With Maafa, national troupe re-enacts slave trade saga, preaches universal brotherhood

A scene from the play

A scene from the play

The issue of Trans Atlantic Slave Trade will continue to elicit interest among writers and intellectuals, especially as it has not been properly addressed so as to lay it to rest. As always, it became the focus last Sunday at National Theatre, Lagos, when National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN) collaborated with Eda Theatre International to stage Maafa (Point-of-No-Return). Witten by Segun Olujobi and directed by Makinde Adeniran, Maafa tells an aspect of Africa’s bloody, tragic history through the ages; it was staged to mark Nigeria’s 56 independence celebration.

As notable figure in the campaign for the celebration and appropriation of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade for the good of Africa, Mr. Babatunde Olaide-Mesewak, has remarked that African leaders treat slave trade subject with cavalier attitude. He does not understand why African leaders are not spearheading the campaign for the return of Africa’s Historic Diaspora from their host countries to the African homeland.

Olaide-Mesewaku, who is also the chairman of African Renaissance Foundation, organiser of the yearly Badagry Diaspora Festival, stated, “We are suppressing that thing (slave trade); Africa does not want to identify with the slave trade. The Jews use the Holocaust to gain a lot of support and sentiment around the world but Africa is silent about the slave trade that was more horrendous in terms of lives lost and the sheer duration.”

Maafa is the story of unqualified suffering by descendants of the continent, who were taken away to foreign, strange lands to work in European and American plantations. For Osusu, a warrior prince, who was enslaved through the intrigues of his own people, and the other slaves, it was pain all through, right from the Middle Passage to their destinations.

With Sobifa Dokubo as Narrator and the son of Osusu (Kunle Omotesho), action starts on an African coastline and the slaves being taken away even at a time when the trade had been prohibited in Europe. But a defiant Captain Alex (Omosehin) and his mean crew would not be persuaded to stop the illegal and inhuman trade in African peoples. His wife back in England, Araminta (Ginika Chinedu) is strongly against her husband’s business; when she threatens to report him to the police, Alex throws her in among the slaves in the enclosure as well.

Through sustained beatings and punishment, the slaves undergo serious physical and psychological trauma in the hands of their tormentors, who drive them like sanimals to breaking point. Alex and his two black assistants, William (James Femi) and Johnson (Ademuyiwa Asewale) are brutes of no mean repute, who obey their master’s orders to the letter. In their hands, the audience experiences firsthand the brutality slaves underwent.

At a point, it becomes a contest of will between Osusu and Alex. Alex is bent on reducing Osusu, who sees himself as some ‘god,’ to a beggarly slave. He brutalizes him senseless. Even Osusu’s wife, Ademonwura (Joy Igbinedion), does not escape Captain Alex’s intense whipping just to reduce Osusu to a whimpering dog for the mere satisfaction of triumphing over a ‘god’. At the end, Alex beats Ademonwura, who is pregnant, so mercilessly that she slumps and dies. It is their only surviving son who reenacts their tragic story to a world still steeped in all manner of vices.

MAAFA is an intense dramatic performance that took the audience through the hell that was the infamous trade in human cargos over a period of 400 years. Such huge despoliation is unprecedented in human history. Former General Manager of National Theatre and professor of drama, Ahmed Yerima, commended the performance and hailed it as fit to be taken on Broadway. He also charged the troupe’s management, led by its Artistic Director/CEO, Mr. Akin Adejuwon, to take the play round the country so that those for whom the slave trade is a mere echo would see it firsthand and be appropriately informed. This is against the background of the non-teaching of history in Nigeria’s secondary school system.

However, a few gaps emerge that will continue to challenge the imagination of future audiences, except the script is treated in a workshop setting to clean it up for better performance. For instance, where was the narrator raised? In the U.K., or Nigeria? At what point did the narration of slavery transit from the foreign land the slaves were taken and maltreated and become a Nigerian story that urges the citizens to rise up solidary of brotherhood of love and rebuild the country?

Indeed, the playwright makes a huge leap of dramatic faith and ends up reducing very serious slave trade story to one of Nigeria’s socio-economic challenges. It appears inconsistent, the bundling of slave trade issue with Nigeria’s economic problems. Although there is spirited effort to shift the narrative from racial discrimination to one of love and universal brotherhood of man, this is hardly consistent with the realities in a place like the U.S., where blacks are shot at will by white and sometimes, black police officers.However, the director, Adeniran, did a great job of infusing a lot of songs and music to enliven an otherwise tragic performance.

SO, indeed, whereas Maafa explores the darkness of ‘Point-of-No-Return’ that Africans went through to end up in foreign lands in the most distressing and wretched conditions, folks like Olaide-Mesewaku are vigorously campaigning for the ‘Door-of-Return’ to be opened for the Africa’s Historic Diaspora forcefully taken away to return to the motherland. Olaide-Mesewaku’s recent published book on the subject is Vothuno, a fictional reconstruction of the horrendous accounts of slave trade in Badagry.

He laments that Africa’s Historic Diaspora do not feature much in African discourses, even as many of them yearn to return to the motherland to settle like Bob Marley’s family did from Jamaica many years ago and settled in Ghana. According to him, “The Diaspora is not being well featured in African discourse. Yet they yearn to return in the millions to their roots. That is the focus of Badagry Disapora Festival, to re-ignite a forum for them to look back to Africa with pride. We have a lot to gain by courting them back to Africa”.

Olaide-Mesewaku is sad that Africa is loosing out on the huge capital wealth her sons and daughters keep away from the continent because of lukewarm attitude towards their yearnings to return to the roots.

As he noted, “Africa’s capital wealth resides in these Africa’s Historic Diaspora and African leaders are not doing anything to tap into it. Africa is doing nothing to sharpen this kinship with these Africans in the Diaspora; these Africa’s Historic Diaspora (descendants of Trans Atlantic Slave Trade).

They are in-between the cultural essence of their host land and the homeland; they know their root is deep in Africa.“Africa has to start doing something about them. Nigeria could institute a National Policy for Diaspora for the return of those forced out of the homeland like Ghana did with her ‘The Right of Abode’ policy to attract such returnees back to contribute. They are skilled in many fields like technology, architecture, science and what have you”.

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