I suspect that one of the local guards came to sneak the animal away after we went to bed.” He decided to give up the argument as Franklin shared the same thought with me.
I kept looking at the photos of the mysterious animal on my camera, admiring its lovable and alluring form; and each time I stand on the veranda of the house boat and observe the wall of lush mangrove forests gracing the river banks on the opposite side, I get lost in awe, wondering how many more rare or endangered fauna species exists in the thickets of this our Niger Delta.
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