What we Lost
malnourished skin was soft like the rind of a ripe mango. It
was a matter of survival; one of us had to die for the other
to live. With a weak shudder her body gave in to my choke
and I felt her last breath against my neck. I was chained to
her dead body.
Afterwards I felt eased. We were still shackled together but
I had more breathing space. Funkwa’s tortured soul had
tormented us both like a spirit stuck between the earth and
When the white
men arrived they spent a few merry evenings with baba and
mama, the king and queen of our village, drinking sap of
palm leaves and dancing to drums. On the fourth day, baba
asked me to join the white men on their mission. They needed
young people to help develop trading places that would
benefit our people. They had accumulated vast amounts of
gold from neighbouring villages, which we could use for the
task. When I questioned how we could use stolen gold without
consulting the ancestors, baba said not to worry. He and
mama would perform the ritual after our departure, the
ancestors would understand. I told him I would be concerned
about leaving him and mama, but again he said I shouldn’t
worry, they were too old to join us. I requested for my
husband Kori to join me, which baba allowed. ‘Follow the
white men,’ he said, ‘ and learn from them.’
At Badagry, by
the coast, I learnt that the gold was not for our towns.
There were three large vessels anchored to the shore. There
were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of us. Some faces were
unfamiliar. They were from the neighbouring villages. The
white men debated mixing us up, but decided eventually to
board us on to the ships, village by village. My villagers
and I boarded The
understood she was heading to a place called America.
We were at
least five hundred people in a room the size of the prayer
hut back home. As the days passed, I learnt to breathe
through my lips only. The heat was scalding and the stench
of human cadaver, urine and faeces was unbearable. I was
dehumanized. I prayed silently for the white men to at least
open the hatch and let in some fresh air. Eventually they
did, and we scrambled out like bees from a hive. Many of us
were manacled to dead bodies. Well on the deck I spotted my
husband from afar. His round cheeks had turned into hollow
sacks of skin into which his eyes floated, like pieces of
wood in a river. He was trying to say something with his
eyes. Before I could decipher his message, the man he was
attached to jumped into the amaranth sea. A woman whose
brother had been chained to Kori screamed.
A mixture of water and chlorine was poured over us to
disinfect us. The officers warned not to drink it. I gulped
down as much as I could. Afterwards, those dragging dead
slaves along were unchained. The dead bodies were thrown
into the sea whilst the rest of us were instructed to stand
in lines. We were probably about four hundred now. Our men
were scurried back into the berth, whips lashing heavily at
those who protested. We women were inspected from head to
toe like offerings to the gods.
I knew he would
pick me. Daughter to the God of iron, Osun, and Yemaya,
Goddess of the oceans, I had taken the least damage so far.
Storms were predicted and The Brookes had
to pause on her route to America. Our captain in command, Mr
Nicholas Owen, wanted company in the meantime.
I was first
served something they called potatoes. I liked them, but not
as much as yams. I eagerly drank the glass of water they
handed me. When Mr Owen mounted my body, I remained silent.
Even as he spat on me and called me a savage I did not utter
Perhaps it was
this indifference that enticed him to keep me. The journey
would be longer than expected, and he wanted undemanding
company. I certainly met this standard, but at times he
would raise his voice, wanting me to react. However, he was
after physical rather than intellectual stimulation so he
fed me to keep me fleshy. His was the biggest cabinet in the
ship. It had enough room for a bed, a couch and a dressing
table. Often I would sit by the dressing table inhaling the
scent of perfume and coffee, observing myself in his mirror.
This is what he sees, I would think.
coming weeks, as we made our way towards the North American
coast, Mr Owen and I followed a set routine. In the mornings
he would force himself on me. Sometimes my body would
respond. Breakfast was served at the same time every day. I
knew it was the same time because it felt like that in my
gut. Mr Owen knew the time for breakfast by looking at a
gold bracelet he wore around his left wrist. I spoke to Mr
Owen only once throughout our entire journey. This was to
ask how he could tell the time by looking at this bracelet.
I wanted to know if it had magical powers. He told me about
something, which he called technology, and which he said we
Africans were too stupid to construct. I corrected him, and
told him that money came before technology, and that we
didn’t believe in a lifestyle that depended on money. I told
him that time was one of the senses, not a science, and that
money could not buy senses. This was the only time Mr Owen
and I exchanged thoughts, and I felt grateful to have learnt
another way of measuring time. In the afternoons he often
left me in the room to my own thoughts. Time would pass
quickly, and by evening time when he returned from the
decks, I was normally asleep as he took me again.
In his absence
I thought about the others, I wondered who might have
survived. However, most of my thoughts were concentrated on
life back in the village. I thought of my marriage ceremony.
It was the first time I had met Kori. The elders had
selected us for each other. As daughter of iron, I was
destined to become a warrior. In our beliefs, a female
warrior is a rarity and can only marry a disciple. Kori was
the son of Shango, God of fire and thunder. Together we
would advise and protect our kingdom. On the day of our
ritual ceremony, there was thunder and lightning. The gods
had heard our prayers. I wore colourful beads, wrapped
intricately around my hips and shoulders. I noticed the
appreciation in my husband’s eyes. I too was pleased. Kori
was well built and dressed with thick gold chains and coral.
We stood in the centre of a ring, which had been formed
using precious stones and ashes from the previous night’s
sacrifices. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw my sister
Funkwa, crying out of joy.
Life with Kori
was everything I hoped for. As in most African villages at
the time, men and women lived separately. I lived with my
three grandmothers, my five mothers, and twelve sisters.
Mother Aina was my birth mother, but I was closest to mother
Asha. It was she who told me about the hut next to Alamo,
the tree of ancestors, to which I dragged my new husband on
the seventh day of our companionship. Our tradition was to
allow seven days to pass before union, so that the bond
could first be on character. I understood that night why the
elders had chosen Kori for me. We giggled so much the leaves
got angry. We returned home at sunrise, before the big
animals came out from hiding.
It is now
thirty-six days since Kori died. I’ve been counting the
dusks and the dawns. At times I wake up laughing. This is
when I am with Kori, in the world of ancestors. Mostly,
however, I wake up shivering. This is when I am with him,
Mr. Owen. This is when I can feel his putrid breath
overtaking the room as he snores.
At dusk on the
thirty-seventh day of Kori’s death, Mr. Owen tells me to
leave. ‘Get out,’ he shouts. ‘We have reached our
destination.’ His men rip his robe off me. They chain my
wrists and ankles, and they drag me on to the decks.
Barely half of
my family is alive. Those who are alive are emaciated,
suffering from dysentery. I touch the knot developing in my
throat. Baba will not rest in peace.
Upon seeing me,
there is a brief expression of respect in their eyes. With
me around they feel safe, they still have some godly
protection. I make a promise that as long as I’m alive, we
will never forget where we came from, or our learnings from
the land which God borrowed us. We will embrace the new
lands and its
ancestors, and we will continue to learn, acquire and
contribute to wisdom.