Days passed and took with them the last of Afam’s hope. At this point he truly believed that death was the only way out. The suffering he felt stretched seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, and hours into lifetimes. He was too weak to speak and so was Chibuzo. But really they didn’t need to speak to tell themselves how they felt. The hopelessness was evident through the entire deck. It was only a few weeks but it looked like they had both aged at least five years. Afam had lost so much weight it was hard to imagine the lean skeleton he now was used to be a muscular warrior. His eye bulged out of their sockets and his ribcage jacked out of his chest. Scurvy had eaten into his gums making eating the lumps of yam more pain than pleasure. Afam knew this was his last phase. He was about to go into fixed melancholy, and he knew there was no way out of it once that happened.
The captives were now spending more time on the upper deck than usual. Captain Spooner had done the maths to realise that keeping the slaves under was only going to get more of them killed. Spooner himself wasn’t feeling too well either. He was constantly weak, and fevers came and went. He promised himself to carry a doctor aboard on his next voyage if he would be taking another. It was particularly hard to find a doctor willing to accompany a merchant on a slave-shipping journey. And the few that reluctantly accepted to go asked for the most ridiculous sums of money. Captain Spooner in his usual way, which was putting the money before even his own life, found doctors a luxury he couldn’t afford to indulge in. But with each wave of fever and pain he wished he had reconsidered his stance.
Afam was sat on the upper deck asking death mercifully to take him away from here. At this stage he barely thought about home. He had realised not just that he was far away, but that he wasn’t going back either. Death was the only thing on his mind. He watched Captain Spooner peer into the little round thing he carried in his pocket. Captain Spooner always peered into the object; sometimes he’d ask the crewmen to change course, other times he’d ask them to continue on the course.
This time he looked through the silver pipe and Afam noticed a smile on his face. It wasn’t any normal smile; it was a smile that carried a sense of both victory and relief. Could it be that through the shiny pipe Captain Spooner could possess the vision of hawk? Afam felt a wave of hope sweep through him and it surprised him to know that somewhere in his mind he still wanted to live. Then he asked himself if the hope was for life, or for the end of his suffering. Perhaps if he discovered that a painless death awaited him the same hope would sweep through him.
Captain Spooner passed orders to the crewmen and the ship seemed to move faster. Afam noticed the smile on the faces of the crewmen; he could tell they were close to home. It saddened Afam to know that for the rest of his life he’d be living with men that he couldn’t even understand. In truth Afam didn’t even know where home was anymore. Just because he didn’t accept the white man’s land to be his home didn’t mean that it wasn’t. ‘Obi di n’uno,’ was a saying that translated to home being where the heart is. Without question, Afam’s heart was in Aboh, but he’d have to find one in the oyibo’s land if he was ever going to know peace with himself. At this point he thought about the fact that this land was going to be home to him soon. Perhaps he, too, should be wearing a smile.
The ship slowly returned to its normal pace and then it began to slow down. The crewmen were hard at work now. Not one man was unoccupied. Afam noticed the large sails moving and he felt the ship turning. The sun was going down, painting the sky a mixture of purple and red that Afam would have appreciated if he looked out with unchained wrists and unshackled ankles. He looked far ahead and he saw birds soaring in the evening sky. He saw the large sails of other ships. And then he saw the land. He drew in a deep breath – the voyage was finally over. There was no telling what awaited him on the shores of this strange land, but anything but this endless cycle of suffering at sea would do. Afam could not imagine anything worse than the voyage. If conditions depreciated any further he wouldn’t be alive to witness it. He wasn’t just standing on the thin line between life and death, he was leaning closer to death. The slightest push would have caused him to crossover to the other side.
Afam studied the faces of the other slaves. He wasn’t sure what he saw. Every man on this ship in chains had been broken one way or the other. This voyage had changed their lives in a way that was impossible to restore. It had taken everything from them and left a hole in their souls. A home-shaped hole. Their spirits were drained of all the happiness they ever knew, their eyes dead with not even a twinkle of hope. Fear had destroyed whatever courage these men had in them. As Afam could see all these things in their eyes, he was sure they saw the same in his. After all, he felt their pain through their shared experiences. They all saw the world through each other’s eyes.
Afam felt like he had lost himself somewhere along the way. He wasn’t sure if it was the very moment he started falling in love with Adaobi. That was very foolish of him. Or was it the moment he was thrown into that pit in Aboh? Maybe it was the moment the big boat left the shores of Aboh. Perhaps it was somewhere in the vast blueness of the waters he had sailed across. The only thing he was sure of was that he was no longer the person he used to be. Afam liked to tell himself that he was still the same man inside, that it was just the conditions around him that were different. But when he looked deep into his mind he felt like a stranger in his own body. No strength, no hope, no love – he couldn’t even find hatred. He felt so empty. He told himself that he had to start rebuilding. He had to find himself again. Of all the things one could lose, one’s own self was the worst. Losing yourself was not very different from being dead. To him the only difference was that death was final. He still had a chance to come back.
The ship drew closer to port, allowing Afam to get a closer look at the world he had been brought to. He could see a lot of oyibo men walking around. He thought about their funny smell and the fact that he had to live with it for the rest of his natural life. He remembered wondering why they covered so much of their body in cloth. The cold at sea had told him why but he thought it was just the sea that was chilly. Now he could tell that the oyibo man lived in a very cold land as well. Afam curled up in a corner praying for a miracle to save his freezing feet and fingers. The cold had bitten so much into his lip that he couldn’t even articulate his words properly. He hoped the oyibo would be kind enough to at least offer a blanket once they were on the land.
He remembered thinking the white men fell from the sun. Now he saw that his home was closer to the sun than where these foul smelling white men had come from. So far Afam had still not seen any of their women. He wondered if he was going to find them attractive or repellent. He had seen some of the crewmen naked. He found their amu was somewhat smaller than that of his African brothers. He wondered if their women would have enormous breasts and buttocks like many women back home. He just had to wait and see for himself. For now, the only thing he was sure of was that no oyibo woman would ever be as beautiful as Adaobi.
The anchors fell hard to the floor of the sea, rocking the ship unsteadily for a moment. Afam couldn’t see how exactly the men got the ship to dock, but within a few minutes that involved a lot of screaming from Captain Spooner, the ship had come to a halt. Captain Spooner seemed to have recovered from his illness all of a sudden. He was full of energy, his eyes lit with triumph and happiness.
The dreadful sound of the whip that all the captives were now very familiar with filled the deck again. First there was the whistling sound as the whip cut through air, then the lash as it fell on the deck’s wooden floor. The sound represented pain, driving the captives’ memories to times of anguish. At the sound of the whip, all the men, women, and children that had been lucky enough to make it this far stood alert, waiting for the oyibo to give the orders.
Firstly they were showered. The feeling of the hard brush bristles against healing bruises sent currents of pain around the body. In the cold weather the feeling of chilled water on the skin made the experience all the worse. After being washed, the slaves were put in some ragged clothes then made to wait. One of the crewmen came around with a bunch of keys. He went from slave to slave, unlocking the shackles and freeing their wrists.
The moment the chains fell off Afam’s wrists he felt so light the weight of his own hands seemed alien to him. He had become so used to the weight that without them he felt like something was missing. He held the chains close to himself without even knowing. Even when they were asked to stand he still had them in his hands, as did majority of the slaves. It was hard to let go of something that had become part of you for so long. The oyibo had to ask them to leave the chains behind by gesturing.
Captain Spooner took a head count of his merchandise, calculating his possible profit while he was at it. He had a warehouse in the port in Bristol where he would be storing his goods for a week or two so that they could appreciate in value. The plan was to feed them well and oil their skin in this time. Slave selling was mostly by auction. If he wanted some good money for his niggers, he had to make sure they looked tempting enough for a fierce bidding war. Captain Spooner also needed to get better himself. He was going to do a lot of talking at the auction. If he looked hungry and desperate there was a high chance the buyers would stall, hoping he’d be willing to settle for less than his merchandise was really worth. He had gone through a lot to get these goods to England. He wasn’t going to settle for peanuts as payment.
Afam and the other slaves were escorted out of the ship and through the docks until they got to the warehouse. It was a very small building but it was better than the holding deck of the ship. The men didn’t stop treating them like they were animals but Afam wasn’t complaining so much anymore. They were all shoved into the room and locked up. Afam thought of this place as a pen, just with humans in place of goats or sheep. He took to looking for Chibuzo for some company. Hunger pounded him as he made his way around the room in his search. He found Chibuzo slumped against the wall. Afam sat next to him but couldn’t find the words to start a conversation.
As both men searched their hearts for words, the door swung open and more food and water than the slaves could ever imagine began to go around. It was unbelievable how much joy the food brought. They had suffered so much that what would be seen to be normal now seemed extraordinary. To the slaves, normal were a lump of yam and two or three gulps of water. Some beans and maize if they were lucky. They ate everything they were given, even the foods they didn’t recognise. No one thought of where they were going to go from here. No one questioned where the food was coming from, or why all of a sudden the oyibo had decided to be a good to them. They all ate fast with very much joy. Afam was disgusted at the ease it took in pleasing his fellow Africans. He was ashamed for them because he knew that this was not going to last forever. There was nothing to be happy about.
When light turned to darkness the slaves were supplied with blankets and more food. Afam appreciated the fact that the oyibo cared about their wellbeing, but he was very sure there were ulterior motives behind the white man’s sudden kindness.
That night Afam slept next to Chibuzo and when their stomachs were full and some of their strength had returned, they found all the words and gestures they were looking for to hold a conversation. Afam realised that a lot of the other slaves had picked best friends just like him. He could see them talking in groups and he wondered what they talked about. Were they talking about how they really felt at the moment, or were they dwelling on memories of the home they were never going to see again? Afam thought he overheard one of them say something about two wives and eight children. The man must have been talking about home. Afam thought it was most foolish of anyone to think about home at this point. Maybe it was because he was wise enough to know that this was their new home, or maybe it was because he had very little of a home when he was in Aboh. He was after all an osu, an unwanted stranger in his own village. It made him feel strangely better to know that all the Africans were given the same treatment here. The oyibo couldn’t care less who was osu and who was Obi. Every black man was a slave and was treated like one.
He talked to Chibuzo about his plans for forgetting all about home. Chibuzo, who had very little to call home in Africa, wasn’t planning on holding onto the past either. But when Chibuzo fell asleep, Afam questioned himself. Could he really and truly forget Onu? She was his mother. And what about Adaobi, his lover? He could deceive Chibuzo, but he couldn’t deceive himself.