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, Chapter 18
Afam and Chibuzo were shelved in a tiny space that they would call home for the duration of the voyage. There was no room to sit up, much less move about. At the moment neither Afam nor Chibuzo felt sore, but they knew it was only a matter of time. There was a kind of darkness in the deck that reminded Afam of the pit. Now he was wishing he was back there. At least he could stand and walk around, and he didn’t have heavy chains weighing him down. But that was just the physical limitations. In the pit Afam still felt at home. Yes, he was a prisoner, but he was a prisoner in his own village. In this big boat he felt like he was in another world. There was nothing he could relate to in this place. He wondered if they had cocks on the boat that would tell him when it was morning. How often he would be fed and what he would be fed with? Did oyibo eat chicken and goat like Aboh people, or were they going to serve him human flesh to eat? He thought about praying but dismissed the thought even more quickly than it came. Afam’s mother used to tell him that everything that happened was willed by the gods. It was her way of saying that there was a heavenly reason for all their suffering. Afam used to believe it. Now he was thinking about it; if the gods truly existed and this was their will, they were not worth praying to. They were like bad fathers, undeserving of honour and respect. Just to get his point across, Afam cursed the gods under his breath again.
Chibuzo heard Afam mutter his curses at the gods and he prayed to the gods to forgive him. He had fears just like Afam, but he was better at controlling them. He tried not to wonder how long the voyage was going to last for he knew that it would only worsen his condition. He told himself to take it a day at a time. If this was the price for all his sins to be washed away then he was willing to pay. Afam heard Chibuzo stuttering and muttering his words. He wasn’t sure what language it was – it could have even been Edo – but from the tone he could tell it was a prayer. Afam didn’t challenge Chibuzo about his faith; if Chibuzo depended on prayers for strength, who was he to take it from him?
What worried Afam the most about Chibuzo was his inability to speak fluently. He must have been cursed or possessed. In Aboh every illness was seen as an attack by evil spirits; an incurable speech impediment was clearly a curse. Afam wanted to ask Chibuzo about this but he decided he would wait for Chibuzo to come out with it when he was ready. It was hurtful to a man’s pride to ask him about his scars for it seemed like you were pointing out his weakness in battle.
It took quite a while to settle all the slaves into the slave deck. Cries and screams in different tongues filled the air, some prayers, some curses at the oyibo, some were just names. Afam guessed people were calling the names of their loved ones who they were going to miss dearly. He thought about Adaobi and what had just happened. He wasn’t so sure about her love anymore. He had heard her weeping in the early hours of the morning, but maybe that was her shedding her love for him as she accepted his disappearance and embraced her future with the prince. He relived memories of nights he wished would last forever and he began to doubt if Adaobi had really turned her back on him. There was only one way to find out: Afam had to go back to Aboh and ask her with his own tongue. He wanted to look her in the eyes while she broke his heart. He dared to dream of the day this would happen but the rocking of the big boat told him he should have screamed goodbye when he had the chance, for now he belonged to Aboh no more. He was now of a land far, far away, a land that he did not know but would get to know in time. It didn’t matter if he accepted it or not, the moment the boat was towed out of Aboh waters, Aboh was his home no more.
Afam felt the big boat rocking unsteadily but yet moving ever forward. It was at this moment that he truly felt like he was living home and he was leaving his dear mother, Onu. He thought about her and tried to imagine what she would be going now. Would she give up on him like the parents of some kidnapped children did? Or would she hold on to the false hope that he was going to return someday? Afam knew Onu well enough to know that until she was blind she would look out on the walk path sun up till sun down, believing that one day he would come home. And even when age took her sight, she would sit outside and listen for his footsteps. He imagined her sitting and waiting for him with a cane in her hand when she could see no more and it brought warm tears to his face. These tears were not like the ones Afam shed for physical pain, these tears were pouring out straight from his heart. They were of pain, grief, regret, sorrow and heartache. Afam sobbed, not caring if Chibuzo was looking or listening. This was more pain that he could bottle up inside. He was going to let every teardrop out until he could cry no more.
At this point of the journey it was impossible to know that a time would come when home would barely even exist, when time would have crushed the strongest of memories into mere mirages in the distance. Physical and emotional scars were still both fresh and bleeding. In fact, they were still being inflicted in the minds of the slaves by the whips of the crewmen. Chibuzo wanted to do something to save Afam from the obvious pain he was going through but there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He just had to let Afam pour his heart out and hopefully after that, he would pull it together and embrace the horrors that lay ahead of them.
Afam tried to count how many men there were in chains before the decks were closed, shutting out the light. When he found that they were in hundreds, he counted the enemy. There weren’t so many of them. They were all armed, but even if they carried cannons in their pockets they didn’t have the manpower to take on the slaves in a battle. Afam was ready to fight should it come to it, but he wasn’t willing to strike the first blow. He had read the eyes of the men in chains and he had seen nothing but fear in them. There was no promise that they would follow in his footsteps if he led the way. He rightly advised himself to follow the flock.
The oyibo had archived his goal. He had made the slaves prisoners of their own fear. He had not only chained their arms and feet, he had chained their minds and there was no slavery worse than that of the mind. A man who cannot emancipate himself from mental slavery was like a man who had swallowed the keys to his own chains. The slaves in Black Water were hopeless. The Africans had more than what it took to kill every single one of the oyibo and steal their big boat, but they were blinded by fear and chose not to fight because they dreaded the scolding and whipping of the oyibo. Afam knew all these things but his knowledge was like a seed sown on rocky ground if no one else shared it with him. Perhaps he would discuss this with the others in due time, and somewhere along the way they would take the oyibo to war and claim his big boat.
These thoughts gave Afam some hope of freedom, but he knew better than to believe in them with all his heart. When he looked deeper into his mind he knew these were the kind of thoughts a man came up with to cover his absolute helplessness, to give him a reason to hold onto what life he had. This was not the first oyibo boat to leave the shores of Africa and it certainly would not be the last. That was a fact, and Afam knew it.
After the first hour Afam began to feel very stiff and his muscles complained for lack of movement. He tried to tense and relax them but that could only work for so long. At this point he began to fear cramps and he was truly realizing how little the space in the deck was. He tried to coordinate his movements with Chibuzo so no one was causing the other more pain than was needed.
The screams of curses and cries for help had begun to die down because the captives either lost their voices or realised that no one was coming to their rescue. Now there was only an occasional wail every so often. Hope was dying as the feeling of defeat spread through the deck like wild fire.
Afam’s eyes had adjusted as best they could to the darkness. It was impossible to visualise facial features in detail. He could just about make out figures in the shadows. From the looks of things this deck held only men. Afam wondered where the women were being held and if their conditions were this bad. Probably not, he guessed. The oyibo didn’t make them share shackles so he wouldn’t subject them to this kind of suffering. Afam tried to estimate the size of the room mentally to give him an idea of how many of them were being held here. There was no way of telling. This was just the first hour of the journey and Afam was breaking already. He told himself to put up a fight. It wasn’t about wanting to survive; it was about not giving the oyibo the satisfaction that he wanted. Afam refused to lose himself in the midst of all the suffering. If there was one man on this big boat who was going to see the light of day, Afam promised himself that man was going to be him.
Captain Spooner was doing the second best thing he did – drinking. This liquor was particularly strong, just how he liked it. No other crewman was permitted to drink as much as Spooner; he didn’t want them sinking his ship because they were too drunk to sail her. Of course they went behind his back and downed some rum. Most of the men aboard Spooner’s ship were debtors. The business of sailing slaves across the Atlantic was dangerous. There was no telling how the winds would turn out so there was no telling how long the voyage was going to take, and no telling if the food would last. But that was just the beginning of the many problems. There was the risk of disease, which inevitably broke out from the awful conditions. There was also the risk of slave rebellion. It was no news that slaves had thrown captains and crewmen into the water. It was indeed a very dangerous trade but at the end of the day, Spooner’s belief took him back to it; the market demanded a commodity and was willing to pay good money for it. Someone has to provide it, no matter how dangerous it seemed.
The winds were being kind to Black Water as she sailed peacefully through African waters trying to make her way to the Atlantic. Time seemed to fly as Spooner drowned more rum while cutting apples with his knife and watching his compass. If he were a less famous captain, the crew would have been worried about the accuracy with his readings. But not with Spooner, they knew they were as safe as they could be on his ship.
Afam’s body felt like one big lump of pain and discomfort in the deck. His muscles were still screaming for movement but that was not the only source of discomfort. The bad chicken he ate in the pit was now turning his stomach with pain. Some of the captives weren’t as strong as Afam when it came to bowel control and they had let loose a stench in the air. The smell of urine and faeces filled Afam’s nostrils, the mixture of the two adding to the upsetting of his bowels. He knew it was only a matter of time before he’d be letting go too. The thought of the filth irritated him and made him swear uncontrollably. He didn’t know how long they had been locked down here but it felt like a lifetime. He hadn’t exchanged words with Chibuzo and he was finding it hard to do that. Afam didn’t know what to say. He knew if he was going to survive this journey he would have to draw strength from somewhere beside himself.
When Afam’s stomach couldn’t hold it any longer, he gnashed his teeth and with little effort he freed his bowels and in that insanely relieving moment, he emptied his bladder too. Afam felt like a filthy pig, but it was his pride talking there. He hadn’t come to terms with the fact that he was barely a man anymore. He was more of an ox, a commodity with no right to dignity. He still believed he was a person, a brother, human. He still held onto the culture that he had been raised in, the values he had known all his life.
Chibuzo seemed to have learned from Afam because it took him just a few minutes to follow suit and relive himself of his discomfort. Both men didn’t look at each other for fear of the loss of pride they failed to realise was already gone the moment they were thrown into the hole in Aboh. The air grew increasingly hot and breathing became more of a struggle with time. Afam was soaked in sweat and his throat was calling out for a drop of water that wasn’t anywhere near. After emptying his bowels, hunger, too, was becoming a problem. He was now seriously contemplating taking his life. If his wrists were not fastened to the floor of his shelf he might have had a go at it. There was only one way to do it in his current position. He was going to refuse meals and starve himself to death. Afam promised himself to see this through. Death was the only way out of this nightmare and he had had enough of it.
From how intense the darkness had got, the captives assumed it was night-time. Soft light broke into the deck and footsteps sounded on the stairs that lead into it. Silence fell in the deck for a brief moment. Afam was able to tell there were about three men coming down the stairs from the sound of their footsteps. He wondered why the oyibo man had taken his time to pay them a visit.
The three crewmen all had a piece of cloth over their faces to battle the stench of the room. It was so strong with urine that it made their eyes water. They all carried a kerosene lantern in one hand, a pot of food in the other, and a wrench fastened to their waist by their belt. Spooner’s early experiences had taught him that slaves didn’t do as well when fed European food so he had taken to feeding them with yams. It took Spooner almost a week to secure about sixty thousand tubers of yam. He worried about the weight and often contemplated what was more valuable in the event of sinking, slaves or the tubers of yam. The slaves needed food to stay alive if they were going to be worth anything, but the slaves weighed a lot more than yams. Spooner came to the conclusion that he would throw away a few slaves and the estimated number of tubers they were going to be fed with if they remained.
The crewmen shared the food so that each slave got just about the half the size of a full-grown man’s fist. The copper cooking stove didn’t prepare the yam nearly as well as the Africans would have done in their homes but in their current state, most of them hungrily feasted on whatever they got before the pain of hunger could kill them. Afam kept on reassuring himself that he would have nothing to eat, but all that changed quicker than he could imagine.
A man not too far from Afam’s shelf was resisting and he learned the hard way that it was better not to argue with the oyibo. One of the men slapped him three times across the face with the wrench. Afam couldn’t see clearly but from the sounds, he could tell it was metal against bone. He could also make out blood spilling. Afam moved his jaw and tried to imagine the pain. The man was still putting up a fight but he didn’t have the strength to see it through. His jaw was held open and a thumbscrew was used to keep it that way as the oyibo force-fed him with the piece of yam. After that demonstration, Afam was willing to eat a whole tuber if they’d let him. He was a warrior and a hunter, he knew better than to try to put up a fight with his hands tied. His chance would come, he would be on equal grounds with these men and then he would rip their skulls apart with his bare hands. For now they were king and he was servant. And just to console himself he concluded that if there was going to be a resistance battle, he would be better off fighting with a full stomach. His turn came and with no objection or resistance he swallowed what he was given. Chibuzo did the same. They both agreed that it felt good to be relieved from the painful claws of hunger, at least for a moment.
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