Sunday, June 29, 2008

Woezor (welcome)! If you are new to this blog, I invite you to scroll all the way back and read about how we have found and connected, through DNA-based research, with one of the African families from whom our ancestors here in the U.S. were separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade!

Below, you'll find the next segment of a chapter in the book I'm writing about this adventure. I'll be adding some video soon too, so do check back here often. Thanks for joining me. Enjoy.


The areas along west Africa’s coastline were the source of most of the transatlantic slave trade’s earlier victims, but the brunt of slavery’s weight fell on the north for the longest period of time – persisting right up until the early twentieth century. When powerful empires like Ashanti in modern day central Ghana, or Oyo in modern day Benin and Nigeria went raiding for slaves who they could trade to Europeans on the coast for iron, fabric, beads, guns and cowrie shells, the relatively defenseless, subsistence farmers and river fishermen of the north became their primary victims of choice.

Even before the Europeans came, the northern regions were often raided by their more powerful neighbors to feed Africa’s ancient internal market for slaves. Many Africans are fond of saying that the nature of slavery in Africa was fairly benign before the Europeans came and turned it into the world’s first truly international business, because African slavery had no racial basis like the transatlantic trade came to have. Hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the cruelty of this trade, recorded by African and Arab travelers and European missionaries alike, tell us otherwise. But we don’t need historical accounts of African slavery for evidence.

There’s plenty of evidence to be seen in the class divisions which exist to this day between the descendants of those who did the buying and selling, and the descendants of those who were bought and sold; between those “of the blood” and those merely “of the house.” Every year, word of some surviving pocket of modern slavery comes to light somewhere on the continent – and then some embarrassed governor, president or prime minister marshalls the modern machinery of public relations to cover up or ensure that the story dies as quickly as possible. For the most part, those reports of modern slavery come out of remote, isolated areas of the continent, and no casual visitor to Africa is likely to encounter it. But its distant echoes still exist in many forms, one of which is the ubiquitous but low-profile army of house servants who staff the homes of even barely middle-class Ghanaian families. Some commute to work every day; many, perhaps most, live-in.

They perform their daily toil in compliance with a social norm not unlike that of Edwardian England – that servants should be like “living furniture.” The evidence of their work should be easily visible throughout the house and garden, but they themselves should remain as nearly invisible as possible. When you visit someone with servants, the servants will be surprised if you stop to ask their names, and thrown for a complete loop if you ask them to pose for a photo. You’re supposed to pretend they’re not there.

Slaves were the ultimate invisible people. Ripped forever from their homelands, they were denied the basic elements of life that made people fully human in African societies: a deep, life-long connection to their ancestral land; a connection to the ancestors who were the very soul of that land;[1] passage, through being given a proper funeral and being properly mourned, into the eternal role of ancestor themselves someday. Sooner or later, the slave was destined to lose his or her mother tongue as well.

Once the memory of your own language, the memory of everyone you once knew and loved, and the memory of the person you yourself once were has faded, who are you? You have truly become nobody. You are whoever and whatever the person who has purchased you wants or needs you to be. And if your people can’t mourn you in your own language and bury you in your own soil according to the ancient rites that are part of your blood, gristle and bone, then once you are dead and gone, you are truly gone – not an ancestor, still spoken of, and spoken to; honored; cherished, but a ghost, a homeless wraith whose presence can only trouble the living with a gnawing sense of unease and dread. This was the fate of at least twelve million souls, northerners and southerners alike. When they fell by the wayside on the march to the coast, they were left to die and rot where they lay. The ones branded incorrigible resistors at the slave “factories” of the coast were starved to death and then, so that their end might serve as an example to the others, fed to the sharks.
photo: Chamber into which resistant slaves were thrown without food
or water until death claimed them, El Mina, Ghana

The sick and resistant were thrown from the decks of the slave ships, their bleached bones on the bottom of the Atlantic marking the pathway of “the middle passage.” The fate of those who survived the passage, once their lives were used up, was to be buried in shallow graves hastily dug on foreign soil. The collective lore of the entire world agrees: people who’ve left this life never come back to haunt the places where they once found happiness and peace. It’s those who were done some terrible, unredressed wrong, some great, violent injustice, who come back to trouble the living. They haunt the places where the injustice was done. Large swaths of the Americas, Africa, and the passage across the Atlantic between them are haunted places.

[1] Ancestors were, and are, not literally worshipped. It’s simply that though they now live in the spirit world, they are acknowledged as a still vital part of the family, even wiser now than they were in life. Their council, guidance and support are important for the family’s and the community’s well-being. They are the champions and guardians of continuity and the preservation of culture.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Photo: Detail of skull and crossbones above doorway to death chamber for resistant slaves at El Mina, Ghana

Woezor (welcome). This blog is all about the adventure on which my family in the U.S. was launched, when, through DNA-based genealogical research, we found and connected with an African family from whom my father's line was separated by the transAtlantic slave trade!

If this is your first visit, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the 2006 entries and pick up the story from the beginning. Those of you who have been with us for a while know that I am in the middle of writing a book about what I discovered on my first journey to Ghana to meet these long-lost kin, and and all that has transpired since then. This week's posting is the next installment of the chapter, "Into the North."


We were only a few hours north of Kumasi, but the landscape had begun to change from the lush green farm land and forested hills of the central region to semi-arid scrub brush and savannah. Banana, mango, cashew and avocado trees gave way to stately baobab, shea nut and fig. Small towns with modest houses of painted concrete gave way to tiny villages with conical houses of mud, wattle and thatch. A landscape liberally dotted with churches of every conceivable denomination, stores and produce stands named in the classic Ghanaian style, “Why Can’t I Just Thank My Jesus Grocery,” or “God is Able Beauty Salon,” now gave way to mosques, and to stores and stands named, “Insh’Allah Blade Sharpening” and “Allahu Akbar Small Electronics Repair, Computer Training Institute and Internet Cafe.”

Not long after we’d crossed the bridge over the White Volta, the landscape changed again… as if the river itself were a barrier keeping the wetter air of the verdant, more prosperous south out, and the drier, sub-Saharan air of the dusty, more impoverished north in. If, before the river, we had been in the border lands of this “other” country, now it felt like we had entered its heartland.

In much of the Ghanaian south, the rural poverty was reminiscent of the American south of my youth. I mean by this the kind of poverty that might be symbolized by the shotgun shack that needs repair and a fresh coat of paint, whose front windows may have cracked panes and torn screens, whose backyards, busy with rusty-kneed children, dogs and chickens, might be full of old tires and other discarded things meant for possible reuse someday, but whose hardscrabble front yards were always clean and well-raked, and whose windows sported miraculously white curtains fluttering in the breeze.

Relatives and friends of mine who were once the rusty-kneed country children of houses like these now mostly sing the same refrain about the experience, and I believe them when they say, “Oh, man, we never thought of ourselves as poor. We knew we didn’t have much, but we never went without something to eat. And we were clean.” But even if you did think of your family as poor, everybody knew some other folks somewhere farther on up the road who were truly po’ – the joke being that if you were the latter, you were from people too poor to afford the “r” and the other “o.”

The houses of po’ folk might feature only pieces of fabric hung over the openings where the doors and windows should be, and no difference between the front yard and the back. And the rusty-kneed children of these houses sometimes do have to go without something to eat. And the junk in the yard is just junk. The forlorn look of these places always seems to say that perhaps the folk who live in them lack the dogged optimism of their slightly more affluent neighbors – people who are working and praying for a better day they truly believe will someday come. For people at the very bottom of a poor country’s socio-economic ladder, it’s hard to find the energy and the focus to nourish a dream – any dream at all – when all of each day’s energy and focus must be devoted to the tasks of basic daily survival.

The north has many pockets of relative prosperity, but in comparison to the Ghanaian south, much of the northern region feels po’ like that. This north/south axis is not unique to Ghana. In fact, this is the fault line along which much of west Africa’s fractious internal politics is organized. Even conflicts whose foundations seem to the outside world to be primarily ethnic or religious often feature a strong element of this basic bit of geography underneath it all.

The social geography in this region of the world is the opposite of how we think of the North/South axis of the wider world. In that model of real politic, the North is the developed world and the South is the developing world. In the U.S., the cultural divide between “the north” and “Dixie” is complicated and has many layers to it, but reduced to its simplest, most stereo-typical absolutes, the divide is similar: haves vs. have nots; urban vs. rural; sophisticated, cultured and worldly vs. unsophisticated, uncultured, country bumpkins. In much of west Africa, you flip that geographic axis upside down. Northerners have to fight both for respect from their countrymen and for attention from their government. Southerners look down their noses at them and consider them the great unwashed.

Much of the reason for this north/south split is the legacy of slavery. Just as some areas of persistent poverty in the rural American south, equally persistent pockets of poverty in urban black America, and the grossly disproportionate numbers of African Americans who are incarcerated stand as evidence that slavery is having a vigorous afterlife in the United States, the persistent poverty and second-class status of west Africa’s “north” stands as evidence that slavery is having a vigorous afterlife there as well. The legacy of slavery is only one of the complex and interconnected reasons for the region’s poverty. But it is one central reason.

And this is something about which there should be no surprise.

Read more about why this is so when we continue this story next week at Tror na Foe.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Photo: Students at cousin Lawrencia's Sky Limit International School in Kumasi

(Troh-nah-fway) a phrase in Ewe, the language of my father's forbears from Ghana, Togo and Benin, meaning, roughly, "to return and find again."

Below you'll find the second of several installments which comprise the "prequell" to the previous four part story, "I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran." Look for another installment next week which will take you farther "Into the North." With that installment I'll begin in earnest the process of sharing with you some excerpts of the book I'm writing about the adventure of finding, through DNA-based genealogical research, one of the African families from whom my father's side was separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade!

If you're new to the blog, please scroll all the way back to the beginning so that you can follow along with what's happened so far. Thanks for keeping company with me on this journey.


Wesley started having trouble keeping the engine from killing whenever we had to slow down. He grew uncharacteristically quiet, the better to listen closely to what was going on under the hood. The problem seemed to right itself for a while, but then, an hour north of town, the engine simply quit. Fortunately, we were very near a gas station, and Wesley was able to coast the bus off the road, up onto the grass just beyond the entrance. He apologized profusely and promised us a replacement bus would come soon.

He phoned Kumasi, and then we piled out onto the shoulder of the road in a light rain. Everyone pitched in to help offload the luggage. People bought snacks from the service station; used the bathroom; crowded in together under the shelter of the service kiosks – which was fine, because no customers needed access to the pumps anyway. The station was completely out of gas.

We huddled together in small groups and chatted quietly while we waited… and waited… Wesley looked under the hood and cursed; then held court with a small group of passengers, loosing a torrent of complaint about the STC. A business man who was not a charter member of Wesley’s fan club leaned into me and said, “Oh, my, you see how he plays the victim now. I’m sure the STC mechanics knew when we left that this bus had only a fifty percent chance of making it to Tamale at best. But the thing is, I’m sure our driver knew it too. Whatever’s wrong, I assure you it was completely foreseeable, but they just didn’t take care of it, you see? And so now, here we are.”

I spotted another STC bus headed in our direction. I said, to no one in particular, “Hey… looks like maybe here comes our chariot now. This wasn’t so bad.” A young, dreadlocked man behind me chuckled, “Not yet. This be Ghana, oh.”[1] It’s a refrain uttered by millions of people, millions of times a day. Every nation has a national flag; a national anthem; most even have an official national flower and a bird too. But not every nation has an official national sigh of futility and resignation. Ghana does.

Sure enough, it was another hour before we were back on our way. It was a true first class bus this time. The new driver wasn’t a showman like Wesley, but he was pleasant enough. And at least this time, David and I could sit together. The good things about first class were the air conditioning and the comfier seats; the bad things: lousy Nigerian gangster movies and an even lousier sound system only capable of two settings – loud, or off. So, for the next seven and half hours, those of us who weren’t following the action of the movies had to shout just to carry on a conversation with our neighbors. Still, there were people who closed their eyes and managed to nap. Even though I usually can’t sleep well in my seat while I travel, I was tired enough to think that maybe I could pull off that feat myself this time. I tried, and was soon rewarded with a brief period of sweet, badly-needed sleep – not quality sleep, for sure, but enough to take the edge off. And when I awoke, it was as if we had arrived in some other country.

[1] In Twi, the most widely spoken and understood language in Ghana, “oh” is often added to the end of a phrase for no particular reason… like the “eh?” is used in Canada.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Photo, Amahl Grant: The ancient mosque at Larabanga, Ghana

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway), a phrase in Ewe, the language of my father's forbears in eastern Ghana and Togo, meaning, roughly to return and find again.

If you are new to this site, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the very beginning and follow along with the journey that began when, through DNA-based genealogical research, we found and connected with members of the family from whom my father's line was separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

If you're a returning reader, akpe nowo (thank you very much) and welcome back! Sorry I haven't posted for a while... but your patience is about to be rewarded! You may remember that I said at the outset I intend to write a book about this adventure. Well, I've been busy doing exactly that, and it's my intention now to share major portions of that book with you as it comes along.

Here's the first half of the "prequel" to "I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran." Enjoy. I'll offer up the second half next week. See you then.


“This be Ghana, oh”

Cousin David showed up at the KNUST Engineering Guest House with a cab and driver right on time, at 5:00 a.m., for the early STC bus to Tamale. David, who had squired me around Kumasi to meet relatives and to see the town, had recently lost his job. When Gideon told him of my desire to visit Mole Park, he’d jumped at the chance to accompany me. I was paying, and he had the time. “We don’t do enough internal travel,” he said. “We have so much beauty here, but we Ghanaians, we hardly ever get the chance to see and enjoy our own country.” Travel in west Africa - even in a country like Ghana with better than average infrastructure – is hard. And it’s not cheap, in a society where the economy just limps along and almost everyone is chronically underpaid.

Mole had held a special allure for me, ever since I first read about it in the process of preparing for this trip. I’d loved every minute of my time on the coast, the hill country north and northeast of Accra; the rain forest. But so much of my long-imagined Africa had always been about the savannah too – the land of baobab trees, mud houses and mud mosques; the sahel region at the edge of the great Sahara – the home of mythical, ancient towns like Timbuktu and Djenne. And the other savannah; the home of big game and the safari. Mole is one of the only places in all of west Africa where visitors can have that quintessential east African experience of close encounters with some of the big, endan-gered animals with which Africa is forever linked in the popular imagination. And this is a place where you don’t need to hire a guide and rent an expensive four-wheel drive vehicle to see the park and its animal life. Anything which even vaguely evoked echoes of the whole “great white hunter” safari of the colonialist past was not for me. At Mole, you get to do your safari as part of a small group led by a ranger, on foot. You can also explore the park’s miles of trails by rented bike. Just my speed, all of that. I had to go.

The burly, charismatic driver hopped onto our bus at the Kumasi STC station like a performer taking the stage. “As Salaam aleikum,” he shouted. The two-thirds of the passengers who were northerners going home – and some of the rest of us too – shouted back “Wa aleikum, salaam,” as he launched into his good-natured apology on behalf of the STC that this vehicle on which we’d be spending the next nine hours or so was second class, not the first class bus we were supposed to have. But, no worries, said Wesley, after he introduced himself with a flourish. We should settle back and enjoy the trip, because, “That first-class bus was crap anyway. This bus, my bus, she’s the queen. I’m telling you, you don’t know how lucky you are to be on this bus. And me, I’m the best driver they got, too.” He flashed a huge grin as his eyes scanned the crowded bus. “Some among you know me well. They’ll tell you.” And sure enough, some of his regulars laughed and nodded at the rest of us. “You see; you see? It’s gonna be a good ride. Oh, yes! Schmoooo-ve, man, I’m telling you! No troubles; no worries. If you’re ready, I’m ready. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!!” He cranked the engine and gunned it extra hard just for show. Well, at least, I thought, this is one brother who will not be falling asleep at the wheel. Not a single goat or chicken between here and Tamale was likely to end up as road kill on this man’s watch. And Wesley promised to be entertaining enough that we wouldn’t for one minute miss the bad Nigerian movies they show in first class.

So, David and I settled in for the ride. My only anxiety now was that cousin Lawrencia had promised to see us off, and she wasn’t here yet. She is a woman of her word, and I hated the thought that, driven by this powerful sense of family duty she’s got, she was fighting the unbearable Kumasi traffic to get to us, but would almost certainly arrive too late. Then she’d have to turn right around and fight that traffic going the other direction, with only the slimmest chance of making it to school in time to unlock the doors. I never did see her, but just as the bus pulled out of the station, I heard David call my name from the back of the bus (our seats were supposed to be together, but the ticket agent had messed it up). Slowly, but surely, a plastic bag snaked its way from passenger to passenger until it reached my hand. “Lawrencia,” David shouted.

It was a breakfast sandwich of scrambled egg and vegetables, one of two she’d lovingly made for us in the pre-dawn darkness while she fed her husband and kids and got ready for school. Then she’d made the mad dash to the bus station, spotted David in the window, and managed to hand them up to him as the bus pulled away. Miraculously, my sandwich was still warm. After being up since before dawn myself to catch this early bus, I was suddenly very hungry too. I don’t know when I’ve appreciated a meal more.

Wesley really did know half the people on that bus. As we got underway, good-natured ribbing bounced back and forth between Wesley and passengers who were obviously part of his considerable fan club. And as he cheerfully and expertly navigated the big bus through chaotic traffic and the aggressive sea of street vendors on our way north out of the endless urban sprawl of Kumasi, a half-dozen people leaned in toward him, the better to keep themselves in earshot so they could hear, above the din of the engine, the traffic, and the lively conversation in the aisles, his steady stream of stories and rant. The people on either side of me offered conversation, fresh fruit and cookies. Somebody in back cranked up the reggae music a local radio station was playing. All of a sudden, it was like having wandered into a pretty good party. But like all good parties, it was over too soon.