I open my eyes from yet another failed attempt at sleep. The darkness wraps around me and is almost suffocating. Trying to move is useless. There are hundreds of us – attached together without room to move. Tilting my head to the side, I try to see beyond the person next to me.
I am unsure of the time we have been aboard this canoe house – there is hardly any light down here and it barely reaches us in the day. Any light we get is from a small, blackened hole in the ceiling.
When we were being put on the canoe house, the men were split up from the women. I am joined with my mamamuso and my little sister. My bama and fama – my mother and my father – were nowhere in sight.
I wonder now whether they managed to escape. Maybe later I might learn of their fate.
We are barely fed any food – just enough to keep us alive. It has been a long time since we have been given food and my stomach aches for more. When we are fed, all we receive are tiny pots of a sloppy, bitty mixture. Portions are little and are given to us on our necks. Since we cannot move our hands, we must find a way of tipping the bowl and licking the contents.
The smell down here is terrible. We are stacked above one another with little space to move. The layer above me is so close to my nose it worries me. I am scared that the above layers will fall and crush me. I do not wish to die so early on in this battle.
We are locked here constantly with no chance of being able to go to a separate place to keep sanitation good. I fear the wooden planks above us may start to leak.
It is stifling. The heat of too many bodies is locked into a condensed space without room to escape.
I dread due to the lack of sanitation that I may fall ill. Others have died in this canoe house and been left for days on end. Disease spreads quickly here and I can only hope that I am lucky. Regularly I find myself muttering silent prayers for my family, hoping that they may survive this torment.
Communication is near impossible for us. I find that everyone I can hear and that can hear me speaks another language. If we could understand each other, we may be able to plan a way to get away from the mokoyo. I wonder where the mokoyo that captured my family is. If I get a chance to kill him, so be it. I may be young, but I am not a fool.
Groans constantly fill my ears. People are in agony and confusion, unable to do anything about it. They are powerless against hidden forces. They are useless.
A quiet click rings out amongst the moaning and wailing of the other captured women. Beaming forcefully, a bright light enters the room. Screwing my eyes shut, I try not to shake with terror. I must be brave for my family and for my tribe.
“All right! Shut up! We’re going to give you your exercise! Come on! Go!” I cannot understand much of his language, but I sense the urgency.
My feet are pulled and the cold, tight restraints are removed. I try to aim a punch at this mokoyo’s face, but he expects it and grabs my fist. Pulling me in, he grins wickedly. I snarl and spit in his eye in return. Dirt travels down his unwashed face as the spit falls off him. Growling, he lets me go and pushes me to join the others he has freed.
Like cattle, we are herded onto the top of the canoe house. The sun once again shines onto my back and I truly know how stiff my body is.
One man, who is dressed fancier than the others, stands on a platform in front of us. Loudly, he shouts to another mokoyo. A message is sent through many of the less well dressed white men. By the way they are dressed, I assume they are not as powerful as the first man.
Understanding anyone else is impossible. Now, as the heavy sun beats onto my back, I think about what they really want with us.
We are not stronger than them, nor are we harbouring anything they would not be able to trade with us for. Work is just as hard, but their technology is much more advanced. I can see by the canoe house that they know more about where they live. All I have ever seen are the rapid, rushing rivers and vast plains of dry, scorching nothingness. They have taken us out of our territory, knowing we would be confused by all the change.
Salty air fills my lungs, the first of few real, deep breaths I have had since being aboard this canoe house.
Before I can think about what we are wanted for any more, I glimpse a battered and worn bucket being lowered by one of the white men, who are not as powerful as the first.
Apprehension grips the air, twisting the once free flowing winds. I struggle to breathe.
Slowly, the battered, worn bucket is raised. The rope scrapes along the side of the canoe house, freeing some of the looser threads. The noise cuts thinly through the fear that is spreading through the crowd of my fellow Africans.
With a clang, the bucket reaches the top of the canoe house. With some effort, the mokoyo drags the bucket onto the platform he is standing on.
“Let them have it!” Shouts the fancier dressed mokoyo. His face shows some guilt, but the look is gone as soon as it appeared. “They need to be cleaned and in good condition for sale when we dock!” Looking up at the clouds he adds, “Oh, and when you put them below deck again, make sure they are shackled tightly. We would not want them injured during the coming squall, now, would we?” Grinning wickedly, he turns to head back inside the canoe house.
“Aye, aye Captain!” Rings back through the air, bouncing off the huge poles and shivering along the vines that are coiled along the harsh wooden planks making up the floor.
Whips gripped tightly in their hands, a few white men surround us, caging us in. Panic is now tightly binding us, boxing us in. Grins spread evilly around the circle of white men. Closing in on us, we huddle together for safety.
It matters not that we do not know each other, or even that back at home we would be enemies. We huddle together for safety, each knowing that we cannot communicate in any way – even to say hello.
The surrounding atmosphere says it all for us.
Buckets of ice cold, salty water rain down on us. Trying to run away from the searing pain that rips across our backs, we are whipped by the white men that fence us in. There is no escape: we are trapped like animals. All we can do is scream in pain, waiting for the torture to end.
Eventually, the water is no longer thrown at us. Screams die down to whimpers and uncertainty once again finds its way through us.
Two men climb unsteadily onto a platform. This platform is different to the one that the fancily dressed man that is in charge stood on. A huge beam of wood – taller than a tree, yet masterfully crafted – stands tall on this one. I cannot see the top, but large pieces of cloth hang from each of the two sides.
Heavily, they sit down against the bottom of the pole. Another mokoyo tosses them something. From where I am standing, it looks like a drum and a machine. Concertinaed, thin animal skin joins two sides of the machine. As one they steadily start to play music. Sounds fill my ears, masking the rough waves rolling against the canoe house, the whimpers of other women and the hearty, ominous laughs of the white men.
Illusions cannot last for very long on this canoe house. Sooner or later, they fall to ash.
Cracking, whips are lashed at our feet. Looking when I dare, I can see the white men jumping wildly. motioning with their hands, they show they want everyone to jump and dance to the music. Those who either can not understand, or will not join in are whipped.
Still cornered and surrounded, we are forced to follow suit.
The wet, wooden boards prove hard to jump and dance on. It is near impossible to keep upright, especially in the waves of the women.
Impulsively almost, the huddle of women jumps and dances as one. I join in for fear of being whipped. If only we could do something about the terrible conditions, the limited amount of space, the amount of food. If only we could be back at home, living peaceful lives where we can, undisturbed by unknown white men from far away lands.
After a while, the dancing and jumping is over. Led like cattle once again, we are put back into the bottom of the canoe house. I do not know how long we were out there for, or even what time it is, but I have a foreboding feeling that it is not the last time we shall be forced against our will to do that.
Once again, we are locked into tiny spaces, restricted and scared. Each of us can see no more when our eyes are open, than when we are staring at the insides of our eyelids.