I grew up in Badagry, a coastal town on the edge of Lagos, Nigeria. So I spent most of my growing years by the beach.
It wasn’t the usual gated, busy type of beach, full of hustling vendors, the occasional pickpocket and people looking for ways to show off their bodies in skimpy beachwear. I have always found crowds unpleasant and it was with pleasure that my family and i found ‘our beach’.
It was a stretch of water and sand further along the coast, which only a few local fishermen used. It was relatively quiet, probably due to the absence of food vendors and more comfortable beach huts. We found it by the house of my father’s car mechanic- a simple man, with the simple name of Samson; we were astonished to discover he had two wives in a little home by the water, shaded by coconut trees. His children were numerous and always delighted to see us, and his wives would greet us with warm smiles whenever we stopped by their home to say hello. Everyone was always barefoot in that place- it was an unwritten rule that you must let the sand love your toes- and we spent many hours trudging along gentle sandy slopes, our bare feet feeling the pinch of sharp sand.
We would drive our car as far up as the sand let us approach, careful to avoid parking beneath the leaning trees, which often dropped coconuts on windshields when they swayed in a sudden strong breeze.
When I was much younger, we would race to see who would reach the roaring water first, and while the adults set up the food coolers, snacks and refreshments under the few thatch-roofed enclosures that dotted the beach, my siblings and i would strip down to our undies and plunge into the foaming water. Many sunny weekends were spent this way- racing away from the waves which seemed to pull us back in, gagging on salty water and trying to brush off the sand which would settle into every crack of our bodies. Everything would taste of salt- the water, our bodies, even the air. We would stick out our tongues and taste the salty mist that hung in the air, thrown up by the sea spray; it was a wonder we didn’t dehydrate ourselves.
This was a pretty normal routine for most weekends in Badagry in my early years. We would swim, pick seashells, and pat wet sand over our feet to build crude sandcastles, shrieking when we disturbed the little crabs that lived in the sand. Finally exhausted, we would pause to eat and wave at the fishermen rowing their boats on the water, then we would graciously accept the little fishes the wives of my father’s mechanic always pressed on us as we were leaving. Sometimes the fishes were live, little wriggling things and at other times, they were fried crunchy treats; but either way, they were always sandy!
Then puberty struck and things changed.
I grew less lively and began to limit my frolicking to just the edges of the water. It wasn’t because of my growing body or the natural processes of adolescence, although those factors did contribute to my more subdued behavior. My new restraint was mainly because of a series of dreams I began to have; dreams about tsunamis and drowning tragedies that strangely shook me. I knew my feelings were irrational but when have teenage hormones ever helped rational thought?
Sadly, I began to fear the sea. The sound of the roaring waves would make my heart thunder and the feeling of the water at the shore sucking my feet into the sand would cause me to panic. The salty mist which used to excite me began to feel like a wet cloth spread over my face, slowly choking me. I would look up into a huge cresting wave and push a scream down; it was too easy to imagine the wave sweeping me aside with its angry wet fist, leaving me broken and without breath. I had never felt so small and helpless as I did then.
I stayed away from the water and would moodily eat the snacks we brought as my siblings played and swam. During that time I learned to avoid looking at the frightening expanse of loud water and turned my thoughts inward, growing more introspective and battling with existential ideas that a teenager had no business thinking about.
I was a weird child, no argument there.
When my thoughts grew too adult for even myself, I turned to reading. And eureka! I found my muse. The combination of the sounds and smell of the sea breeze was perfectly soothing. I would hunker under the thatched huts, curl my toes in the warm, wet sand and dive right into whatever novel I was reading. Given my fondness for genres like science fiction, fantasy and horror, it became one of the best things I had ever experienced in my young life. My mind opened and my imagination bloomed, as the experience of reading became associated with the sounds of my family at play and the sea, whispering to me of the boundless things it knew.
Not long after then, I turned to writing seriously; all those new thoughts and ideas tumbling around feverishly in my head needed to be transferred to paper. I was never able to write while at the beach, the siren song of the sea was too powerful. My fingers would stop moving over the paper and my pen would become a seashell-digging tool. To me, beaches are not meant for serious writing- sand gets in between your fingers and mind.
I believe I grew from weird teenager into weird adult, and that’s just okay. I began to love the sound and smells of rain and the wind, finding them hugely inspiring. And in time, I grew to love effortless classical music which echoed those sounds of nature, as well as long silences in which my own thoughts could comfort and entertain me. In a world filled with adult moments when you have to calm yourself if you want to function in proper society, it was an invaluable lesson.
Badagry’s beach moulded me in large part into the curious scribbler I am today. I like to think it also helped me become a deep thinker, albeit a weird one. Who stops to feel sad over the fact that ice-cream must melt into something sticky and miserable? Aye. Me.
So, the waters of Badagry beach taught me empathy and how to always remember I was merely a dot of ink in the grand scheme of existence; it taught me humility. At the same time, I realized that even though I was as small as a drop in the sea that is life, I was a drop that could run up a child’s nose and make them giggle or choke- all my actions mattered. Even though I, my siblings, the fishermen, my father’s car mechanic and his large family dotted that large beach like tiny grains of salt, we all had our unique and beautiful flavour. We were the salt of the earth.
I never did get over my fear of large water bodies, but I think what I got in exchange was a fair trade. When and if I grow gills, by some miracle, maybe I will jump and play in the sea again. MAYBE.
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