Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: River (08/31/06)
TITLE: Stolen and returned
By Helen Paynter
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Twenty years previously.
Ajayi gathered his powers, arching his back and tensing his muscles. Then with a wild shriek he released his strength in a catapult of rage. His manacles gave not an inch, but the captive beside him mewed faintly at the tugging on her abraded ankles. In desperation he tried again. And again. Eventually one of the white men staggered down into the hold, a handkerchief held over his face. His words were incomprehensible, but he was eloquent with his feet. Ajayi fell quiet.
The creaking of the boat was audible even over the groaning of its cargo. Its gentle rocking was lulling them to death. Rank from his own filth, bitten and beaten, Ajayi turned his head to his neighbour’s in cold despair. She returned his stare with sightless eyes fixed and dull. The cold clutch of death was the only embrace her ten year old body would know.
Tired of being slowly smothered, his mind detached itself and wandered back. Galloping hooves violating the tranquillity of his village; tormented faces of loved ones divided; shuffled mile upon chafing mile; the greedy clink of coin; the moored vessel waiting to devour him; the river, inexorably surging to the sea. And what lay beyond, no-one had returned to tell.
In his wretchedness he barely registered the loud retort of guns, nor the jolting and swaying of the vessel. When the liberating officer opened the hatch, Ajayi was barely conscious.
‘Are you alright, Sir?’
He opened his eyes, blinking in the midday sun. His memories were decades old, but the smell of the mangrove swamp had transported him back in an instant. He nodded to the sailor and dropped his eyes to the English Bible he carried on his lap. The words rising and falling with the boat, he turned to Psalm 46.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
How true and good was the word of the Lord. In the slaver’s hold, God had been there, unseen, unknown, yet all-seeing and all-knowing.
Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
He felled the proud and had mercy on the helpless.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
And so God had summoned Ajayi back to his own people, the Yoruba; bidding him glorify the name of the Lord among the godless. Ajayi looked again at the thickly printed page. One day they must read of God’s love in their own tongue.
There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God
The boat glided smoothly through the river delta. Ajayi mused whether the heavenly river in any way resembled the lushly clotted waters of the Niger. The river that had stolen him from the home of his fathers. The river which was returning him to them, twice saved.
Based on the true story of Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c1807 – 1891), the first native African Bishop, and translator of the Bible into the Yoruba language. Born in Yorubaland (modern Nigeria), he was forcibly enslaved at the age of thirteen, exchanging hands six times before being loaded onto a Portuguese slave ship bound for America. It was captured by the British Navy which was charged with trying to atone for its nation’s sins. Ajayi was released in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a state newly established for emancipated slaves. Several years later he became a Christian and was baptised. He learned many languages, and travelled to England to study. In 1841 he was part of a mission to the Niger delta, which took him home. His mother was still alive and embraced her lost son and his faith.
Quotations from the King James version of the English Bible.
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