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The Voyage of Promise Grace in Africa series #2
By Kay Marshall Strom
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWest Africa 1792
The African sky sizzled a deep orange as the blistering sun sank across the wall. All day long one griot after another had stood before the village, each storyteller taking his turn at weaving together a piece of the tale of how a few African captives had outsmarted and outfought the powerful white slave man in his own slave fortress and won freedom for many. Each storyteller did his best to make his piece of the story the most dramatic, the most spectacular, the most breathtaking of all. Each one decorated his tale with songs and poems and gorgeously crafted words, so that when the entire story-tapestry was complete, his part would shine more brightly than all the others. And each storyteller's efforts were rewarded with energetic chants and cheers from the crowd.
Grace, settled comfortably between Mama Muco and Safya, grabbed at her little son who was once again doing his best to wriggle away from her. "Stay close, Kwate," she warned. Grace tried to be stern with the little one, but even as she scolded, a smile tugged at the edges of her voice. Never in her life had she been as happy as she was at that moment.
As the sun pitched low on the stifling evening, as the feast goats crackled in the roasting pit, as children threw beetles into the fire to toast and then dig out and pop in their mouths, drums beat the celebration into a fever pitch. People had poured in from villages far and near to join the celebration and bring offerings for the ancestors, for the great rebellion was a part of their lives too. Their griots came along and jostled for a chance to stand before the people and weave in their own village's piece of the story. And because it is in the nature of a storyteller to be a gossip, each one tried to outdo the others in passing along the latest news about the restoration of the slave fortress, Zulina. A new white man ran it now, one announced. He was called by the name of Hathaway, and he was a harder man than Joseph Winslow ever was.
Grace caught her breath. Jasper Hathaway? The man her parents had tried to force her to marry?
Another storyteller jumped to his feet. "The beautiful Princess Lingongo," he said, "even now she sits on the royal chair of her people beside her brother. I heard it from one who saw it with his own eyes."
Grace gripped Mama Muco's arm. "Mother is alive!" she gasped. "How can it be?"
Mama Muco kept her attention fixed on the griot.
Thinking Mama Muco had not heard her, Grace shook Mama's arm and said, "Did you hear that? Did you?"
Mama Muco refused to look her way. Only then did Grace understand; this news came as no surprise to Mama.
"Does Cabeto know?" Grace asked. When Mama Muco still did not answer, Grace demanded, "What other secrets are being kept from me?"
"We cannot control what happens around us any more than we can change what happened to us in the past," Mama Muco said to Grace. "All we can do is decide how we will live our own lives. Our life here in this village is good. Let us be happy and give thanks to God for this day."
Far down along the village's stone wall beside the wide-open rusty gate, sixteen-year-old Hola shuffled impatiently, his musket propped against the wall. "I want to hear the stories too," he complained to Tetteh, who stood guard with him. "And I want a fistful of that goat meat before the good part is all gone!"
"You have heard those same stories every year for the last five years," said Tetteh, who was two years older and half a head taller.
"But every year the griots have more tasty bits to tell us," Hola insisted. "Besides, every one of the last five years I have had to stand guard, even though no one has ever tried to do us harm. So what would it hurt for you and me to take turns at the gate tonight? I'll go listen to the stories for a while, then I'll come back and you can go listen."
Tetteh shrugged. "We should not disobey our elders. But if you are not gone too long, I suppose ..."
Hola was out of sight before Tetteh could finish.
But even as Hola slid noiselessly in behind a clutch of other young men, the last storyteller finished weaving his tale and the drums pounded out durbar! Celebrate!
Mama Muco, full of wisdom and years, stood up and danced her way over to the fire. Safya, with her gentle ways and the look of sleep forever on her eyes, got up and joined Mama, clapping her hands and shuffling in time to the drums. Ama, who had only recently come to the village with her two brothers, followed. Then, one by one, other women shuffled up and joined the growing dance line.
"Come on, Grace!" Mama called out.
But Grace, grinning self-consciously, hugged little Kwate to herself and shook her head. She was glad to have an excuse to stay out of the dance. She enjoyed watching, but the fact was, even after five years she didn't understand African dances. Whenever she tried to participate, she looked every bit as awkward and out of place as she felt. There is no African in your hands or feet, Grace, her mother used to tell her. They are all English. Evidently her mother was right.
Tawnia, who was almost twelve, leapt to her feet and pranced toward the end of the line, but Mama caught the girl by the shoulder and gave her a gentle shove back.
"Child, you are not yet a woman," Mama scolded. Yet as Tawnia stomped away, Mama chuckled.
The men sat together in small groups and watched the women dance. Suddenly Cabeto jumped up. As Grace tossed back her auburn-splashed raven hair and laughed out loud and little Kwate clapped his plump hands, Cabeto waved his arms and danced with an awkward limping gait toward another group of men who had just helped themselves to roasted goat meat. He tore the shirt off his back and threw it down in front of an older man with graying hair and a sturdy round face.
"You, Tuke!" Cabeto called, his handsome face glowing in the firelight. "Will you be brave enough to dance?"
Tuke jumped to his feet. His arms flying wildly, he kept right on chewing as he danced over to a group of young men and threw his shirt down in front of them. Cabeto roared with laughter, and everyone else joined in as Hola, the youngest of them all, answered the challenge. He jumped up, tore off his shirt, and danced more outrageously than anyone.
"Dance, Hola!" Tawnia yelled, and everyone else took up the chant.
Tetteh, alone at the gate, struggled to see what was going on. Why was everyone calling Hola's name? Tetteh had to admit that Hola was right when he said that standing guard was the same as doing nothing at all. There had never been a threat to the village. Maybe Tetteh would also go and watch the celebration. Just for a few minutes, perhaps ...
When the dancing finally stopped, Chief Ikem, his walking stick grasped tightly in his wizened arm, stepped forward. He stood directly in front of the fire. Shadows of dancing flames reflected on his midnight-black face. They seemed to bring to life the intricate tattoos etched across his forehead and down both his cheeks, the markings that had so terrified Grace when she first saw them in the dim light of the dungeon.
The chief raised his staff over his head, and the drums silenced. Flames roared upward, sending a shower of sparks soaring into the sky.
"Five years past, in this season when all sweet potatoes be dug, we be a small band of survivors from the rebellion," Chief Ikem said. "No hope be left in us."
Instinctively, Grace hugged her son close. How well she remembered. Back then, they were newly released from their chains in Zulina slave fortress. She and Cabeto and the others whose talk she could understand, and Ikem and his old wife who spoke a strange tongue and held to different ways. Ikem, who pleaded for peace but fought so valiantly for freedom. When the band of survivors founded a new village, they looked to him, the elder man of proven wisdom, to be their chief.
"Five years past, when all sweet potatoes be dug, we work together to raise a village out of the ashes left by the slave trader and the killer lioness. But now, those years lie with the ancestors. Tonight, with all sweet potatoes dug, we celebrate a happy village of peace and love."
Had the dream of peace and love not come so persuasively from the wise lips of Chief Ikem, someone might have noticed an owl soar through the firelight and perch in the highest branches of the ghariti tree that brings life to the people, and so recognized the harbinger of calamity. Had Hola and Tetteh lived enough years to understand that just because something had not yet happened, it didn't mean it never would happen, they might have closed the gate in the wall, slipped the bolt into place, and stood fast at their post. Had the fire not roared so brightly that it blinded the villagers' eyes to everything else, at least one person in the crowd might have noticed that not all the trees were motionless, as trees should be on a breathlessly still night.
But none of that was to be. It was a night of durbar. A night of celebration. The fire crackled, the drums called for festivity, and everyone laughed out loud and clapped their hands and rejoiced together in the happy village of peace and love.
Excerpted from The Voyage of Promise Grace in Africa series #2 by Kay Marshall Strom Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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