Published: February 2007
Tom O'Neill
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa
What was the best thing that happened while working on this story?

We were ready to leave, the big outboard engine having roared to life, the preacher, who had been shouting out passages from the Bible, now leaping back onto the dock, a few donated bills in his hand. Passengers had jammed together on plank benches in the open boat, all of us headed on this improvised ferry going from Port Harcourt to Bonny Island. "God be with you," the preacher cried as the boat backed out, turned, and headed down the Bonny River into the watery world of the Niger Delta.

Boat rides always felt like a treat in the Niger Delta. Away from the noise and smells of the cities, from the languor and shabbiness of the villages, a trip on the water brings fresh air, open vistas, and a chance to mingle easily with local people. This two-hour ride was especially satisfying. Even though more than two dozen people had packed a vessel more suitable for a couple of fishermen, the closeness felt good. Some people read, others talked, and more than a few, like me, stared into space at a cloud-thick sky and at shorelines walled with mangrove thickets. When the ride turned choppy, my neighbor on the left, a college student, clutched my knee with her hand to steady herself. I grabbed on to the ankle of the person sitting behind me. No one minded.

Soon the sky darkened and rain began to pour down on us. With hardly a word, we passengers pulled a large dirty blue tarp over our heads and sat in the dimness with the rain pounding on top. I'm not sure why this felt comforting, maybe because on the streets and in the markets, so many people appear wary and jittery, as if on constant alert against bad luck. In the boat, however, a crowd of strangers relaxed together.

The tarp came off after about 15 minutes, the passengers dug into pockets and bags for money to pay the boatman, and soon we pulled up to Bonny Island. A jostling group of hawkers and beggars and travelers—and another preacher—waited on the sand. We said goodbye to the people around us, grabbed our bags, and jumped into the surf, the peace and quiet gone

How about the worst?

Saint Clement: That's how I thought of the driver photographer Ed Kashi and I hired for our fieldwork in southern Nigeria. I canonized him on the night he drove us 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Warri to Port Harcourt. Look at a map, and the route is obviously the main road in the Niger Delta. No problem, right? We started off at dusk, roaring out of Warri in a four-wheel-drive Toyota, but within minutes we ground to a crawl. If it wasn't potholes the size of bomb craters, which Clement had to maneuver as if on tiptoes, it was the hulking swaybacked trucks that slowed us, blinding us with black smoke, refusing to let us pass. We didn't want to stop: That's when the bandits, legendary on this road, might materialize and steal everything we had. Only a policeman or soldier waving an arm or an assault weapon could bring us to a halt.

It was always the same. The man in uniform would look at Clement's papers, eye the white men in the back seat, often make a joke about kidnappers, and then get to the point: Let's see some money. It's called dash, that little extra that greases the way. A 20-naira bill—15 cents—would have sufficed, but Clement protested vehemently, as if to pay would stain the honor of Nigeria in the eyes of his passengers. Usually, Clement prevailed, the cop or military man freeing us with a shrug.

With darkness came rain. The windows steamed. The wipers waved weakly. For several hours Clement, hunched over the wheel, shivering from the malarial fever that often came over him, followed a road that had disappeared for the rest of us. Ed and I fought to stay awake to give Clement encouragement. At last, we reached our compound in Port Harcourt. We pounded on Clement's back, hugged him, and said we would forever worship Saint Clement.

Did any thing particularly odd happen on the trip?

It was New Year's Eve on a steamy August night in Akabuka. Resplendent in his red robe and shiny crown, Kingdom Elenwa, traditional ruler of the Egi people, had proclaimed from his throne that the Yam Festival, the ancient turning point of the year, could officially begin. "This is a day of peace," he said. "No one fights."

The festival, timed to open at the end of the harvest season, would last for three weeks, but no one wants to miss the first night. Villagers streamed up and down roads and lanes, drinking, dancing to drums, gathering in circles to talk. At dawn young men ran with torches toward the palace, followed by mobs of revelers.

I had tried to grab a few hours sleep, but the mosquitoes and noise had kept me up. Now I staggered through the crowd, gradually realizing that on this day of peace a lot of people were carrying weapons. Men were waving axes and machetes and swords. The king's oldest son was firing a pump-action shotgun into the air. I must have looked shocked, because a man by the name of Gift Sam came up to me, took me by the hand, and offered to walk me through the crowd. "No one will hurt you," he kept murmuring. "People are just having fun." With my escort I could relax, swig from bottles being passed around, dodge groups of youth waving swords, and finally reach the king and say, "Happy New Year.