by Stephanie B.
On March 11, I boarded a plane and began what would become the most amazing and life changing experience of my life. At about 10:00am on March 12, that plane landed and I took my first steps onto the continent of Africa, yes, the motherland. I had arrived in the country of Ghana, in the city of Accra. I traveled with a group of my church members. We went for the purpose of doing a historical and cultural tour of the country and, along the way, do a little mission work. I was very excited about this trip even though I really did not know what to expect. I, like most of you, had this misconception of Africa that was based on what we see in today’s media. I was expecting to be hot and dusty and see a bunch of disease and poverty stricken people lying in the streets. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the lush greenery, beautiful coconut, palm nut, and plantain trees, sandy beaches, beautiful waters, and a sea of beautiful black skinned people. Everywhere we went there was a smiling face, greeting us with “Akwaaba”, which means welcome.
We experienced many African traditions, including traditional drumming and dancing and a naming ceremony where I found out that if I had been born in Ghana, my name would be Akua, which means female born on a Wednesday imbued with the qualities of service and general helpfulness. We ate traditional African meals consisting of chicken, goat, fish, different types of rice, fried plantains, and many different sauces to accompany the dishes. Even though these meal items can be found on American dinner tables on any given night, the spices used and the way the food is prepared make the taste very different from anything I am used to eating. One restaurant even had a sign saying “This ain’t no fast food. It could take up to 2 hours to get your food.” All their food is prepared fresh when ordered, no sitting under heat lamps for hours…
I guess I should get on to the life changing and amazing parts of the trip. There were three parts of the trip that really had a major impact on me. These all happened in the third city we visited, Elmina. Our group did a canopy walk in the rainforest. Unfortunately my asthma did not allow me to climb the 250 foot elevation to see the forest floor from a canopy bridge. But as I sat and waited on the rest of the group to finish their canopy walk, it began to rain. My initial thought was that it is not supposed to rain when you are on vacation. But in just a few seconds it hit me that I was sitting watching the rain fall in the rain forest in Africa, and I was instantly filled with awe at the beauty of it all. I actually had to restrain myself from running out to just stand in the rain. It was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in nature.
On the drive from the city of Kumasi to the city of Elmina, we stopped to see what is known as Slave River. During the slave trade, captured slaves were chained together and forced to walk for months to reach the coast of Elmina where they were held in dungeons until ships came to bring them to the US. They were made to walk through wooded areas, no shoes, often no clothes. BY the time they made it here they were dirty and bloody at the very least. Keep in mind that if you had to urinate or defecate or if you were a woman with menses, you just had to go where you stood. Here at the Slave River, slaves were given their last bath before being put on the auction block. For years the waters of this river were red, blood stained from our tortured ancestors. Standing beside the river is a very large, lush, and thriving plot of bamboo. This bamboo grows on the place that the Portuguese used as a mass grave for Africans. If you were too weak to continue, or too old to continue, you were just thrown into the mass grave. If you gave birth to a baby, the baby would be thrown into the grave. There are no words to describe the feeling of standing on the banks of this river and being able to actually dip my hand into the waters where these ancestors had their last bath in their homeland.
While traveling to our hotel, The Coconut Groove Beach Resort, we passed this big beautiful white stone building sitting right on the water. Little did I know, that the next day, my opinion of this regal looking structure would be greatly diminished. Elmina Castle is the oldest structure on African soil built by any of the Europeans. As soon as you walk into this structure, you know that the beauty of the outside can never hide the hell that took place inside Elmina Dungeon. This place was built by the Portuguese, and used by both the Portuguese and the Dutch to facilitate their slave trade. The top floor was the Governor’s living quarters. Below this were the living quarters for the soldiers. The lower two levels were dungeons used to hold hundreds and hundreds of slaves until ships came to take them to America. The female dungeon was particularly difficult to see. As soon as you step into it, there is this smell that hits you so hard that it almost knocks you down. These women were forced to live crammed together in this tiny space, living in heat, urine, feces, menses, and death. And you can smell every ounce of it. You can feel the souls of those who were tortured and died here. Just outside these dungeons is a courtyard that is overlooked by a balcony 2 floors up. This balcony is where the Governor would stand and observe the female slaves and decide which one he wanted to rape. His chosen victim was then bathed and taken up a back stairwell to his bedroom. From the male’s dungeon, there is a door that may be 5 feet high that leads to the final holding space before being put onto a ship. The Door of No Return is in this space. This is the actual door that once you walk through it you never returned to your homeland and your family. By this time the slaves had been starved so they would lose weight and more could be piled into a ship. Standing in this dark, dusty, musty room, imagining the fear that my ancestors must have felt is something that I will never forget.
One of my fellow travelers said that on her first visit to Africa, she felt as if she had a hole in her filled in, a hole she did not even realize was there until it was filled. At first I did not understand. Now I do. I have always had a clear understanding that the story we have always heard about the slave trade was not a complete story. This trip allowed some of those inconsistencies and untruths to finally be cleared up. I believe I learned more about myself and my ancestors during this 10 day trip than I have in 33 years of living. This is an experience that I wish everyone could have at least once in their lifetime.