(First published on The Kalahari Review in April 2016)
There was no way to figure out how long and far we had gone, but this journey seemed unwilling to end. It was not like we were looking forward to our destination anyway, but we craved the certainty that came with the end of a trip. We were totally oblivious of time, of when the Sun stretched and yawned across the east in anticipation of a new day, or when it cowered down the west in fatigue. There was no way to spot the moon or stars either, no, not when we spent all the time in the lowest deck of this ship, at the mercy of water seeping in from the sea, and more importantly, against our will.
Yes, we made up yet another shipment of slaves being transported to the New World. We were no less than one hundred in number, but we had been packed together into this deck like cocoyams in a collapsing barn, or worse still, fish in a breaking net. There was no ventilation, the water seeping in from the sea had become stagnant to the point of stinking, we were bound together in groups of six hand and foot, and our black smelly bodies had stuck together so for so long that any attempt at bodily adjustments could lead to the painful peeling away of skin.
In all honesty, there were only three common factors shared by those of us in this part of the vessel — our skin colour, our current situation, and our impending fate. Other than that, we didn’t share too many similarities. We spoke different languages, and for the most part, we could not understand each other. In the brief intervals of light which came when crew members threw down the day’s rations, I could see some of the people with me having horizontal marks on their faces. Others kept saying something that sounded like “Abasi” and “mbok” and kept adding “bong” to their statements. As a matter of fact, I could only communicate with about twenty people around me, and that was probably because we came from the same part of the small world we knew.
Each of the people whom I had acquainted myself with had found themselves here under different circumstances. One of them, Nwosu, had ended up here because his father could not pay for four goats which had been loaned to him, and his creditor had decided to seize the eldest child in the family. Another captive, Chimaroke, had been bundled away in an inter-village war and brought to shore. Olanma and her brother Okonta had been sold by their father in a bid to “cleanse his home” of their stubbornness, which he called witchcraft.
I on my own part had become an unwilling voyager due to a “decision of the gods”. I had disputed with my neighbour Odogwu over a piece of land which I inherited from my father, and then we had gone to the village elders, who in turn took us to the shrine of the Arochukwu oracle. The test had been that whoever went into a small cave and failed to return would be deemed “killed by Arochukwu” for lying. As fate would have it, I was directed to go in first, and by the time I got to the other opening, five able-bodied men were waiting for me. Cowries and fabric changed hands, and soon I found myself at shore.
We were fed once a day, and whenever the day’s rations were thrown down from a higher deck, we would scramble with our mouths and chained hands like dogs. We would be friends again after the “meal” (usually old loaves of bread or bad bacon), but when it came to struggling for food, we were arch-enemies. We urinated and defecated right where we were, and the women knew no respite when it came to their menstrual cycle — they bled right there! Every other day one of us would give up the ghost, and we would have to put up with the corpse until crew members deemed it fit to inspect, upon which they would hurl the body into the sea. These crew members spoke in a language we could not understand, their noses were pointed like the spears we used for hunting wild game back home, and for all we knew, it was through their noses they spoke from. Their feet were black and they had no toes, and from time to time they read from one book which Olanma said contained many sacred things. Olanma would know — each day she was dragged up by a crew member to the Captain’s room, and whenever the Captain ploughed her vegetation with his machete, she would usually see a copy of that book on the table beside the bed. After they were done, according to her, the Captain would open the book and assume a very solemn countenance, like the one we put up whenever we prayed to Chukwu and Nri back home.
We had heard many stories about those who were taken on journeys like this. We heard of how they were auctioned like livestock in the market, how they were worked to death on huge farmlands, how holes were put in their mouths and sealed with padlocks, and how they were marked with hot iron so they could never run away. A merchant had visited me six rains (years) ago and told me about such happenings, and we had laughed over kegs of palm wine. Now I was here, doomed to a life of perpetual slavery, torn away from all I cared about, never to set foot in my hut again. I wept once again, as I had done so many times. There was definitely no way out of this.
The door of the higher deck suddenly opened. The crew members had come with the day’s ration, and also to check for new dead bodies. The day’s menu was left-over sardines.
“We won’t eat!” Nwosu suddenly screamed.
Nwosu had decided that he would not be scrambling that day. He was fed up. He urged the rest of us to do same, but his words were only understood by a few of us. Even those who understood ignored him, but about twelve of us decided to follow Nwosu’s choice.
The crew members were shocked to see that some of us were not struggling for food like the others. They spoke in that their strange but authoritative language, and when one of them decided to come closer, Nwosu lunged with a head-butt, knocking him unconscious. My group of six advanced and pushed another crew member who stood by the door. Confusion spread everywhere. We had rebelled!
The crew soon mobilised and whipped the would-be slaves back into submission, but by that time, twelve of us, coincidentally speaking the same language, had got to the upper part of the ship. We were honourable men, and could not let ourselves be subjected to a life of servitude. We were prepared to embrace the seas if that was the only alternative to slavery. If it was Chukwu’s will, we would be re-united with our kinsmen again, but there was no way we could achieve that by remaining on that ship. Chained by our necks, wrists and ankles, we nodded, hummed and jumped together into the Atlantic, singing as we negotiated the waves of the ocean –
“Orimiri Omambala bu anyi bia, Orimiri Omambala ka anyi ga ejina”
So many seasons have passed, and we have since concluded that we are lost at sea. Maybe we should not have jumped off that ship. Who knows, we would have worked and made enough money to buy our freedom, just like we hear our kinsman Olaudah Equiano did. (We wonder why they called him Equiano. His name is Ikwuano, our blood ran in his veins.) Many rains have passed since the ocean received us with open arms and those sharks digested us. Wicked things, they could not let us drown peacefully. Day and night our souls come out to this particular shore to cry. Somehow the sounds of our clanging chains and our voices echo across the land. People who live around here get scared. They probably think we are haunting them. We mean no harm, we just want to go back home.
From time to time, people come to this shore to visit. We can’t really understand them, but we feel they talk about us. They express fake empathy, they take pictures, they drink, they throw sand into the water, then they try to dress in ways that make them think they are depicting how we lived. We sometimes weep louder when we see this, depending on the mood of the waves, and then they run away.
But this year is different. This year they have come with someone who expresses genuine concern for our plight. He spreads a huge piece of “akwa-ocha” on the sand and pours some Seaman’s Aromatic Schapps into the water. We grin. He speaks to us in a language only we understand. He tells us that Olanma survived and told our story to people who handed it down from generation to generation. He tells us that those very big birds we sometimes see in the sky are called aeroplanes. He tells us that we are in a place called St. Simmons Island in Georgia, a state in U.S.A. He tells us about how U.S.A runs the world, how the man with tribal marks and our own people got merged into one country, how one of us called Emeagwali made a powerful machine. He tells us about Azikiwe, and then about Biafra, at which we weep again. He then tells us that the people who visit do so out of curiosity, and are actually honouring us. We feel relaxed. He calls on us to follow him, blowing some white powder in the air and throwing a live chicken into the sea. We will eat it in preparation for our journey. After a hundred and ninety-nine years, we are finally going back home.