Slavery Stole My Identity
by Brian Moyo
MOTHER said I should have been born on the African continent, under cloudless skies; in the village of Kororo. The village was like a living monument in Mother's mind, so vividly did she describe the landscape; a place of lolling hills and ever green pastures where cows and goats fed on lush grass all day until their skins shone as if they had been polished.
Mother narrated endlessly about a great river which cut through Kororo, zigzagging through gorges, sweeping past mangrove swamps; carrying dead animals and dead trees, leaving in its wake a thunderous roar which could be heard throughout Kororo.
Mother said the great river sang a song as it meandered towards a distant ocean; it went like this:
Kororo! Kororo! Make way for my swift water.
Mother's soft clear voice, cool as a stream, made the words tremble with emotion. And each time Mother sang the river song, she reminded me that I should have been born in that far away place, the land of my ancestors where the sun shone daily and the air was tinged with an aroma of wild flowers; a place where bird song testified daily to nature's wonders.
In my young mind - I was about six if I remember correctly, this story of my misfortune to be born in a strange land, far away from my rightful birthplace, became a fixed point of constant reflection and puzzlement.
My head swooned with the legendary tales of Kororo. I could visualise its tall proud warriors dancing under moonlight, their spears pointing to the sky. I could envision too the elegant women of Kororo, whose beauty drew men from distant villages like moth to light. In the fullness of time, it transpired to me that Mother could never talk about this tantalising dreamy village, without making her heart bleed.
Kororo, it seemed, was inextricably linked to all Mother's woes, her hopes and her twisted fate. Mother even lamented the fact that her umbilical cord, after she had given birth to me, had not, as by right, been thrown into the nameless river which sang wistfully as it cut through Kororo.
"You are the first Kororo child, as far as I know, whose umbilical code was not given to the river. How that will affect your life, I cannot even start to imagine," Mother said one day.
Then one night, Mother told me the full story of why I wasn't born in Kororo.
It was very late at night. We were alone in our little hut. The dying embers in the hearth; at the centre of our hut, provided the only source of light.
I was feeling sleepy as it was long past my bedtime. For some reason, Mother hadn't sent me to bed at the usual time. Supper had been a long drawn affair and my stomach was bloated. I had over indulged on roasted sweet potatoes and pumpkin we had for super and I had also drunk a lot of water.
Mother suddenly placed her hand tenderly on my shoulder. And speaking slowly, with a measured tone of voice; she said: "Kofi, today I will tell you the reason why you were not born in Kororo." Kofi was the name Mother called me by when we were alone. I liked that name. I preferred it to James, the name everyone called me by.
I stared at the shadowy profile of my mother, trying to read her thoughts. Her long narrow face was only inches away from mine. In her big round eyes was reflected the deep red colour of the embers in the hearth.
Her eyes seemed to be on fire. She was smiling; not her usual sort of smile though. This smile, like the tone of her voice, had an unusual resonance to it; as if she had erected it for a special purpose.
Outside, the disjointed night noises were getting louder. The uncoordinated choir of chirping, whining, hooting and rustling noises which sang outside at night always fascinated me.
Every night I pricked my ears to those strange noises, imagining all sorts of monsters coming out of their hiding places to play, safe in the knowledge that all humans were asleep indoors.
Darkness, it seemed to me, conspired to play host to strange furry monsters prowling only a few feet from our hut.
"You must have noticed by now, Kofi, that you and I look different from everyone else," Mother said. I had certainly noticed that. Master Crayfish was white; his wife was white and all their servants were white. Only Mother and I were black.
"The country we live in is called America," Mother explained. "The reason why we live in America is this: I was bought by Master Crayfish from slave traders who captured me in Kororo when I was a young maid carrying you in my tummy." She patted her tummy.
A long bright tear slid down slowly from the corner of her right eye. She sniffed and quickly wiped the tear off with the back of her hand.
"I was one of the unfortunate ones to be captured and sold into slavery, Kofi," Mother said. "Oh! If only your father had been there! No one would have dared to touch me. He would have fought like a lion to protect my honour. And I would have given birth to you in Kororo. But evil has its ways. That is why I am here with you my son. Always remember this; our home is in Kororo. You are the son of Jinka, a warrior among warriors!
"You are the son of a great man, Kofi! The great warrior of Kororo! You belong to Kororo the village where the sun takes its bath before showing its face to the whole world. In Kororo, we would have lived happily among our family and friends. Here we are nothing, Kofi, nothing but slaves!"
Then Mother began to cry.
On that occasion, I couldn't really make sense of her emotions; neither did I understand the meaning of the word slave; a word which I instinctively learnt to detest.
Apart from the fact that my father was Jinka, the great warrior of Kororo, I didn't absorb much else of what Mother told me that night. But I sensed that some tragic event in Mother's past was the reason we were the only black people in Master Crayfish's household; the reason we lived in America and not in Kororo; the reason I had been named, James Crayfish.
Over the next coming weeks Mother related segments of the whole saga to me. And with each episode, scales of ignorance fell from my eyes. Each time Mother told the story, she added some new detail; fresh fascinating details which captivated my imagination. By dint of this repetition it began to dawn on me why Mother and I were treated differently to everyone else in Master Crayfish's household.
Her story made me long for the mysterious village of Kororo. I took the cue from Mother's late night stories to imagine Kororo as a charmed village, a place full of happy children running around naked.
Mother said I would have had many friends there; and that my days would have been filled with fun games played under the shadows of fruit trees. I wouldn't have been the only child around like I was in Master Crayfish's Castle. This teaser, that I would have had many friends, played well in my imagination. I wanted so much to be part of that mysterious village.
And when Mother said she hoped that one day we would both return to Kororo, my spirits were lifted – until she added that we weren't free to leave America. That's what slavery meant!
But she couldn't stop dreaming. She longed to hear the laughter of Kororo maidens on their way to fetch water; to hear cow bells ringing across the green fields and to see smoke rising from the little thatched grass huts dotted across Kororo village.
Her greatest wish was that I would one day go back to Kororo and grow into a bold warrior, marry a local girl and present her with sturdy grand-children.
Mother's masterly story telling developed a living image of Kororo in my mind. I imagined my future wife in Kororo, singing with her friends under moonlight, fetching fire wood and plastering the walls of our little huts with red earth, and the floor with cow dung.
That idyllic life style, which Mother retained stubbornly in her mind and transferred to me through her mastery story telling, had come to a sudden end one sunny day when she was a young woman.
Slave drivers had charged into Kororo like demons, brandishing guns, whips and nets. Mother was convinced that they chose that particular day because someone must have told them that the Kororo worriors were away fighting against a neighbouring village three days away.
How my heart lurched when Mother told me that my father was commanding that army!
The slave hunters had apparently anchored their ship and bided their time. They marched along the great nameless river into the hinterland.
Dawn found them in Kororo where they quickly recruited spies who knew the layout of the village. Then they began their task in earnest, snatching every fit person they came across, men, women and children; it didn't matter. Only the old and the handicapped were spared the one way trip to the ship.
Mother was one of the unfortunate ones to be carried away bound and gagged into the slave ship. It was in the year of our Lord 1800.
Mother herself didn't know she was pregnant when a big Kororo man, called, Dinki, dragged her screaming from the river bank where she was bathing.
She only became aware of Dinki when his shadow fell across the water near the spot where she stood. Dinki was accompanied by a white man who was carrying a gun.
"As a rule, Kororo men never went to that part of the river. It was a bathing place strictly reserved for Kororo women; every villager knew that," Mother said.
Dinki quickly muffled Mother's screams by forcing a piece of cloth into her mouth. He tied up her hands and legs and slapped her mercilessly when she tried to wriggle free.
Meanwhile, his white accomplice was watching, laughing and urging Dinki to work faster. After Dinki had subdued Mother, he threw her over his broad shoulders and the two men disappeared into the bush as quickly as they had appeared.
Mother only realised what had befallen her when she was thrown on board a slave ship. To her utter horror and surprise she found scores of men, women and children from Kororo already shackled on the ship.
"Children were screaming and begging their mothers and fathers to stop the swarthy group of men with whips from beating them," Mother recalled. "But everyone was being thrashed. Grown men were cowering like children. A few brave men tried to fight back but they were crushed down with heavy clubs and left bleeding on the deck. Several men were killed."
Then Mother saw old Nzo, the chief of Kororo. She said her heart nearly stopped beating when she realised that the man who sat silently and withdrawn on the deck, with congealed blood on his forehead, was the Kororo chief.
The great chief of Kororo, famed for his strength, wisdom and kindness, had been reduced to a whimpering wreck. His warriors were too far to save him and his people.
"I felt my spirits crumble at the sight of Chief Nzo," Mother said. "If these strangers could do that to a man whose authority was revered throughout Kororo, how could a simple woman like me hope to escape?
"Even now as I speak to you my son, I can see old Nzo's face, shrunken and dispirited. He was an old man surrendering to death. But then all of a sudden, he remembered who he was. He sat up and started to sing the Kororo song of defiance, clandestinely calling on every man, woman and child to resist and overcome our captors.
"One of the guards, a Kororo man called Mba, who had been shamelessly bribed to work for our captors, was standing over Chief Nzo. He said: ‘Stop singing old man! You are upsetting the white people. If you open your stupid mouth just one more time and sing your stupid song I will kill you!'
Nzo's eyes fluttered and a strange smile lit his face. He looked as though he was in a trance. He started singing louder. Mba swung the club and knocked some of old Nzo's teeth out. But old Nzo continued singing and Mba continued to hit him. Still, old Nzo sang, his voice gradually becoming thinner and thinner; his words more and more muted.
Finally no words came out. His mouth was full of blood. But his trembling lips continued to move.
"All that humiliation of our chief was the work of Mba. His white masters didn't lift a finger. They stood watching and grinning," Mother said. "One white man ordered two Kororo captives to throw Chief Nzo's body overboard. They simply lifted the chief's body and threw it without ceremony into the sea. Somehow, I don't think old Nzo was dead by the time his body hit the water. After that there were no more revolts. Big men were ready to obey like children.
"A day later, the ship sailed away, carrying us to lands never visited by our forefathers. Sometimes I dream that Old Nzo swam out and went back to raise Kororo from the ashes!"
Mother recalled the chaotic scenes which unfolded on the ship during its long journey to America as if they happened yesterday. For her, the shock of suddenly becoming a captive, and the horror of being separated from her new husband and her family and friends was too much to bear. She kept hoping that she was dreaming; that she would wake up from the nightmare.
She said Kororo had never experienced anything as traumatic or as barbaric as the day the slave hunters raided. The village had had its fair share of skirmishes with neighbouring villages, often over grazing land. Sometimes these conflicts degenerated into wars, with both sides arming themselves with spears, axes and clubs.
But even so, Kororo had never lost more than a handful of men in such battles over many years. Common sense always prevailed when a few warriors were killed or sustained wounds. Leaders from both sides; would call a halt to the conflict. Emissaries were sent to negotiate and life would get back to normal until another incident sparked a new conflict.
The slave traders though were not at war. They had descended on the Kororo simply to rob it of its people!
Mother said the full horror of what enslavement entailed only dawned on her when she was pushed below deck, chained like a wild animal. There was hardly an inch between the chained sweaty bodies. The smell of human waste and unwashed bodies was so sickening many people fainted.
Now and again the guards came and removed the dead or the dying and threw them overboard. Food was scarce. The slaves were fed once a day and many lost their lives by simply refusing to eat the dry bread and boiled cassava given to them.
Mother's pregnancy only became apparent during the three month journey to America; on the high seas, far from land and from the sea gulls which had accosted the ship part of the way, screeching horrendously as if protesting on behalf of the human cargo onboard.
Upon receiving news that there was a pregnant woman among his prized catch, the captain of the ship, a fiery tempered man had at once resolved to throw Mother overboard and end the matter there. He didn't see why he should be lumbered with a slave who would need to be fed more than her fair share to keep her unborn baby healthy.
Luckily, for mother a pipe smoking farmer who had apparently joined the ship on a sight seeing venture, had offered to buy mother from the captain.
That man was Master Crayfish. He had taken possession of Mother when the ship docked in America, telling her that he had saved her from labouring in tobacco plantations. He put her to good use as a domestic slave in his countryside mansion in Virginia, which he preferred to call a Castle.
I was born under the custody of Master Crayfish.
Crayfish's Castle stood on a hill in the middle of a vast forest. His servants lived in little wooden cabins dotted around the Castle like beads on a string.
Our cabin, the smallest of them all, was just behind the stables. And because there were no other children on Master Crayfish's farm, horses were the first things to win my fixation.
I watched them in their stables, studied their huge watery eyes and wondered why they were so huge and why they purred so much; occasionally stamping their hooves on the ground and releasing hot air through their flared nostrils.
Fat birds known as grouse, nestled in their hundreds within the forest. I later learnt that the birds were fed a lot of corn so they became so fat they struggled to fly.
The birds certainly presented easy targets for Master Crayfish and his pipe smoking friends in the summer when they congregated with their long guns and shot the birds as they flew ungainly from the ground after being disturbed. Tommy, a kindly dwarf who looked after Master Crayfish's horses, taught me how to drive the birds out into the open air so they could be shot. Tommy also taught me how to read and write.
Tommy was always kind to me. I helped him pick up the dead grouse. Their bodies were still warm and smelt of the forest when we took them to Mother to cook in the kitchen.
The picture of Mother and I in Mr Crayfish's household represents in my imagination, my formative years. This was a period in which many things were either unclear, confusing and at times utterly traumatizing, but in ways I couldn't have articulated then.
As she worked in the kitchen, Mother sang. The beautiful timbre of her voice echoed within the kitchen walls, vibrating against the dishes and the pans.
She sang Kororo songs; timeless joyous songs which sparked in my little mind images of the rolling hills of Kororo; cows feeding on the rich pastures and the little grass thatched huts basking under the enervating sunshine.
One day while I was helping Mother in the kitchen, Master Crayfish, summoned her to his study.
"Mary!" he shouted. Mother's real name was Asani, but nobody ever called her by that name.
I followed Mother out of the kitchen and saw Master Crayfish leaning over the banister rail outside his study, glaring down at us. He winked at Mother, jerked his head towards the study and disappeared inside.
Although I was about eight years old at the time, I had a sudden premonition that Master Crayfish's summons bore an evil intent towards Mother. And the pained look which jumped into her eyes confirmed this. She said: "James, go outside and play."
In private, Mother always called me; Kofi.
I held on to Mother's hand, a vague fear of what awaited her in Master's Crayfish's playing in my mind. I wished then that my father could somehow appear; beat Master Crayfish with a thick stick and take us away from the Castle; back to Kororo to live among our own people!
Mother pulled her hand gently out of my grasp.
"I have to go up to Master Crayfish's office," she whispered. "I won't be long."
"Can I come with you?"
"No!" she said firmly. "Stay in the kitchen or go to the stables and help Tommy groom the horses. I will be back soon."
I watched Mother going up the steps. Halfway up, she turned and smiled at me. She smiled resignedly, like an angel about to enter the gates of hell. I didn't want Mother to go into Master Crayfish's office and be alone with him. I sensed that something was not right about that.
From that day I hated everything about that man; hated his small hard eyes, his thin firm lips and his crooked walking stick with which he sometimes lashed at his helpless servants.
I took a few hesitant steps and stopped at the foot of the steps.
Mother turned around and wagged a warning finger at me. I gripped the smooth banister rail, struggling with my confused fears. Mother vanished behind the oak panelled door into Master Crayfish's office.
I waited. I don't know for how long.
When she finally came out she looked surprised to see me still standing at the foot of the steps. She came down, took my hand and led me back to the kitchen where her duties awaited her.
The kitchen was our own little world. I followed Mother around as she washed dishes, prepared meals, washed more plates and pots after dinner and swept the floor.
We spent so much time in there that I could have found the special places where the cutlery, pots and pans were kept, with my eyes closed. I even knew the crevices where mice darted in and out, while keeping a wary eye for the Castle cat.
Master Crayfish's ginger cat used to appear as if by magic and pounce on any mouse foolish enough to linger in the open for more than a few seconds.
Many times later when Master Crayfish routinely summoned Mother to his study, I felt I was to blame for her ordeal. I struggled with vague feelings that I might have done something wrong and that Master Crayfish was punishing Mother for my misdemeanours. At the back of all these torments was my enduring pining for Kororo, the land so beautifully implanted in my mind by Mother's nightly tales.
Gradually, I began to realise that Mother always sang one particular song after she had been to Master Crayfish's office. That song always invoked a strange tremor in her voice. Her voice was always highly pitched, rising assiduously with each refrain until it reached a pulsating crescendo.
When Mother sang like that, torturing her own heart, other household servants stopped whatever they were doing, tiptoed to the kitchen door and watched her in deep silence. They gaped at us, me clinging proudly to her long dress, feeling the echo of her trembling voice flowing through the thin material.
Mother seemed unaware of the power of that song. She seemed oblivious too of its mesmerising power on the Castle servants who crowded around the doorway as if they had been summoned by a Sage.
As she sang she continued with her chores, now cleaning the wooden surface of the work space in the kitchen or drying pans and pots before putting them in their designated places.
I don't know what Master Crayfish thought about Mother's singing. Sitting up there in his study smoking his pipe and drinking his whisky, he must have heard her too. But he never once came down to the kitchen.
Strange as it may seem, what I know of Master Crayfish, who by virtue of owning my mother, also owned me, doesn't amount to much.
The main picture of this man which I carry from scraps of memories buried deep in my mind, is of a stooping figure engulfed in pipe smoke, taking short deliberate steps around the courtyard, his heavy boots crushing the ground.
On Sundays I used to watch him climbing into his horse drawn cart, accompanied by his wife, to be driven to church by Tommy. I don't recall ever seeing Master Crayfish smiling, laughing or speaking kindly to anyone; not even to his wife whom he treated slightly better than his servants.
In her own way, Mrs Crayfish was a kind woman. She never shouted at the servants like her husband. Her life seemed to revolve around her vegetable garden where she spent many hours planting or cultivating all sorts of vegetables.
The welfare of her chickens was a duty she closely supervised and monitored. She saw to it that her chickens were fed properly and that the water urns were replenished daily. She took great pleasure in collecting freshly laid eggs from the chicken run every morning, placing them in a basket woven from reeds.
I found it strange that Lady Crayfish spoke to her chickens. She was fond of chastising them for laying few eggs, but always with the voice of a dotting mother rebuking her much loved offspring. But away from her chickens and the vegetable garden, her soulless existence in a household in which she was bereft of any power was all too clear to everyone.
I used to hide in doorways or under the flight of steps and watch her shuffle past, her small eyes peering short-sightedly behind the bonnet covering her head.
I was nearly ten years old when mother died.
The previous night, after a supper of boiled cabbage and potatoes, Mother had gone to bed complaining of a stomach ache. I had noticed in the past few weeks that her stomach had become unusually big, but she never told me why it had become like that.
Her face was sweaty, her eyes screwed up in pain. Her eyes, usually round and full of life had sunk deeper. I watched her as she bent forward constantly, pressing her hands hard on her stomach. I asked if she was ill. But she shook her head and tried her best to smile.
Then she drew me close to her and said: "Kofi, have you ever seen leaves falling from a tree?" She had never spoken in such riddles to me before.
She continued: "Old leaves break off from the tree and float slowly until they land on the ground. Do you know why? It is because they are reluctant to leave the tree, their mother. You see, tree leaves are like children to the tree. But the changing seasons and the wind loosens some of them from the tree, because everything changes. Do you understand that, Kofi?"
I nodded although in truth I was baffled.
"I can never look at leaves falling off a tree without wondering what makes some fall off while others cling on to the tree," Mother said.
Then she did something she had never done before. She unclasped the wooden necklace from around her neck and laced it around mine.
She stepped back, smiled and said: "You must always wear that necklace, Kofi. Do you hear me, child? And always remember everything I have told you; especially that you belong to Kororo. You should have been born in Kororo. Do not forget that name."
Suddenly mother sounded tired.
Beads of perspiration were breaking all over her face, making it glow uncannily. "Never take the necklace off, even when you are bathing," she added gravely.
I nodded, suddenly sensing that something ominous was coming between us. My very last impression of Mother was of the tall beautiful figure muzzled by pain, standing by the fireside, her reflection from the flame dancing hazily against the far wall. Tears were steaming down her cheeks.
I started crying too, but she told me not to cry, that I should go to bed and she would be alright in the morning. She tucked me in bed and I promptly fell asleep.
It wasn't until I woke up in the morning and saw through a shaft of sunlight coming through the curtain less window one of the Castle chambermaids sitting quietly by my bedside, that I sensed that something was wrong.
I blinked, sat up and rubbed my eyes, turning sharply towards Mother's bed. It was empty. Her bedding had been rolled up. Her clothes had been piled up neatly on a stool she kept by her bedside.
"Where is my Mother?" I asked standing up.
The chambermaid whose name was Mary, didn't answer me. She merely reached out, took my hand and rubbed it gently, shaking her head mysteriously and mumbling something to herself. I was confused. I wanted to get away from her and go and find Mother.
Why hadn't she woken me up as she usually did?
When I tried to free my hand, Mary increased her grip saying: "Poor child, poor child! Your mother is gone."
Later that morning, Lady Crayfish told me that Mother had passed to another world. At first I didn't believe her, neither did I really understand what she meant by that. It was simply absurd to suggest that Mother could depart for another world and leave me behind. We had always been together; she couldn't possibly go anywhere without me.
Although I quickly deduced from the sorrowful faces of Master Crayfish's servants and from the furtive glances everyone was throwing at me, that something terrible had happened; I couldn't bring myself to accept that I wouldn't see Mother again.
Mrs Crayfish tried to pacify me by saying that Mother had gone to live with God in heaven; a much better place than earth. Inadvertently, she didn't realise that such an idea made Mother's disappearance all the more beguiling and harder for me to accept. Why wouldn't Mother want to take me with her if she was going to a better place?
That afternoon I was woken by the sound of hammering and banging from the workshop behind the servants' quarters. I had cried myself into a fitful sleep and I was very tired. I went out and saw two of Master Crayfish's servants hastily constructing a wooden coffin.
They stopped work when they saw me peering at them from the corner of the workshop. They shuffled about, staring at me as if I had caught them in the act of committing a dastardly crime.
Lady Crayfish appeared, seized me by the hand and dragged me away. But I had seen enough. And my heart started beating madly because the sight of that coffin confirmed what I desperately didn't want to acknowledge; that Mother was dead.
Just before sunset that day, I watched through the window of Mother's hut as Lady Crayfish led a small funeral procession down a narrow path leading to the burial grounds. Master Crayfish didn't join the group. That didn't surprise me.
Four men carried the coffin on their shoulders. They walked gingerly, just ahead of Lady Crayfish who was clad in black; taking slow deliberate steps as if they were reluctant to move at all. Four ashen faced maids, brought the rear. They were not dressed completely in black like Mrs Crayfish, but had wrapped black shawls around their shoulders.
I couldn't cry anymore even though I wanted to. A tight note had wedged itself inside my throat, burning it mercilessly and sending a singeing pain to the pith of my stomach.
I watched the procession until it disappeared over the brow of the forest while images of my Mother flashed before my eyes. Perhaps the lack of food made me hallucinate, for I hadn't touched any food since the previous evening.
I became convinced that Mother had tricked everyone into believing that she was dead. Perhaps that was her plan for us to escape back to Kororo? Was she going to appear at night, when everyone had gone to bed, and take me the coast where a ship would take us back to Kororo?
IN the evening, Lady Crayfish brought a plate of cookies and placed it in front of me. But I shrunk into a corner, feeling lonely, dejected and unloved. Even though I was almost faint with hunger, I couldn't bring myself to eat those cookies. Any idea of nourishment filled me with dread and it seemed to me the right thing to do when I shrugged off Lady Crayfish's hand whenever she tried to reach out to me.
I held out to the hope that when night fell, Mother would appear and and we would make good our escape, go back to Kororo and start a new life there. But things didn't work out that way.
Lady Crayfish insisted that I should be moved into the Castle to share a room with a maid whom she had chosen to be my surrogate mother.
In my dream that night, I saw Mother splendidly attired in a colourful rag. She was smiling and beckoning at me. Entranced by this vision, I walked up to her, my heart flowing with the most incredible emotions. She entwined my fingers into her warm fingers and guided me outside into a moonlit night.
"Kofi," she said. "You must start eating. Kororo needs you to grow into a strong man. Do you understand?" "Yes, mother," I replied in a shaky voice. "You have a duty to go back to Kororo," she said. "Your journey back will not be easy, but you will make it back there one day, my son!"
I was so moved by mother's words that I tried to hugged her. But she backed away smiling.
I woke up with a firm resolve in my heart that I would one day go back to Kororo.