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Published: July 19th 2006
I’ve been trying to write this travel blog for over a week...actually longer. I wrote the first half and couldn’t finish. I came back to it days later, and still couldn’t get my thoughts together. I finally finished tonight. The thoughts started coming the minute I set foot in Pikworo Slave Camp. Unfortunately, the ability to express the thoughts and feelings has been a bit more difficult. I thought the things I saw would be less powerful, less meaningful, just less important. I thought it would be more like reading about it in a history book, or watching a movie. Like being there would make it more real, but not more important. I knew the story, I read the books...I mean hey, I watched Roots with everyone else! I literally thought, “It was a bad time, people made horrible choices, it’s a dark spot in history. I’ll go, pay my respects (because I owe my ancestors that much), and I’ll come back home”. I always thought people who talked about “going back to Africa” were a little melodramatic. They hadn’t visited Africa, so the act of “going back” was a bit absurd. Shame on me...because when you’re there and you’re in
it, and you see things that are so familiar they had to be passed down through generations...you finally get it. It’s like someone erased your memory. Like you should know these things and these places...but a terrible tragedy (the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) took all that away. I have no intention of leaving the US and moving to Ghana. This is my home, and there are so many things that I love about this place. However, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to visit a place that felt just like home. People looked just like me...the women had hips like mine, and noses and lips just like mine...I could have easily passed for a Ghanian. The food was familiar, even the attitudes felt like home. Now who’s being melodramatic!!! I don’t think I can do justice to any of the places I visited along the slave route, but I’ll try. Because I think its important for everyone to know and remember.
Our first stop along the slave route was while we were still in the North. I’ve referred to this region as the North because it is in Northern Ghana. However, it is actually called the Upper East Region.
Eating and Drinking Place for the Slaves
This was the place where the slaves got their water.
I will continue to refer to it as the North, because it’s easier to make sense of its location. Burkina Faso borders it to the north, and Togo borders it to the east. Our first stop was at Pikworo Slave Camp in Paga. African slaves, who were usually captured in wars between African kingdoms, were held at Pikworo and other camps. Even before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, African kingdoms had well established slave camps and markets. The difference was that African slavery mainly amounted to indentured servitude, not slavery as it has since become known. It was easier for Europeans to obtain slaves from the camp, as opposed to actually kidnaping slaves. It was difficult for the Europeans to penetrate the interior, and many would die as a result of disease. Therefore, very few Europeans were involved in the actual capture of slaves in and around Ghana. Because Europeans bought slaves who were captured in wars, many Europeans would try to start wars between African kingdoms...knowing that war would increase the number of slaves. The numbers vary, but its estimated that approximately 12 million people actually made it from Africa to Europe, North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean
The Slave Camp
The slave camp had these huge rocks everywhere. It was interesting because the land around it was basically flat
Islands. The actual number of people involved is much higher. 10 million died as the result of combat related to being captured, the treacherous journey from the slave camps to the coastal regions, or the months spent in slave castles on the coast. 3 million died during the middle passage. Another 2 million died in “Seasoning Camps” located in the Caribbean. Those camps were built to break the will of the slaves before sending them to the mainland. In the end, it is estimated that 30 million Africans were involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Their first stop was usually a slave camp like Pikworo.
Pikworo was hot...and not just regular hot. I’ve lived in Florida and I know hot. Pikworo was unbearably hot. It was as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get. Just rocks and mostly flat land. I can’t even explain how much hotter the rocks made it. I touched one and literally could not keep my hand on it for very long. So imagine having to stay in this incredibly hot place, with little or no shade...after just being taken from your family. You’re scared, you’re confused, you can’t understand what most
The slaves used these holes as places to hold their food.
of the people are saying because they are from different tribes. There’s a chance you were just at war with someone from one of the tribes. Then, in an attempt to keep you from causing trouble, people start telling you that you’re going south to help unload the ships on the coast. Some people figured it out, others didn’t. Those that tried to escape were placed on a punishment rock, under the hot sun, with no food or water, until they died. People were buried in mass graves marked by rocks. No gravestone, no funeral, just a rock in a place that wasn’t home. Your journey south is about 500 miles, on foot, and in chains so you can’t escape. If you get sick along the way, you will be tied to a tree and left for the animals. If you try to escape, you will be tied to a tree and left for the animals or beaten. You’ll travel hundreds of miles before you’re even allowed to take a bath.
Our next stop along the slave route was Donkor Nsuo (The Slave River) at Assin Manso. For me, the visit to Elmina Castle was the hardest and most
emotional part of the trip...the Last Bath was a very close second. There are few things that I fear. I’ve been skydiving and love roller coasters; I sat on a crocodile! Needless to say, I’m not easily frightened. However, standing on the banks of the river, I was literally afraid to walk down to the water. This was the river where the slaves were allowed to take their last bath. I’m smart, I know theres lots of movement in water...it’s not stagnant, especially not for hundreds of years. But I felt like touching the water, even standing too close to it, would be like touching the very water where my ancestors stood. It was as if it happened yesterday. We had a wonderful tour guide who explained the history of the site. I have to admit, I stopped paying attention. I couldn’t really even grasp a lot of what he was saying. I do, however, remember when the Director of the center apologized to the Black Americans in the group for the part that Africans played in the Slave trade. It’s not as if he was saying, “I’m sorry, I’m a bad person and I did a horrible thing”, he
The Slave raiders would stand on top of these tall rocks in order to have a good view of all the slaves. If anyone tried to escape, they would easily been seen.
was just acknowledging that something horrible happened. It’s not taking blame, its just saying, “That was awful and I feel bad about it. I can’t do anything or change the past, but I’m sorry it had to happen. Ok, lets try to move on and do better in the future”. Could you imagine if people started doing that for everyone and everything? I tell students all the time, people just want to be heard. People also want things to be acknowledged and honored and not swept under the rug. I often wondered if people on the trip who are Caucasian felt left out of the journey. I struggled with that, because I believe the journey is a part of everyone’s history. I should have asked them and one day I will, but at the time I was too busy just trying to process my own thoughts. I’m lucky that I know most of them will be open to the discussion.
After the Slave River we finally made it to the part of the trip I was most anxious about. The morning we were to go to Elmina Castle, I got up early and went down to the beach to
If you did try to escape you would be put on the punishment rock, where your arms and legs were tied and you were left in the hot sun. If you died you would be an example for anyone else thinking about escape.
take pictures. You could see the castle from our hotel. Can you even imagine when there were ships waiting to load human cargo? I’m so glad I only have to imagine. Elmina Castle wasn’t what I expected. I'm sure it was once beautiful. The Portuguese built the castle in 1482 as a trading post for bartered goods. However, as the demand for slaves increased, Elmina and other castles like it became essential to the slave trade. I know its hard to believe, but one of the first things that hits you when you visit Elmina is the smell. After hundreds of years the smell still remains. Once again, it may seem as if I’m being melodramatic, but it smells horrible. It’s not an unbearable smell; not as if you can’t stand it. It’s just that you know what the smell is...it’s blood, and sweat, vomit, feces, and death. It’s sadness, broken promises, fear...the whole place reeks of hatred. If you know anything about Elmina you know about the “Door of No Return”. It was the door the slaves walked thru before boarding the ships. If being on the banks fo the Slave River was hard, walking up to the door
was nearly impossible. During this part of the trip, I was so grateful I was around people I didn’t know. Had I been with friends I trusted with my heart, I’m sure I would have wept uncontrollably. I kept thinking this is the last memory someone had of the only place they ever knew. The people who left before them had not returned. They had to know that they too would not return. They didn’t know where they were going, how long it would take, what they would do. Some of them believed their captures were cannibals and that they would be eaten during the voyage. Fear like that must break your will to live, and yet many of them somehow managed to make it to the new world.
I usually only talk about my trip to Ghana when I’m looking at pictures. My mom made the comment that I don't talk about it much at all. I had an amazing time, it was far more wonderful than I even expected. However, I sometimes wish that I could un-know my visit to Elmina. Robert Burns said, “Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. Since I returned, that’s the
These rocks mark the graves of slaves.
thought I can’t get out of my head. How could people be so cruel. Intellectually I can understand how fear and greed make people do horrible things. Emotionally I am unable to deal with the knowledge that people can be so mean to a fellow human being. It’s easy to say, “that was then this is now”...but it happens now, in more subtle ways. The sad part is that we all, myself included, continue to turn a blind eye.
With all that said...finally, in the next blog we'll be on to happier things!!
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