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1897

This is NOT a fairytale, this is not some sweet story to tell friends at a tea-party. This is the story of a people, who lived and bled and died like you and I. A story of ignorance, of anger and the tragedy that follows these two, like fleas on a dog no one cares for.

It began many years ago… when the land was still green and the old gods looked down from free skies on a distant kingdom in the year of our lord 1897…

Lt. James Roberts Phillip lead his men through a dense vegetation on their way to Benin city. He had with him two hundred African porters, a drum, fife band and ten British officers.

You see, Omo ‘n’ Oba Ovonranwen, King of Benin, had ceased supply of oil to the Itsekiri middle men, who he believed had been cheating his people.

At the time, the great kingdom of Benin was the principal supplier of the much coveted oil palm to the rest of the country- so this act, well, it didn’t go down well with the British Colonists and one of them, the Consul General of the Niger Coast protectorate, a most despicable fellow named Ralph Moor sought a way to bring the Benin Empire to heel. Some believe the hard-headed Lt. Phillip had been misinformed by Ralph Moor who was at the time on holiday abroad with his family.

No one knows for sure why the expedition was launched- was it one of peace? Or of simple vanity? Or was it one of war? We would never know, because this expedition had gone against the Oba’s warnings to Ralph Moor’s stand in and Lt. Phillip had disobeyed. They were met at the border by a troop of warriors. They had been warned not to come.
THEY SHOULD HAVE LISTENED.
None were left standing.

Back in Benin City, the Iyase stood proud and tall before his Oba to answer for his actions. It was the white man’s mistake, he claimed. The white man’s actions were an insult to the sacred laws of the land and the gods. The Oba knew he could not punish him, for man must pay homage, first to the gods, then to the King.
Furthermore, the Iyase had cunningly involved Ologbosheri the Oba’s son-in-law, and a formidable warrior in his schemes. The Oba was at an impasse. Make no mistake, he knew the gravity of what had been done and what would follow. He resigned himself to fate, knowing well that this single act done in the heat of anger could finally do what the colonialists had sought to do before but failed. Topple him from his throne. An invasion was imminent.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Rawson began preparations to invade the Benin Kingdom. He brought with him 1,200 British soldiers and several hundreds of locally recruited blacktroops. He claimed he would avenge the BENIN MASSACRE. The tragic deaths of Lt. Phillip and his men paved way for even worse tragedy. An atrocity driven by ignorance and hate, tempered by a tool that would later get it’s name in the great war of nations- propaganda.

Unified in it’s blood lust, the machine began to work, chugging away like a train at the rails, spewing lies and hate. The Benin kingdom was painted as a monarchy of fetishes and rituals, it’s King was painted as a despot who butchered his own people as sacrifices to heathen gods. False witnesses were called and graphic descriptions of senseless slaughter were given.

The invaders marched forward, their boots pounding the earth like the rhythmic beating of skin drums, in three columns they came, to lay siege to an ancient kingdom.

The Sapoba,
The Gwato,
And the Main…

Their arrogance cost them dearly- the Gwato was ambushed at Gwato, the British annihilated in their sleep.
The commanding officer was killed.

A wary King sat on a heavy throne and dared to hope, but knew better.

The Main column won it’s victory, ravaging the countryside. A trembling naval surgeon confided in the pages of his diary…

“We shelled the countryside and cleared it of the natives. As the launch and surf-boats grounded, we jumped into the water… at once we placed our maxims and guns in position, firing so far as to clear the bush were the natives might be hiding. Our black troops with the scouts in front and our maxims do all the fighting. No white men were wounded; we all got off scot-free.”

February 18th
After ten long days of bitter fighting, the columns of ‘Sapoba’ and ‘Main’ entered the once free city of Benin. It was here that they committed the most brutal of their acts.
The city was looted,
It’s people were stripped, beaten and killed.
The women cried for their men,
Mothers… cried for their daughters.

The British entered the Oba’s palace only to find a vacant throne. Ovonranwen was forced to flee with his chiefs and a handful of his men. After the looting, raping and pillaging, the British set fire to the city, and watched it burn against an African sky.

900 bronze statutes were taken from the Oba’s palace. Over 2000 religious artefacts carted away from Benin city. Countless women and children were taken as slaves, a people, their history and heritage were sold into foreign lands for mere profit.

The evil consul general arrived weeks later to pay the Oba his final humiliation, declaring the land of his ancestors the property of the white man. Chiefs who had no hand in the “Benin massacre” were charged with it and put to death.

Perhaps out of guilt for his role in the fall of Benin, Ologbosheri, the Oba’s son in law mounted a guerilla war against the British to restore the Oba to his throne. He was caught, and two years later, was hung. The Oba himself was sentenced to exile, and a stooge named Obaseki put in his stead.

And so it happened this sad tale of woe, beginning in 1897.

Adapted from Okiojo’s chronicles, Panaramic Comics

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NEGRITUDE part 9

As the two brothers entered the arena, they slowly spread apart, watching Koby all the time like big cats watch their prey- till he could no longer keep them both in the same line of sight. He sighed. That meant he would have to guess what one was up to even as he dealt with the other.

 That was fine by him. He kept his eyes trained on the George twin before him, seemingly ignoring the other, whom he was sure was advancing towards him at that very moment- the nostrils of the brother before him flared, and like a whirlwind he twirled, slashing with his weapon. It bit deep into the other brother, injuring him terribly. His brother roared and ran towards him.

 Quiet, tense, at the last moment he lashed out, but somehow the fellow dodged it and managed to land a terrible punch to his midriff. He inhaled sharply and stabbed the fallen brother in the foot, or rather he would have, but then just before it landed, he also dodged the blow.

The brothers were slippery. But one was injured. And from the look they gave him, they wouldn’t be underestimating him anymore. They knew what he was, and the uninjured one gave him a short, grim nod. There would be no more fun and games from here onward. Just two angry men trying to kill him.

He nodded back, accepting the silent challenge. And with a shout, the real fight began. It was a whirl of blades and fists, grunts and shoves as each man fought for his life.

Slowing from blood loss, considerably weakened by the previous fight, Koby held his own for a while but eventually fell to the brothers. They pummeled him mercilessly. He managed to get a few good ones in too, but for every blow he inflicted, he got two in return. Finally he was on the ground, beaten, done.
As he lay on the ground, eyes closed, awaiting the killing blow, he sent a prayer skyward to the supreme being *Eledumare to watch over Ewatomi and accept him to the great beyond. The cheer of the crowd faded from his ears. He felt every ache in his body and groaned. His only consolation was that it would all be over soon.

*Eledumare is one of the names used to refer to God in Yoruba land. Despite belonging to a basically polytheistic religion, adherents of Yoruba belief systems and worship, do acknowledge a supreme being who oversees the affairs of the entire universe.

A scream rang out, loud and clear, and in that moment he remembered the reason he was fighting in the first place- Ewatomi.

His eyes snapped open and he grasped his spear as it was being lowered to skewer him, and with the strength of the damned, he jammed it upward, ramming it through his skull with a sickening crunch and killing the other man.

As the life left it, the corpse fell on him but he kicked it away. He pulled his spear out and swiped at the other brother. He blocked with his blade and threw sand from the arena into Koby’s eyes.

Temporarily blinded, he spun, swinging the spear with one hand to create a fatal arc while he rubbed at his eyes with the other. With no time to spare he grasped his spear with both hands, and was able to parry a killing blow. He returned the favour. The remaining brother blocked it.

He attacked, again and again, driven mad with the desire to see Ewatomi safe and free, he was like a wildcat. Eventully the man brought his weapon up a fraction of a second too late and his spear sink into the meaty flesh of his neck.

Koby pulled it free and rammed it into his belly, ripping his innards free. He out paid to whatever vestige of life still clung to him by stabbing him in the heart.

As his opponent’s blood drained into the sands the crowd went mad with joy. They began to chant the name they had given him;

“Koby!”

“Koby!!”

“Koby!!!”

He slung his spear over his shoulder and walked out of the arena. Soaked with blood and sweat, he made his way to Ewatomi who shook visibly.

“We are free.”

“Yes Koby. We are free.”

And they were free indeed. Even though the freedom had come at such a steep price. Together they went to Mr Stone, where he was seated on a platform before the crowd.

“Set us free.”

The crowd went silent. This was an important moment. Feeling the eyes of the people heavy on him, he reluctantly produced a book and wrote them a bill of freedom. Then he took out the reciepts he had gotten during their purchase and tore it.

Hands intertwined, Koby and Ewatomi left the arena, stopping briefly at the slave dwellings to pick up their meagre belongings. Koby still held on to the ornately carved spear. No one asked of it of course, so he kept it.

Over the next few years, a series of misfortunes befell Mr Stone, until eventually he wound up dead in a ravine. The doctor took one look and declared it a natural death and no one thought anything of it. 

Life happens, after all.

Meanwhile, Koby set up a little farm and earned himself a reputation for honesty and hardwork. He and his wife led very industrious lives, working on both their farms and the larger farms of the folk in that area. 

As they got children, they trained them and when they were old enough, they also joined in bringing some form of income for the family.

He earned enough to buy a few black slaves, whom he promptly set free. But they often chose to remain with him, serving as labourers on his farm, members of his family. Gradually his farm expanded as did his family, and at the time of his death, he was considered wealthy.
“Did Koby kill Mr Stone?” I asked Grandpa. He smiled

“Well what do you think? Be a good boy and fetch me my walking stick, will you?” I hastened to comply, and when I returned, Grandpa got up. He asked me to follow him and together we made our way to the kitchen. I thought briefly of milk and cookies but stopped when we walked past the fridge. I followed him outside.

When we got outside, he stood, gazing at the house. Then he pulled out a brick. From the space within, he retrieved a long, thing parcel, tied at both ends with string.

Working quietly, he loosened the knots and upwrapped it, and sitting there in his hands was an ornately carved staff with blades on both ends, inlaid with iron and bound with iron rings.

NEGRITUDE part 8

The time for the match drew close,  before then, Mr. Stone had successfully whipped the town into a frenzy.

First he started the rumors; tales making rounds of a fighter who had fallen in love and wanted a chance at freedom for himself and his love. In a town soaked in boredom, where everyone’s personal business was everyone else’s latest news, the gist spread like wildfire.
Then one day, while smoking at a public bar, packed full with patrons thirsty for both beer and gossip, he let slip the possibility of him allowing the fight.
At heart he was a hapless romantic, but then, he had gotten the slave at such a high price- a man had to recoup his investments did he not?
So, of course, the entrance fee was going to be on the high side. Only those who desired to watch beauty and love, faithfulness and date in action would be allowed to come and watch.
In the meantime, you could come see the negro if you had a few shillings to spare. With a swish of his cloak he left the bar, and almost three-quarters of the bar went with him.
He got home and had Koby put on display, with people thrusting money into his hands to see the fighter. That day, he made enough to buy another Koby.
Koby meanwhile, busied himself with preparations. A prince back in his homeland, he was intimate with the means and methods of dealing death.
A veteran of several tribal wars, he knew that half of what guaranteed success was the proper mindset. And also, preparation.
So he took deep breaths, exercised and stretched his limbs. He ate his meals and went for regular strolls, within Mr Stone’s enclosure of course. Then he took up running, and joined the household slaves in fetching the heavy jugs of water.
At night, he took up sticks and worked through the night, twirling and thrusting in patterns handed down from generation to generation.
Weeks passed and his hand grew even more calloused, limbs thickened and grew, and his endurance grew steadily.
Finally, the match was fixed and the day arrived.

The entrance fee was seven pounds, yet the spacious arena was chock-full.
For people to contend with, the prison happily contributed it’s prisoners on death row after  a lump sum of money had changed hands. Savage killers, murderers and psychopaths each, they had been guaranteed a pardon if they participated. Illegal, but in those times, records could easily be doctored. And they were, with blatant regularity.

For anyone who died, the cause of death would be ‘natural causes’.
 So of course, everyone in the ring had a motivation. When Koby stepped into the arena, people went wild, throwing roses and all sorts at him. Thanks to Mr. Stone and his publicity, everyone felt like they knew him.
A deadly, quiet savage, he had fallen in love with  beautiful slave girl; and now, he was ready to fight to keep what he had found. He was going to fight for freedom and love.
The housewives agreed as one that it was deliciously romantic.
The spinsters fantasized about him in their sleep and could often be heard muttering his name under their breath as they tossed and turned at night.
Men grunted and drank to his health as they gulped down mugs of beer in the evenings.

And each of these groups were fully represented in the arena.
He entered with just one weapon, a staff with a blade attached at both ends. Inlaid with iron and bound with iron rings, it was a bit on the heavy side, but very sturdy. It had to be, it would decide whether he lived or died.

Armor was not to be allowed.
As he walked to the center, people cheered, the noise loud enough to be heard and felt a good distance away.
His first opponent was released from a set of five cages of different sizes hanging suspended about three inches from the ground.
A mad murderer known as ‘Smiling Sam’ his weapon of choice was a cleaver, and not just any cleaver, the cleaver he had used to chop up bodies before he was discovered and arrested.
Armed with a manic smile and his wicked looking blade with brown stains, he advanced on Koby. Koby waited for him to get close enough, then quickly, almost a blur, he twirled, reached, sliced the inside of Smiling Sam’s wrist as the lunatic raised his hand to swing. The cleaver dropped to the ground. A sharp quick slice sent his head after it, and Koby stood as his lifeblood leaked to the ground.
Attendants rushed out and dragged the corpse away. Some others opened the next cage door and out of the separate spaces divided by a partition, two men stepped out.

One had a sword. The other had nothing. His teeth had been filed into sharp points and his fingernails were long and sharp, talons, in fact. They called him “The cannibal of the hills.”
Before capture, he would often go after people and kidnap them, before taking them with him to the hills, where he roamed. 
Then he would set them free and then proceed to hunt them down. When he eventually found them, he ate them.
The two criminals came for Koby at the same time. Koby kept his eyes on the one with the sword. The cannibal wasn’t much of a threat, he had to first get close to attack. So he went swinging and thrusting, forcing the swordsman to parry blow after blow after blow. Just as he got in, slicing into his belly, he felt a sharp pain at his back. The cannibal had clawed him! He had almost forgotten about him. Turning back with anger, he severed off his head.

The swordsman was still coming for him, one hand clutching his stomach. With ease, Koby finished him off.
Attendants came and dragged away the corpses and another set of attendants opened the third cage door. This one they opened after all the attendants had left the arena, and they opened it while standing on a raised platform. The moment it was open, they took to their heels.
Gingerly, like it was testing the floor, a clawed foot came out. Then another, and gradually a leopard slinked out.

Koby held his breath. No one said anything about fighting a leopard. But then, he was asking to be free, wasn’t he?
It would not come cheap.
He and the leopard stalked each other, moving round in a circle. Koby mirrored it’s steps, watching for the bunching of muscles that signalled a pounce, there! As it came for him, he was already in motion- he shifted a bit to the side and sliced.
Enraged it came for him again. He sliced it across the about, and it caught him just below the knee with a claw. He drove the blade into it’s shoulder. They separated, bleeding. 
The beast staggered a bit, and fell to the ground in a heap. Attendants, unwilling to come near it quickly opened the fourth cage and hurried off. From the two partitions, three hefty men came out. One clutched a club, another held two knives, and one held a spear.
Koby watched them, wary as they advanced. Then he noticed something, the leopards head shifted a fraction. It wasn’t dead! 

Just as the trio raised a war cry, it turned into a shriek as the leopard got to it’s feet, shook off the effects of blood loss and pounced on the spearman.
They rolled to and fro, and his screaming was cut short. He wasn’t quite dead when it lowered its head and feasted on his innards, pulling juicy bits and gulping them down
The remaining two kept a respectful distance between the beast and it’s prey. Then the club wielder noticed how preoccupied it was with it’s meal, for the leopard hadn’t been fed for three days prior to the match to out it in the proper frame of mind.
He snuck up behind it and clubbed it to death. Satisfied, he came for Koby. At this time, Koby had several cuts and gashes from the knives. Slowing, the knife user was gaining an upper hand. And now, his friend had joined in.

He gritted his teeth and offered a prayer to ogun, the yoruba deity of hunters and war and fought on. Finally, he managed to kill the two criminals.
The last cage swung open, and spilled its contents. When they came out, the entire arena went quiet. People whispered to one another;

“Aren’t those the ‘George twins’?”

“Lord that’s insane.”

“Some say they’re not even human.”

“I agree. Sixteen men between them, sixteen good men.”

“Monsters, the both of them”

And then soft feminine whispers of

“Oh, Koby!”

“The poor darling” 

“Oh he’s gone.”
Ewatomi meanwhile gripped the railing from where she was sitting, a side attraction.

Some fingers pointed in her direction. Tongues wagged. They knew she was the woman Koby was fighting for, after all, did he not offer his life to set them both free?

Buxom housewives were green with envy. They didn’t have anyone willing to do anything so romantic for them.

Ewatomi didn’t hear the whispers, didn’t see the pointing fingers, her mind was filled with fear for Koby’s safety.
She called to mind the legend of the ‘George twins’. At first, they had been hunters of big game, quite good at what they did, but with the price of meat being what it is, they didn’t get the life of luxury they desired.

Then one day, someone stole from their hunting lodge one night. They tracked him, hunted him and killed him.
At that point they discovered even easier prey- people. So they closed the lodge and held themselves out as men-killers for hire, assassins.

Slowly, their came spread, no one earmarked by them ever got away. Everyone who ‘did business’s with them came back satisfied.

Poison, accidents, stabbings, they prove proficient in every scenario given. People feared them.
Eventually, the officers of the law got fed up with their notoriety and went to arrest them. First, three officers were dispatched. They never came back. Then five went after them. They didn’t come back either. Eventually the entire barracks emptied itself into the streets and armed to the teeth, they went to the house of the ‘George twins’
A lot of officers died that day, but eventually they won thanks to the sheer force of numbers, and captured the brothers, binding them hand and foot before taking them to jail.

They were shut in a solitary cell, and at first, the wardens decided to starve them to death, but the brothers broke out of their cell and broke into the kitchen. They killed the cook, ate a lot of food, killed two officers and returned to their cell with some food items. After that, they were fed regularly and on time.
For years, they lived in solitary, never seeing the sun. And now, they had come outside for one more hunt…

NEGRITUDE part 7

 When his eyes finally cracked open, the first thing his brain registered was pain.

A whole lot of it.

Next, it registered light, or rather, the absence of it. The room was pitch black. With no idea how long he had been unconscious, Koby could not tell if it was night, or the room was just shut tight.
There was a creak, and with it, a sliver of light, stretching from a- door!

Someone was coming inside. Koby closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Whoever it was had a light tread, he almost couldn’t hear whoever it was approach.

The person dropped the load he or she was carrying. There was a short striking sound, loud in the silence that reigned supreme- an accompanying flare, and light flooded the room.

Then the sound of cloth being squeezed damp- and the person leaned over him to clean his sweaty brow. He caught a whiff of a familiar scent…

“Ifá, I know I haven’t been the best worshipper. But if you bring him back to me, I promise to kill a white cock in your name. I swear it.”*

*Ifá is one of the dieties worshipped by practitioners of the Yoruba religious belief system.

Ewatomi.

His eyes flew open. She saw this, gasped and almost dropped the lantern clutched in her right hand, at the last moment, she regained control and calmed down.

“Koby, you’re- you’re back!”

“Will take more than fight to kill me. I make you promise, no?”

“Yes. Yes you did. Oh Koby!”

“Shhhh. Where am I?”

“In clinic. Mr. Stone has a new fighter now. Bigger than you. Stronger. He abandoned you here to either live or die.”

“I live.”

“True. But I’m afraid. What if he finds out and makes you go back to the fighting?”

A tear pooled at the end of an eyelash, hung suspended for a while, then fell to splash against his bare chest. In a voice so small, one who is an arm’s length away would not hear without straining, she added
“I like you. I cannot lose you.”

Both hands clasped together in supplication, eyes bright with unshed tears, she looked at him. Really looked at him.

And he lifted his hand to cover hers. His gaze met hers, steady and unwavering.

Her breath turned ragged, like she was having difficulty breathing- and Koby’s breath caught.

A thought passed between them, wordless, yet crystal clear.

Her eyes were burning with desire, her bosom heaved with every breath.

With his palm still covering her hands, he pulled her down.
She came willingly.

As she came to him, she knocked over the lamp, and it was overturned. The flame flickered and died.

That night, Koby knew Ewatomi, fully and after the manner of men.
_____________________________

That morning, the lovers woke up, limbs entwined, breathing in unison. The soft rays of dawn caressed their bare skin.
Ewatomi looked down at Koby, and smiled a shy, satisfied smile.

“Thank you.” With a finger she liked his chest playfully. Then his armpit. He laughed. Encouraged, she continued tickling him till laughter filled the clinic and he joined in, returning the tickles with interest. Finally, they tired, and were once again calm, content to have each other, sharing this one stolen moment.

“Again this night?” Ewatomi asked, tentative.

“Yes. I will wait here for you.”

And with this promise, after a sweet but brief embrace, Ewatomi slipped out of the clinic before her absence was noticed.
That evening, Koby felt strong enough to stand and walk around a bit, so this he did, strolling even though he did this with a slight limp. His leg still hurt.

He made his way to the Cook’s corner for a ladle of soup, a chunk of bread, and a fistful of berries. Finding a clean spot close to the clinic, he sat down and had his dinner.

As he ate, he contemplated the clinic- it wasn’t a clinic persay, just a ramshackle abandoned building. So much for Mr Stone.

As he polished off the last few berries, he made to get up but saw Ewatomi coming towards him. He had not forgotten their meeting of course, and his face cracked into a huge grin.

Ewatomi saw him too, and her heart was filled with happiness. No, that’s too small a word. More like unbridled, unfettered joy.

Caught up with each other, she put up a display. An extra sway with her hips, nimble dainty steps as she carried the water pot on her head. When she got to the huge water drum, she poured the water and managed to spill some of it on her dress. The result was that it clung to her skin, revealing curves and contours otherwise hidden.

Dropping the pot aside, she gave a flirty wink, drawing up the dress to display even more.

Koby swallowed with difficulty.

She laughed, covering her mouth with her hands as she did so, a hearty, throaty laugh.

Consider this happiness dear reader, the joy of a woman who teases her man. A man whom she also desires, deeply. Consider how she puts everything she could use to seduce him on display, showing off nature’s bounty with careless abandon.

How enticing it is, how it draws a man. 

Particularly the other man, who had been watching from the door of the wagon, and did not see the man she was displaying for, and frankly did not care.

We’re they not, after all, his property by law?

The wagon door swung open.

“You! Girl!! Come here!!!”

The effect was instantly sobering, like a bucket of ice cold water thrown in the face of a drunkard.

She looked around, desperate to see someone else, anyone else being called. But the other slaves hurried to and fro, and she was, despite being surrounded, alone.

“Come. Here.” The tone had turned threatening. She complied, out of fear, with wooden steps she closed the distance to the wagon.

Koby watched, a silent but impotent fury burning in him. He knew well the consequences of irrational action, so he kept his seat and gnashed his teeth.
Now Ewatomi was in front of the wagon, timid as a mouse. But Mr Stone was not to be deterred.

“Sir? You called me?”

Rather than respond, he grabbed her and pulled her roughly into the wagon, slamming the door.

Inside the wagon, she screamed, helpless, prey to a predatory appetite. Mr Stone pushed her to a rough pallet on the wagon floor.

Heedless to her sobbing and pleading, indeed spurned on by it, he grabbed her cloth and forced it up to her waist. The fabric ripped and tore. He did not care. With a brutal thrust, he forced his way into her. She screamed.

He kept plunging into her, as she squirmed and struggled and prayed to her native gods that he would soon end.

Finally, he was done with her, his seed spilled between her legs. He got up, and wore his shorts. The wagon door swung open again, and he kicked her to the ground.

It swung shut behind her. Struck with grief, she lay on the ground crying, shedding bitter tears and cursing the world for being so unfair. She beat her fist against the ground, a woman deprived of her dignity.

Someone was standing in front of her. Whoever it was, wrapped a blanket around her. She melted into an embrace gratefully, at least there was some good in this wicked world, no matter how little.

Koby’s voice rang in her ear, soft and reassuring;

“No matter what happens, you will always be beautiful to me.”

He took her to the stream, to wash off the dust and clean the injuries, to wash off the hated seed from between her thighs.

That night they shared a bed, but nothing happened.
The following morning, while the early cock had just begun to crow, as Mr Stone snored, there was a knock on the wagon door. It swung open, his henchmen looking out at the knocked with enough menace to choke even the bravest speech.

Koby, cap in hand was undaunted. 

“I wish to speak to master.”

“What?!”

“The silent negro! He talks!”

“The monkey speaks English. Unbelievable!”

“Who taught him? How? Where? When?”

All this noise woke Mr Stone from his sleep, and he inquired to know the cause of the racket. His men cleared to show the negro who had come calling at such an unholy hour.

“Master Stone.”

“Koby. You can talk.”

“Yes sir. I pick up the language.”
“Not quite well, but that is to be understood. What brings you here?”
“I have something to ask. You want money sir? Plenty of money?”
At this the cabin went silent. Speaking of money there was like invoking the name of God when amongst bishops. A reverent hush fell on them. Koby seized his opportunity to further his case.

“Sir, if you do a match, one man. He fight as many men as are willing to fight him, to the death. A fight for love. To ensure freedom for him and another. A woman. People will pay anything to watch it. Any amount.”

Mr Stone’s eyes shone with greed. He was already counting the pounds in his mind. Then he asked

“Which man? I don’t have anyone to pin that on.”

“You have sir. Me.”

NEGRITUDE part 6


Deep, resonant notes from expertly beaten kettledrums heralded the entry of one of the opponents to the arena.
As he took his steps into the makeshift stage, the kettledrums went silent, and everyone did too. All eyes turned automatically to the new entrant.

Jaws dropped.

Eyes bulged.

Mouths whistled.
He was a monster of a man; with hands huge enough to cup coconuts in their palms, and a chest so wide, you could comfortably hide two men behind it.
He brought with him a faint smell of woodsmoke. He stood on the wooden platform, arms akimbo, as he waited for his opponent.
Everybody stared at him in awe, as he stood there, like a denizen of the deepest hells.

There was a short whistle and the kettledrums started again, but this time, a soft creaking could be heard. From outside, the wagon pulled a huge object covered with cloth. When the wagon got as close as it was ever going to get, to the stage, Mr. Stone, who prior to that moment had been riding the donkey that pulled the cart, jumped down, walked back and grasping a bit of the fabric in his hand, threw it off.
As he did, the cage swung open and Koby stepped from the cart to the stage. Again, the kettledrums went silent.
His body was covered in paint of different colours, depicting all sorts of devils, beasts and monsters. Of course, before the fight was over, it would be smudged, but the effect it had on the audience was instant.
Several crossed themselves, others called out to household goods for protection from the evil eye.

It helped that most of the inhabitants had not, before then, laid eyes on a man with black skin. Not to talk of the images he carried.
As he walked to his opponent, a pink ribbon fluttered from its position, securely tied to the little finger on his right hand
Soon the men were separated by only a few paces. A distance, easily closed with a leap or two. The crowd went quiet. The tension in the air was electric.

They had been promised death and glory and having bought the tickets, now they waited for Mr Stone to deliver.
“Ladies and gentlemen. What you are about to behold, has never happened before. And might never happen again.”
With a snap of his fingers, he signalled for the match to begin, and the kettledrummers began plummelling their drums in a frenzy.
With a huge leap, the giant closed the distance. He stretched his hand, intending to grab Koby by the head. Koby jumped back, his head just missing the grasping fingers. He bent down and shot a kick at the giant’s knee, but somehow he knew, and stepped aside quickly, and Koby missed.
The giant bent down, and grabbing Koby by the knee when his guard was down, threw him hard against the stage. Koby hit with a smack and rolled off the stage.
The crowd went wild, cheering and screaming. Koby climbed back up. There were slaves surrounding the stage, fully clothed, each holding a spear upright. Any attempt at escape would not be tolerated. Their lives depended on it.
So back to the ring it was. 
The two men circled themselves warily. Koby feinted to the right, the giant sidestepped to the left and Koby launched himself at him. Grabbing him by the waist, he pulled him completely off the ground, turned him midair and hit him against the stage with a loud thump.
Once the giant was down, he beat him with his fists on his face, his chest, every where his hands could reach.

Briefly he had the upper hand, but then like a snake the giant’s hand shot out and grabbed him by the neck and with great force, threw him to the ground.

The giant rolled on top of him, and landed a heavy blow to his face.
*Crack*

His nose twisted out of shape.

*Bam*

A sharp pain in his side. Did something break?
Koby took a deep breath, pulled his knees to his chest and using his feet, pushed out with all his might. The giant fell backwards. Koby rose to his feet.
He swayed a bit. Blood dropped from his nose to the floor. The giant, seeing this, grinned at him. His teeth were stained with blood.
Koby looked behind the giant, and saw Ewatomi, hiding behind the cart, looking at him with huge, pleading eyes.

He remembered his promise.
Like a deer, he ran towards the giant, who spread his hands wide in welcome, to grab and crush him when he arrived. 

But Koby had other plans.
Just before he got to the giant, he jumped and kicked the giant in the stomach. He doubled over and Koby slammed both his fists on his back. The giant fell to the floor.
Looping an arm around his neck, Koby began to pull and pull.

The giant stretched his hand out, and making a fist, slammed it on Koby who was hanging to his back, piggyback style.
Koby held on for dear life, struggling and tightening his grip as blow after blow rained on him.

Then without warning, the giant leaned forward and Koby slipped off. He raised his foot and slammed it on Koby’s exposed right leg. He stomped again and again.
The pain was unbearable. Koby closed his eyes and willed it to stop. As he did. He heard a voice scream
“Koby!”
Ewatomi. He had to win this, for her. He had to live. He grabbed the foot and pulled. Hard. The giant fell down again and Koby dragged himself up. 

Gathering what was left of his strength, he waited for the giant to stand.
As the giant rose shakily to his feet, Koby looked him directly in the eye and said.
Saanu mi.“*
*Forgive me. 
And with a shout he kicked him far off the stage with all his might, straight into the ring of spears that surrounded them.
Slaves crumpled under the giant’s weight, but the spears did not.

The giant was impaled. He stretched his hand out, as if to grasp something, then it fell to the ground. 
He died.
As Mr Stone’s voice announced

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!”

Koby closed his eyes, and overcome by pain, fell to the ground in a heap, totally unconscious.

NEGRITUDE part 5

By noon the next day, they arrived at their destination. Stopping at the outskirts of town, Mr Stone had some of the slaves line up in front of the wagon, wearing shiny attire, with drums and trumpets. Others he loaded with flyers. And then the parade began.
As they made their way into the town, people craned their necks, peeling from behind doors, shops and salons to catch a glimpse.

A whip cracked and the procession came to a halt. The noisemakers ceased their noise and Mr Stone’s voice rang out, loud and clear.
“Hear! Hear!! Good people, I bring you much fun and merriment! 

A gladiator fight, a gladiator fight I tell ya, and all are invited for a small fee; two dollars!

Come see men battle for honor and glory! Come see blood! Come see a man tear another apart with his bare hands! Come see a sight like none you’ve ever seen before, or ever will see again, right here, on this here ground, by this time tomorrow!

See you then, my friends!!!”
And with that, the whip cracked again and the procession started moving again. They made a few more strategic stops where the same words were repeated before they finally left to set up camp on the outskirts of town.
Meanwhile, back in the cage, time slowed into a crawl for it’s lone occupant. Too tense to sleep, he occupied himself with little tasks, like counting the iron bars of his prison, flicking sweat at them, at plotting different ways of killing Mr. Stone. 

You know, nothing much.
Lost in a particularly pleasant daydream where Mr. Stone was being squeezed slowly but surely to death by a huge snake, Koby did not hear the tinkling sound at first.

When it eventually caught his attention, he looked up from the squiggles he had been making on the sawdust floor of the cage to discover it was night already.
And Ewatomi waited patiently with a covered plate.
“Hello Koby.” She stretched her arms through the food slot at the bottom of the iron bars. He collected it gratefully and set it aside.
“Hello. How do you get the food again? You give- someone something?”
“You mean did I bribe someone? And yes, I did. I told the cook he could have a bit of the money Master would give us at the end of the year.”
“Money?”
“Yes. He is saving to buy his freedom. And master gives us a bit of money at the end of the year. It’s not much, but over time, you can buy your freedom if you’re careful and don’t spend everything.”
“You call him, ‘Master’?”
“Yes. He is master. He out a hot iron on us to tell us we don’t belong to Eledumare anymore. We belong to a man now.  Him. He’s master.”
There was a long, awkward pause. Then Koby spoke up.
“He’s not my master.”
Eyes wide with fear, she swung her head from side to side to see if anyone else had heard the mutinous comment.

“Be careful Koby, not everyone thinks-”
His hand shot out from between the bars and gripped her by the arm. She was startled, then relaxed. He drew her close, close enough for their noses to touch, but for the bars of the cage. Then he whispered, so quietly that no one but her could hear it;
“I have no master.”
She nodded. He nodded too, then let her go. He picked a spoon and out some of the porridge in his mouth, chewing slowly before swallowing.
“So, why did you- br- bribe cook?”
She turned her gaze downwards, and gathering the hem of her skirts in one hand, fiddled with them.

She would not meet his eyes.
“You can talk to me. I’m not like other men.”
“I know.”
“Good. Now why bribe cook?”
She took a deep breath.

“I like you Koby. I like you very much.” As she spoke she raised her head, and when she said the last two words, she was staring him in the eye.
Koby smiled, put his spoon down and set his plate aside. His hand snaked out and traced the outline of her strong, pretty nose.
“I like you too. Very very much.”
After he ate his meal, she took his plate back to the cook, and came to sit by his cage. Through the iron bars, they held hands and talked, and this was how they were, girl sitting on a crate beside the cage, boy flat on his belly, hands intertwined, when sleep came, and took them to a better place.
For a short while.
The following morning, Koby stirred out of a deep sleep, feeling the most restful since his feet touched the strange sands of this place.
As the events of the previous evening came back to him, he wondered where Ewatomi was.
“Ewatomi?”
There was a soft moaning sound and a head came up, to the level of the cage floor. Hair scattered, eyes unfocused with twigs and leaves stuck to her hair, clothes and face, Koby thought to himself that she had never looked more beautiful.
Her mouth opened up in a little yawn, her eyes focused and she jumped to her feet.
“Eledumare! Look at us. I must go to change. There’s no good if we are caught like this.”
Koby grunted in agreement. But she didn’t make any move to leave and he didn’t remind her. They were both lost in each other’s eyes.
“I might not come back today Ewatomi.”
“You must.” This was said with much conviction.
“I don’t know. I am not an orisha.* I die too.”

* One of the gods that make up the Yoruba pantheon.

“Yes. But not today.”

Her hand came through the bar and he grasped it.
“No, not today.” He agreed. She put her hand in her hair and removed a pink ribbon and gave it to him.

He accepted it and put it in the pocket of the trousers, which apart from the dusty shirt was all he had to wear.
“When you go to the ring, I’ll go with you.”
He held the ribbon to his nose and took a slow, deep, breath, holding it for as long as he could before releasing it.
He added another reason to his list of reasons to live and leave.

“No. I not die today.”

NEGRITUDE part 4


The next morning, Mr Stone had his prize fighter brought before him.
“Trust the wench was to your liking eh?”

He made some obscene gestures and chuckled. When the only answer forthcoming was a grunt, he shrugged and continued
“Well you my friend, have made me a rich fella. But then I started thinking. If I could make so much from this here town, imagine how much I could make if our show hit the road! So saddle up blackie, you and I are hitting the road!”
Again, Koby simply grunted.
And that was all till the end of the week. There was some packing to be done of course and a retinue of slaves prepared to wait on Mr Stone hand and foot. Fruits were cut, dried and put in jars, meat and fish were cut into strips and left on hot coal, slowly hardening as they were smoked into perfection.
Clothes were washed. Oh, a lot of clothes were washed. Mr Stone was a showman, and every showman needs his costumes.
Last but not the least, Koby was prepared. When the day for the journey finally arrived, Koby was dragged out, bound hand and foot and thrown into a huge cage with wheels. There was a bowl and a cup on the ground, and a small but clean mattress. There was enough space to stand and even walk a bit and stretch one’s legs. The cage even had it’s top covered so he wasn’t exposed to the mercy of the elements.
All of this, Mr Stone gladly pointed out in a cheery voice, tapping each item as he explained how it was another luxury to show just how much he valued his moneymaker.
Koby grunted. A cage, no matter how beautiful, remained a cage. He wanted to be free. After a few settled scores, of course.
The cage was attached to a wagon, the wagon was loaded, and with a wave and a happy shout of “Be back soon lads!” They were off.
With so many slaves walking together on foot beside the wagons and the cage, the journey was slow.

The cage creaked and was jolted as every bump in the road. After a while, Koby got used to the rhythm; enough to settle down for a nap on the small mattress. Idly, he wondered when his bonds would come off. Not anytime soon, he thought. Best to conserve his strength. Soon he was dozing.
The cart stopped with a big jolt, and Koby woke up. He yawned and rubbed at his eyes with his forearms, and then yawned.
“Good! You’re awake! It’s almost time for feeding! You’re having porridge! Isn’t that wonderful, my good man?”
When Koby only grunted in response, Mr Stone stuck his hands in his pockets and walked away, whistling a tune and tapping his feet to keep the beat.
When evening fell, a slave girl came with a platter of food to give him. He tasted some of it, picked a grape and bit into it, nodded and flicked a thumb at Koby’s cage. The slave came bearing the food. As the she got closer, Koby saw it was Ewatomi.
She passes him the food through a slot at the bottom of the cage. He picked it up and ate. Soon he would be fighting for his life. He needed to keep up his strength. Mr Stone must have thought the same, because there were berries and strips of dried meat and fish in his porridge.
“He likes you, you know. He doesn’t normally give us fish, or meat. Or even taste the food we eat.”
“He… Like what I am to him. Money.”
“You understand far more than you show, Adekogbe.”
“Is not my name. My name be different.”
“What is your name then?”
Koby lifted his manacled hands so she could see them.

“Not while I have this. Never. Till I- off this.”
“So? Adekogbe?”
“Koby. For now.”
A few minutes later, the wagon door creaked open, and a male slave came out with the used dishes. There was another creak, and yet another, and then there was Mr Stone, leaning against the wall of the wagon.
“I reckon I’m feeling frisky right about now. Let me see…”
A hush fell over the camp. Female slaves shuffled faster, their eyes fixed downwards, and feet moving quickly as they moved from place to place.
“Hey! You! That girl!” The girl in question froze like a rabbit in the glare of twin headlamps. Then she raised her head slowly. There was no denying it, she was beautiful; full lips, curly hair, shiny, chocolate skin and a very neat uniform.

She was also young. From the way she looked, Koby guessed she had not seen more than eighteen harmattans.
“Me sir?”
“Yes you. Git over here and be damn quick with it.”

She walked towards the cart with small mincing steps. Just before she got to the cart, a man howled and lunged for her. Mr Stone got out his gun and fired- the gunshot as loud as thunder in the silence that lay over the clearing. The man who had been shot fell into a heap.
The girl looked at the man and stifled a sob. Mr Stone reaches out and grabbed her arm, dragging her into the wagon and slamming the door shut behind them.
As soon as the door was shut, a few slaves ran forward and lifted the man from the ground. He groaned. He was still alive. Together they rushed him off, into the darkness.
“Why don’t they do it immi- imidi-”
“Immediately?”
“Yes. That.”
“Mr Stone would just shoot anyone who helped him right then. Best to let him be off before helping.”

A scream rang out from inside the wagon and then crying followed, deep, terrible sobs.

“Mr Stone please.”
“Mr Stone, no.”
“Please, God, anyone, help me!”
The heavens were silent.

Slowly the wagon started to rock from side to side.
Ten minutes later, the wagon door flew open. The slave girl was pushed outside, she stumbled and fell. The wagon door slammed shut after her.
As she lay in the dirt, tears trickling down her face, the slave girl gathered her clothes into a bunch in her fist and bit down on it. A matronly woman stepped forward with a shawl and lifting her to her feet, covered her up with it. But just before the shawl covered everything, Koby saw a bright red stain at the back of her dress. With soft words the woman led the girl away. And the camp once again bustled with activity.
“The man. Who was he?”
“Her father.” Looking in the direction the girl and her guardian had gone, Ewatomi mumbled softly.

“Could have been me again.”
And Koby added one more score to settle…

NEGRITUDE part 3


That morning dawned clean and bright like any other. But it was no ordinary morning, no you see, Mr Stone was opening his salon. And he had gotten a lot of people to pay the steep entrance fee of five pounds with the most delicious of lures-

For their entertainment, a man would die that morning!
With pomp and pageantry, the first fighter was led on stage. No one knew his name, they just called him “the cannibal” because a few months ago, at the first fighter of this nature also organized by Mr Stone, he had fallen on the corpse of his opponent after killing him and hurriedly consumed great portions of flesh before the thugs refereeing the match could pull him off. No one among the crowd knew that he was half-mad, driven to that point by starvation, constant whippings and torture. All they knew was that he was vicious. And they loved to see him fight.

Even today, he was bound tightly with hempen rope. Once he had found the soft patch of earth that served as the arena, they cut him free, keeping him in check with sharpened sticks and curses.
Koby was also led to the arena. The crowd did not know him, but they went crazy nonetheless. Afterall, this was the man who would face  the cannibal. And without further ado, the cannibal launched himself at his prey and the match began.

Koby dodged easily, slamming his elbow into the small of the other man’s back. The cannibal stumbled and fell. The crowd went wild.
The cannibal scrambled to his feet and came again. Koby made a quick feint, went the other direction and grabbing the cannibal by the middle, lifted him clean off the ground.
With a mighty THUMP! he slammed him against the ground. And then stepped away. The crowd went insane. 

The cannibal came to his feet again and lurched for Koby, swaying on his feet like a drunkard.

Koby dodged the flailing hands and caught him around the neck with the inside of his elbow. Like a vise he began to squeeze.
The cannibal flailed and struggled but every thrust and push was weaker than the one before until finally he shuddered and grew still, pink tongue lolling out awkwardly.
Koby gently let the body to the ground and pushed the tongue back in. Then he closed his eyes. And with the crowd watching and telling for more he said quietly
“Sun rere ore, ma gbesan.”*
*Sleep well friend, I will have our revenge.
The thugs rushed in to clear the corpse and Mr Stone came in to work the crowd with promises of another match with even more spectacular fighters.
_____________________
That evening, Koby was taken to a separate room. It was cleaner than the other and he had it all to himself.

He had just washed his face and hands when the door was pulled open and a girl shoved into it. The door was slammed shut.

He turned to look at her. She was a pitiful sight, curled there on the ground with her arms round her knees, whimpering. He knew what they expected him to do with her And it disgusted him. He walked over to the girl as she sobbed. When he touched her shoulder, she yelped. Then remembering no one would come to her and she cried even harder. 

Koby did not want the white men knowing, but he had picked up a bit of english from the long voyage back.

He used this now to put the girl at ease.

“I not hurt you. I swear.”
She looked up at him in shock. 

“You speak english?”
“Small. Tell no one. It is secret.” He put a finger across his lips to fully pass his message across.
“I- I won’t.”
“Here. How long?”
“Many many years. Since I was a little girl.”
“This thing they do to you. Everytime?”
“No. Not everytime, thank Eledumare.* But once in a while, yes. And I suffer.”
*The Yoruba title for God, the supreme being and ruler of the universe.
“Se omo Yoruba ni o ni?*
*Are you Yoruba?
The girl nodded, still scared despite his promise. He lifted her to her feet and wiped her tears. His door was pushed open and food was pushed in, and again, the door was slammed.
He scratched his head at this odd behaviour until the girl explained that the room he was in now, once belonged to the cannibal. The servants were scared of him, a man who could have defeated a beast like the cannibal, and bare handed too.
It was this fear that caused them to behave the way they did. He chuckled and asked her of her name. She told him. Ewatomi*

*A name which when interpreted literally means; I am satisfied with beauty
He held her face up to better see it by the light of the single candle in the room and agreed that indeed, she was beautiful. Then he shared his meal and they stayed up talking till the strange hours of the night…