Stories of the Monsoon No 1.
Two arabian slave-traders set out in their dhow from the Red Sea, and travel down the coast of East Africa, taken by the north wind which blows in a particular season. The limit of the monsoon wind is around Mozambique, and here it dies out, leading at times to a dangerous zone of becalmment, which is where these two, having made some kind of navigational error, find themselves.
They drift powerless on the open ocean for days, while food and water run out, until at last a chance breeze blows them inshore and they are able to land on a coast previously unvisited by them or their predecessors.
Desperate for provisions, they stagger inland, and are met by the inhabitants of the local area, who greet them and take them to meet their King, or Chief - let's say his name is Hakimu. He welcomes them to his compound, and feasts them on maize porridge, bush meat, chilis and corn beer. Then he allows them to rest and recover in his own sleeping-hut.
The following day, they thank him for helping them and tell him that they must be on their way - but perhaps he would like to come and look at their ship before they resume their voyage? It is a fine fast vessel, larger and more advanced than any of his people's simple canoes.
Hakimu, much interested, accepts their offer, and is shown on board where he admires the hemp ropes, the large sail and perhaps even a magnetic compass, items of technology unknown to him. The sail is hoisted to catch a fortuitous wind, the anchor-rope is cast loose, and the coastline dwindles - Hakimu asks where they are going, and is told: home. He realizes that he is a prisoner, and sits silently propped against the mast, refusing to speak to his captors and staring fixedly at the horizon.
The two men take him to the slave-market at Yemen and sell him for a fine large sum, given his pedigree.
* * *
Ten years pass.
The arab merchants criss-cross the Indian Ocean, trading here and there in human and other goods, but one year by chance they happen to make the same mistake they made all that time ago, and the unforgiving wind leaves them becalmed off a half-forgotten coast. Once more they are short of food and desperate for water, and once more they manage to make a landing: but this time they are met by grim-faced men carrying machetes and steel-tipped arrows.
They are frogmarched into the local town, and brought into the square where a carved wooden throne is standing on a dais under a shade-tree.
The figure on the throne lifts its head, and to their shock they realise it is Hakimu.
Hakimu smiles, and lifts his hand.
Men come running with chairs for the prisoners, and Hakimu tells them not to be afraid: he remembers them well, he says, but now they are under his protection (glowering round at his people, who mutter angrily and shift from foot to foot in the dust).
Instead of sitting, the two men fling themselves to the ground, and beg forgiveness for what they did to him, aware of the scowling armed men at their backs.
Hakimu waves away their apologies and pleadings, and has his wives bring plates of food and calabashes of milk, while he settles himself to tell them his story.
You sold me in Yemen, he says, where my worth was appreciated and I was taken to Baghdad, to the greatest slave-market of them all. I was purchased by a rich man, an educated trader, now retired, who took me to live in his house and to be his personal servant.
The years went by, and as we lived and worked together, each gained great respect for the other, and I grew to love my master, and he me.
One day he called me, and told me that he had decided to allow me to buy my freedom. With all the money I had saved over the years, I was just able to pay him what he suggested, and so I was a free man, although far from home.
I decided to return to my own country - a difficult undertaking, although over the years I had come to realise where it was I had come from and had some idea about how to make my way back.
It took me a long time - two years of hardship, hard roads, wrong directions, bitter nights, until at last I began to recognize my own landscapes and find myself among my own people.
At first my people thought that I must be a ghost, and the man who had been chosen as king following my departure spoke against me, but in time I was reinstated and was once more ruler in my own compound.
And so here I am.
It is kind of you to visit me again, and I am glad to be able to help you once more.
The two men once more spend the night in Hakimu's own sleeping-hut, although this time they are tied by the hands to the central roofpole, for their own safety, Hakimu assures them: should they chance to wander in the night, he feels that his people might do them harm.
In the morning they are released and told that they can return to their vessel. Hakimu says goodbye to them, waving a monkey-tail flywhisk in front of his face as he sits on his throne.
I am sorry, he says. I am going to be very busy with my people's affairs this morning - so you will forgive me if on this occasion (and perhaps here he put his hand to his mouth to stifle that almost uncontrollable african giggle) if on this occasion I do not accompany you to your ship.
Empires of the Monsoon, by Richard Hall