The two men were wrapped in a final embrace, their swollen faces barely recognizable and dripping in bright, red blood. Passers-by had kept clear of the fight and now avoided tripping over the dead combatants; there were no other gapers standing nearby. Beside the corpses lay that for which the men had battled to the death: a choice cut of roasted goat. 'What have we come to?” thought Ibrahim, leader of this fractured band of escaped and would-be slaves. 'We are acting like animals without souls.'”
Once among a tribe in northwest Africa, days were as tranquil as the flow of the Senegal River beside which it lived. Babies were born; old people died. Their span of time on earth was full of the light of the sun, the pull of the moon and the comfort of belonging to the tribe.
When Ibrahim, a wise councilor, lost his freedom by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and was taken from his people, the sun blackened and the moon’s light went out. His world reeled. All that he had known, felt and touched in his sixty years had slipped out of his grasp so that he was left standing on this earth with no support.
Ibrahim – his other names did not matter any longer – had been taking an early morning walk alone. He had been pondering over a legal affair of the tribe. A woman’s husband had died a sudden accidental death. After play wrestling with another man, he had flung his head against a baobab tree, inflicting upon himself the fatal injury. The dead man’s eldest brother, too old for sporting games, had offered Mizan, the young widow, a proposal of marriage, as was customary. If she accepted, which was expected, he would become a father to her three babies. However, she had not answered one way or the other. Instead, she had approached Ibrahim for counsel one night during a new moon. They had walked along the river.
“I know that I should accept without hesitation,” she had said, meekly. “I know that that would be the right thing to do. But in my heart, it doesn’t feel right. I feel that a house with Hamid would be ill and imbalanced.
“I’m not questioning tradition,” she said, her voice rising to a respectful strength. “But does the Quran allow for such a transition if it might wreak chaos?”
Ibrahim had sighed and stroked his bald head before responding. His role was to keep order and peace. Mizan had come to him in the hope that she could sidestep what she foresaw as a lifetime of misery.
“What have you observed in Hamid –“
Before he had phrased the complete question, she blurted out: “He is persnickety. He doesn’t like noise. In the mornings, he wears a scowl after losing a daily battle with the sun. He never has married because he prefers to be alone. The spirit of his proposal to me is one of obligation, not joy.”
“My dear child, his brother, your husband, has died. What joy can be rummaged from that. Besides, obligation can provide the foundation for a solid marriage. Emotions
Her teary doe-like eyes implored him to search for a deeper conclusion, one to her liking.
“If I’m forced to marry Hamid, I will have suffered two deaths, that of my husband and that of myself.”
Ibrahim, himself, felt brokenhearted.
“Give me some time to research the Quran’s approach to widows. We will talk again soon.”
“Thank you for your help,” she said, and left him to his deliberation.
Through a thicket of thoughts and a tangle of feelings, Ibrahim had walked the following morning, trying to decide what would be best for the tribe, the group, the whole. He had taken a turn that led into darkness. Although he was older than the slave traders would have liked, his body appeared to be strong enough, and they wanted to leave that day with a full load of human cargo. Unfortunately, Ibrahim fit the bill. When he woke up after being knocked out, he found himself tied with a strip of leather around his neck to seventy other frightened people. In a twinkling of an eye, he was changed from an owner of property to property.
It was not until the fifth week of the six-week voyage when the captives were rescued by colorfully dressed buccaneers that they were told of the hellish existence that had been awaiting them in the New World. Given the choice, Ibrahim opted to go home. There really was no choice, no echo in his mind, no second thoughts.
After sailing through choppy, ocean waters and a hale Atlantic storm, the ship reached the bosom of his home, which he found to be cold and hostile. Whispered gossip burned Ibrahim’s ears; looks of fear met his eyes before the faces turned away.
“Look at his eyes,” they said. “He has left us. He’s in someone else’s power.”
“The whites. The devil spirits have worked their power on him.”
The stories worsened and deepened. They said that Ibrahim was a danger, that he would make others a zombie like himself. He was tolerated as long as a month, only because of his former stature. A lesser man would not have been allowed back into the tribe at all.
With a heart bursting with sorrow, Ibrahim decided to exile himself to a southern village of other outcasts who had been tainted by the slave trade and, so, shunned by their tribes. When he left his home early one morning, he took only the clothes on his back and a leather satchel of religious books slung over his shoulder. His wife, children and grandchildren, who had mourned him after his disappearance, did not cry over him again because they believed that he had not come back. Only one well-wisher saw him off at the fork in the road. The young widow who had married her husband’s brother constituted his farewell party. Mizan’s face was pale and drawn with sadness over her own and the elder’s misfortune, which she felt was her fault. She carried him a parting gift of four roasted yams wrapped in a red cloth. He cradled them on top of his books in his bag for the journey from which he would never return.
“Thank you, Mizan,” he said, a tear slipping from an eye for this act of kindness.
“Thank you, Ibrahim,” she said, taking his hand and squeezing it.
He squeezed her hand back and then turned and walked away, ending his life with his people, with his blood.
For months now, Ibrahim had been a leader of this fractured band of escaped and would-be slaves, some of whom he had met on the ship. He had tried to maintain the sense of order that they all had brought with them as well as instill respect for the new motley tribe. In the beginning, when everyone was still spinning from the shock of banishment, it had not been difficult to garner cooperation. However, as they came out of their daze, the pain’s relentless grip forced them to insulate themselves with an iciness that would preserve and protect them. They saw themselves as being on the outside of communal order. The individual ruled here. Gone was tradition; vague was the future. Respect for the old belonged to the past, and untimely deaths were common. New arrivals found this village of bad blood a wild and frightening place. For the first time in their historical memory, they were leading different lives from their forefathers and mothers, unnatural lives in which violence reigned.
Ibrahim stared in shock and shame at two young men on the ground trading blow, grunting like four-legged animals and cursing each other’s mother in throaty tones with spittle spewing out of their mouths. The elder stood outside of the fray under the fronds of a palm tree, knowing that he possessed neither the physical nor moral power to stop it and that he might be killed if he tried. So greatly already had he been diminished by this new life that he lived only for his own survival. He held up his right arm and hid his face under his garment like a good man mortified by the actions of his brothers for whom he still felt responsible.
“Allah, the merciful,” he prayed. “Forgive us. We have lost our way. Help us, please, to find it again.”
When the guttural noises abated, Ibrahim looked up.
The two men were wrapped in a final embrace, their swollen faces barely recognizable and dripping in bright, red blood. Passers-by had kept clear of the fight and now avoided tripping over the dead combatants; there were no other gapers standing nearby. Beside the corpses lay that for which the men had battled to the death: a choice cut of roasted goat.
Hundreds of ravenous flies lighted on the unclaimed trophy. Suppliant Ibrahim fell to his knees, covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
“What have we come to?” he thought. “We are acting like animals without souls.”
Maybe he and the others had lost their souls in their slave experiences, Ibrahim thought. Maybe their people had read correctly the vacant look in their eyes.
No one heeded Ibrahim’s outburst. He drew himself to his feet and, with his head hanging down between sagging shoulders, crept over to the bodies. Before the flies started on the men, he dragged their shells to the side and covered them with a cloth. He notified no one before beginning to dig their graves because no one cared. He wished that he could heave himself into the resting place and forget the killings that he had witnessed, forget the shame that he was living.
The rich smell of the black soil flying around him shored him up with resilience. His ancestral spirits filled him with their strength. He straightened his bent back and remembered yesterday when his people kept on, without reason other than that they had been given the greatest gift of all – life. That was then.
Now, as Ibrahim struggled to get the corpses into the hole and covered them with dirt, he asked himself whether this new tribe, made up of people who shared only a past as victims, had been saved or doomed by the buccaneers.
What does it mean to be saved? To be doomed? Ibrahim once had answers to those questions. Should he reshape them to suit the times?
He and others with moral reserves would have to work to change the times. They would leave behind a legacy of perseverance from which their descendants would draw strength.