Painful memories of slavery

Gugu Sibiya

Gugu Sibiya

As I stood at the estuary of the Calabar river in the southern state of Calabar in Nigeria, I felt the weight of all the spirits that had stood there and prayed fervently for their lives to be spared or to be miraculously rescued from their slave captors so they could be reunited with their traumatised families.

As my mind strayed back in time, I recalled those frightened captives who never saw their families again, at least not in their lifetime.

Most were kidnapped and sold into slavery in America, after a voyage of horror.

If they were lucky, they made the trip alive and became slaves. If not, they were fed to the sharks en route, a stone's throw away from their worried families.

I stood there lost in time while images from the film Amazing Grace, which is set on the Calabar experience, and its famous counterpart Roots flashed through my mind.

I relived the reverie while staring at the true-to-life images at the Calabar museum, very close to the estuary. There are painful visuals of slaves packed like sardines in confined spaces deep in the belly of slave ships. No wonder most of them became ill and never made it to America.

I then saw pictures of their arrival in America. Greedy slave masters inspecting the captor's mouths to see if they had good teeth, which are indicative of good health, their bodies and buttocks. Never mind making fun of the male genitals they envied.

Once the slaves passed the inspection, they would be auctioned. The owners then callously branded their slaves like cattle.

The tragedy is that families who were captured together were sold to different masters and would often never see one another again.

Most people's recollection of the slave trade often gravitates to Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana. We rarely think of Nigeria, which is why I was so sad for this seemingly indomitable nation that, like the rest of Africa, it was also a victim to the cruel imperialists.

With the emotive strands of Amazing Grace, the internationally popular hymn, tugging heavily at my heart strings I walked away heavily.

The folklore song the slaves repeatedly sang was eventually turned into a hymn by an over zealous slave master - John Newton - when he finally repented.

After an emotive beginning, I moved to the nearby theme park. As I rode on the horse and carriage carousel, I felt my spirit lifting as I retreated into my inner child.

Whoever thought of a theme park near the museum's gateway to slavery was smart. It has a way of healing your bruised spirit.

My next port of call was the joy and source of pride for Calabrians, despite its current status as a white elephant. I was not disappointed.

Tinapa is a city within a city. It boasts one of the biggest shopping malls in Nigeria, but except for a few banks and service providers, it stands empty.

Interestingly, there is hauntingly beautiful music 24/7 and the place is floodlit at night. Security personnel patrol the place and amazingly, throngs of locals and tourists from neighbouring Doula in Cameroon make their daily pilgrimage to this showpiece.

It boasts a huge cinema complex and has a stunning view. At first glance you don't see it, but the place is surrounded by the picturesque and tranquil Calabar river which is part and parcel of the Cross Rivers, after which the Cross River States are named.

As you enjoy the picturesque view with the abundance of water, you are charmed by the cute boats that are in fact patrol boats. The inviting lush greenery and water retreats back to as far as the eye can see, and the mountainside completes the breathtaking beauty.

Across the mall stands one of the biggest collections of studios that are also empty. But the entrance is peppered with some popular characters, a huge golden globe, giving it world-class appeal. The empty Marine Hotel completes the ambitious project. I wish the governor of Calabar and the government of Nigeria would make the ambitious project work.

Calabar is a tranquil state. It's best asset is its loving, respectful and very gracious people, who eagerly share their history. Their food is similar to the rest of Nigeria, but it has a unique taste that lingers longer in your culinary memory.