Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade by Manu Herbstein

paperback - 450 pages; published by [e-reads]; ISBN: 1585869325

Winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book

Ama is one of 125 titles nominated for the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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There was a puff of dust on the horizon.

Nandzi peered through the heat haze with narrowed eyes, and wondered what it might be. Then Nowu, on her back, whimpered, distracting her attention. She took his weight with one hand and tucked in the end of her cloth with the other. Nowu was her youngest brother but one. He was four. The previous day the elders had made the customary incisions on his face. That morning he had been feverish. Tabitsha, their mother, had made an infusion of roots to dress the wounds and for him to drink.

Then, at noon, they had heard the sound of distant drums, announcing the long-expected death of Sekwadzim, Tabitsha's father. The household had assembled quickly, all twelve of them, and soon Tigen, her father, was leading them across the plain.

Nandzi had been left behind to take care of Nowu.

She twisted her head and glanced over her shoulder. His eyelids were drooping but he was not yet asleep. She felt his forehead. He was still very warm. She sang a lullaby and danced him gently up and down in time with the song. Then she quickened her pace as she crossed to the deep shade under the mango tree which stood by Tabitsha's door.

It was unusual for Nandzi to be left alone in the compound. Indeed, she could not recall that it had ever happened before. At first she had been a little apprehensive, but Tabitsha had taken her aside.

“You see that I am carrying Kwadi on my back,” she had said.

Kwadi was Nandzi's newest baby brother.

“Nowu is too ill to be taken with us to the burial. Someone will have to stay behind to watch over him. You are the eldest. Soon you will be old enough to go to your husband. It is time that you learned to take responsibility.”

Nandzi had winced at the mention of her husband. Like all Bekpokpam girls, she had been betrothed at birth. Her husband, Satila, had been twenty at the time. He came from Sekwadzim's hamlet. She remembered the first time she had seen him. She had been five and he had come to make the first payment of bride corn, to beat the corn, as they say, with two large baskets of sorghum. She had giggled when Tabitsha had told her to squat on her knees before her husband. Satila had told her to rise and had pinched her cheek and then she had run away to play and had forgotten all about him.

When she was seven he had come again to send the corn, bringing three baskets this time. She had been too shy to answer him when he spoke to her. Each harvest time since then, he had come to tie the corn, bringing one tied bundle of guinea corn in the first year, two in the second year and so on. Last harvest he had brought nine. Next year he would bring ten bundles and add the bridal cloth and the bridal cowries for her father. Then it would be time for her to go to him.

Satila was approaching forty. He was an ugly, scrawny man, with an untidy beard which he had grown after the death of his father. The thought of sleeping with him made her feel sick. What was worse, she would be expected to give up seeing Itsho once she went to live with Satila. The only advantage she could see was that Satila lived in a bustling village of thirty.

Her thoughts turned to Itsho and she smiled. Itsho was strong and handsome. He made her laugh. He was forever teasing her.

Itsho would be at Sekwadzim's burial. He would notice her absence and would guess that she had been left at home. Perhaps he would make discreet inquiries. Surely, if he knew she was alone, he would come to see her. They would talk and laugh together and then they would make love in her mother's room.

At her back, Nowu sighed. Nandzi twisted her head to confirm that he had fallen asleep. Her thoughts turned again to Itsho. He would remove her cloth and stroke her body with his fingers. Itsho was so kind and gentle. Today there would be no one to disturb them, no giggles outside the door.

She scanned the higher ground to the north, but there was no sign of him.

Nandzi bent and passed through the low door of her mother’s room. Tabitsha was Tigen's second wife. She had once been married to his elder brother. When his brother had died, Tigen had taken the widow, as custom demands.

Why are husbands always so much older than their wives? Nandzi reflected, not for the first time. Itsho is young and vigorous. Why can't I marry him, rather than that old, dry stick of a Satila? If only I could marry Itsho, we could make love every day, not just when Tabitsha finds it convenient to let us use her room. Even Lati would make a better husband than Satila, though I don't love him half as much as Itsho. But then Itsho is quite poor and Lati will one day inherit his father's farms and cattle.

Oh, it is no use thinking of it, she thought. They will never let me marry a young man. I will have to go to Satila next year: there is no avoiding it.  I must just make the most of the short time I have left with Itsho.

But if Satila does not treat me well, I will know what to do.

The last time Itsho had come, when they were lying close together after they had made love, she had suggested to him that they run away together. He had been slow to reply. It seemed to her that the idea had not occurred to him before.

“No,” he had said, “That is not possible. You know that my father has already found a bride for me. I have seen the child. She is two years old. In three years time, I will go to beat the corn. When she has reached your age she will come to me.”

“But you will be old by then,” Nandzi had said, “an old, dry stick like Satila. I want you to marry me, so that we can live together and I can lie like this with you every night.”

“No,” Itsho had repeated, “I am sorry; but it is just not possible. It is against all our customs. My father would never allow it.”

“Nandzi carefully loosened her cloth and slid the sleeping Nowu round into her arms.

She had not raised the matter again, but she had thought bitterly, what do customs matter? Are customs more important than the two of us? We are so good together.

And she had lost a little of her respect for Itsho.

Men are such cowards, she had thought. Just think of it, preferring a small baby girl, who will not be fit to be a wife for at least another 15 years, to me. How can that make sense?

She had shed a silent, bitter tear at her fate.

Nandzi laid Nowu down on a mat in the darkest part of the room. She felt his forehead. He was still warm but he was sleeping peacefully. She dipped a cloth into the bowl of medicine and wiped his face. Then she sponged the rest of his body.

When she came to his small penis, she smiled and thought, Ei, men! What pleasure they can give with this small thing, o! and she shook her head.

When she had dried Nowu and covered him, she went outside to look for signs of Itsho, but the landscape was deserted. Their compound was isolated, alone on its low ridge, with no other human habitation in sight. Over to the east, the land fell towards the river. The level of the water in the flood plain had fallen. She looked out at the grid of raised embankments which criss-crossed the shimmering water.

Soon the flood waters will recede and it will be time for net fishing, she thought. Then we shall eat fish until we burst. She wondered why it was that girls were not permitted to eat meat until after they were married.

Nowu might have some appetite when he wakes, she thought. When the drums had announced the death of her father, Tabitsha had been busy making a light soup, using the antelope which Lati had brought them as a gift. The fragrance of the meat rose from the pot which was still simmering on the low fire. But that was a meat dish. She would have to cook something else for herself. She sat down on a low stool to rest for a moment. The soup smelled delicious; she was hungry; her mouth watered. She looked around. The compound was empty.

Why should I not eat some of the antelope soup? she thought. There is no one here to see me. And, after all, when I go to Satila, I shall be able to eat as much meat as I like. Or, at least, as much as his generosity will allow.

Satila had a reputation for meanness.

Nandzi meditated. This is really a stupid taboo. We have so many unreasonable customs. Like marrying old men. And not eating meat. What would happen to me if I ate some meat, after all?

She took a ladle and a small bowl and dished up some of the liquid. Then she took a sip. It tasted as good as it smelled. She put the bowl to her lips.

z z z z z z z z z z

Suddenly she felt the ground beneath her bare feet vibrate; a moment later she heard the horses’ hooves.

Quickly, she rose. A large troop of Bedagbam were galloping towards the compound. They could only be Bedagbam. Only the feared and hated Bedagbam rode horses.

Nandzi was overcome by panic. She had no time to consider what the horsemen might be after, but all her instincts told her that this was no friendly visit. Briefly, she contemplated flight. But they were already too close: they would see her. On foot, there was no way she could outstrip the horses. And there was Nowu. Nowu! She would have to hide. She put down the bowl and stumbled the short distance to the door of Tabitsha's room. Quickly she gathered a pile of skins. Nowu was fast asleep. She lay down beside him and pulled the skins over them. Her heart was pumping furiously.

That puff of dust on the horizon. If only I had guessed, I would have had time to get away and hide.

There were twenty horsemen. Their leader’s mount was white. It was clad in a padded coat of intricately decorated cloth. The rider wore a heavy leather jacket. His legs were stretched out straight, pressing his high leather boots into the stirrups. In his right hand he held aloft a spear, ready to be thrown or thrust. A bow, a leather quiver of arrows and a sword hung by his side. The men bunched close behind him in a cloud of dust were similarly clad and armed. Their guttural war cries rent the air.

Under the skins, Nandzi thrust her fists against her ears to block out the fearful noise.

They reined in their mounts just in time to avoid a collision with the low mud wall which surrounded the compound. Neighing and snorting, the horses rose on their hind legs, then pranced and turned as the riders struggled to control them. Abdulai, the commander, the polished brass of his horse’s accoutrements glinting in the sunlight, signaled silence. Only the horses’ blowing disturbed the peace of the afternoon. The compound appeared to be deserted. Abdulai nodded to the two horsemen alongside him. Damba and Issaka dismounted, handed their reins to others and stretched their limbs.

There was only one entrance, a low door in a large round mud brick building. Tigen had adorned the thatched roof with the staves and bows of his dead forebears and skulls of victims of the hunt: antelopes, birds, a leopard.

Nervously, their spears at the ready, the two warriors advanced and peered inside. The building contained only a single room; apart from a few hoes and baskets, it was empty.

They passed through into the courtyard. Issaka saw the pot simmering on the fire. Silently he pointed it out to his companion. A scrawny hen, surrounded by her brood, scratched the ground. Damba kicked at it and it fled, screeching, its chickens in pursuit.

Under the pile of skins, Nandzi shivered.

They entered Bato's room. Rolled up sleeping mats stood stacked against the wall. There were two low wooden stools. A few pieces of indigo Yoruba cloth hung on hooks and a pile of skins lay on a padlocked chest.

The young men's room stood to one side of its own inner compound. Near the entrance there was a large granary, raised off the ground on three legs, full of sorghum. The room seemed bare. The young men who slept there had taken their weapons and drums and dancing head dresses to Sekwadzim's burial. The warriors were less nervous: clearly the compound was deserted.

“What's this?” asked Issaka in a low voice.

It was a large turtle shell. In it lay the head of a crocodile, encased in a matrix of pulped roots, wrapped in fibers and stuck with porcupine quills. He prodded it with his spear.

“Take care,” replied Damba. “That is their medicine.”

“Ei!” exclaimed Issaka, taking a step back. “I fear.”

A third man joined them.

“What are you two up to?” he asked. “Abdulai is impatient. We have much work to do today.”

“Tell him we are searching the place to make sure there is no one hiding here. Did you see the pot cooking on the fire? They can't have gone far.”

He paused.

“There is a wooden chest in the next room,” he continued. “Break it open and see if there is anything of value inside. That will keep Abdulai happy.”

Bato's kitchen was full of pots and firewood. The smoked carcass of a small buck hung on the wall.

They passed into Tabitsha's room. It was much like Bato's.

“There is nothing here,” said Damba, turning to leave.

In her refuge, under the pile of skins, Nandzi lay petrified. She heard the men's voices in the room but did not understand what they were saying. What if Nowu should wake up and cry out, revealing their presence? She placed her hand over the child’s mouth. But Nowu’s nose was blocked. Unable to breathe, he woke and struggled to free himself.

“Wait,” said Issaka. The skins had moved. He flipped them aside with the point of his spear. Nandzi and Nowu lay revealed. Nandzi screamed and clasped her hands over her head, as if trying to make herself invisible. Nowu, still half asleep, sensed her fear and began to cry.

“Ah, what have we here?” shouted Issaka in excitement.

This was their first catch and he, Issaka, had made it. Abdulai came into the room, fuming with impatience.

“Issaka, Damba,” he bellowed. “If there is no one . . .”

He cut himself short as he saw the figure of the girl cringing on the floor.

Then he repeated Issaka's question.

“What have we here?”

Striding across the room in his long red boots, he grabbed Nandzi by her upper arm, lifting her to her feet. Nowu was holding Nandzi's cloth and as she was pulled away from him, the cloth unwound, leaving her unclothed. She stretched out a hand for the garment, but it was too late.

“What have we here?” Abdulai echoed again, deliberately enunciating each word.

He relaxed his grip on the girl and at once Nandzi tried to run; but the doorway was blocked by Issaka and Damba. Moving swiftly, Abdulai grabbed her two arms from behind.

“Get out of here,” he told his two lieutenants, spitting the words from between his teeth.

They fled their master's anger.

“Now we shall have some fun together, shall we not?” he said to Nandzi.

Leaving her right arm free he grabbed her waist from behind and pulled her buttocks against his penis, which had taken its stand beneath his baggy pantaloons as soon as he had seen her naked body.

Nandzi struggled, striking him repeatedly with the elbow of her free arm.

“You beast. You filthy pig,” she screamed at him.

Abdulai just laughed. He was much too strong for her.

“I don't hear your language, my darling,” he replied, “but I am sure that those are words of love.”

Nowu was screaming uncontrollably.

“Issaka, Damba” he called.

A head appeared in the door.

“Take this child,” he ordered; and then, “Get out, get out.”

He struggled to hold on to Nandzi with one hand, freeing the other to release his pantaloons and lift his heavy leather armor. The pantaloons dropped to his ankles. His penis pressed on Nandzi's bare skin. He was no longer the dignified commander of a company of slave hunters. His instincts had taken control of him. He was a two legged animal bent on copulation.

He forced Nandzi down. With his left arm he pinned her shoulders to the ground. With his right hand he took his penis and guided it into her vagina, sighing as he penetrated into the depths of her body. Nandzi continued to scream abuse at him and struggle. But now he had two hands free to pin her wrists to the ground. Nandzi twisted her head and snapped her teeth over his fat index finger. She felt the bone and the warm spurt of blood in her mouth before she heard his cry.

“You bitch. You filthy, verminous bitch

 He spat out the words as he dragged his hand from her.

“I will teach you to trifle with Abdulai.”

He moved her wrists out of range and put the weight of his elbows on her arms. Then he began to drive into her. In and out he drove, just as he had often driven his spear repeatedly into the body of a prone victim, relishing the fountain of blood, thrusting the spear in again and again long after his adversary was dead.

He moved her hands onto the back of her head and forced her face into the polished dung floor.

“I will teach you. I will teach you. I will teach you. Remember me. My name is Abdulai. Abdulai the famous general of Dagbon.”

Deeper and harder he drove. Nandzi could not control her sobs. Suddenly, as he plumbed her depths, she felt a surge of pain unlike anything she had ever before experienced. It was as if he had mounted the sharp iron head of his assegai onto the end of his penis. Each time he plunged into her, the pain rose to a crescendo. She screamed in agony but he paid no heed. Once, twice, three times. She summoned up all her strength in a superhuman effort to throw him off, but he was too strong and too heavy. Then she lost consciousness.

Abdulai completed his business inside her and rested on her prone body. As his penis shrunk, he became aware of the pain in his finger and placed it in his mouth to stem the flow of blood. Then he rose to his feet and drew up his pantaloons with his free hand. Nandzi's cotton cloth lay where it had fallen on the ground. He picked it up and with his teeth tore off a strip to use as a bandage.

“Damba, Issaka,” he called, dropping the cloth on Nandzi's still body. The two warriors had been watching Abdulai's performance discreetly from a distance hoping perhaps that their commander would reward them for their discovery by allowing them to exercise their own erections, but they were to be disappointed.

“Take this hussy and put her on a horse,” he ordered. “Tie her well. Then collect the cloth and skins and let’s get out of here. This place gives me the spooks.”

He hid his bleeding finger from them. The blood had soaked through the bandage.

z z z z z z z z z z


In 1807 slaves from Salvador and from the engenhos in the Recôncavo laid a plot. They planned to meet on the outskirts of the city, to attack the whites, capture ships and return to Africa. They were betrayed and their leaders were executed.

There were further abortive insurrections in 1808, 1810, 1813 and 1816.

In 1826 another attempt was made, this time under the leadership of a woman, Zeferina. This too failed; but the slaves were not discouraged: they tried again in 1827 and yet again in 1830.

The most famous rising took place in Salvador in 1835. Again one of the leaders was a woman, Luiza Mah in. This time there was greater unity. Slaves and free blacks, Muslims and non-Muslims, Hausa and Yoruba, Ewe and Nupe all came together under a leadership which was both literate and sophisticated. Only bad fortune denied them victory.

The slave trade was formally abolished in Brazil in 1850, but those who were responsible for implementing the law came from the class of slave owners. It was not until 1888, after widespread disturbances and mass defections by slaves who had lost their patience and were prepared to wait no longer, that the institution of slavery itself was finally outlawed.

In 1891 the Brazilian Minister of Finance decreed the abolition of history: he ordered the destruction of every document which dealt in any way with slavery or the slave trade; a nation-wide burning of the books.

But the clamor of voices from the past drowns out the fiats of forgotten bureaucrats and demands to be heard.

At the end of the twentieth century, the population of Brazil stands at some 165 million. The more than one hundred million Brazilians who are of African descent remain overwhelmingly poor. Political power still rests firmly in the hands of the descendants of the senhores de engenho.*

Ama  is a story of the Slave Trade, a story of Africans who were carried across the Atlantic against their will.

The end of this story has yet to be written.

*This was written before Lula was elected President of Brazil.