How to Become a Devoted Slave
I kept a habit from my early years among the Amboalambo tribe, of massaging my wrists and ankles for hours on end. I did it whether sitting, squatting, or lying down, whenever I could, to circulate my blood. I never could shed the obsession. Sometimes in the morning when I wake, I look at the Creator’s rising sun and contemplate my own hands and feet in amazement. I still wonder if I’m truly free.
Rado bought me at a slave market. When he brought me to Sahasoa, Fara was seven. I was two years older than her, but I looked a year younger, and I still spoke with a lilting forest accent. My home village had been razed to the ground when Radama’s troops attacked. All the men were killed, and the soldiers had ransacked all their possessions. Having captured the women and children, the king’s troops kept a handful as trophies and sold the rest at the slave market. They killed my father and my grandfather, my two older brothers, my two paternal uncles, and my maternal uncle. My childhood memories are haunted by bodies littering the ground.
At the time, children were going for thirty to sixty piasters on the slave market. Young girls were popular for their domestic use. Older girls were more expensive, and beautiful captives could bring in eighty piasters. Little boys were sold for an average of thirty piasters, but any with a particular skill were worth more.
I was sold for forty piasters. It was a good price.
Sometimes I laugh, because I’ve realized that even the memory of the dealer—a foul man with formal speech, so typical of that time—has become a weirdly precious treasure. My owner was a smooth-talking hawker. A career man, he was good at his job, not like those soldiers who captured and sold willy-nilly around the countryside. His is a permanent mark in my memory; time will not alter it.
This occurred during the last crescent of the Alakarabo moon, in the fifteenth year of the Sovereign King’s reign.
This is essentially how the dealer sounded: “What would you say to a little slave to distract you, my good sir? This one right here will enchant your evenings with the melodious sound of his valiha strings; the ancestors will bestow their favor upon you! His music is fresh as the dawning dew-covered day, more poignant than the setting sun on the hillside! This slave is small as a louse and black as the inside of a cooking pot, but his fingers have been blessed with inspiration by the most benevolent of our forest spirits!”
I never knew the dealer’s name. I must have had occasion to hear it, but I never retained it. Perhaps because I didn’t want to.
Rado didn’t intend on buying a slave. But he came over anyway. I was squatting by a grain basket among stacks of baskets and sacks of goods. My ankles were chained together, and I looked aggressively, silently, at this strange man walking toward me. What did he want? Nothing good. Probably to hit me, hurt me, like so many others had done since my capture. Seeing Rado’s interest, the dealer whose name I’ve forgotten held a valiha out and ordered me to play. The customer was waiting. I acquiesced with a grimacing smile—showing too much malevolence would have caused horrible punishments later.
Rado seemed interested.
“How much?” he asked.
“You won’t regret this choice, good sir! You have a rare opportunity, the ancestors have surely brought you here, it was just this very morning that a noble lord from A… offered me a pair of sheep for him. I refused, I wanted to keep him for myself, you understand. My wives just love the valiha. The second in particular, the youngest, she goes into raptures whenever she hears its wistful chords.”
As he spoke, the merchant gestured invitingly with a knowing smile, which Rado returned coldly.
“So why are you selling him now? Is he sick?”
“Oh no, not at all! He’s in perfect health! He also never begs to be allowed to play, which is a welcome quality. You know the proverb, ‘A slave skilled at the valiha: when you ask him to play, he refuses, but as soon as you speak of work, he goes mad for music!’ You won’t worry about that with this one—”
“You still haven’t told me why you want to sell him.”
Without answering, the dealer turned to me and barked, “Get over here, you!” I shuffled forward, the chains fettering my feet.
The dealer clamped his hand onto the top of my head and turned me around, showing off my limbs and thin torso.
“He’s called Tsito. He’s a little skinny, but he comes from good stock. He’ll work hard and won’t bother you. I broke him in very well.”
Rado examined me carefully for marks of abuse. I lowered my eyes. It wasn’t allowed, looking at a master. I’ve also kept that habit, lowering my eyes when I talk to people. It’s very hard for me to hold someone else’s gaze.
Slave traffickers procure their merchandise in several ways. The simplest is to buy them from soldiers when they return from the countryside, as happened with me. They can also do the village circuit, touring around to the many families reduced to slavery through debts or poverty. Sometimes, dealers will send their henchmen to capture ordinary people who get lost on the roads or venture out alone a little too far from home. The most common technique to break them in is the trial of water, which consists of binding the captive’s hands and feet behind their back and plunging their head into a tub of water until they start to suffocate. The procedure is repeated over several hours and only stops once the victim declares, convincingly, “I confess that I am your slave and that my ancestors are your ancestors’ slaves.”
I’d been broken in well, as the dealer said. Very well.
Slaves who don’t show marks of violence aren’t necessarily better treated. But Rado couldn’t know that. The only visible marks on me were dark furrows that the ropes had left on my wrists and ankles. In some ways, these marks recorded the least violent aspect of enslavement: being bound. In a twist of irony, the body does not preserve any outward sign of the most brutal part: suffocation, temples threatening to burst, slipping unutterably toward death.
Well, actually, mine did. I was two years older than Fara, but I looked one younger—my body refused to grow, which was the only way my bones and muscles revolted, lasting well beyond my captivity. As an adolescent, I sometimes wondered if my ancestors were doing that to punish me for enslaving them to the ancestors of the Amboalambos. And the nameless dealer.
On the day when Rado came, the slave trafficker shoved me toward him and heaved a deep sigh.
“I’ve decided to part with him, good sir, because I have a large family to provide for. You must understand, I am a poor man. I don’t have the means to feed one more mouth—”
“You still haven’t told me the price.” Rado interrupted his little speech. “And where is this child’s mother?”
“She died, my good sir! Along with the rest of his family. That is, alas, the harsh law of war. You’ll be taking in a little orphan here. You know what our ancestors said: ‘A crying orphan is only pitied by the back of his own hand.’ Through your purchase, you will save him!”
My owner pulled a mournful face, ever the true professional.
Despair wracked me in that moment, and tears sprang to my eyes. The dealer was lying again. All of my other family members had been sold. Those who trade in men find it wiser to get rid of the adults first, for if parents see their offspring leave before them, they become uncontrollable. Some even attempt suicide. In any case, the merchandise is spoiled and is harder to sell.
This seller was definitely a career man. Night made me a confidante, tied to the foot of his bed: he sighed and reminisced sadly about the time when the business of lost men still flourished. Ever since the Sovereign King prohibited the export of slaves, ceding to British pressure, the trade was no longer what it had been.
I never saw any of my family members again, after that time.
But I found Fara.
Bebe, Fara’s grandmother, often said that I had “an old soul”.
By that, she meant that I too often showed more maturity than suited a child. It was a rare ability, to act with the gravity and dignity of an adult, but it was just one of the many oddities that destiny had rewarded me with. I also knew how to scratch between my shoulder blades with my thumbnail, peel most fruits with my teeth, and scatter an army of invading rats with my heels—very useful things when your hands are tied.
In Bebe’s opinion, the aftereffects of my captivity were summed up in an old proverb: “When the whole household gets a lecture, the orphan most quickly learns the most from it.” I’ll admit that I could never rid myself of the habit of listening in all situations, leaving nothing to chance.
When my whole family had been sold and I was the only one left with the slave dealer, he built a cage to keep me in. That cage was my world, my universe. I spent my unusable days, and sometimes my nights, in the company of chicken and wild geese, even young goats. Who knows, maybe it was because I lived with animals that I too quickly became a man.
During that period, whether to pass the time or forget my sorrows—or maybe to not lose my mind—I also developed the habit of fashioning tools, working everything that passed through my hands. I made wooden spoons, stakes, little scales, spinning tops, bird traps, and various other useful things. Everything that, as I think about it, kept me connected to the family of human beings.
These skills—developed in adversity, as an old soul would do—made it easier for the community to accept me.
In fact, it would be bad form to lament my destiny too much, for it has been gentle with me. I started from the very bottom—I could only go up from there. Rado and Bebe proved themselves the most obliging masters that anyone could hope for. In my very first year in Sahasoa, the sun shone for me again in a clear blue sky, after the dark eclipse of my family’s massacre. Rado did take off the same evening we’d arrived, leaving me in a state of confusion, but free to move around. He simply gave me the valiha that he’d bought from the trader, saying, “Here. Use this to brighten your new home. You’ll see how pointless it is to try to run away—you’d get lost, and even if you managed to escape the wild dogs, you’d just end up in the hands of slave dealers again. Why try? Instead, be like the baby bird: wait for your wings to grow.”
My wings grew very quickly. And besides, before bringing me to Bebe, Rado had broken me in, too. In his own way.
But it had very little in common with the slave dealer’s methods. Rado never used force with me. His style was more an apprenticeship in roughing it, on his journeys. He’d toughened me up against life’s difficulties by taking me down the kingdom’s harshest roads. Day after day, he taught me about difficult passes and dangerous paths, what signs to look out for, hidden trails. We often moved at a forced quick march and slept out in the open. On those treacherous paths of life, you must react quickly and aggressively to dangerous situations. It was the most efficient education that I could have ever hoped for.
Later, after I was already living in Sahasoa, Rado sometimes still took me with him, to negotiate some business in the North, perhaps just for the company. He was a strict and tortured soul, and gruff, like so many of the Perfumed Lord’s great workers. He could walk by your side for a week without saying a word. And he could also confess his entire life to you in one evening around a wood fire.
Rado had never had a slave before, and didn’t want one. He’d bought me for a very specific reason.
My new master had a sensitive heart. The decision to leave Fara’s mother hadn’t been one he’d made offhand. When he’d known Bao, she was young, beautiful, talented, and crazy. The eccentric queen of the fampitaha dance had left a huge impact on him. But the desire to marry Bao the village girl, along with his unbridled wish for wealth, wore him out quickly. The early frenetic energy soon died off—the day came when he had to return to more stable relationships and disembark onto more practical shores.
Rado already had a wife at the time: Vololona, who managed his lands selflessly during his long absences. All his rice fields were well cared for, and his livestock multiplied. Shortly before succumbing to Bao’s charms, he’d also promised marriage to a nice young woman named Raivo. A Northerner.
“She had a good head on her shoulders, you know, a combination of strength and sensitivity, like all Northern women,” he confessed to me. “She didn’t dream of having an extravagant wedding celebration, just wanted a house and kids.”
People said that you couldn’t escape a Northern woman. He broke things off with Bao and married Raivo. However, his choice tormented him—he’d become enamored with his now-illegitimate daughter. He didn’t think that Fara deserved the detrimental situation she was in. He wanted forgiveness for abandoning her, for not giving her a real home. He wanted to give her a present. And that present was me.
“This will be my way of keeping an eye on her and her destiny,” he said. “I see gifts in you that will be revealed by the winds of time. Our meeting was not by chance—it was willed by the ancestors.”
I believed it readily.
But what did Fara think?
It would be difficult, even over the corrupting winds of time, to erode the memory of the peculiar welcome that my new home had in store for me. It was on a nice, sunny day in Alakarabo.
Bebe and Bao were virtually ecstatic about my arrival, for reasons I initially couldn’t fully explain. It had only been half a day since I arrived. However, I saw something happening: the two women were bursting out laughing with every word spoken and singing exuberantly. Rado was smiling. Celebration held sway.
Then, at some signal I didn’t see, Bao took me by the hand and led me into the middle of the yard. Everyone else followed. I saw other village women come running from every direction, holding the hem of their wraps in one hand, peals of laughter ringing out. Bebe clapped her hands and smiled a wide, toothless grin. Children were whistling and imitating the babakoto’s call. I looked at Rado, worried, but he just kept smiling.
Someone shouted, “Look at him! Isn’t he handsome? Did you see his teeth? His legs? His little male implement? I can’t believe it!”
Bao pointed at one of the boys there. “Quick, bring her here! Go find her, I want to see them together! Praise be to Zanahary the Creator!”
They brought over Ifotsy the cow and stood us side by side. The animal got a little excited by all the commotion. She let out a string of short moos and kept swinging her head back and forth. She was still a young cow at the time, always eager to be petted. As if encouraged by the shouts from the crowd, she licked my face with her long, rough tongue and let loose a smelly pile of green dung in joy. Everyone laughed over it.
Fara had been suspicious of me up to that point, but she also laughed. For the first time, she really looked at me, intensely, with that curiosity-infused stare that belonged so specifically to her.
Then, the women started singing.
The village is rich with children
Grandmother is very lucky
Her home has a hundred slaves
Her home holds a hundred cattle
Allison Charette is a translator and writer whose work has been published by Centro Primo Levi Editions, Arcade Publishing, the SAND Journal, InTranslation, and others. Her translations have been used as supertitles in various places, including Carnegie Hall. Allison founded the Emerging Literary Translators' Network in America (ELTNA) and currently serves on the board of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). She has lived in several regions throughout France, teaching English to schoolchildren and translating all the while. Allison currently resides in western New York with her husband.