“As you pass through this portal, forget you ever had a name!” The young man yelled at us in French. The smell of burning flesh filled the air as each person on the chain gang got branded. The hissing and sizzling of the branding iron, red as the eyes of the devil himself, held no fear for me any more. For weeks I had dreaded this moment, this time and place where I get branded making my way through the point of no return onto the whiteman’s ship; his vessel that would take me away from this land of my birth, away from my people and all that I know. Finally, this day has come and the only thing occupying my mind, a mind torn to a thousand shreds by the horrors I have lived through, the horrors I have seen visited upon humans by other humans – the worst of which was perpetrated by their own kind – the only thing I was resolute about was to not forget my name. To not forget who I am. To not lose my identity.
My mother did not go through the pains of my birth, nor my father experience such joy at my arrival only for me to end up as a number; a symbol on the end of a long, fired up prodding metal.
Six short weeks ago I had lived through my nineteenth season, and there had been talks of a mate for me. Then I had been taken by an uncle and sold into captivity. He was one of the king’s war chiefs and they had been amassing arms to perpetuate their reign of terror on the hapless indegenes. My father had spoken up against their plan and they had retaliated by striking him where it hurt most: taking his son away from him.
Being young and in good health, I had been exchanged for a gun. I guess this was something to be proud of because at the beach where I had been traded, I had seen a mother traded for a cask of wine, separated from her young son who was in turn traded for a looking glass. The young virgins, I learnt, were traded for guns too but only because they would bear children for our captors. Children who would then be used as mules and drones to do all the hardwork in the settlement. I learnt this had started with only criminals and trouble makers, but people had grown greedy and the buyers had developed a taste for ‘the exotic’, so people sold friends, relatives and even close family. It was all so sad.
We were packed into rooms, men separate from women, women from children. The rooms were no bigger than my mother’s kitchen and yet we were packed away twenty men per room. For the women the figure was thirty per room. As for the children, a minimum of fifty.
The room I was put in had three round windows, each one the size of two fists, no more. It allowed one a view of the rolling ocean as it spread in the distance. Sometimes green, sometimes blue, and when the sun was setting, a beautiful orange seeming to go on for ever. After three days in the room, the stench of unwashed bodies and rot was so overpowering, we jostled for space at any of the windows for the slightest whiff of tangy sea breeze fresh and clean. Everybody wanted those, so fights usually broke out. The rooms got mucked out once in a market week, and the pit dug in the middle of the room usually filled up before this happened so the chance to get shit plattered on you was high. These caked on skins and stayed there until that day in the week when we got lined up in the big yard and had buckets of cold sea water thrown on us. This was usually done by the blacks who worked on the land, and they usually turned up their noses at us as if they were more than the cattle-dung eating vermin that they really were.
We provided entertainment for our captors until they got tired of our antics and then they would come in with whips and go at us like the animals they were slowly reducing us to.
The first time this happened, I expected the people to rush them and break for freedom. I could feel the excitement coursing through my body at the prospect of this. When nothing like that happened, I returned to my corner and pondered what could have happened to full blooded men to break their spirits so.
I asked about this and was told that a few people had had the same brilliant idea. They knocked the guards out, injuring one as they went, but they only made it as far as the water’s edge before they realised this is actually an island. It was there that most of them stood when they were rounded up and strung together in chains and led back to the cells. Two remained at large for an entire day but were eventually caught, and it was these two that were made examples of.
Everyone was assembled at the place of where the sun never seemed to touch despite it being so high above everything else. Some said it was the spirits of people who had gone that clouded that one spot. The ‘accused’ were made to walk up the flight of stairs to the very top. Someone read from the bible as they were made to kneel down with their heads to the wooden blocks between the two posts that held up a blade. Two men pulled back the sinewy ropes that supported the blade their muscles bulging and straining, sweat forming on their faces and glistening on their bare arms chest and back; a blade which glinted evilly in the orange evening sun. At a signal they both let the ropes go and the rest happened too fast to mentally capture. The ropes whirred as the blade raced down, then the thump of the blade as it connected with the bared neck. Unable to look away, everyone saw the cold metal separate head from body in one fell swoop. And then there was the thud as the head hit the floor and rolled a few feet. Blood flowed from the stump that was the neck. The executioners pulled the body off the block still twitching, and prepared the second man.
For days after hearing that story I had nightmares. I lost sleep and I lost my appetite. When the ships came that week, we were all lined up and weighed. Myself and a few others fell below the weight limit, but not by much. As the ship was around for a few days, those of us who did not make the weight cut were taken to another room where we were force-fed beans and palm oil. One man resisted and he was summarily taken from among us and cast into a room built directly opposite us. I did not even know that room existed as it was always in shadow. It was no higher than my knee so he had to go in in a crouch. For an entire day he was left there; no light, no food, no water, no standing room. When he was finally released to join us the three days later, the fire had died in him. He was a ghost of himself, and literally lived the next few days from hand to mouth, shovelling the beans mix into his mouth with a dimness in his eyes and a blankness in his face.
So today we learned that the ship was ready to set sail for the whiteman’s land. We were taken and weighed again and three of us made it. The rest, which included the man with the lifeless eyes, were shackled together and walked to the edge of the jetty were they were cast – shackled and chained – into the sea.
As we were marched onto the ship, I took one last look at this place that had been home to me this last few weeks, the smell of burnt flesh still strong in my nose, and I wondered if really there would be no return for me.
PS: This and many similar stories can be found and heard all along the west coast of Africa, from Badagry to Calabar to Gorée – all over the west coast. We would hear them and shudder, maybe even shed a tear or two. Some would joke about it and blame their ancestors for not getting caught and sold into slavery as they would have become nationals of another country. In all, we think to ourselves, “slavery happened over four hundred years ago,” and we smile at our good fortune for having been born in this age.
I will say guess again. Take a good look at goings-on in the country and tell me slavery happened over four hundred years ago.
Different reactions have trailed the removal of oil subsidy, and all the other hardships Nigerians have been made to bear over the years. Sadly, a lot of decisions have been dictated by our emotions. All I am asking though, is that we step back a little and look at the bigger picture rather than rush in one way or another. That when we do see that bigger picture, we will divest ourselves of distractions and focus. Otherwise what we would achieve would be replacing one set of evils with another and this will throw us into chaos and anarchy – the very things we want to prevent, the things we are fighting.
Protest marches are good, but let’s consider what questions we are asking the Government; what exactly we are protesting for or against.
Let us think, and then let us stand together and say enough is enough. Or is the voice of the people no longer the voice of God?