Maafa: A look back into slavery

The stage play spotlights the evils of slavery and why Africa will go nowhere without unity.

WHY is Africa always fighting against itself? They invaded our land but we gave them the key,” the narrator began mournfully. It was a day after the 2016 Independence anniversary and Cinema Hall 2 of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos was filled with guests who had come to watch ‘Maafa’(Point-of-No-Return) , a free stage play the National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN) was marking the occasion with.

Given its focus on slavery, one had suspected that the play written by SegunOlujobi and directed by MakindeAdeniran would be dark. However, we were totally unprepared for what transpired as sniffles could be heard among the audience as the tear jerker unfolded.

Though extensive researches have been done on slavery and its impact on peoples and communities across Africa well documented, the debasement and privations our ancestors suffered in the hands of Western slave masters continue to hurt and haunt, judging by the reactions to the play.

In telling the story of the great warrior, Osusu, ‘Maafa’, a joint production of the National Troupe of Nigeria and Eda Theatre International, details the bestiality of Europeans to Africans. It shows how gullible African chiefs, dazzled by the mirrors and schnapps the Westerners brought, gave their kingdoms away. It shows the deceit and betrayals that characterize relationships in Africa and why the continent continues to be the theatre of some of the most horrificconflicts humanity has ever witnessed: Boko Haram in Nigeria’s Northeast and the Lake Chad region and Al-Shabab in East Africa are examples. Most importantly, it touches on the lack of unity on the continent and the need to address this.

Renowned for his courage, Osusu is a great warrior who defends his people with his band of fighters. So accomplished is he that the king does not hesitate to give him his daughter, Ademowura as wife. But success breeds envy. Soon, the village elders and the king conspire to sell him alongside his pregnant wife, daughter and son into slavery because of his fame.

Unfortunately, Osusu and his family fall into the hands of a despicable slaver and sub-human, Captain Alex, who like most Europeans, came first as a trader before transforming into a missionary and eventually a slave raider. He subjects Osusu and slaves from other tribes into series of abuses including beatings and raping one of the female slaves right in front of her husband. His abuses are not limited to the slaves as he does same to his wife, Araminta for daring to speak up for the slaves in general and Osusuwhom she appears to have a fondness for. He orders her to be tied up and flogged.

“I owe you; I owe your identity, you black monster,” Alex declares contemptuously in a scene while humiliating the slaves and would later justify slavery with some Bible passages and the story of Esau and Jacob in another scene when Osusu had rebelled against him. He does unspeakable things to break Osusu and turn him into a wreck of a man.

Despite all being in bondage and locked together in a cage, the slaves would still not cooperate. They refuse to work together to gain their freedom and even turned on Osusu and members of his tribe because the warrior refused to help when Captain Alex ravaged the female slave. They resort to trading accusations which ultimately leads to a fight amongst them. Responding to allegations from the woman’s husband that he turned a blind eye to her plight, Osusuechoes a line from President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration speech. “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody,” the warrior explains in impressing the importance of unity and hiding their strengths from their slave master on his fellow slaves.

Though depressing at points, especially the scenes where Osusu gets to lick Alex’s smelly foot and later when the slave master beats and kicks Ademowura, who is in labour to death for Osusu’sintransigence,the play also has its light sides.

It toes the total theatre path by featuring good music (produced by a seven-man live band) and dances and can hardly be faulted production wise. The costumes and props were appropriate while one scene paid tributes to Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, whose memorial is currently being marked with the annual Felabration.

“I learnt your nation is one of dances; you have dances for every occasion. Dance for me,” Alex ordered the slaves at a point and they promptly broke into a stirring Afrobeat number. The marriage scene between Osusu and Ademowura where the actors displayed their dancing and singing skills was another good one.If the play can be faulted, it’s the scene where Ademowura dies; it’s a tad too long and all weepy. Then, it is not quite clear if the slaves travelled from the coast, where most of the action takes place, to the Americas.

Though it later emerged that they had less than 12 days to rehearse, the actors gave a good account of themselves. SobifaDokubo, the Narrator (and Osusu’s son), modulated well and was mournful and encouraging as when needed. KunleOmotesho who played Osusu was equally good as was Omosehin, who played the ultimate jerk Alex. GinikaChinedu (Araminta), Joy Igbinedion (Ademowura) and Alex’s native sidekicks, James Samuel Femi and AdemuyiwaAdewale also gave competent performances.

Appraising the play after the curtain call, a former General Manager of the National Theatre/National Troupe, Professor Ahmed Yerima, said “[Hubert] Ogunde’s spirit [in the national troupe] has not died; [Bayo] Odunneye’s  spirit has not died. It’s a wonderful play; fantastic play. I think it is ready for Broadway. It willpreserve history and educate our grandchildren about occurrences of the past.”

Staged barely a month after the grand finale of the creative station where teens and children thoroughly entertained the audience, ‘Maafa’, a Swahili word which means disastrous, is another indication that the NTN is rediscovering its spark and reverting to its tradition of marking national events and milestones with quality productions.