It was late December 1902, five years after we returned to Nri, my native land, five years after we were freed from captivity in the land of Benin. While the Harmattan breezes swept over the coast of Lagos, and while most people kept warm by the fireside, I had someone keeping me warm in bed, though not out of my volition. This had been my lifestyle since my aunt Adanne brought me here a couple of weeks earlier. Each night, as I lay on the cold mattresses of my bed, and as Aunt Adanne’s men thrust me; I shut my eyes and wept. In the dark recess of my mind, all I could see were images of that cold night at the Benin slave camp. It was like living my most painful memory all over again. Every day. One night, after taking my shower, I sat on the bed, waiting for the man Aunt Adanne had collected money from. His name was Chukwuma. He was a dark skinned man probably in his early thirties. As he walked towards me, I was scared, nervous and angry all at the same time. So I moved away from him towards the headboard.
“Don’t worry honey, I would be gentle with you,” the man whispered as he climbed onto the bed. He unbuttoned his shirt and started crawling towards me. I felt like screaming but I didn’t. I also felt like slapping him and then pushing him away, but I didn’t. All I did was just sit there and sob.
“Please, I don’t think I’m ready for this. I…don’t…I… don’t want to do this anymore,” I said tears rolling down my cheeks. As those words came out of my mouth, I wasn’t sure what his reaction was going to be. I closed my eyes right after speaking, thinking he was going to force himself on me like the other men did. But as I continued sobbing, he stopped, sat on the bed and told me he wasn’t going to touch me if that was what I wanted.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, my words muffled by tears. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Should I confide in this man who seems caring? Maybe he would help me get out of aunt Adanne’s house forever. Maybe he was sent by the gods to save me. Or maybe he would tell Aunt Adanne all I told him and then continue with his life as if nothing ever happened. This would only worsen my situation. So, I don’t know was the best answer I thought of.
“I have a sister your age,” the man said as he buttoned his shirt. “I, um…also have a wife whom I love very much and she’s given me two boys: Ejike and Chijioke.” He smiled mildly. “I love my family very much, but recently my wife and I have been having problems in our marriage. I work with you aunt. Yesterday, after work, I told her I was having problems with my wife and that we were no longer intimate. That was when she mentioned you. Honestly, I feel guilty about this,” he continued facing the floor. A couple of seconds passed before he lifted his head and continued. “Please do all that you can to get out of this house; I don’t think your aunt has any good intentions for you. You are a beautiful young lady who should be doing something meaningful with her life,” he said as he stood and made for the door. All I did was nod as he spoke. In the silence that followed, he walked back to the bed, gave me a hug and kissed my head before leaving the room. I couldn’t believe it. I was surprised-and pleasantly so-at this sudden turn of events. His display of affection and concern suddenly brought back memories of life with my mother back at the slave camp. If only mama were alive, she wouldn’t have let me leave the village even if I wanted to. I was her only child and she loved me very much. In that moment, as I sat on the bed, wiping tears off my eyes, I recalled the story my mama had told me of how they were captured by Oba Ewuare, the Benin monarch and marched out of their home town in chains and fetters. It was the story of how we were forced into a life of slavery by the Benin Empire. I still remember the expression on mama’s face as she narrated this story. It was an expression indicative of disgust, hatred, anger and yet hopes in what the gods could do to save the Nri people.
“It was the eve of the eke market day and children were gathered by the fire in the cold of the evening listening to stories from their parents. It was like any other peaceful day in old Nri,” mama had said in Igbo. “Traders sat under the canopy of the odala tree, discussing sales, when suddenly, Ogidi, the chief warrior ran past our house, screaming at us to run for our lives. In a matter of minutes, confusion broke out throughout the village. Parents searched for their children as they sought for safety in their mud huts; children wailed as they searched for their parents in the midst of the stampede, confused and frightened about what was happening. You father jumped to his feet, and carried me into our hut. One man ran out of the bathroom naked, and a creeping child who was playing outside was accidentally kicked into one of the burning firewood. Ogidi was however too late, for before he could get to the market square, half of the village was surrounded by the Benin warriors. Our Igwe was ripped of his crown and throne; the council of elders, the Nze and Ozo title holders was dissolved and the entire kingdom was abandoned. In a couple of hours, the raid was over, the entire village was taken captive and we became part of the ancient Benin Empire. That was a day descendants of Nri kingdom will never forget. It was a moment of severe pains for pregnant women, some of which had miscarriages,” mama narrated and then paused. She heaved a mournful sigh, and then wagged her head before continuing. “I was pregnant with you at the time, but thanks to the gods, I managed to escape a miscarriage. I guess the gods had an important assignment which they wanted you to carry out.”
That night memories of my late mother’s life came flashing back and I thought, again, in passing that she would never have let me leave the village with aunt Adanne in the first place. But then, I wondered: why would my aunt, my own mother’s sister, my blood, treat me with such inhumanity? Maybe she wasn’t really my mother’s sister; perhaps, she was just another family relative from my mother’s side.
to be continued...