Lonely Roads – Previous Episodes: Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Lonely Roads 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16
Afam knew it was only dawn when he woke up. He couldn’t tell the exact colour of the sky from the tiny holes in the roof, but he had an idea of how long he had slept. The silence in the pit was only broken by the breathing and snoring of its occupants. Afam’s nose had now grown accustomed to the stench but there was no way of getting used to the heat. He was soaked in his own sweat and the man who lay next to him rubbed off some more on him every time he moved. Afam wanted some fresh air but he knew that was not going to be coming anytime soon.
He was resting in his wake when he heard footsteps. He listened intently to hear over the loud breathing of the prisoners. Whoever it was seemed to have stopped somewhere very close to the pit. Afam wondered whether it was the oyibo. The thought was dismissed with the sound of sobbing. Afam had never heard Adaobi sob before but somehow he was sure that it was her sobbing now. He thought about screaming to her. But what was he going to say? His scream would wake the entire pit and guards in the compound would hear it just as loudly as Adaobi would. And even if there was a mysterious way of communicating his presence to her, he couldn’t ask her to rescue him. There was no way she could get around it. The guards in Onwa’s compound were like the sand on the earth. Afam remembered the way he had snuck in. He knew Adaobi didn’t stand a chance. She wasn’t a hunter; her ears and eyes were untrained.
Adaobi had come out to walk around the compound because she couldn’t bear being in her hut anymore. Her worries had troubled her sleep and she needed some fresh air. The morning was cool and still. If Adaobi had nothing to occupy her mind this was the kind of morning you could relax on a cane chair and enjoy.
Afam listened to his lover’s sobs as they faded with distance as she walked away. His heart was heavy with grief but a part of him was joyful. Her crying let him know that she still thought of him. He allowed himself to daydream about running into her arms but he stopped as soon as he was going to kiss her because he knew this frame of mind was unhealthy for him.
Time crawled ever so slowly but finally the cocks crowed and the sun began to chase away the darkness. Men, women, and children woke in the pit and the murmuring slowly began to rise. Afam watched Chibuzo stretch and shake off the sleep from his body. Chibuzo’s muscular frame led Afam to guess that he was a warrior, his particularly strong legs hinting at long journeys and a hard life. He wanted to ask Chibuzo how he had ended up in the pit but he worried about having to answer the same question when Chibuzo asked in return. Afam didn’t want to share the story of his romance with anyone. He was scared it would somehow endanger Adaobi. He asked himself if he could trust Chibuzo. He hadn’t even known the young man for two days but he had expressed so much kindness towards him. For a person like Afam who experienced kindness only from his mother and Adaobi, Chibuzo’s gestures meant a lot. Food and a place to sleep were the two most essential necessities of life and Chibuzo had provided both without being asked. The problem Afam faced was trying to comprehend why someone would show such kindness, especially in a place like this where surviving was hard work. Afam’s isolated life had robbed him of knowing how different people could be. And to make things worse, none of Chibuzo’s acts corresponded with his mother’s teachings. When Afam was growing up Onu taught him to believe that people were generally out to save their own heads and feed their own stomachs. It was natural for men to want for themselves. His mother often told him to trust no one and not to take things from strangers. She told him stories of children turning into goats after eating bewitched eggs from people they did not know. She taught him not to trust anyone in this world and that was now putting up a wall between him and his new friend.
Chibuzo caught Afam’s eye and held it with a smile that had sorrow buried underneath it. Afam forced a smile back because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. They were both contemplating the best way to break the silence when the roof swung open. Everyone in the pit looked up, hoping to find food raining down on them. The sun was only partly out and the day was very cloudy. The captives in the pit waited in anticipation for food, but it did not come.
Afam saw it coming and he knew there was no escaping it. Without any warning buckets of cold water were emptied into the pit to drench the captives. Screams erupted as the chilling sensation awoke the senses. It was too early in the morning to be receiving a cold bath. Little did the prisoners know that the cold water was the least of their worries.
A ladder was let down and in fear men, women and their children rushed to climb out of the pit. A single ladder was used to make capturing easier at the top. The first man up the ladder was probably the strongest man in the pit, a warrior. He muscled his way through the sea of people, barking furiously at anyone that tried to oppose him. In fear, the other prisoners cowered and allowed him up the ladder.
When the warrior reached the top he was hurled by two men who for a second pretended to have his best interests in mind. The moment they were sure that the warrior could no longer jump back into the pit, he was seized. The first blow came from a club to the back of the head. The warrior’s vision blurred on impact with the club and before he could pull his senses together, he was blacked out and lying on the floor. Two men proceeded immediately to chain his wrists and shackle his ankles. Strong men like this always posed a problem. They were worth a lot of money, but they were hard work, too. To tame and control such men required an iron fist. The men allowed him to regain some consciousness before they beat him to within half an inch of his death. The idea was to break him, just like a stubborn horse was beaten into obedience, so were stubborn slaves.
The pit was gradually emptied and the men who demanded a good beating in order to be tamed received it accordingly. Neither Afam nor Chibuzo struggled. In fact, they were grateful for the fresh morning air that filled their lungs. Whips landed on their backs but it could have been worse. Afam could not understand why men did this to their fellow men. This was not war where you had to kill or be killed. This was a trade for cowries and precious objects. The greed in the business disgusted Afam but there was nothing he could do about it. He tried to wonder what Adaobi’s father had traded him for – perhaps another mirror for Adaobi and Dike, maybe a barrel of liquor. Afam cursed Onwa repeatedly under his breath.
He stood silently locked in his chains, the feeling of the heavy iron on his wrists and ankles letting him know that he was no longer a free man. He felt like a goat tied to a tree. The captors linked him with Chibuzo, his right foot connected with Chibuzo’s left. In the fear of the moment they both drew some comfort from this bondage. In some ways it increased their will to survive, which was what the white men wanted. A slave was worth nothing dead. The women and children didn’t share shackles because it was less likely that they would try to escape or stage an attack. Afam watched a few men that resisted get beaten and it reinforced his will not to fight. He was still feeling aches in some parts of his body, more beatings were not what he needed now. Some of the men who looked less threatening also managed to get a pair of shackles to themselves. Afam knew sooner or later sharing with Chibuzo would become a burden, but for the time being he would live with it.
When the oyibos was satisfied with the state of the slaves, they decided to be on their way before daylight was fully out. Each slave was given some palm oil to carry. There were about sixty slaves to be transported and between them they split a ton of palm oil. This was for both trade and use aboard the slave ship. The weight of the oil was also a way of keeping the slaves weak to avoid confrontation. Some of the slaves complained but after the oyibo lashed out with his whip, obedience became the order of the day. The white man utilised every opportunity to use brute force. He knew that it was only by fear that the slaves could be controlled against resistance.
Afam noticed one of the oyibo was a lot more relaxed than the rest of them. He carried a sword and rifle, but he didn’t seem like he planned on using it. From the way the others addressed him, Afam made him out to be the leader. He was a particularly short man with broad shoulders and a heavy chest that seemed to weigh his legs into a bow shape. When he spoke, Afam caught a glimpse at his brown teeth which were so scattered it looked like he had caught a catapulting stone in his mouth. Most of the men around were blacks – sellouts –Afam thought. Most of the white men refused to come inland because they feared diseases like malaria. They sat back on their ships and used Africans to do their dirty business.
After the palm oil barrels were passed around, the slaves were asked to march on with whips. Afam listened closely to the words the black men spoke and he realised they were all Aboh men. He wanted to speak to them and tell them that he was one of them, a brother. But typical of an Igbo man, his pride wouldn’t let him plead to a bunch of sellouts like these. He dwelled on his pride and chose suffering over shame. In his innermost core Afam wanted to fly at one of the men and rip their throat out with his bare hands. But he knew that was not possible, not with Chibuzo’s weight on his right foot. He grunted and cursed under his breath as he endured the load of oil on his shoulder.
His journey out of Aboh had just begun. This was probably his last morning in the village. He had always wished to get away from Aboh. Now that his wish was coming true, he realised that he didn’t really want to receive it. This village that he had hated for so long suddenly felt like home and there was no place else he’d rather be. He was beginning to appreciate so many things he had taken for granted before. The air, the fading moon; he wondered if there would be one in the oybio’s land. And even if they had a moon there, would it be as beautiful as the one in Aboh? Afam felt the clay under his feet and in desperation to take a piece of home with him, he clawed with his toes to scuff some dirt under his toenails.
After the first ten paces with whips lashing out every now and again, Afam began to feel like he could cry. His heart was so heavy, he wished his mother would shake his body and he would wake from this horrible dream. Tears filled his eyes but he didn’t let out a drop. He was a man and it was unmanly to show emotions in this way. The women were wailing and crying; he could not let himself become one of them. He was a warrior, and he was the son of a great warrior. Afam thought about his father. What would Esimai have done in this situation? Afam was not sure what the answer was, but he believed with all his heart that his father would not cry. He swung his eyes at Chibuzo to read what his new friend felt. He was startled at the look on Chibuzo’s face. There was no fear in it, no shock, no pain, not even regret. It was like Chibuzo accepted and embraced the life that was coming. Afam wondered what kind of man would not miss anything of his home. At this thought Afam realised he didn’t even know where home was for Chibuzo. He definitely wasn’t from Umuiti or Afam would have seen him around. He made a mental note to ask Chibuzo where home was as soon as it was convenient. He tried not to wonder too much about what Chibuzo had been through to mould his heart into what his face now showed it to be. Perhaps like him, Chibuzo had his own secrets too.
Ahead was a bush with a walk path. Afam guessed this path was made for slaves to be transported away from public eyes. The captives at the front of the line began to disappear into the bush and Afam prepared his mind to leave home. He was just three paces away from the entrance to the bush when he noticed a lady in a white cloth watching. She was at a distance but Afam could not mistake another girl for his Adaobi. He stopped for a breath and stared. He wondered if she noticed him. He waited for a sign. No matter how insignificant; a nod, a wave, any movement at all. Chibuzo caught Afam’s eyes and who he was looking at. He couldn’t make a lot of sense out of it, but he was sure there was more to it.
It took every spirit of self-control in Afam to make him take his eyes off Adaobi and take another step towards the bush. His heart felt not just broken but stolen too. He wasn’t sure what the mix of emotions in him was, but he could tell anger was the most prevailing. So much rage was bottled up inside him he felt his heart was turning into stone. It angered him even more to know that he would have to keep his feelings locked up inside. In his grief Afam asked death to mercifully take him home if this was the life he was going to live.
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