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, Chapter 17
Adaobi recognised Afam as he walked into the bush. How could she miss him? Even though she showed no sign of recognition, every part of her being was on fire, burning with a desire to run straight to her lover and lock him in an endless embrace. She allowed her imagination wander and in it she was in his arms, safe and free. But that was only in her imagination. Adaobi knew there were eyes on her even if she could not see them. She knew it would be most unwise to show her recognition of Afam at a time like this. And even if she did give him a wave, where would it go from there? The wave was certainly not going keep him from walking into the bush. Adaobi struggled with her heart not to break into tears and screams. She tried to tell herself that Afam didn’t exist anymore, that he was gone. She even tried to deceive herself into believing that he never existed but that was just not possible.
The moment Afam disappeared into the bush, a deep feeling of guilt accompanied by shame and regret crept into her mind. He was about to embark on a long and difficult journey. A simple gesture of love would have gone a long way to comfort him. Before her emotions could get the best of her Adaobi turned around and began to walk back to her hut, her shoulders slouched in misery, tears silently streaming down her face.
Afam was so angered that Adaobi didn’t recognise him that he did not speak as they travelled through the bush. He wondered if it was because she did not love him anymore: had she forgotten all about him so soon? All of a sudden he forgot all about her sobs in the morning. He hadn’t even entered the oyibo’s big boat and she was turning her back on him. He didn’t know if it was right for him to expect her to await his return. No one had ever come back after following the oyibo. Afam knew that, but he still wanted Adaobi to promise him her love even after his death. Maybe he was asking for too much, but it was too early for her to turn her back on him. She should have at least waited till he was away. These thoughts consumed Afam and it bred resentment against Adaobi. He felt used and it hurt him more than anything he could remember.
The journey was long and painful as the true weight of the palm oil was realised with each step. When the men finally made it to Oshimili River, their entire bodies ached. Their shoulders, backs, and their legs particularly stung but no man complained because the white man’s answer to every need seemed to be a whip on the back. Afam had received a few strokes and it angered him because he felt he didn’t deserve any of it. Not that anyone deserved to be flogged, but he had made a conscious effort not to be a problem. He watched the faces of every man that whipped him and he swore revenge, should the opportunity present itself.
Afam noticed streaks of blood on the backs of men in front of him. His left shoulder blade burned with pain. He figured the whip must have torn his skin. He wished he hadn’t received the terrible beating before he was thrown into the pit. At least his body would be in better condition to manage the suffering it was going through now. He ground his teeth and tried to keep his temper where it was better off, inside him. The oyibo man in charge spoke to a black, who then asked them to drop their loads and take off their clothes. All the captives were very happy to be relieved of their burden, but taking off their clothes made them worry. Most of the captives here were Igbo, they were known for their pride; this was more humiliation than they could take. The captives slowly laid down the palm oil, but no one was taking off their clothes. Everyone watched each other, hoping that one man would swallow his pride and lead the way. The truth was that every man, woman and child was scared almost to the point of prettification. The oyibo man seemed to care less about how much pain he was causing and he seemed as if he was ready to cause more just for the pleasure of it. He wore a smile that told them that he was having a good time making them suffer.
Most of the children didn’t have any clothes on; the few that were clothed stripped with little care. It was no different from playing naked in the rain, which they always did when they came out to catch aku (edible insects) that would later be fried and eaten. The women were next because they were too afraid to put up a fight. The hungry eyes of the captors studied the women and Afam imagined the evil they plotted for later. It was at this moment that Afam realised that he had never seen a woman oyibo before. He wondered if they had their own women too. He figured just like there were male and female goats, cows, and pigs, there were probably women oyibo too. He passed the hatred of the men down to the women without hesitation.
Afam watched the eyes of these men that now strangely felt like brothers to him. He could see the fear in them and he could see that they were all willing one another to give up their pride. Afam told himself he wasn’t going to be the first. The black captor repeated the order. He spoke in Igbo because it was widely spoken amongst the eastern tribes. There was a tone of warning in his voice and it caused some of the men to run their fingers through the knot of their wrappers.
The whip came down hard on Afam’s back. He didn’t see it coming and that was why it hurt even more. The lash set his nerves on fire, forcing him to shake his body frantically hoping to ease the pain. Afam was the scapegoat and all the other men learnt from him very quickly. Before Afam could recover from the stroke, other men were already laying their clothes on the ground. The oyibo men erupted with laughter and their black companions joined them.
Afam had never felt so helpless and angry in his life. He watched the oyibo men inspect the private parts and buttocks of everyone, including the women. The feeling of the pale white hands on his amu sent his anger to places he didn’t even know existed within him. The stench of the oyibo turned his stomach. How could the gods put him in this situation after all he had been through? At this moment Afam cursed the gods and swore never to say a prayer again. Chibuzo heard Afam’s curses at the gods, which made him realise how different they were. While Chibuzo was looking for every reason to hold onto the gods and their every existence, Afam was looking for every reason to forsake and denounce them. This polarity between them somehow pulled him even closer to Afam. At that moment he didn’t say a word to Afam. They were shackled together; there would be more than enough time to talk on the boat.
The inspection was over but Afam’s anger did not cease. The oyibo man took away all their clothes. He needed them naked to stand a higher chance of surviving the voyage. He knew how hot and stuffy the slave deck could get and he had to protect his investment.
After the clothes were taken away, the slaves were marched into the ship with whips showing them their way in and around the deck. Afam had often imagined what it looked like inside these gigantic boats, now he was wishing he never got to find out. He had his eyes on one particular black man. He was short and skinny –Afam could count every one of his ribs. He knew this man was a real coward. A man like this knew nothing about fighting, he had never been to war. The fool could whip him now and laugh about it, but man-to-man Afam would take this man with one arm. His cowardice annoyed Afam. Just if the man would come within arm’s reach.
Afam followed the skinny man through the top deck. He allowed his eyes to sweep the place for an escape route. If he ever tried to run away he had to know where he was running to. Afam noticed the poles and white cloth that stood taller than seven men put together. He was amazed at how such a boat was built but he had other things to worry about. He noticed the steering wheel but didn’t know what it was or what it did. There were more oyibo people on deck. Most of them were dirty and had distinguishing features from long scars on their faces to missing eyes in their sockets. Afam noticed that almost all the oyibo were drinking something from small containers. He guessed it was some form of liquor. How could these men row this great boat with eyes blurred from liquor? At the thought of this Afam decided to make a headcount. There were less than twenty oyibo men on the big boat. He searched for the paddles for the great boat but he found nothing.
Before he could climb out of wondering how such a huge boat would be moved without enough men to paddle it or with no paddle at all, he was descending towards the lower deck, the deck that held more suffering than he had ever imagined. As they marched into the deck, making light thuds as their bare feet met the wooded boards, Afam began to hear sounds. He had to listen intently over the clinking of their chains to pick out the other sounds that crept up. It was a hundred curses, cries and moans all clumped into one disturbing sound that spelt suffering, pain, and agony. Afam tried to imagine what had been done to these people that had sent them into this frame of mind. He felt he had seen all the suffering in the world, if there was something worse than what he had been through, he wasn’t sure he could endure it. Afam thought of a painless way to take his own life but he came up with nothing. The truth was that even in the midst of all the pain and sorrow, Afam wanted to live for reasons unknown to him.
The captain, John Spooner, stood firmly on his bow legs, raising his heavy chest high like there was something he was trying to show off with pride. He watched the slaves descend to the lower deck with no expression on his face. This was not his first voyage but he sincerely hoped to make it his last. He knew the slave trade inside-out. There was much talk in England of the abolition of the trade. William Wilberforce, the stupid member of parliament, was working endlessly to destroy his business. Every time he introduced the bill for the abolition of the trade, Spooner would worry about his business collapsing. If there ever was a devil on earth Spooner was ready to stake his life on it being Wilberforce.
The price of slaves continued rising as sailors feared abolition. They were all trying to make the most of the trade while it lasted. Spooner personally believed that all the antislavery campaign Wilberforce was carrying out was a waste of time. The fool had introduced the bill year after year and had not received the required vote. Why wouldn’t he see the foolishness of his ways and perhaps invest in the slave market? Spooner tried not to think too much about it. He had a three-hundred-and-eighty-ton ship to sail from West Africa to Bristol. Liverpool was taking over as the leading port due to their ridiculous expansion of wealth thanks to the slave trade, but Spooner knew every man in the Bristol port and they knew him and Black Water, his ship. There was never a problem with Black Water’s cargo and the customs in Bristol.
It was no secret that Black Water had been illegally rigged for speed. She was a converted cargo ship. She had three masts and required the most skilful and experienced hands to sail her across the Atlantic. In other to maximise profit on voyages, Spooner had gone through the stress of dividing the carriage deck. What was formally an almost seven-foot-tall deck was now split into two roughly three-and-a-half-foot decks. Spooner being in the business was no stranger to the story of Zong. How silly for the captain to overload the ship like that. He got everything he deserved. Spooner even wished the ship had sunk before all the slaves were tossed overboard to salvage it.
Like most slave ship captains, Spooner was ruthless. He treated the slaves like complete scum. As far as he was concerned, they were nothing but merchandise. He never felt the need to change because it never occurred to him that he was doing anything wrong. The market needed a commodity, he simply satisfied demand; why should he not get paid for doing so? Even if he decided to chicken out like the weak captain, John Newton, what difference was that going to make? Newton was spending his life in the Church trying to repay God for the evil he had committed. That did not stop ships and more ships overloaded with slaves arrive at the ports of England. As far as Spooner was concerned, it was business as usual and he wasn’t ready to consider making any changes. He was going to get these niggers across the Atlantic and he was going to get paid for it. He screamed an order at his crewmen and they hurriedly began to get the ship ready to leave the African waters. On board were six hundred slaves, almost half of them would be overboard before docking in Bristol, but Spooner was in no doubt he would make a ridiculous profit. He counted his crewmen, eighteen of them including him. He prayed against slave rebellion and bad winds – the rest he could handle.
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