Equiano’s Travels

Equiano

Sometimes, we need to be shocked into understanding the scourge of slavery. William Wilberforce, the Yorkshire parliamentarian was good at this. While advocating for the abolition of slavery, he organised trips for other parliamentarians into ships designed solely for the trading of slaves. The stench of death usually hung heavy in the air and in most cases, these elites joined the abolitionists in their noble cause. In recent times, we have been ushered into the vicious world of slavery by the movie 12 years a slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s account of, well, his 12 years as a slave. It is a fact that motion pictures have been used quite efficiently to remind us of the scourge of slavery. Movies such as Amistad, Amazing Grace and the less dramatic Abraham Lincoln bring to the fore the plight of slaves and the horrors endured by those who clamoured for its abolition. However, there was a time when the pleasure of motion pictures was unheard of. In its stead, literature was used to paint the ravages of slavery to a most desired effect-shock the reader into action. Books such as Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave (the one who quipped”I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong’), Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African are but a few of these. I recently came across an edited and abridged version of the latter. Despite finding some of the details overwhelming (a fact which the author acknowledges), I could understand why it was essential in the fight against slavery.

Equiano begins by narrating about his early life in Eboe, Africa. He was the son of a Chief and thus highly regarded in the community. Nonetheless, this did not deter his kidnapers from nabbing him and selling him. It is worth noting that ownership of another human being i.e. slavery was practised in that part of Africa as well. However, slaves were treated humanely. This we find true through Equiano’s own admission…

‘…the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty’

Equiano also offers the reader a glimpse, quite humorously too, of the culture shock that accosted him upon encountering the ways of the white man e.g. portrait paintings or the outpourings of a temperate climate. He articulates them as thus:

‘…when I immediately after observed a picture hanging in the room which appeared constantly to look at me, I was still more affrighted having never seen such things as these before. At one time I thought it was something relative to magic, and not seeing it move, I thought it might be some way the whites had to keep their great men when they died and offer them libation as we used to do to our friendly spirits.’

‘One morning when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell overnight: as I had never seen anything of the kind before, I thought it was salt, so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck.’

The buying and selling of slaves takes Equiano from one master to another. In between, there is much sailing. It is accounts of these that take the lion’s share in Equiano’s narratives. Eventually Equiano was able to buy his own freedom. Understandably, he was very much glad to be free. However, this freedom was under constant threat owing to assaults from those who believed that freedom for the slave was abominable.

While Equiano’s narrative offers an easy to read insight into slavery, it is Professor’s Ogude introduction to the new edition published by Heinemann, African Writers Series, which is chilling. The good professor gives several accounts which when read in between the lines reveal the then prevailing attitude of the European towards the African.

For instance, a report of a certain Captain Kingston with pirates at sea which was published in the London Weekly Journal, 24th June 1721, read as thus:

They fired at me being pyrates, one a ship of 36 guns, 250 men and 50 negroes, the other a brigantine of 18 guns, 46 men and 20 negroes.’

Do you see it? I did not at first but note the clear distinction between ‘negroes’ and ‘men’.

It does not stop there. Suspicion over the intellectual ability of the African permeated even the highest office in America. Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of the United States of America, to whom Americans-and the whole world-owe those famous words in the Declaration of Independence; we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; even he, Thomas Jefferson, doubted the African’s intellect. He noted that the ‘unfortunate difference in colour, and perhaps faculty, is a powerful obstacle to emancipation’ and explained it as thus:

Among the Romans, emancipation required but one effort. The slaves when made free might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us, a second is necessary unknown to history. When freed, he is removed beyond the reach of mixture.1

Wait. There’s more. It was this narrative that led to the founding of Liberia and consequently, the dumping of the first group of freed Negroes therein. Ironically, it was around the same time when America was encouraging emigration from Europe.

This ambivalent attitude towards the slave was to be found even in church. Professor Ogude notes that the church was anxious to win black souls for heaven but cared little for the tired body of the plantation slave. He narrates the story of a colonel Codrington’s bequest of a large estate to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on condition that 300 Negroes be constantly employed to look after the estate2. And like the cattle and horses on the estate of Sir James Lowther3, the slaves were to be branded with the acronym of the society.

It is accounts such as these that should make us not only frown upon the remotest semblance of modern slavery, but also expose them, bring its perpetrators to book, condemn slavery in the strongest terms known in the human language and give dignity to its victims.

 

  1. Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia In The Pocket Thomas Jefferson ed. Merrill D. Peterson, P. 196.
  2. The Letters of Horace Walpole, III. 249.
  3. Peter Hogg, Slavery: The Afro-America Experience (1979) pp40-41. An informative and valuable monograph on the African slave trade
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Madness: A Refuge From The World

rege

He should have turned a deaf ear to Rege’s outrageous plan. Now there was no turning back. The wind howled incessantly and the dark clouds gathered.

The old man’s misgivings rang loudly in Irunya’s ear: “This trip won’t end well; the spirits are in a foul mood.” Rege had dismissed him —old men’s tales, he said.

Rege’s flippant ways had always enthralled Irunya for Irunya, himself had a serious outlook on life. He believed in education; believed it to be the key to success. Thus it was no wonder that he was the first in Shagala village to go all the way to the university; a feat that earned him a seat among the elders; a position that made the girls in the village take notice.

Even though he had every intention of marrying his long time fiancé, he had not the money to finance a wedding. He put off such ambitions in the hope that in due time he would land that plump job. This never came. He was turned down on many occasions. Overqualified, they said. Besides, most employers preferred diploma holders as they could pay them less and were perceived to hang around longer.

Hence, two years after graduating, Irunya was still jobless. On the other hand, Rege, his high school buddy, lived up to the appellation of the village drunkard. He could be seen staggering around the shopping centre singing patriotic songs or when he felt pious, old spirituals that his grandmother taught him when he was young. The girls loved him, as did their mothers.

A minute spent with Rege made one forget the myriad problems of Shagala village. Rege’s philosophy was simple: Drink hard, laugh loud. Life is hard enough as it is, why make it harder by being sullen? He seemed to hold it all together. But men spoke ill of him.

It wasn’t right for a man of 30 to be still living on his parents homestead. Rege could care less. He was assured of a hot meal after his drinking sprees. That was all that mattered.

Irunya lived a life of quiet desperation, Rege one of open dissipation. Alcohol became the medium through which they drowned their sorrows.

Mama Pima opened early on that insipid Sunday morning. Inside her thatched hut, strands of soot dangled freely; a solitary window faced away from the rising sun and smoke hung heavily in the air.

Irunya and Rege sat contemplating two tumblers filled halfway with a clear liquid, then quickly knocked back the contents and asked that they be refilled. An old radio on an old cupboard belted out an old sleazy song. Perhaps because it was the Lord’s Day, Rege changed the station to BBC.

Sometimes, Rege liked to view himself as the village intellectual hence once in a while he listened to international news. He also kept a map of the world in his back pocket. This he would fish out to explain certain phenomena about far flung countries to persons who had never stepped outside Shagala village. It was the top of the hour and the day’s news was read in a plummy British accent.

“This is BBC news. Dozens of African migrants are feared to have drowned after a boat they were sailing in capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, 100 kilometres south of the island of Lampedusa, off the Italian coast. The Italian Coast Guard said that around 200 people had been rescued by two commercial vessels operating in the area, but with many other people still missing, there were fears that the death toll “would rise significantly…”

Irunya folded his hands and leaned against the earthen wall in anticipation of Rege’s humorous mimicry of the British reporter.

Instead, all he got was silence. Rege’s eyes were watery and before he could help it, a tear streamed down his left cheek. Irunya was taken aback. He had never seen this pensive side of Rege before. He thought of putting his arm around his shoulder but stopped himself. The look on Rege’s face said it all. He had seen it before. He saw it every morning in his cracked mirror. It was the look of a man whose failures had caught up with him.

Somehow, news of illegal immigrants seeking a fresh start in Europe had removed the blinkers that veiled Rege’s eyes from the harsh realities of life. In that very moment he viewed himself as the village men did — the dregs of Shagala. Nonetheless, this moment of despair was short-lived. In a sudden rush of energy, Rege got down on his knees, fished out his old world map and spread it on the damp earthen floor.

His index finger on Kenya, he traced his way up into South Sudan, Sudan, Libya, paused on its coastline, crossed the Mediterranean Sea and tapped twice on Malta Island: all the while muttering softly. He then lifted his eyes to meet Irunya’s. A loud silence punctuated by joyful noises from a nearby church engulfed Mama Pima’s. It was Rege who spoke first.

“Let’s head out to Italy”

Irunya kept silent. He could not make out clearly whether this was one of many Rege’s shots at Hollywood or he was actually serious. The expression in Rege’s eyes convinced him it was the latter.

“You are mad”

Rege kept silent. A book by Doris Lessing he had read a few years back came to him. He quoted it verbatim.

“But then, what is madness but a refuge, a retreating from the world?”

Irunya was shaken to the core. At that moment, a bond beyond friendship was forged between Irunya and Rege; the kind that is common between friends who have been drinking together a long time and is made stronger by a common thread of desperation.

Land was sold; officials bribed; Passports and visas obtained, and tickets for two to Tripoli booked. Soon, Irunya and Rege stood on the Libyan shores waiting for the boat that would smuggle them into Malta. Azizi, a short, stout man who walked with a limp and had an insatiable greed for money, was their man.

Another old man stood nearby. He alternated between looking up at the skies and casting a far-reaching gaze into the sea, shaking his head in between. This ritual was sustained until Irunya dared to strike up a conversation. In retrospect, he wished he hadn’t.

The old man gave voice to his foreboding. It was this that Irunya recalled while aboard the rickety boat. The dark clouds, fierce winds and the raging sea lent credence to the old man’s warnings. As the boat rocked violently, Irunya eyed Rege for that dose of good humour that he needed so badly. He found none.

Rege gazed at a wave fast gaining momentum. It seemed he had resigned himself to fate and waited for Mother Nature to do her worst. Irunya drew nearer. If this was it, his final journey in this desolate earth, it was to be a noble one. He flung his arm around Rege giving him a brotherly pat. A rueful smile formed on Rege’s lips. It seemed to ask, “What is madness…

NB: This short story was first published in The East African, a newspaper by Nation Media Group which seeks to promote a greater understanding of the member countries in the East African Community. To submit a short story therein send a previously unpublished 1200-word fictional short story to eastafrican@ke.nationmedia.com with ‘Magazine Short Story’ as the subject. 

 

The Beautyful Ones Are Not yet Born

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What’s in a name? Ayi Kwei Armah thinks not much. It is probably for this reason why he doesn’t bother giving a name to the protagonist. He is simply introduced to the reader as the man. Corruption, integrity, poverty, and inequality are the themes woven in this story. Armah does not waste time beating about the bush. In the first pages, the stench of corruption rises into the reader’s nostrils. A bus conductor having conned a passenger off his change, is engaged in the pathetic ritual of smelling his loot. This ritual is sustained throughout the novel by various characters chief among them being the minister Koomson, once a close friend of the man. Of course, those without political connections such as the man and his wife, Oyo, also crave to smell the loot, although the latter’s craving outweighs the former.

The man is full of integrity. He does not take bribes despite the numerous opportunities for him to do so. He is like an oasis of integrity in a desert of corruption yet he is not refreshed by his strength of character. On the contrary, he suffers the more proving the old adage true- no good deed goes unpunished. Disillusionment is his bed-fellow, a constant aching that simply won’t go away. Armah captures the emotion beautifully…

Why was it that just the solitary whistle of a train about to disappear down the deep distances of the forest should scatter in the air so much of the feeling of permanent sorrow? (He was a railway man)

The man was left alone with thoughts of the easy slide and how everything said there was something miserable, something unspeakably dishonest about a man who refused to take and to give what everyone around was busy taking and giving: something unnatural something very cruel , something that was criminal, for who but a criminal could ever be left with such a feeling of loneliness?

It seems the man can take a few jabs below the belt from the world but when his wife takes one at him, it hits him hard.

“You are the Chichidodo itself”

“Now, what do you mean by that?”

“Ah, you know, the Chichidodo is a bird. The Chichidodo hates excrement with all its soul. But the Chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory. This is the Chichidodo” The woman was smiling.

The reproach of loved ones comes kindly when it comes in silence. Even when this silence is filled with the consciousness of resentment, there is always the hope that they understand whatever vague little wishes there are to understand, as if one could forever keep up the pretence that the difference between failure and the hard heroes of the dream is only a matter of time…But when the reproach of loved ones grows into sound and the pain is thrown outwards against the one who causes it, then it is no longer possible to look with any hope at all at time.

It thus seems that the man’s sufferings will know no end but sometimes, the sufferings of good commoners are vindicated by the sufferings of the elect. When Nkrumah is overthrown, Konsoom flees for his life and seeks refuge in the man’s humble abode. It is the only time that the man is vindicated-not by the pleasure of seeing Koomson suffer but by the penitence of his wife.

He went back into the hall and stood quietly beside Oyo. She held his hand in a tight grasp. Then, in a voice that sounded as if she were stifling, she whispered, ‘I am glad you never became like him.’

In Oyo’s eyes there was real gratitude. Perhaps for the first time in their married life the man could believe that she was glad to have him the way he was. He returned the increasing pressure of her hand…

The Beautyful One Are Not Yet Born is a novel I would recommend to all in employment-especially public service. Whether their positions are elected, appointed, contractual, permanent or otherwise, the principle remains that corruption doesn’t pay. It may seem to do so in the short term, but ultimately, it leads to the ruin of both the giver and taker.

More concise reviews

http://www.africabookclub.com/?p=946

 

 

 

 

 

The Grass is Singing

It was in the month of May that I had set off for my Old man’s farm in Trans Nzoia County. This decision was inspired by several reasons; firstly, to let off some steam that had gathered during preparations for meeting my fiancés larger family and secondly, to help out in the weeding of maize. I had just completed Moby Dick and needed to embark on another novel. Hence, I popped into Moi University bookshop in Eldoret, and slowly made my way to the literature aisle. Therein, I allowed my gaze to rest upon African literature which I had given a wide berth but now decided it was high time we became re-acquainted. The grass is singing by Doris Lessing held a peculiar attraction for me. I could not immediately figure out why. However, after reading its synopsis, I recalled an interview on BBC’s Book club in which Ms Lessing was the guest. She commented on various issues about Zimbabwe where she spent her childhood in one of the large farms. Chief among these was inter-racial relationships which were frowned upon by the whites who perceived themselves superior to the black natives. It was against this backdrop that the story of the Turners and their houseboy is told-and oh, how marvellously so that it earned Ms Lessing the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature.

Doris borrows the title of her novel from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. This is aptly used in the novel to almost describe Mr Turner’s farm which brought him little revenue. This is sometimes attributed to the vagaries of weather but largely to Mr Turner’s ineptitude in farm management, especially financially. He was that kind of a farmer who went from one venture to another in the hope of making a quick kill-almost similar to Kenyan small scale farmers who recently ventured into quail farming without giving much thought to the market dynamics of supply and demand. But I digress.

The story begins with the murder of Mrs Mary Turner. Her houseboy is arrested and confesses to the crime. Thereafter, Doris takes the reader back into the world of Mary’s childhood, her life as an independent, fun-loving, financially stable city girl before the idea of marriage was unpleasantly lodged in her head, and how she ended up with Dick Turner, a struggling farmer who abhorred the city. Through it all, we see the code of conduct that governed relationships between whites and whites, whites and blacks, the disillusionment that comes with a marriage of convenience and the fatal attraction of Mary towards Moses.

Ms Lessing watches over Mary as Thomas Hardy watched over Tess of D’Urbervilles -tenderly. She takes the reader into Mary’s highs and lows and the emotions that come along with them. She allows the reader to pity, love and even hate Mary but not enough to want her dead. Nonetheless, this is not the case; the character that is introduced in the beginning of a story is no more in the end.

The grass is singing is one treasure I will go back to time and time again not only for a story well told but for its literary finesse.

NB: Next Book review will be Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Read more from Savidge

http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/the-grass-is-singing-doris-lessing/