My return to Africa

As President Obama prepares to visit Ghana on July 10 and 11th, I am reminded of the first time I journeyed there in 1997. For me, it was a life-changing event. I was on assignment for American Legacy magazine and what begun as a curious examination of the former slave dungeons along Ghana’s coast, ballooned into an investigative piece about revisionist history, the white-washing of human trafficking, and the looming question: “Who really owns ancestral burial grounds?”

The piece became a cover story and at the time of its publication was one of the first serious attempts by a mainstream magazine to grapple with what the former dungeons represent for countless Africans throughout the Diaspora. This was before Bill Clinton’s feeble half-apology for slavery and the apex of the reparations movement.

Now, more than twelve years later, I find myself mesmerized by the idea that the leader of the free world is a man of African descent, and that this same man will walk the same dark dungeon corridors that I did years ago.

Will he issue an official apology for slavery? Does it matter? Is it ironic that although Obama is Black, his own ancestors were most likely not caught up in the transatlantic slave trade? Yes, yes, and yes. But beyond the questions and politics, I truly hope Obama’s visit highlights the spiritual nexus, if transfixing starting point, that the dungeons represent for Africans whose ancestors endured slavery. I know they did for me.

Here’s an excerpt:
The dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, in Ghana, where hundreds of thousands of Africans were imprisoned in the transatlantic slave trade, resemble vast, ancient tombs. As I move along the black corridors, the place haunts me. For a moment I feel I’ve become invisible, my soul transparent and lost in the impenetrable darkness surrounding me.

And then I hear a chorus of men wailing a plaintive hymn, and the clink-clank of iron chains. Someone strikes a match, and in the tiny burst of yellow flame I see scarred walls. The wailing becomes louder. Now I see fifteen young African men, shackled and half-bare, huddled in a far corner. Several other black men stand nearer to me, holding lit candles. As this re-enactment ceremony begins, they offer a prayer:

“We give thanks and praise to the Most High for allowing us to assemble in this sacred space,” says Nana Okofo, an African American man from Brooklyn, New York who once ran One Africa Productions, an organization that conducts tours and historical interpretations at the castle. “Cape Coast Castle is one of twenty-seven built in Ghana to house the captured Africans before we were extracted to the diaspora,” he says.

He introduces his partner, a man named Kohain Haheri, another African American living in Ghana. Haheri explains what happened in the cavernous space: “Three to five hundred male captives were held in this room, which is barely thirty-two by sixteen feet. As you can see, this floor is cobblestone. As we walk through the series of four connected chambers, you will not see cobblestone beneath your feet. At one time the floor was up to here,” he said, pointing to three chalk marks set at varying heights on the wall. The marks show the floor level that existed before the rooms were partially excavated.

“What you are walking on is literally centuries of calcified bones, flesh, and human waste. This is where the captured Africans ate, slept, and, packed in their own filth, were sick and sometimes died. Everything happened in here. When full, Cape Coast Castle could hold up to fifteen hundred Africans. The captives were imprisoned here anywhere from three weeks to three months, or in some cases as long as a year, depending on how long it took for the ships to make their round trip.”

I stand listening to Haheri recount how some of my ancestors were kidnapped and brought in chains from all over West Africa. He speaks of how infants, the weak, and the elderly were deliberately killed during the slaving raids that brought captured Africans to Cape Coast Castle.

He describes how men, women, and children were chained or yoked together and herded as far as two hundred miles toward the shore; how their captors tried to break their spirits – a practice known as “seasoning” – once they were imprisoned in the castle’s dungeons; and how, to ensure a regular supply of slaves, European traders often instigated tribal wars, the victors then selling their prisoners into slavery.

Haheri leads us through a series of adjacent dungeons to a sealed passageway that runs beneath the main courtyard to the “Door of No Return” and out to the open sea, where the captives were forced to board ships bound for Europe’s colonies in North and South America.

They are called castles, but Cape Coast and Elmina never housed royalty. Rather, they were fortresses built by Europeans to defend their holdings and warehouse captured Africans. Now they are museums run by the Ghanaian government, permanent reminders of a slave trade that engulfed West and Central African people, an estimated twenty million, but likely millions more, and helped destabilize the entire continent.

My tour of Elmina Castle was conducted by a Ghanaian, who led us to a plaque next to a dungeon door that read: “In Ever-lasting Memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

Then down we walked to an underground cavern, where the dank, foreboding atmosphere immediately began to close in on me. As I moved among the group of twenty people, I was almost overcome with claustrophobia. When the guide pointed out that up to three hundred Africans had been packed into one small, dark room without space to lift an arm or to lie down, my fear seemed absurd by comparison. Next we entered a dungeon where naked women and girls had been hosed down before the slavers picked out the ones they would rape.

Back up on the ramparts, we walked past cannons that could be swiveled from their positions facing the sea to aim at the nearest village. During the late 1800s, when the British began to colonize Ghana in the hope of exploiting the Ashanti’s rich gold reserves, the issue of ownership of Elmina and its surrounding territory sparked frequent conflicts between the two groups.

High in the castle walls rises a tower where Prempeh I, an Ashanti king, was imprisoned in 1896, after the British occupied Kumasi, the Ashanti capital city. There he languished in chains, like so many other Africans he was said to have bargained into slavery. “It’s a sad, rather unfortunate part of our history,” the guide commented.

Those whose ancestors left the castles in chains also regard the sites as sacred ground. Shortly before I arrived, a group of West Indians who refused to pay the admission fee staged a small protest at the Cape Coast Castle entrance. One of them said, “We didn’t pay to leave. Why should we have to pay to return? We won’t pay to enter a graveyard of our ancestors.”

The castle officials argue that the landmarks need funds to be maintained and that there is nothing wrong with charging admission.

“I think initially there was some misunderstanding,” says Charles Mensah, an administrator at Cape Coast Castle. “The people at One Africa Productions demanded that we consult them about what happens here. There’s a way of being part of it. You have to learn the process, not muscle your way into it by appealing to people’s emotions and pity.”

Kohain Haheri, however, believes that African Americans and other descendants of enslaved people do deserve a role in determining how the castles are run. “We told the museum’s director that it was a total contradiction in terms of what they’re promoting,” he says. “They want brothers and sisters from the diaspora to come home. They even have the nerve to identify African Americans as their number one source of tourism dollars. We take offense. When we were separated from here, we were seen as a product for sale. Some haven’t left that mentality.” But despite their differences the Ghanaians and the tour company have found ways to work together.

Ghana happens to be the top destination for African Americans visiting the continent. Peter Kpikpitse estimates that about thirty thousand people a year visit the castles at Elmina and Cape Coast, and that about 60 percent of the visitors are Ghanaian, 20 percent are blacks from the diaspora, and the remaining 20 percent are Europeans or white Americans.

Among the most memorable moments of my tours of Cape Coast and Elmina were those when I saw each castle’s Door of No Return, which had given so many thousands of enslaved Africans their last view of the coast before they were imprisoned in the hulls of slave ships. After spending hours in the dungeons, scene of countless atrocities, I felt drained. Nothing I had learned before I came to Ghana had prepared me for the emotional horror of actually being there.

I remembered what a friend had told me before I left for Ghana. “Whoever you think you are when you get there,” she said, “will affect what you see in Africa. Your own social, gender, political, and cultural identity will come into focus. Whether you see more similarities or more differences depends on how you see yourself.”

Somewhere over the Atlantic, homeward bound, I closed my eyes and recalled the scarred dungeon walls. Years later the image still comes back to me, and like a wound that cuts beyond flesh, it causes a sharp and lingering pain.

But the stories etched in those dungeon walls have a healing power too. They summon feelings of great pride, telling me that I am a descendant of those nameless spirits of the dead that prevail, unvanquished still.