Read time: 10 mins

The Breaking Point

by Olufunke Ogundimu
7 January 2021

The restless boundaries of deserts around the world broke in 2087, high waves of sand and rocks rolled unstoppable until they poured into the nearest sea, the Sahara poured into the Atlantic Ocean. The earth’s last cooling engine, in its core, broke down and its axis tilted less by two degrees, wreaking havoc. The rapidly moving sands of the Sahara overwhelmed rainforests and savannahs driving the Atlantic backwards, filling up the Bight of Benin’s continental shelf. In Lagos, the sands weighed down the foundations of Eko Atlantic City dragging it deeper into the reclaimed earth on which it stood. The fishermen and women displaced from the stilt houses in Makoko on the Lagos Lagoon settled into the luxury apartments abandoned by the super-rich. They changed its name to Eko Sahara Desert City, others called it New Makoko.

*

After nine days, the mother, and the new baby carried by an aunt, stepped outdoors for the first time since her birth. They stood under the verandah of the main hut in the compound surrounded by family. The early morning mist enveloped them and the naked baby, shivering from the cold, cried out her discomfort. An elder threw a bowl of water on the verandah’s thatched roof and water dripped on them, the baby cried louder as cold water drenched her body. The crowd gathered at her naming, gave a shout of laugher. The aunt gave the baby to her grandfather, and he said her names into her ears. Water cleared sleep out of her eyes, she stopped crying, and looked into her grandfather’s eyes, listening, and owning, her names. Then the grandfather disclosed her names to her family: Omosalewa—the child chose her family, Foluwake—we keep her with God, and Wenuola—Bathe in wealth. Daughter of Okunfolami—The sea breathes on wealth.

That was how it was done in the past; now the mother and baby would stand under an umbrella and an elder would throw a handful of dry sand on the umbrella. The gathered family prayed that the baby’s life be like memories of wet earth and rivers. My father buried my umbilical cord under the roots of the dried-up cotton silk tree in our compound, near where its aerial roots submerged themselves in sand. I grew up being afraid of the tree’s carcass. At night, winds whistled through its leafless branches, whipping them back and forth. They came alive in my dreams, chasing me away from my home. Now, in my twenties, I’m afraid to look at the snarling face etched on its bark—the death recorded in its agony, its length twisted and thirsty. Father had moved sand away from the base of the tree, hid the small pot that contained my umbilical cord close to the revealed roots and prayed, ‘‘May my daughter’s roots fare better than this ancient tree’s.’’

*

Along the Lagos Lagoon, unending waves of sand dunes rose up to the doors of stilt houses, forcing new ways of life on coastal communities. In Old Makoko, fishermen still caught fishes but in a different way. They’d turned their nets into sieves that separated dried fish from the depths of sand ocean; fishermen became experts in mining sand fish. Only the rich ate fresh fish raised on fish farms, the depths of rapidly disappearing water bodies warmed up, and oceans no longer sustained life. I walked towards the now marooned Third Mainland Bridge where fishermen displayed their catch, in its shade, in a graveyard of broken canoes. They stopped making canoes since they had no use of them. It was a long walk and the heat retardant boots I wore sank into hot sand. The sand and heat slowed down the pace of hustling Lagosians, we were no longer in a hurry to get to nowhere. We laughed less, and rarely danced. The older ones say Lagos has become quieter, too. I stopped by Pa Kay’s fish table; he was one of the older fishermen who told stories about the Lagoon, stories of his grandfather and father. He often spoke of the fishermen of old journeying into the horizon before dawn in a canoe and the names of diverse fish that swum in the ocean. ‘‘They were alive,’’ he always sighed at the end of his story. I greeted him. He grunted in response and pointed at the fishes he’d caught in the sand, ‘I have crayfish, yoyo, kote, and tilapia. I pointed to the shawa on his table. I loved their crunchy roe. He shook his head, ‘Already bought.’ I bought six sand-dried tilapia and cooked them in a UN-issued humidity oven, seasoned with our ration of artificial smoke, pepper, and ginger. During dinner, I complained about the toughness of the fish; except me, though nobody alive in my family had tasted fresh fish. I grumbled, ‘the fish cut the inside of my left cheek. I want fresh fish.’ My mother rolled her eyes, ‘I think my grandmother’s spirit is here today.’ I looked so much like her grandmother, that my mother’s people called me, ‘little grandma.’ Mother mimicked her grandmother’s voice, ‘Oh the days when we ate tilapia and crab cooked in imoyo soup, oh the days.’

*

In the early morning air heavy with dew, a sleeping baby was carried to Five Cowrie Creek by his family—five men and two women. The oldest man threw him into the murky waters of the creek at high tide. His mother couldn’t stifle her gasp as her baby sunk into the waters and disappeared. He bobbed to the surface and the waters carried him away from land. Beside the weeping mother, her mother-in-law smirked, ‘The waters know their own. You have nothing to worry about—if he is ours.’ A fog hovered over the waters hiding the creek, a channel of the Lagos Lagoon, but the sound of paddles parting water and the whispers of fishermen throwing their nets slipped through. The seven waited by the creek’s shore for the fog to lift, and slowly the Ikoyi Link Bridge emerged. The frantic mother stepped into the creek and peered underneath the fog. She heard the cries of her baby before she saw it floating on his back, kicking at the waters that carried him. She tried to dash into the creek, but the men held her back, ‘Let the waters speak clearly.’ They waited until the waters returned the baby to its grandmother’s feet, ‘He is ours. Pick him up.’

*

Mainland Lagos was a ghost town, overwhelmed by the deluge of sand. Of the city’s teeming thirty-nine million inhabitants, only one million were left. Many starved to death, others died in sand dunes as they fled to Europe. Mainland Lagosians moved to the Islands leaving the uninhabitable mainland just like the rest of the world. Most of the world’s population lived at the poles now; Antarctica and Greenland are overpopulated. These settlements were administered by Africa, India and China because they had more people and resources. My family stayed behind in Lagos; it was too expensive to play the lottery for a ticket to migrate to the poles. Like humans before us, we made the New Sahara our home. We coped. We remembered our past in stories, and tried to understand the blunders of our ancestors, but we knew we couldn’t bring back the vegetation and animals.

Streaks of lightning branched across rain-swollen skies that hid the sun’s scorched face. My mother shouted my name from her room. I ran into the house; I was on my phone chatting with a childhood friend who lived in Greenland with her family. I ran inside to get buckets, but the rain didn’t fall. A dry dusty wind blew it away. The harmattan winds blew strong all year long, whistling so loud we tied clothes around our ears indoors. The humid winds from the diminished Atlantic dissipated in the dry haze of Harmattan, and the Bight of Benin and Lagos was dry all year round. I hated the cold blustery harmattan. Its dense haze was made worse by the dark particles that mixed with it. The underground remains of the desiccated rainforest along Africa’s equator burned slowly in hot sand, releasing soot into the air. The dark smog gathered around the middle of Africa like a skirt and could be seen from space.

My younger brother hid under my mother’s window. He attended to a newspaper kite that had disappeared into the smog, only his occasional tug at its string and his huge smile at the sky gave him away. My mother came looking for him. She’d called for him many times and he didn’t answer. She walked behind him and smacked the back of his head, ‘Stop staring at the sun’s face.’

‘But I can’t see the sun,’ he said.

My mother snorted, ‘But it sees you, boy. Get out of the sun.’

He stood up and jerked the kite to the ground, reeling it in furiously. The kite fluttered tgroundwards, covered in a fine layer of soot. He’d made the kite with father’s daily newspaper. The kite rested at my feet and its headlines read, ‘Our earth buckles up for new temperature surge, as the Amazon and Australia burn.’

*

The sands from the deserts covered ancient boundaries—rivers, rocks and trees—that used to define nations, property, and heritage. But we drew new boundaries in the sand, even though it moved constantly, shifting boundaries, doing as it pleased. In these times, national boundaries were no more, and the nations of the world had no citizens. The settlements in Antarctica and Greenland had walls to keep people out, animals too, but there wasn’t enough cool air to go around. Instead, both settlements opened Bone Halls where their inhabitants gawked at the dry bones of extinct animals, and  video clips showing grainy pictures of them in the wild. Greenland and Antarctica still have boundaries and laws, that divide the haves and haves not; the believers and the doubters—the group of people who believe the earth’s engines stopped because it was scheduled to stall. It would reboot itself, they said, they didn’t kill the Earth’s. There were no doubters in Lagos, it was easy to deny reality in the distorted world the doubters lived in, we didn’t. There’s nothing like living this truth, we feel the anger of the earth daily. It puts its face next to yours and you feel its hot breath against your skin, ‘I’m fighting back.’

It takes six months to walk from Lagos to New York, or two weeks on the transatlantic buses that ply the strip of land that appeared out of the Atlantic, balanced on a highway of ridges and mountains that rose from the ocean floor. I journeyed to New York and arrived in winter, though there had not been a speck of snow on its abandoned streets for years. The NYC subway was boarded up. In the early days of the deluge people dropped corpses into the underground system: it was hotter than a crematorium. It solved the problem of burying the dead. I took a selfie next to the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the only thing left of her not submerged in sand from the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran Deserts. I went on a tour bus, and we were told the tour remained faithful to the old tourist routes. When we got to Times Square, I shouted at billboard screens, and the empty streets echoed my voice back to me. I read the words written in paint on their dead faces, ‘Global warming is fake science. Climate change is fake news.’

*

There were puddles of water that retained the memory of water sloshing against waters on earth. We kept them in world heritage museums, and school children studied them. When I was ten, I filed by its glass enclosure and gazed at the one in Lagos. I couldn’t fully comprehend it, wet mud. It was so precious students were not even allowed to touch its glass. Our teacher said, ‘It’s not mud. It’s actually loamy soil. Naturally occurring. Made by the weathering of rock and filled with living organisms.’ I nodded and tried to imagine dark wet soil that grew green plants. As we filed past it, we watched a video to see the earth’s past. As in a vision, I saw a leaf blade poke its head out of moist dark loam packed into a crack in a rock. I saw the rock heat up and the water in the loam rise up as steam. The sapling browned, and withered, and winds came and blew its remains, its shallow roots away.

 

About the Author

Olufunke Ogundimu

Olufunke Ogundimu was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas MFA International programme in fiction. Her short story “The Armed Letter Writers” won a 2019 Pushcart Prize. She is a 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing finalist and Miles Morland Writing Scholarship finalist. She […]

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