It was sunset. The sky looked orange with trails of clouds scattered far apart. The weaver birds moved in flight to occupy their nests. The village of Alakple sat in partial silence as some households prepared supper to kick out the hunger rumbling in their stomachs. Behind the house of the Soglo family, a swarm of bees buzzed and guarded the fruit of their labour jealously. The swarm had been there for many decades but no one had been brave enough to harvest their sweet honey. Not even the owner of the bees, Papa Soglo, had been successful in collecting the honey. Each time he made an attempt to harvest the honey, he was met with strong resistance. The very last time he decided to use all the skills he had at his disposal to harvest the honey, he was nearly stung. Consequently, he had to give up. It was rumored in the village that Papa Soglo had the power to command the swarm to attack those who stepped on his toes which he had neither come out to deny nor accept the rumored claims. Papa Soglo was a short man with an unpleasant temper. It was not uncommon to see him in scuffles with either his wife, children or those outside his family. In Alakple, he was nicknamed “Nyahela”(an Ewe word for a litigant). Apart from being a close-fisted person, he greedily craved for more even if he had more than enough. Papa Soglo had no confidence in formal education and so none of his children were enrolled in school. Therefore, With his large farm size, his children thus, became the labour force he needed at his farm. The only advantage of using his children for farm labour was that he was spared of spending in excess using his hard earned cash. Papa Soglo had seven of his eight sons with his first wife, Yawa and the last born with his late second wife, Ami. The last born Papa Soglo had with his second wife was Sitsofe. Ami died shortly after giving birth to Sitsofe. As a result, Sitsofe was cared for by his stepmother, Yawa. Yawa loved and raised Sitsofe like her own. Yawa treated him the same way she would treat her children. Realising that her own biological sons had passed the school-going age with the seventh child being seventeen years, Yawa had fought hard for Papa Soglo to send Sitsofe to school but the suggestion fell on deaf ears.
Ten years later, Sitsofe had grown into a very handsome young boy with bright future sparkling on his forehead. Like the fate of his elder brothers, he had to be in the farm at his age instead of schooling. The head master of Alakple Basic School, who foresaw the bright future of Sitsofe, added his voice for the boy to be enrolled in school but Papa Soglo would have none of that. With the amount of money he made from the sale of his farm produce, spending moments with his comrades at the village’s popular drinking bar was his past time. During one of his times at the drinking bar, he had an encounter with a fisherman from a very far fishing village. The fisherman had come to Alakple for a funeral. He had joined the rest of the men at a table to drink. Having taken a few more than enough, each of the men at the table began to narrate the happenings in their respective lives. From the conversation among the drunk men, it was revealed that the fisherman, Tulasi, lived on the island of Vakpome. He was the chief fisherman of the village with exploited children. Each year, he moved from one village to another recruiting children to work with him. He would then give the parents of such children a considerable amount of money with the promise of taking care of their children. He continued to boast that he had made a lot of money. After recounting some of his exploits, Tulasi gulped down a glass of alcohol and beat his chest repeatedly. His fellow men present, including Papa Soglo, were spell bound. Tulasi continued, “Therefore, anyone who is interested in having his child learn fishing is free to see me for talks. As I said, the children under me are well taken care of. After some years, they are allowed to return to their families and work with the skills acquired. Parents of such children are not left out; At least they are entitled to a token as a way of saying “thank you”for releasing their children.” upon hearing all that had been said, Papa Soglo nodded as he gazed at Tulasi. When the men dispersed, Papa Soglo trailed Tulasi for more details.
In an enthusiastic mood, he stated, “I have a son and will like you to take him with you.” “How old is he?” Tulasi asked. “Ten years.”, Papa Soglo answered sharply. “Good. Today is Saturday. I’ll leave in three days time and so prepare him for that.”, said Tulasi. “Where can I locate you”? Papa Soglo asked happily. Tulasi answered, “Just meet me at the drinking bar. ” Papa Soglo’s love for money superseded the life of his son that he failed to recognize that he was giving his boy to a stranger whom he had known for just a day.
The second night after the meeting between Papa Soglo and Tulasi had arrived. The night was calm and chilly with the calm breeze patrolling the environment. The following day would be the departure moment. Papa Soglo had not disclosed his clandestine motive to his wife, Yawa. Papa Soglo called Sitsofe to get him some water to drink. As soon as he brought the water, Papa Soglo asked him to sit beside him.
“Sitsofe, you’re my son and I want the best for you. So tomorrow, I’m sending you to one of your uncles to take care of you. He’s a good man. He’s going to teach you how to fish. As you can see, I’m aging and can’t take care of you as I wish. I want you to comport yourself while you live with him and I don’t want to hear any complaint about you.”Papa Soglo whispered to his son softly. As soon as he ended his statement, Sitsofe frowned in disagreement with his father’s decision. He rested his forehead on his arm as he began to stump his feet on the ground violently.”Papa I’m not going anywhere. I want to stay right here”, Sitsofe protested loudly. “Stay where? Here? kpao(No). Are you trying to challenge my decision?”, Papa Soglo fumed. Sitsofe started throwing tantrums. Yawa heard the noise outside and came out to find out what was happening. “Sitsofe, nu ke dzo(what’s the matter)?”, Yawa asked worryingly. “It’s Papa, he wants to send me faraway from here”, Sitsofe reported as he ran to stand behind Yawa. Papa Soglo turned and looked elsewhere when his wife arrived. “Papa what’s going on?”, Yawa turned and asked but Papa Soglo wouldn’t answer. He turned and yelled at Sitsofe to go and start packing his belongings as he pointed his index finger at the door.”Papa I hope what I’ve heard is untrue,”Yawa continued to quiz him suspiciously. “That’s exactly what he has told you. What else do you want to hear,?” Papa Soglo answered sharply. “But why? to who? deke o(no),”Yawa protested and pulled a chair to sit beside her husband.”See woman, you have no right to interfere in whatever decision I take for my son and you must know that a father’s control over his son is far greater than the mother’s. All I can say is that I’m sending him to my cousin to teach him fishing. I owe you no further explanation,” Papa Soglo declared and turned to look elsewhere.Yawa, who was gripped by shock, got up and said angrily in tears,” so you mean he’s no more my Son! I have practically nursed this boy when his mother passed away and continued to be a good mother to him. Now he’s not my son? This boy is after my heart. Before taking this decision, you should have at least considered the state of my heart. Kpɔ dzime(Look into my heart). I am disappointed in you Soglo. You’re not sending the boy anywhere.” As soon as Yawa landed her statement, Papa Soglo got up and warned Yawa,”Don’t attempt to stop me. As I said, a father’s decision is greater than the mother’s.”
Papa Soglo left with Yawa following him in tears saying, “Soglo you’re not sending the boy anywhere. Then you will kill me first”.
The following day was the day of sorrow. The day of Sitsofe’s departure had arrived. Yawa’s effort to convince Papa Soglo to rescind his decision fell on a rock. Not even her river of tears could appeal to the conscience of her husband. Sitsofe’s clothes had already been packed into a wooden box. His half brothers stood in front of their room covered in a thick melancholy. Papa Soglo stood in the middle of the house yelling at Sitsofe to hurry up and come out of the room. As soon as Sitsofe came out of the room walking briskly, Yawa ran and held him saying, “Sitsofe you’re going nowhere.This is your father’s house and you belong here.” Running out of patience, Papa Soglo walked quickly and pulled Sitsofe from the grips of Yawa. Yawa lost balance and fell on the ground weeping hysterically. Sitsofe’s brothers made an attempt to block their father’s way but were threatened with the swarm of bees at the backyard. With Sitsofe in tears carrying his wooden box, he followed his father sheepishly.
Few minutes later, they arrived at the very spot Tulasi had told Soglo to meet him. Tulasi had been there waiting for them. Leaving Sitsofe with the box still on his head, Papa Soglo and Tulasi secluded themselves to have some chit-chat behind an uncompleted building. After fifteen minutes of their meeting, Tulasi thanked Papa Soglo and handed a considerable amount of money in a white envelope over to Papa Soglo. After shaking hands, they parted ways. Papa Soglo counted the money comfortably as he made his way back home. Tulasi and Sitsofe then set off. On their way, Sitsofe had still not recovered from the grief that had visited his life. He began sobbing but Tulasi warned him to control his emotions. The journey to Vakpome was a very long one. Apart from spending three hours in a vehicle and an hour walk through a thick forest, they would also have to cross the river Volta by canoe to get to Vakpome. As they sat in a canoe paddled by two young teenagers, Sitsofe was extremely afraid for he had not traveled by water since his birth. The fear kept hunting him until they got to their final destination. On arrival, they were met by some children who were swimming in the river. The children readily approached the incoming canoe and helped carried Sitsofe’s items to the house. The fishing village looked very serene and calm. It was occupied by about one thousand five hundred families whose main occupation was fishing with minority of the population engaged in farming activities. Most of the prominent fishermen in Vakpome were into child slavery and Tulasi was not in exclusion. With about fifteen children working with him whose ages ranged between seven and seventeen years, Tulasi had no pity for recalcitrant children. Almost all his “children” either had sores and scars on their arms, legs, foreheads or at their backs. The children were barred from speaking to strangers and to ensure they never attempted doing that, Tulasi had secretly selected some of the children to act as spies on their colleagues. Spies who reported their colleagues for breaking any of the rules were rewarded with a large quantity of food. Children who broke his rules were either starved the whole day or beaten with the paddle of a canoe. When it was time for fishing, the children were put into groups of three for each canoe and the group that had a biggest catch were often rewarded with some fishes. However, groups that returned with low catch were given little food to eat that day. Usually, the children would go for fishing at twelve midnight and return at twelve midday. The children were in tattered clothes with no footwear. Wednesdays were set aside for mending nets.
The following day was a fresh moment for Sitsofe at Vakpome. He woke up hungry because he had had little to eat the previous evening. Throughout the journey, he had nothing to eat until he arrived at Vakpome. The food, which was given to him by the wife of Tulasi, was nothing to right home about. Tulasi had woken him up together with the other children. They spent their nights in a congested hut which also served as store room for the fishing equipment. Sitsofe was introduced to the other boys. The reactions of the boys when they were being introduced to Sitsofe was indifferent. Tulasi consequently assigned one of the boys to mentor Sitsofe. He was the eldest of the boys and the first to have been poached by Tulasi. He was six years old when Tulasi picked him up from Yeji, another fishing community. Gani, as they called him, had lived with Tulasi for ten years. At 16, he looked much older than his age. He was a stammerer and therefore had no patience for the younger ones who found it difficult to learn the work. Most often, he bullied them under the watchful eyes of Tulasi.
On his first day at work, Sitsofe was taught how to mend and make fishing nets but not without several beatings and knocks on his head. Two weeks later, he was ready to go fishing. He wore a faded red singlet and an old pair of shorts. The clothes he had come along with were distributed among his colleagues living him with few ones. Though he wasn’t happy about the situation, he had no right to complain. Ferrying on the mighty river for fishing, the fear that tormented Sitsofe on his journey to Vakpome had paid him a visit once again. While padding the canoe amateurishly, his paddle accidentally fell inside the river. “Hey you useless boy. Why did you drop the paddle? Kuviatɔ(lazy boy).” Gani asked impatiently. Without waiting for any answer, Gani removed the paddle from the river and struck Sitsofe’s head with it. As Sitsofe bled profusely, Gani was unperturbed and looked on sadistically. He went ahead and yelled at him to resume work and warned him not to drop the paddle again. That day, the duo recorded a big catch but Gani claimed absolute credit for their huge success due to his vast experience. When they were rewarded with gari and fish for their effort, Gani greedily took the lion’s share to the displeasure of Sitsofe but he could not complain for fear of being given some knocks on his head. Sitsofe was so sad that he detached himself from the rest of the boys as he sobbed silently. He had gone the whole day without food so rejecting or failure to eat the little he had been offered amounted to facilitating his own death sentence.
It’d been one month since Sitsofe was taken away from the comfort zone of his hometown. While some of the children were mending and making nets for the next day’s work, the rest were repairing some of the canoes that weren’t in good shape. All of a sudden, the heavily built and red-eyed Tulasi came out of his room and called for an urgent meeting. He looked very furious and aggressive.
“I kept some money under my bed yesterday and someone had the effrontery to enter my room and steal the money. So who took the money?”, Tulasi asked angrily as he sternly and carefully looked at the face of each boy. suddenly,the children looked at one another in fear and innocence. The silence that befell the boys could allow one to hear a pin drop. None of the boys could speak. When Tulasi threatened to drown all of them, Gani raised his hand and Said,”Yesterday evening, I saw Sitsofe at the entrance of your room. As soon as he saw me, he pocketed something. When I questioned him, he said nothing,” Without confirming the accusation from the accused, Tulasi held Sitsofe’s neck asking for his money. Sitsofe was being chocked to death as the rest looked on helpless. Fortunately, Yiyi, the wife of Tulasi, who had just arrived from the market, rushed to save Sitsofe. Sitsofe had difficulty breathing as he coughed holding his neck. “Ah Efo do you want to kill the child,! What’s wrong with you?”, Yiyi protested angrily. “Tell that boy to give me the money he has stolen from me,” Tulasi stated. When Sitsofe opened his mouth and denied ever taking the money, Tulasi kicked him hard in the stomach. Sitsofe fell on the ground gritting in pain.”Fiafitɔ(thief), give me my money or else I will deal with you ruthlessly.”, Tulasi threatened. He asked his wife to stay out of the issue and consequently ordered her to enter the room. He then instructed Gani to get him a knife he had put in fire for a different purpose. At that moment, Sitsofe kept crying and declaring his innocence but Tulasi wouldn’t give him a listening ear. He grabbed Sitsofe and tied him to a tree. When the knife was brought, it was extremely red-hot. Lacking sympathy for the little boy, Tulasi held Sitsofe’s hand and removed the topmost part of his little finger with the heated knife leaving the boy in excruciating pain.
Three days later, Sitsofe could still feel the pain in his mutilated little finger. He had not been able to sleep well ever since the unfortunate incident happened to him. Whenever the little finger mistakenly hit an object, blood oozed out like a spring. That day, he was paired with Gani to go fishing. It was fifty-five minutes past ten and the weather was extremely cold. The cloud had gathered in the afternoon but there was no rain. With no protective clothes except for his usual faded singlet and a pair of shorts, Sitsofe carried the fishing net and two lanterns into the canoe. Meanwhile, he could still feel the pain in his little finger. This time around, he had mastered the skills in paddling a canoe and did so very well though the constant contact of his bruised finger with the handle of the paddle squeezed some blood out of him. The two never talked as both paddled to fish. In an hour time, they arrived at the deepest part of the river. That part of the river had many dead tree stumps that had been there for ages and sometimes, made navigation dangerous. Before Gani could cast the net into the river, there was a loud roll of thunder accompanied by a strong wind. In no time, it had began to rain. Due to the direct rain the canoe was accumulating, it began to sink slowly. Sitsofe picked up a bowl and began to scoop the water out of the canoe. Gani saw Sitsofe to be too slow for his liking and so yelled at him to be more active. Standing on the bow seat of the canoe unsatisfied with the effort Sitsofe was making in scooping out the water, Gani raised his paddle with the intention to hit Sitsofe but tripped and fell into the river. Thought Gani could swim very well, this time around, it was too late to save himself as everything happened so quickly. He sank deeper, leaving Sitsofe who was shivering in fright, under the mercy of the strong torrent. He continued with his effort to scoop out the water when he realized he would also sink just like Gani. Unluckily for him, larger part of the boat had almost been consumed by the water. Feeling defenseless, he repeatedly shouted for help. At the same time the whole part of the canoe had almost sunk. He held onto one of the tree stumps but it broke as he sank gradually with canoe.
The heavy downpour that occurred the previous night had paved way for a brighter sunshine the following day. Tulasi, with his arms behind his back paced from one side of the river bank to the other. He was anxious for the two children, Gani and Sitsofe had not returned from their fishing expedition. He kept gazing at his watch intermittently. Due to the excess heat he was feeling as a result of anxiety, he removed his smock leaving his singlet and the “togas”. It was getting to three o’clock in the afternoon and the children had still not returned. His worry intensified massively. Unable to stand the pressure, he hired the services of six experienced divers from the village to go look for the two boys. The men went further and saw a floating canoe turned upside down. They headed to the scene and dived into the river. After thirty minutes of conducting the search, they found a lifeless body. They tried very hard to find the other body but to no avail. The news about the disappearance of Gani and Sitsofe had spread like wild fire in the village. Almost the whole village had trooped into the house of Tulasi, which was closer to the river, to wait for the return of the search team. The whole village went dead as they anxiously waited for the men to arrive. At half past seven o’clock in the evening, men, women, children, young and old never blinked an eye until they witnessed the outcome of the search. With Some women with babies strapped at their backs and men standing at the bank of the river checking to see whether the search team were coming, there was unending murmur among the crowd that had massed up at the scene. They grouped in twos, threes and so on as they discussed their hopes and despairs. At exactly eight o’clock, the men were seen returning from afar with their lanterns glowing. All attention were tuned to the direction of the river as people gradually moved from Tulasi’s house to stand near the bank of the river. The search team finally arrived at the bank of the river.
“We found only one body,” a member of the search team reported. Another member also stated, “We did our best possible to find the other boy but it proved unsuccessful.” The men slowly brought the corpse out of the boat. The women, as well as the other children and some children of the village began to wail. The whole scene was filled with wails from families, friends and sympathizers. Standing by the corpse, Tulasi bitterly lamented as he looked teary-eyed, “What am I going to tell his father?” Moreover, some of the village elders present, assumed that the other unfound body must have been seized by the gods and needed to pour libations in order to retrieve it.
To be continued