Chapter ONE: The man who came to his own requiem
It was two o’clock on a chilly December morning in 1946. A blissful blackness covered the River Gambia. Except for the sound of the crickets and water lapping far under the mangrove stilts, it was a moonless calm outside the cabin windows. Suddenly, there was a massive jolt. Something seriously frightening was just beginning. The freight and passenger steamer, the HMCS Lady Denham, was sinking, rammed on the starboard-side by another river steamer, the HMCS Vic 20, in a terrible collision in the middle of the narrow channel.
Quartermaster on the Lady Denham, Festus Samuel Johnson, was not at his post on the bridge of his vessel when the accident happened. He had gone down below to see to some other matter leaving the steering wheel in the hands of an apprentice when disaster struck. The matter went gone to court. The government and the passengers and traders whose lives and goods were affected wanted to know what really happened on that cold December morning when most of the ship’s passengers and a good number of the crew were fast asleep in their cabins. Justice Frederick William Johnstone, the judge who heard the case at the Supreme Court in Bathurst, finished reading many files on the case and sat down to write a report. He set the blame of negligence and neglect of duty on the quartermaster.
At the time of the accident all attempts by helmsmen to beach the ship failed. The Lady Denham went down with her hatches full of freight and a post office full of mail and cash. Fortunately, her cabins were quickly evacuated of panic-stricken passengers and crew. Although much livestock was lost and many valuable trading goods bound for the shops in the provincial trading posts were destroyed, no lives were lost.
However, that was hardly the end of the story for one young member of the crew named John Alaba Roberts. The able bodied seaman was asleep in his cabin after a hard day at work when the jolt of the collision of the two steamers woke him out of his deep slumber. Many years later, that young seaman became a wonderful grey-headed old man everyone in Ibo Town knew as Pa Alaba; his close friends and old drinking mates called him Boo! He was very fond of children and nearly all of the village children would come to sit around him and listen to stories of his many travels on the river or his treks to faraway countries in West Africa when he was only a boy.
He loved to tell the story of what took place after that sudden jolt from nowhere. He woke up really shaken; and before the young seaman could tell what was really going on, water was rushing into cabin and he was already chest-deep in it. As the old Pa Alaba narrated his tale, he pushed his thick glasses up his nose and heaved with great feeling as if he was living the ordeal all over again when the river steamer, the Lady Denham, sank:
“The ship was heavy with goods and passengers. We were about three miles above Nianimaru about one hundred and sixty miles up the river. We were travelling against the tide at the speed of five knots or so when the ship was suddenly shaken by a jarring blow. I was down below in my cabin, asleep. The shock threw me helter-skelter before I could regain my feet.
“By the time I was able to bring myself back to my senses, the water was up to my waist. I struggled but the rising water was pinning me back and, in a very short time, I was chest deep in it. Soon, the water had risen so much that it was practically pasting me to the ceiling of the cabin. Only my head was above the water. I pulled the last slat and then kicked through with all my strength. I was then a young man and, as an able-bodied sailor, I could swim well. I forced my head through the opening and pushed hard until the rest of my body came through. That was when I heard the first voices. But I had taken a long time clearing all the way to the deck area. I was gasping for air as well and it was very difficult for me to swim all the way out of the ship.
“The ship had taken in a lot of water and with the hatches fully loaded and the sheer weight was pushing it down fast. I saw an air hole and I swam towards it. I pulled the cord of the window-like opening which had panes set like metal slats. The more I pulled the more air I got. People were screaming; things were being thrown overboard; animals were splashing about in the water. People were swimming towards the bank. It was pandemonium and all of it in the dark. Then in my very faint state, I heard a voice. I could tell it was my Cousin Manu’s voice. Cousin Manu also worked on the Lady Denham as a sailor; we were the two ‘Roberts Boys’ on the ship. He was screaming to some one that I was still in my cabin.
“I screamed out with the last burst of strength left in my weakened body to let them know that I was not far away from them. But no one heard me. I was out of my cabin but too weak to pull clearly through to where they were. It was dark and I had swallowed too many gulps of water – my stomach could not take anymore. I was unable to carry myself any longer. I screamed weakly again and at that point, I lost consciousness. The water had overwhelmed me.
“When I opened my eyes many hours later, I found myself lying face down on the bank of the river. Our elders used to say: ‘When a man’s life is not done, it is not done’. Cousin Manu and a few other men were rolling me on a dry mud patch. Water came out of all the passages in my body—my nose, my ears, my mouth; my stomach was full of river water. When I felt sufficiently better, Cousin Manu narrated the story to me how he was frantically looking out for me when 2nd Quartermaster Samba Bah noticed something bobbing in the dark among the wrecked stern of the ship. The thing, Cousin Manu said, was not moving much, just bobbing. Both he and Quartermaster Bah struggled to reach for it. It turned out it was my head they had been seeing bobbing in the water there. They grabbed me by my hair; then I had long black hair—lots of it; not like this short white stuff you see now. And they pulled me out.
“I soon felt strong enough to get up and what I saw disheartened me greatly. Our ship had uprooted the baobab trees around which her ropes had been tied to secure the beaching. The ship’s tonnage was too heavy for the trees and the craft slipped back off the shelf of the bank back into the deep water pulling trees and all with her. The Vic 20 recovered quickly from the accident and became a rescue ship. Babou Nian, its quartermaster, transported rescued passengers and crew to Kantaur, the nearest town where most people remained to unwind and relieve their shock. There were important traders on board, some with their whole families, going up country for the opening of the new trade season. Many people got hurt but, by God’s great mercy, no one died.”
But the story for the young Alaba’s was only just beginning. News of the accident reached his home in Bathurst; his mother was devastated when someone informed her that there had been an accident, that her son had drowned and they were still looking for his body. If only those relaying stories had consulted the official cablegram the Marine Department had sent to the Marine Office they would known that their were no deaths; only cows and sheep perished in the river.
But New Town, where the young sailor’s mother lived, was far away from Half Die where the Marine Office was. And we all know about rumours and how fast they can spread. What actually happened was that the young man, feeling strong enough to take care of himself, left his cousin and the others on the river bank and set on his way to go back home. He did not want to go to Kuntaur like all the others who were rescued; he wanted to be home in Bathurst after such a scary ordeal. So, he set off immediately on foot down the road alone, dazed but lucky to be alive. Uncle Alaba took up his story:
“So, I guess, that was how some people counted me as missing. Cousin Manu and Quartermaster Nian were not there to tell them they had seen me alive. Anyhow, I arrived in Bathurst. It had taken two days of travel by any means I was able to find to get there. I walked some of the distance, hopped on donkey carts and jumped on the back of lorries to cover the journey home. All I wanted was to be with my mother and as soon as I arrived I went looking for her at the Albert Market where she ran a large stall. But she was not there; her stall of vegetable and other foodstuff was covered over. The next likely place to look for her of course was at home.
From way down the street as I approached I saw there was a great deal of movement around her compound gate. I discovered that my mother and our relatives had invited friends and neighbours to the taking of the customary “third-day charity” of food and drink our people offer for the repose of the souls of people who have died. While they were praying for my soul to rest in perfect peace, I walked in—and half of the people at the party took off, running!
“The woman dishing out the fufu and palm oil soup leapt over the low fence into the next compound; nearly all of her kitchen gang followed her over the fence. One gentleman carrying bottles of drink and, who apparently did not quite recognise me, asked me what I wanted to drink. When he looked at me to give me the drink I asked for, he dropped the bottles and ran away. It was now all helter-skelter in the compound. There was a stampede towards the gate, with people screaming in our Krio language: “Ouna run, na Alaba kam, o! Na Alaba kam, o!—meaning—“Run for your lives; Alaba is here; he has come back!”
The funny side to all this drama was that Alaba did not know that he had been reported dead. Otherwise, he would have put everyone immediately at ease as soon as he arrived. Anyhow, he managed to extract himself quickly from that chaos that the requiem feast had become and went over to his cousins’ compound where he was told his mother went to get some more things for the occasion.
“Ma, good afternoon, ma,” he greeted his mother, standing from afar and wondering if the woman too would run away.
His mother calmed herself in a resolute manner and stared at him for a long moment. Then she spoke from a curious distance while watching her son very cautiously. She was alone with him out in the compound but her sudden silence and the sound of Alaba’s voice drew people out of their houses. Uncle Alaba remembered the scene so vividly:
“Their faces turned ashen with fear. They stood away almost cowering behind my mother. Ignoring their silly behaviour and thinking how stupidly they were all behaving towards someone who had simply come home from a serious boat accident, I left them and went back to my mother’s house. Everyone was gone. Pots, pans and bottles and plates were strewn all over the yard and chairs lay upturned were they were kicked out of the way. The guests had taken to their heels when a ghost returned to join his own charity party. I spied one or two of our neighbours peeking at me from behind the cane fences of their yard. I went in and took a bath and I went back to my room to rest and to sleep if I could.”
After about an hour, Uncle Alaba’s mother came and stood outside the door of the young man’s room in the yard.
“Boy?” she said with a long-drawn whine of apprehension in her voice.
“Yes, ma,” Alaba answered, hoping she would come in; but she did not.
“Na you?” she asked, in our Krio language. “Is it you?”
To the baffled young man, that was indeed a funny question. Of course, it was him. The woman said nothing more and stole away with the small crowd of relatives that followed her back to the main house. Alaba lay back on his bed and listened to their feet scuttling away. A little while later, he heard his cousins and some other relatives busying themselves clearing the mess in the yard and arguing among themselves whether he was real or not.
Swept back nearly half a century ago to the emotion of that moment, Uncle Alaba’s face lit up as he propped himself straight up on the low bench to continue his story: “I heard Joko, one of my older cousins, saying to the others that someone had either simply made a mistake or had deliberately lied that I was dead. Ayo, the eldest of them, agreed that had to be me because she had checked me thoroughly from behind and had seen that I walked with my feet firmly treading the ground and, that way, I left footprints. She said were I a ghost I would not have left footprints. The old people indeed said ghosts would not punish the earth by treading heavily on it for fear that if they did the earth would pay them back by squeezing their bodies where they lay back in their graves.”
Later in the evening, after good rest in bed, Alaba came out. The busybody crowd had dispersed; they had stayed long all day and had not seen anything of him. Coming out any earlier would have drawn more people and his mother’s own market folks were enough to fill the street even without the others. Alaba strolled to his usual drinking place at Catty’s for a nice quiet drink of palm wine. He was a regular there whenever he came on shore from the Lady Denham. Uncle Alaba recalled his amazement as what happened when he pushed the gate open:
“The bar owner and his wife heaved up and took off by their back gate. They left me alone in their yard where they had already lined the wooden benches waiting for customers. Apparently, I was the first customer for the evening. I took a nice clean bench—it still smelled of the fresh lime and wood ash they used to scrub it clean—and I sat under the drinking shed. I sat alone for a while and since there was no one there to serve me, I went into the pantry where I knew the large palm wine case stood, and I served myself. Other bottles of liquor were there staring down at me from the shelf. I decided to ignore the palm wine and brought down a bottle of rum, a bottle of wine and—I forget now—something else. I went back to my bench and I poured me a drink. In fact, I was beginning to enjoy the whole affair.”
The young man soon observed some movement at the gate. The pan’s hinges screeched and opened gently. Two old men came in. Uncle Ken and Uncle Bola closed the gate, again as gently as possible. Alaba watched them; his brain was heaving with laughter now. He was wondering what would happen if he just jumped and screamed and shook. He heard the men talking quietly to themselves.
“Let’s commit all to God and go to him,” Uncle Ken said, leading the way.
“If it is him, we will find out,” Uncle Bola replied from behind. “If it is not him, we will find out. Let us have faith in God, that’s all.”
Uncle Alaba knew both of them very well. Although he was a Roman Catholic but he knew them as very important leaders in the Bethel Methodist Circuit and very well-respected elders in New Town. He figured out that it was his mother and his aunts who could have sent them to speak with him. The two old men trod as if they did not wish to disturb or startle him. He admired the courage of men who would be sent to meet a ghost.
“Be brave, Bola,” Uncle Ken said. “Let us approach him. God will be our helper.”
Alaba could not quite hear what Uncle Bola mumbled back in Uncle Ken’s ear. However, Uncle Bola hesitated before taking another unsure step. The gap widened a little between him with Uncle Ken in front. Alaba tried to end their apprehension by speaking up.
“Good evening, sir,” I called out when they were close enough and I raised a bottle to them. “Uncle Ken, Uncle Bola, do join me for some rum.”
“Oh, no! no! We are not here for rum, Boy,” Uncle Bola shouted from behind.
Then, what on earth could have brought them, Alaba was thinking to himself.
“Alaba!” Uncle Ken called out.
“Yes, sir, Uncle,” Alaba answered.
“Is it you?” he asked after a long incredulous pause.
“Yes, sir,” the young man answered. “It is I, sir.”
“Are you sure?” Uncle Bola sang from behind.
“Yes, sir, I am sure, sir.” Alaba replied.
“All right, then,” Uncle Ken said. “We will go back and confirm to your very distressed mother that you are not dead. Someone lied that you drowned in the river and that they would let us know whenever they find your body. Some one has put your mother through such heartache and all this charity expenses.”
“There was indeed an accident, sir,” Alaba said. “Our steamer sank but I am here. I did not drown. I don’t know if anyone drowned but it was certainly not me.”
“Ah, let us give thank to God, then,” Uncle Bola said pulling his friend along with him. “We are going back to tell your people to stop worrying. But Alaba, you know the tradition; now you cannot touch a crumb of charity food or a drop of charity liquor ever again in your life?”
“You are part of them now, so you cannot eat their food here with us anymore,” Uncle Ken chorused.
“Yes, sir, I know sir,” Alaba answered.
And since that day, Uncle Alaba had never touched a crumb or a drop of anything prepared to commemorate the dead. But back when it was all happening, he remembered Uncle Bola doing most of the talking but it was Uncle Ken who was the more convinced. Before they reached the gate Uncle Bola peered once over his shoulder just in case the ghost pulled a fast trick on them at the last minute. And for the first time during his narration, Uncle Alaba broke into mischievous laughter while he told the rest of the story.
“After that meeting, people stopped running away from me. After Uncle Ken and Uncle Bola left, the bar owner and his wife returned to their bar. They seemed more reassured than they were when I first walked in. I offered to pay my bill for the drinks I took but they would not take the money. When customers began to arrive, things started to calm down a little. I served them some of my rum and wine and asked them to receive them in remembrance of all those people of New Town who had died.
“Some of the customers came up to me to touch me before they accepted to drink anything. After they satisfied their curiosity, they began to make jokes and we all had a big laugh about my story. Throughout the week people stopped me on the street for a chat and to pinch me, just to be sure. Uncle Bola and Uncle Ken had assured everyone that it was really me; and I had had time to tell my own version of the events. Things were soon forgotten but I was a king in my own country for a whole week. People offered me free drinks wherever I went. At the Marine Yard, my workmates showed me a tough time—calling me all kinds of names they knew in our local stories for spirits, genies and leprechauns. Someone called me a cat and sad I had eight more lives to live before my big day will come.
“After that ordeal, I never went back to sea. I left the Marine Department and I took to the solid land, instead. I went travelling and sought other adventures along roads and pathways that took me through deserts, forests and across breathtaking scenes through the countryside in the vast expanse that West Africa really is.
“As I tell this story forty-one years since the Lady Denham went down, her mast is still visible, jutting out of the calm surface of the river at Nianimaru. There have been three river steamers since then that have run that course taking goods and passengers, livestock and mail up and down the River Gambia.”
The Fulladu, the Lady Wright and the Lady Chilel, each in her time indeed sounded the horn in respectful homage whenever they passed the spot where people like John Alaba Roberts fought desperately for their lives when an early morning jolt from nowhere sent his ship down on that cold December night in 1946. And when at last his ‘big day’ came on September 29, 1998, Uncle Alaba was already 74 years old. He had lived a long life, happy enough for him to tell his story of a time when death first stared at the young sailor in the face inside his cabin onboard the Lady Denham when he was only twenty-two years old!
Nana Grey-Johnson has dedicated his life to writing, and is both a journalist and a writer. After completing his secondary education in The Gambia, he went to the USA to do a BA (Honors) in Mass Communication at Lewis and Clarke College, and then an MA in Journalism at Stanford University. He devoted himself to journalism from then on: he wrote articles and became editor of several newspapers and magazines. He is a former Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure and presently the Founding Dean of the School of Journalism of the University of The Gambia. In this professional capacity, he established his literary vein, writing short stories and short texts (he would later write novels). Among the books he published are: A Krio Engagement And Other Stories (1987; re-edited and reprinted 2008), Children of The Spyglass (1996), The Magic Calabash (1998; also published with MacMillan Publishers), King Pass King (drama) (1988), Max the Cat (2015), The Story of the Newspaper in The Gambia (2004), and Edward Francis Small: Watchdog of The Gambia (2002:2022), I of Ebony, and many other works. He is the ghost writer of the book Kairaba by the first President of the Republic of the Gambia. He continues to write and mentor young writers. He also co-authored Mandinka Proverbs & Sayings from the Gambia with Bala Saho and Ebou Sillah. Many of his works are not acknowledged here.