For My Ancestors: The Journey Home
I am currently sitting in a room on the third floor in Accra, Ghana. Tonight is my last night here after two and a half weeks of fruitful missions work in which 16 men and women of the Abooso village came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. I have much to share in the weeks ahead as I sort through my notes and images from our work. I'll blog about what we accomplished here by God's grace in a separate blog. This story however is unlike any other that I've documented in my short 36 years of life, but one that with much heartache and joy I share from the depths of my soul.
As you can see from this website, I am a professional photographer who desires nothing more than to capture all things pertaining to humanity authentically and with much evocation. While I am hardly ever in front of the camera, today I sat my comfortability aside and allowed myself to feel and be completely raw as I traveled to the place where my ancestors dreamed of once returning.
Today I visited both Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana. Two very prominent forts erected by Europeans that were built for the trade of timber and gold, but were later used in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It's one thing to learn about the plight of one's ancestors from history books or by the stories passed down through the elders. It is an entirely different undertaking to physically set your feet where it happened.
Join me as I take you through a brief recap of what was a 13 hour day of full of driving and complete immersion into the horrific enslavement of African ancestral history.
This is Elmina Castle. 11.5 to 13 million African captives would be enslaved and pass through this fort over the span of 400 years. They were forced out of their homes, torn apart from their families, and would live in deplorable living conditions, many dying, before being forced upon slave ships and sent to the Caribbean and Americas.
The balcony pictured above looks right down into the dungeon where the female captives were enslaved. One by one the governor would choose who he'd want to have sex with and she would be ordered upstairs into his quarters where she'd raped and forced to perform heinous sex acts. The guards also raped female captives. The picture under the balcony is a female dungeon. The red garment represents the cloth wraps that were given to them to be worn around their waist that they would use to clean themselves during their time of the month. They were only given three cloths. One cloth, for one week, for three months.
If a female captive dared to refuse the governor or his men by fighting back, she'd be chained to the cannon ball on the ground in the second picture above and tortured in front of the other captives as an example. The chains next to the cloth were used with shackles on their arms and ankles.
Male captives were crammed into pitch black dungeons. Malaria was rampant due to horrific living conditions. They were rarely able to see one another's face and very often what would start as a room full of conversation and groaning, voices faded as they died. Starvation, lack of oxygen, the lack of water, and the decomposing bodies in dungeons like this caused many of the casualties.
Africans across the diaspora visit Cape Coast Castle, Elmina Castle and other forts that were used for the slave trade and place wreaths of remembrance in the dungeons where our ancestors were held.
These yellow quarters pictured were where the governor's stayed. Many female captives would become mistresses and remain in these quarters chained to perform sexual acts.
Leaving Elmina; onward to Cape Coast Castle.
Between 1485 and 1540, some 12,000 captives were imported and sold to gold merchants from Inkassa, Ahanta, Abrem, Etsi, Tafo, Akani, & Mali. Over the span of 200 years, 4 million Africans would pass through Cape Coast Castle and if they survived, they would be shipped to the Caribbean and Americas for trade. The canons in the picture above were used to fire against the Dutch who controlled Elmina Castle. The Dutch and the British (who built and controlled Cape Castle) were at odds during this time.
This exhibit within the male dungeon is representative of what it would've been like for our ancestors here while waiting to board the ships. Tightly packed in rooms with no ventilation other than a hole where gunpowder seeped through, completely dark, utterly oppressive. Periodically, the guards would remove the dead bodies and throw them into the ocean.
The captives who were blindfolded were the strongest and often the ones who attempted escape. The captors would place a blindfold over their eyes to further impair them.
The female dungeon spaces at Cape Coast were very small compared to those at Elmina. This particular dungeon was for the captives who were disciplined. The only light they had came from a slither in the wall where their food was passed through. They had a hole in the floor where they used the restroom. Because the space was so small and without ample light, many just urinated, defecated, and passed menstrual blood right where they stood and laid.
The Door of No Return was where captives were pushed through to be loaded as cargo onto slave ships. They would never see their families again. They would never touch this continent, their home, all they've ever known, again. I wept uncontrollably, for several minutes. I stood paralyzed with a wounding hurt in my soul that only the Holy Spirit could comprehend. I thought of the husbands and wives who were violently ripped apart from one another, forever divided to suffer unbearable pain. I thought of the mothers separated from the children she brought forth in this world and her cries she screamed deep within with the realization that she would not be able to protect or nurture her young. I thought of the children who would never see their parents again.
Families and communities ravished apart by captors who reduced these precious image bearers to dispensable property unworthy of human decency in the name of greed.
I stood there looking up at the sign as Sebastian my tour guide allowed me to grieve. He gently put his hand on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, "You made it back. That's all they wanted. For you, for all of us, to make it back home." In that moment there was an overwhelming sense of closure, an emotional emancipating healing of sorts that was revived by the fact that they did not win. The captors did not win. Although hundreds of years later, we made it home.
I walked through the door of my ancestors. I can't fathom what they felt while they were forced through this door shackled and chained to one another. The fatigue, the hunger, ailing with various diseases, and bodies torn and welted from the torture. They left to never return again. In their stead, I walked through, then returned.
On the other side of The Door of No Return were boats that modern day fisherman use to catch tilapia and crabs. This would be the exact place my ancestors would be forced onto ships to never again touch this continent. Beautiful brown-skinned young boys and a woman who appeared to be their mother met me with comforting eyes as I walked through. I stood there looking out at the Atlantic with such weariness and sorrow. After a few moments, Sebastian told me to turn around and look up. The sign read "Door of Return." I was overcome with a sense of longing accomplishment. Hopes and far off prayers from those that came long before me were a reality.
I became the dream of my ancestors. I recorded a short video of my initial reactions after I had walked through and in time I will share it publicly.
Hidden figures no more. By the sovereign hand of God and His timeless and all redeeming grace, their seeds of faith sown in blood, sweat, tears, and the fight to escape has shown forth in the fruit of my ability and many like me to return from whence we came.
Akwaaba in Twi (one of the prominent languages here in Ghana) means welcome. With expectant joy and open arms, I have been told "Welcome Home" more times than I can count while here. I have broken bread in the homes and villages of natives and have been received as family. I have held children while their mothers made dinner for the family. I have danced, walked the roads late at night while music played without a care in the world. I have laughed until my stomach hurt and cried with unexplainable joy. I have never felt more at home or more proud to wear this brown skin anywhere else in the world.
The exhibit above was featured in a refurbished officer's quarter within the castle. The netting in the second and third images represent how the ancestors were thrown overboard once they died. Their bodies, in fishing nets, regarded as waste. The broken pieces in the fifth image represent how families and communities were devastated as the result of the slave trade. The last piece represents the captives walking through The Door of No Return.
The second picture above coupled with the history that Sebastian shared with me brought clarity to a question that I have had all of my adult Christian life. "Why is Christianity classified as the "white man's religion" across the diaspora?" That dark area with large metal and wooden doors is one of the largest dungeons where captives were held. The structure with the three windows on top? A Christian church.
Day in and day out, captives would be beaten, tortured, and left for dead in the name of Christianity, then they'd listen to their captors go upstairs and sing praises to God. All they knew? The people in the name of Jesus were also responsible for the most egregious and evil treatment they experienced in their lives. The third picture is of a floor-door on the porch of the church that opens up to the dungeon below. There were no stairs to this door from the dungeon. It was solely used to "indoctrinate" the captives during their "worship" service. The captors would leave the doors open so that the captives could hear the Bible preached. Once onto the slave ships and landing in the Americas, they were forced to convert to Christianity by their slave-masters.
The "god" they came to know was one of horrendous abuse and injustice of the worst kind. This is not the way of the God of the Bible. This is not the way of Jesus Christ who came, died, and rose from the grave. This was the evil in the heart of man that manipulated scripture to justify their greed and hatred. While the actions of man in His name have no bearing on one's right standing with God, it is completely understandable why they would reject Him.
It is important for you to know why I used the word captives instead of slaves throughout this recap. According to the ancestral African history I learned on the tour, "..it is disrespectful and inaccurate to call them slaves, our ancestors were captives; taken as prisoners and confined."
My time spent at both castles was riveting, clarifying, devastating, and altogether healing beyond words. I thank God for His grace in allowing me to experience this time revisiting my roots. I thank Him for showing me what it really means to love those who persecute you. In my moments of righteous anger, the moments where I had to place both hands over my mouth to hold back screams of agony, I remembered that this is why He came. This is why His blood was shed. I remembered that the power to change the hearts of men lies solely on the work of the Holy Spirit we are given through Christ.
Thanks to my sisters Jamie and Monique, I was encouraged that vengeance is His. That there will be a day when oppression, injustice, innocent blood shed, slavery, rape, and the attempted genocide of people groups, will be no more. He will set everything right in His time.
When my tour with Sebastian ended, I walked to the new manifest at the front of the castle where visitors sign in with my heart heavy, ever so proud of my unapologetic blackness, and my head held high with the strength of 17 million ancestors as the wind beneath my wings. I signed my name with the pride of knowing that this had come full circle. They left, I returned. They died, but not in vain. It was for moments like this. For their descendants to not just make their way home, but to leave this world better than we found it. But my mark isn't about me. By God's grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit, I will live on to the beat of ancient African drums in the name of Jesus Christ to proclaim and demonstrate His Gospel to the ends of the earth. To be about His disciple-making business, overwhelming those I encounter with His unconditional love.
This is for my ancestors; this is for my descendants. I came home.