Paying the ultimate sacrifice

Sunday October 8 2017

Stepping back out into the deluge clutching the

Stepping back out into the deluge clutching the small axe usually housed next to the fire extinguisher, Jill steeled herself against the raging wind and climbed the stairs that led to the top of the dam wall. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG 

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It was raining heavily at the site. Big, heavy drops cascaded, roaring as if to show their might. A sudden flash of lightning tore through the sky, followed by a crack of thunder that seemed to shake the mountain ranges and double the ferocity of the rain.

“We’ve got to go!” screamed a middle aged man, fear written clearly on his face. “Jill, we’ve got to go!”

“And the dam? We can’t just leave it this way!” Jill yelled back at the head engineer. “It’s not going to hold through the night!”

Her face showed no fear, and only a slight twitch of her jaw belied any anxiety she felt. “We need to fix the gate or open it to prevent a burst…”

The head engineer grabbed his deputy hard by the shoulder, spinning the young woman around to face him, “There is no ‘we’ Jill! The workers are halfway down by now, and I’m going. For heaven’s sake, do you have a death wish?”

His plea was punctuated by lightning illuminating the dark swirling waters of the river followed by another heart jarring clap of thunder. It was clear the rising waters, churning and twisting violently, would not be held back for long.

“There are people below, families...”

Jill yanked the older man’s hands away; she had never been one to abscond duty. “This is your project and you are responsible for it!”

The head engineer turned away, slipping as he started down, “But I will not die for it!”

Treacherous ground

The day had turned dark; heavy clouds blanketed the entire mountain range so that those below looked up and shivered, knowing only too well the ferocity of the elements. They hurried about, herding their goats and chickens to safety then shutting themselves inside their little homes, as if they could keep nature’s fearsome show out.

Three kilometres up, Jill was doing a deadly dance along the river. The cold wind cut through her already soaked clothes, whipping her this way and that, chilling her muscles and making each step a punishing ordeal.

The rain had long ceased to bother her now that she was numb; it only hindered her visibility, making her ascend a few feet at a time, not that she could go any faster.

She clutched at the vines and tree branches, slipping every few steps on the treacherous ground. Had it really been just an hour ago when she’d stood, leaning against a tree, holding her breath at the sight of the beautiful river rushing downhill?

Cresting a steep hill, Jill saw a dim light in the distance. Buoyed by having reached the control centre, and walking on ground that was a little more even, her pace increased and soon she was yanking the door open to the circular room filled with monitors and dials.

Jill was a brilliant engineer, way smarter than the self-important man she’d had to intern under, but that was how the system worked. She quickly typed out the code to override the automatic systems, followed by another code instructing the system to open the dam gates to full capacity. It had never been done, seeing as disasters were catered for but never expected.

“Oh!” Jill ducked, instinctively covering her head as a loud groan and the shrill shriek of metal grating against metal shook the ground beneath her. The noise rendered her immobile with fear. Then the steady beeping of one of the monitors, the rhythmic, constant beep, beep, beep, roused her from the depths of her terror. Swaying as if drunk, her unsteady shaking feet took her to the dashboard.

Insane idea

The gate had malfunctioned.

“I can’t… what do I do…” she muttered desolately to herself, not even noticing the tears that were falling down her wet face. She’d tried everything, she’d tried every…

The idea that popped into her mind was insane, but at that moment the faces of the village children whom she had waved to earlier that day cemented her conviction.

She pulled a chair and sat in front of one of the computers and began recording.

“My name is Jill Keya, I’m all alone here at the control centre of Loria dam and…” she didn’t falter once, telling the world how the head engineer had fled, how the problems with the dam had gone largely ignored, of the corruption that had put people’s lives at risk and, what she was about to do. She exhaled as she finished and stood up with new-found confidence. Her life would mean something, the world would know.

Stepping back out into the deluge clutching the small axe usually housed next to the fire extinguisher, Jill steeled herself against the raging wind and climbed the stairs that led to the top of the dam wall. Here, she had to kneel to avoid being knocked over by the wind.

On one side, the waters of the dam churned and swirled violently in the storm, on the other the waters exiting down the spillway were at such high pressure that the water spurted high into the air. Jill crawled on, fear no longer holding her back, determination setting her lips into a hard line, until she reached the huge wheel that opened and closed the dam’s gate.

“This is it,” she mouthed, sadness tugging at her heart.

“Heck! The brave go down in history, right?” And with that, she began hacking away at the wheel, unsure whether her plan would work.

A bright, shard of lightning lit up the sky at the same time that the wheel gave way and the gate to the spillway swung open. The booming thunder seemed almost in tandem with the mini earthquake that shook the dam wall as it released its pent up waters and knocked Jill off her feet. She lost her balance and her arms flailed wildly as she went over the edge into the gushing waters of the spillway. She let out a shout of triumph, and then felt nothing.


The Jill-Loria dam was opened with tributes of praise and celebration a year later.

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