After the midnight of June 27, Roman Ebimene Friday packed food and headed for Lagos port. His target was the rudder of a 620-foot ship (a tanker) for a ‘japa’ move to Europe. But it was Nigeria to Brazil.
Friday convinced a fisherman to take him across to the ship. “The fisherman is a good man,” Friday said. “He didn’t ask for money.”
The first shock Friday got at the rudder was seeing three faces staring at him from the dark. For the next 15 hours the four perched on the rudder. By 5pm, they felt the ship, Ken Wave’s giant engines, come to life. They were headed for Europe. Or so they thought.
Friday narrated how they survived two weeks on the ocean to BBC Pidgin.
As the japa journey began, “The rudder turns 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So you have to be alert constantly. The two nets came loose at some point. But we fixed them because if they break, we are going straight into the water,” Friday said.
The nets, Friday felt, were left by some previous stowaways. But they served as beds for them.
It will be difficult for many to understand why anyone would risk his life on a rudder across the Mediterranean and South Atlantic, but the decision came easy for Friday: “In Nigeria there are no jobs, no money no way for me to feed my younger brothers and mother.
“I am the eldest and my dad died 20 years ago. So I have to take care of my family. But I couldn’t. Not even after three years on the streets of Lagos.”
His neighbours at the rudder was Thankgod Opemipo Mathew Yeye, a pastor, businessman and father of two who lost everything he had to flood.
Pastor Yeye told BBC Pidgin: “My business went under and my family became homeless. That was the beginning of my decision to leave.
“So without telling anyone, I left my sister’s house at night and went to the port to ‘board’ the ship.”
William and Zeze were the other two with Friday and Yeye at the rudder. They passed the first few days on the rudder in boredom, discomfort and fear, taking comfort in small talks and prayers to stay awake.
As day five came to pass, Friday and Yeye began to see the real danger of their situation.
By the fifth day, they were becoming weak because they ate and drank little to preserve supply, and slept even less for fear of falling into the water. To urinate, they tied a rope round their waists and when the waters were rough, the waves beat them.
Down the line, the stowaways grew weaker, stopped talking, mouths dry and stomachs aching. But Friday kept track of time with his wristwatch.
Out of supply
On day 10 they had the last of their food and water. “This was the hardest moment of all,” Yeye said. “My mouth was dry and completely cracked. For the first time in my life, I really understood the importance of water.”
The thirst became worse with every passing hour and time seemed to move more slowly.
Once, Friday attached a biscuit’s wrap to a rope, lowered it into the ocean to collect water for them to drink. They had licked toothpaste, too.
However, by day 12, one of the stowaways became sick because of the salty water they had been drinking and started vomiting into the ocean.
Friday said: “He was so weak he almost fell into the ocean. I was the only one strong enough to grab him.”
To distract himself from hunger and thirst, Friday took to sitting on the edge of the rudder alone and stare at the ocean. And on the 13th day Friday saw a whale.
He was in awe of the huge mammal. Japa momentarily forgotten.
“It was the first time in my life to see such a sight,” he laughed at the memory. “If I told anyone back home that I saw a whale, they would say I lied.
“But I sat on that rudder, saw a whale and forgot I was hungry and thirsty. I watched the whale and it was like watching creation. It was a holy moment.”
‘Then we saw land’
As the first lights appeared on the horizon on day 14of their japa, Friday got back to the rudder and felt Ken Wave’s mighty engine slowing down. Then he saw land in the distance, then buildings and one boat.
It was the supply boat when the ship stopped to take fresh crew. “Do you know where you are?” someone shouted from the boat.
Friday tried to shout back that he had no idea, but his throat was too patched to make a sound. The boat left. Two hours later, a police boat appeared and an officer stretched out a bottle of water to Friday: “You are in Brazil,” the officer said.
When they got on dry land, the stowaways borrowed phones to call their families.
But while William and Zeze decided to return to Nigeria, Friday and Yeye made Brazil home. Japa done. “We are very happy here,” Yeye told BBC Pidgin. “It is a new beginning.”
Friday said: “I am in a new place. I am trying to adapt. I am trying to learn the language,” noting that the hopelessness he felt in Nigeria was disappearing.
Translated from BBC Pidgin by Agbonkhese Oboh