‘TALES OF JIDEOFOR’ by Mokwenye Ehis Ndudi (5/8)

Jideofor was the archetypical happy child with little worries. He lived in his small hamlet by the banks of Iyi Ukwu River. His small community was just by the outskirts of the great confederation of Aro communities. Jideofor’s daily living usually comprised of tending to his father’s goats with his younger siblings, Ifeoma and Ikweano. Although he was old enough to help out at the farms, his mother pampered him with too much care, saying she does not want his very light complexion to fade away in the sunlight. In the evenings, the youngsters of the community gathered at the hut of Oboli, the oldest man in the hamlet, to listen to his fantastic tales of the times past. Jideofor’s little bubble of happiness was burst into oblivion one hot high noon. He was indoors with his younger ones, with his father’s goats hiding away from the blazing sunlight by the shade of the avocado tree just in front of the hut. Ikweano was just preparing to sleep when they heard loud screams. Jideofor and his sister, Ifeoma rushed outside to investigate the reason for the screams. They had just gotten behind their hut when a huge masculine figure grabbed them from behind and held their mouths so tightly that they could not scream. They were dragged off to where the screams had originally emanated from, close to Oboli’s hut, just by Iyi Ukwu River. Every opportunity they had, they too screamed for help and tried to fight for their freedom. By the opposite bank of the river, they were tied tightly to a tree together with other youngsters their captors had caught. A man dressed in the traditional Aro warrior attire and face mask stood guard over them with a large club. Those who screamed, he would beat with his stick until they understood that it was better for them to sob quietly. The marauders had planned their attack on the hamlet perfectly; coming at high noon when all able-bodied persons who could wield a hoe was at their various farms. Only little children, pregnant women, the sick and the elderly were in their huts during the raid. Altogether, twelve children were stolen from their hamlet, and our pampered Jideofor was the oldest. They were tied together and made to trek towards the “evil forest”; a place they had been warned in Oboli’s stories never to venture towards, where the wild animals and the spirits of the forest were said to make their abode. After about five hours of their rigorous non-stop trek through the dense, dark jungle, they began to see signs of civilization again; smoke emanating from behind some huts. The younger ones amongst them were sorely exhausted and frightened, barely able to continue with their crying. Their captors were kind enough to offer them food and water when they arrived at these huts in the middle of nowhere at the heart of the rainforest. Most of the children refused to eat, but it turned out to be a rather silly decision as this would be their last taste of any dish they were used to. The following evening, Ibibio slave merchants had come from the heart of the Aro confederate communities to haggle with their captors for their sale. All of the children were checked for their health, and sold to the Ibibio. Unfortunately for them, they were all very healthy and would make perfect slaves. Their buyers made them trek for weeks on end, camping at nights in the forests. Two of Jideofor’s playmates could not make it till the end of their grueling march to the coast. Nkechinyere was bitten by a funny looking insect and died soon after. Olaudah fell sick from what seemed to be malaria and could take their relentless trek no more. The children had never seen the ocean, talk more of the mighty slave ship their white buyers had brought with them. Jideofor and Ifeoma were lucky enough to be brought into the same slave ship. Ifeoma, who like Olaudah had gotten sick during their daunting march through the jungle, was now critically ill. Jideofor prayed to his Chi and to his sister’s Chi, like his grandfather had taught him to do, for his sister to get better. It seemed as if the old gods had suddenly forsaken him, for they refused to make his sister well again. His sister died a few days later, and was tossed overboard like a dead rat. Their white slave masters did not put too much light-skinned persons and those who spoke the same language into the same section of the bottom deck, for fear of them conspiring. They referred to the light-skinned Negros as “Oyibo”; a corruption of the Igbo term, “Onye Igbo”, by which the African slave traders at the coast referred to this particularly savage people who had little fear for authority, and were known to conspire to set themselves free from their captors. Jideofor was an Oyibo, and Oyibo Negros were very much sought after in the New World for their farming dexterity and inventiveness, despite their in-born rebellious nature. Jideofor cried and wailed for most of the entirety of their five months voyage to the Caribbean. He prayed each day for him to wake up to his former life in his little hamlet, listening to the tales of Oboli. His evil slave masters did not even let them see the sunlight. Their slave masters had shaved off their dreadlocks before they were brought to deck, for fear of them bringing parasites and pests with it. As the months go by in their constantly waddling vehicle, Jideofor reconciled himself to his grim fate. He wondered where they were headed, and if these strange alien-looking humans that reminded him of the descriptions of spirits in the stories of the elders, would soon eat him. In the New World, he was made to discard everything that made him who he was: his name, his language, his food, his beliefs, his gods. The slave master who had bought him called him Johnson, and made him speak a Creole that the other slaves spoke. It took years and several beatings for him to begin to understand this dialect with which the white masters communicated with their Negro slaves. He was taught by the priests of the churches that he was a cursed descendant of Ham, and that his slavery is well-deserved for the crimes of his antecedent, Ham. Any slave caught building an altar or making any sort of representation that the slave masters thought to be devilish, was given a severe public beating to discourage others who still practiced their old African beliefs. In the day Jideofor died in the New World, his sickness had emboldened him and he made an altar. He prayed one last time to his Chi in his real language of Igbo. He denounced the name Johnson that the Europeans had given him, and called out the name his mother had given him as her first son. He cried and thought of his parents, Ifeoma, Ikweano, Oboli and all of his past life that he was forcefully stolen away from. He consoled himself with the thoughts of Ikweano as a father surrounded by his children, with him telling them tales of his siblings who were stolen many years ago as children. If only Jideofor could foresee the future, and see that Ikweano’s descendants now cut their dreadlocks like his slave masters did to him, speak with all sense of pride the white oppressor’s language, dress and eat like him, bear the name Johnson proudly, he would weep. If only he knew that someday, Ikweano’s descendants would burn down in jubilation the shrine that his grandfather had built, and were happy to be referred to as Christians, he would cry even bitterly. He would call on his Chi to curse them. He would call on his Chi to curse you.

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