Sunday, July 06, 2008

photo: Wild flower on the trail at Mole National Park, northern Ghana

If this is your first ever visit to this blog, woezor (welcome)! If you're a return visitor, welcome back. This week's entry is the continuation of the chapter, "Into the North" from the book on which I'm working, tentatively titled, "In Search of My Father's House: the story of how one African American family is uncovering its pre-slavery roots and reclaiming its long-lost African kin from the Great TransAtlantic Lost & Found." Next week, I'll finish this chapter and we'll begin another, so be sure to keep coming back!

Arguably, no region in West Africa is more haunted by the ghosts of its slave trade past than the northern and eastern areas that begin a couple of hundred miles inland from the coasts. Farther south, the losing soldiers in the constant battles between the great nation states might be sold as slaves, or the youngest children of families fallen on hard times who suddenly found themselves with too many mouths to feed, or, perhaps, the children of people too poor to pay their debts. This was how southerners sold their own people away into slavery. But up north where David and I and our fellow passengers on the STC bus now were, and deeper on into Africa’s interior, like southeastern Chad or the Congo, whole villages; whole clusters of villages, were swept up into slavery, their inhabitants chained together in long coffles and force-marched hundreds of miles to the sea. And much of this destruction was wrought by northerners upon themselves. The powerful empires to the south demanded an annual “gift” of slaves as tribute from vassal states. So, in order to fulfill this annual quota, on top of their own internal desire for slaves to serve the households and raise the crops of the wealthy, less powerful northern kingdoms went in search of victims too, raiding towns and villages in their own region for slaves – and it’s in this region where the most visible scars can still be seen, if you train your eyes to see.

Up north, the baobab is the tree of life. It is shelter, and a natural storage depot for water, as well as the source of a hundred different useful things: wood; strong rope; food; seasoning; medicine; beer… many, many things. A tree can live for two thousand years or more. Their symbiotic relationship with humans is such that if you spot a cluster of them where there is no village, it’s a pretty safe bet that there once was a village on that site, especially if you also find shea and fig trees close by. I had learned when the clan elders took me on a tour of the ancestral village at Tegbi, that if you find a shallow depression in the ground where there’s no obvious natural reason for one, that’s almost certainly the site of an old well.

Once I really started looking for them, these echoes of the past began to make themselves quite plain. Here, close to the road, is a living village with goats and children running about; and women pounding the northern version of fufu or doing the wash. But just a bit farther back is a ghost village: a couple of lone baobab; a couple of shea and some withered fig trees; a circular depression here or there where a well might once have been. Maybe some of these villages were abandoned because a well ran dry, maybe some of the villagers who had once lived here managed to escape the invaders and find safety in numbers somewhere else. But knowing the history of this area, I felt certain that many of the people who once lived here were among the millions marched to the sea, never to see home again.

The woman across the aisle from me, one of the friendly neighbors who had offered me food and conversation on this trip, noticed my grave expression and the tears in my eyes. “What’s wrong, brother?” Cousin David was napping. Quietly, I tried to explain, but I could tell from her expression that my words weren’t connecting.

Her query suddenly took me back to a moment in my childhood when her role and mine were reversed. I’d been traveling by train from my hometown of Washington, D.C. to visit my paternal grandparents in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I was seated next to a German tourist visiting the south for the first time. He was an interesting man, and talkative, and I’d enjoyed his conversation, but during the last couple of hours before our arrival in Rocky Mount, he’d suddenly grown very quiet and pensive as he looked out the window – sad, it seemed to me, about something. After a long while, I’d summoned the courage to ask him why. “These people, they really had it hard down here during the war, and after, didn’t they? They really suffered.” His voice had cracked with emotion, and I was taken aback by it. “War? What war?” And then it dawned on me. “Oh, man, is he talking about the Civil War? Can’t be.” But yes, he was. As a teen-ager, he and some of his family had survived the bombing of Dresden - had lived through the difficult aftermath of the war. And the experience of surviving the war had, of course, forever changed his way of looking at the world. One thing that war had changed was his way of looking at and reading a landscape. And as he surveyed the countryside we could see from the train, his eyes could clearly see, nearly a hundred years on, what the southerners in this immediate area had lost - the price they had paid for their bid at secession. As a kid who loved history, I was more than willing to let him teach me to see these things through his eyes – not as perfectly, to be sure, because I’ve never myself lived through the experience of war – but enough to begin to understand.

It’s hard enough to train your eye as an observer to see with clarity what’s right before your eyes; harder still to learn to see what’s not there; to know what should be there; what once probably was there in a certain place, but now is gone. That’s why, as my neighbor across the aisle asked me to explain what I was seeing out the window that moved me so, it was hard to make myself plain. But even without this complex dimension, the conversation would eventually have become difficult and then stalled, because as I had already learned from my earliest days in Ghana, it’s as hard to have a conversation with many Africans about slavery as it is to talk about the subject with many American whites, especially southerners. The phenomenon is certainly easy enough to understand. Nobody likes to start a conversation they’re reasonably sure will leave them feeling bad by the time it’s over: 1)defensive or angry; 2)put-upon and misunderstood; 3)offended; 4)personally, and therefore, unjustly accused; 5)guilty, or 6)some combination of all the above.

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