LET ME TELL THIS STORY- A memoir
I know there are azure skies not touched and stories not told. Today I seek to rewrite history and perhaps have a feel of the worn out flesh of a sepia past.
Doors slam. I am carton-packed in the front with a youth corper. A girl behind tries vainly to show off her singing prowess to the people in the car. Her hoarse voice won’t let her. I sneer and laugh at her in my mind. The music continues blaring unperturbed from the stereo in the car. We are travelers with different destinations in mind and the determinant of how soon we will arrive all revolves round the axiom of time and the happenings we encounter in our paths. A pot hole. It jolts us out of our thoughts. A narrow swerve-we barely avoid hitting another vehicle. My heart thumps. I don’t want to die yet, not now, not soon, not later, but at ninety. Good ol’ ninety. But death is a sadist. It never pays particular attention to our desires.
We soon begin to enter the country side. No, there aren’t country sides in Africa. We have villages. Yes, we soon begin to go deep into the hinterland of the rain forest. Trees. Grass coated with dusts. School children outside the school walls engage in manual labour as we used to call it. A crowd of cyclists gather in a filling station. “It’s Udom. He has given them free fuel as his campaign.” The driver says and taps the steering wheel. I see them clearly now, drenched in unfulfilled promises and dripping with nothingness.
I have pin and needles in my feet due to my cramped position. I call for the driver to halt so I can stretch my legs but he only mumbles a half-hearted sorry and drives on. “Shift closer to that corper,” he says. “But there’s no leg room here,” Corper replies and adjusts vainly to prove his point.
Ete. Someone drops there and the corper much to my relief goes over to the back seat. I am more comfortable now and rest my aching back on the seat. The car races on and I imagine myself on a power bike driving on rugged terrains and rocky roads. My locks will flap wildly in the wind. I will be dressed in black like a hero in some Hollywood action thriller. Arms well muscled and abs well toned, I will hold on to dear bike as I drive madly. Woman you are powerful, I beam.
We get into the heart of Ikot Abasi and my dear I want to scream in joy. The town smells of history and holds the link between us and the sweet bitter past.
Slave trade: 1790
They came here clad in coats with caravan of mirrors, whisky, hats, suits and trousers. Yes, and of course with a Bible. They came in ships. It was a wonder and in the flowing water of the Atlantic, their ship stood resilient amongst our canoes and boats “Let us pray,” they said. Chiefs decked in cowries and precious stones and beautiful fabrics opened their eyes with the people forming a wall behind them. We stared confused at them. There was no interpreter so we couldn’t understand what they said. We were filled with awe at these people that had skin coloured like piglets and who appeared to speak from the nose. One chief moved closer to them gingerly. He touched them and moved close to inspect their ships. Guns. Binoculars. And all strange objects filled the floor of the ship. He turned and held their hair, it ran through his fingers like silk, fine thread like he had never seen. He stretched his hands and spoke to us, “There are gods let’s worship them.” He said.
“Mme mfia owo,” we chorused feverishly.
“Prepare the finest huts in the palace. Food. The best palm wine,” he said excitedly. “Hurry!” He bellowed.
And we scurried away.
“Come,” Chief beckoned beaming and they followed him smiling among themselves.
That evening after the brouhaha of seeing white men had died, the chief and the other chiefs had a meeting with the white men in the inner chambers. They never understood one another because of the barrier in their dialects, so they mimed with gestures of fingers, nods, stamping of feet, clapping of hands. The white men brought out the things they came with.
“All these will be yours and many more if you cooperate,” the white men mimed.
(“All these are gifts for you from our people,” that’s what our chiefs heard)
“It is called slave trade. You know you blacks have an unequal strength and unmatched stamina, so if you give your people to us, we will train them in our plantations and in turn return them to your lands to develop it,”
(It is called trade by barter. Lease them out for us and we will give you many gifts in return. And later we will return them to you equipped with our knowledge.)
“But what if they don’t want to come with you?” Our chiefs mimed back.
“Ha! Then we will have to put them in chains and in bunks so they won’t escape. Don’t you want to be rich?”
(You will tell your people to build bunks for us and warehouses. We will supervise the constructions and we will pay you.)
“How do we get these people for you?” The chiefs mimed again.
“You will mobilise strong men to do this for us. We need the best of your men and women.”
(You will get people to do this for us. We are partners now)
“Let us pray,”They white men mimed and bowed their heads in prayer. The chiefs ignorantly followed suit and when they opened their eyes, the land was gone with the best people in it.
They loaded the captured slaves on their ships and left. They chiefs stood on the river banks and waved until the ship faded into the horizon.
Three of the white men had stayed behind to supervise the building of the slave bunk, warehouse and the weigh house.
We turn into the park and I alight from the car, trying to inhale the air of Ikot Abasi as much as I can. I walk into a spiralling lane flanked by tall pine trees and hibiscus flowers. There are lots of old gray buildings, red bricked and with roofs the colour of the earth. Something white like liquid pearls dances in the distance. I walk fast towards it and there was the……
1790: BRIDGE OF NO RETURN
The slave bunk was just below it. It was like a squared hole in the ground built with concrete. It stood on the water. Many of us were flogged and put in here. We had chains on our feets, hands, and neck. They feared to give us water and food so we will not have the strength to escape. And when we were fed, it was so little that the worms in our stomachs barely had enough to nibble at. This was where the ready to be shipped slaves were put in. 150 slaves were stored here. Some of us fainted but was revived by the cries of the others. While the sun shone, our souls were darkened and when night came we knew dawn will never come.
When the ships arrived; mothers, fathers, siblings, husbands and wives were separated. And as we matched with our clinking shackles on the iron floor of the bridge, we were not allowed to look back. With our chains clinking against each other, we sang in moans the songs of freedom, of bondage, of suffering and of death. We cried. They flogged. Urging us to walk faster. When one reached the edge of the bridge, you needed no telling to let you know that the end had come. When the ship left, we had no loved ones to bid us farewell, there we realised that our walk home was just beginning. Will we get home? Are we ever going to find home? Stranger.
When one was not in the slaves bunk, he was in the weigh house, hung on an iron bar with a dropping sickle. When the bar was pulled, it lifted the slave and put him on a scale, where it was decided where he was fit for- as a breeding stock or a plantation worker. After that, a slave was taken to the warehouse where he was branded with a hot iron, glowing devilish with amber glitters. The branding was done on his chest or on the shoulders. It would always be the inscribed name of his owners or the land he will be taken to. We could not read their dialect, so we never knew.
When they were done, you were bundled into the warehouse and locked up. The pains never made me cry. I always cried because I was called a slave in my own land, already before I will be taken into the ships. I ceased being a human the day I was captured. I became an object to be tagged, branded, bargained and haggled over like a piece of meat on a butcher’s stand.
The ships have come. Goodbye homeland.
I touch the walls of the bunks. I touch it steps. I run my hand on the railings of the bridge of no return. I walk barefeet on the bridge, trying to imagine myself there, flogged, raped, in chains, hungry and weak as I am loaded onto the ship. And me holding the branding metal was a torture on its own. Blood flowing. Shouts. Cries. Tears. My fluid flowing on my tired naked body.
That one came after the dust of slavery had settled. I heard our people carried him on their shoulders around the town. They said he was sent from England to oversee the south of the Niger. What’s that? What’s Niger? Perhaps this white people are mistaking us for another people. We are Ibibios and he is in the land of the Ibibios, Ikot Abasi precisely. And when they put him down he pointed and said, “There will I build my office and house.”
The house made from wood stood proudly on the lush grass. Some of the doors and windows were hanging loosely on their hinges and most of them had fallen apart. His office still had his chairs, suit hanger, the radio, microphone, transistor, his table, alarm money box, and his basin. I enter it proudly and stomp my feet furiously on the wooden floor. Unlike the others before me, I did not greet or make any formal preliminaries. He was no more there except his shadow which hangs loosely above us. But like other stories, this history will not be told without him lacking. The story of independent kingdoms thriving beautifully until the conquest of slavery and colonialism took hold of them and forced them to be sorry puppets made to behave the way their masters wanted. They weren’t our masters, we gave them that power and when we failed to realize it, they used it to their advantage.
A little distance from the house is Lord Lugard’s district officers house and the large hall were the messengers, clerks, and cleaners stayed.
Opposite there is the mock grave erected in memory of the Aba Women Riot of 1929. There, heroes fell slained from the ricocheting bullets of the colonisers gun. They had gone on a protest about the ridiculous high taxes they paid and the unfair treatment meted out to them by their kinsmen who were appointed as warrant chiefs. Adiaha Ayanti, the great mother of Udo Udoma was there amongst some other great women. They sang war songs and matched relentlessly to the office of the governor general. Some of the women had come from nearby Aba, Azumini, Arochukwu, Ikot Ekpene and the rest from Ikot Abasi. They broke records and stood tall upholding the strength of womanhood and the pride of feminity, at a time when men tucked their manhood between their loin clothes out of fear. I think this was why the adage ‘behind every successful man is a strong woman’ was gotten from.
Aba women riot: 1929
Beautiful brown and black skin women marching with leaves and their Afros defying gravity. They March boldly into barricaded whites quarters. They slap a police man who tries to stop them. One of the women unties her wrapper as she matches towards a white man who is flogging a native man. The man’s coins are flung onto the brown earth. She spits on the white man’s face and when he tries to raise his hand, the other women walk menancingly towards him. He recoils in fright and runs towards a group of police men for cover but they too are afraid and disperse in opposite directions.
One woman hums a song. One voice rises singing it. The others gradually join and they are now war canons shooting melodies. They sing fiercely as they match into Ikot Abasi the colonial headquarters. They go past the governor general’s office. The man sees them and quickly ducks under the table for cover as he expects the unexpected. When he is sure his danger has passed, he rushes outside to call a police man but not one is in sight. He makes a distress phone call to their office in Aba but the lines are ringing without a response.
The war songs are getting stronger and often punctuated with heated ululation. A police van drives and stops in front of his office.
“Where are the others?” He nasals.
“Not found Sir,” A policeman in shorts reply.
“Don’t be silly corporal Dickson. I know you all are hiding from those women. Look they can’t be stopped. Arm yourselves with guns and shoot them. If they die, they die and if they run, then fine. Understood.”
The police men salute and thunder, “Yes Sir,”
The police men go into the quarters to call their hiding colleagues and tell them the governor’s orders. Soon, they arrive the spot where the women are gathered protesting. They fire a shot into the air but the women don’t bulge. Angry at their tactic not working, the move gingerly towards them and fire into the crowd of women. A few run for cover but a greater number of the women stay there still protesting, singing and ululating before falling slain onto the earth. As life ebbs out of them, their voices get weaker before they are eventually silenced by death. They died standing.
This is the last place of my travel and out of respect, I kneel before the grave, bowing before the sands and pebbles which their blood had spilled on. A few tear drops slid down as I say, May you live on great women and powerful forebears who lighted the torches of woman strength and may this voice you roared never be silenced. Ase.
The red sienna pulls out of the park on its city bound journey. My tour guide is waving at me from a distance. ‘Come again,” she whispers. I can see her tearing from the distance and I wipe my eyes, trying to smile between the tears, trying to say it does not matter, trying to lie that I will call again but instead of words, warm air escapes my mouth and I close my eyes to merge into this past and the formless future taking shape.
Above me are flurry skies and the burning crimson sun and I wonder the colour of the sky when the slaves and the 1929 women looked up. Blue? Black? Brown? Or red like their dropped blood.
May we live even when our bloods are dried.
Adiaha Ekomobong is a travel writer. She is in between the lines of hot and cold. When she’s not day dreaming of far away lands, she’s in parks going to strange lands. You can follow her on Instagram @asahafrica