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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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Change for a half dolla

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Get in where you fit in

Recently I had the privilege of spending a week in the West African nation of Ghana with a group of clergy and academicians. For years I desired to experience countries in the Motherland – Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa – but I was determined to begin my journey in Ghana. The reason is simple; I was committed to absorbing the nation from which an estimated 12 million Africans were kidnapped and turned into human chattel destined for the New World. At the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as many as 100,000 Africans per year were forced from ports in Ghana.

One of the most impactful experiences during my time was our group’s visit to Elmina Castle (aka St. George of the Mine Castle). Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina is the oldest extant European building south of the Sahara. Eventually captured by the Dutch, it is an infamous place at which countless atrocities were inflicted upon men, women, and children who waited as long as three months to be shipped.

Our Ghanian guide matter-of-factly expressed to us the castle’s sordid history. Our group of roughly 20 people was packed into various small rooms that contain and constrained enslaved people. We stood on the floors from which meager food and dirty water were poured on top of them – rancid rations for which they had to fight each other. The captives were forced to eat and drink off the same floors on which they defecated, urinated, and vomited. The conditions were so dire that historians estimate only 20% of the captives left Elmina alive. I could almost smell the stench of death and disease; my mind and soul channeled the despair.

One visitor to Cape Coast Castle, another departure point for the enslaved, wrote about the complexity of her emotions when she visited:

“Grief while thinking about everything these people had to go through. 

Disbelief while recognizing that you’re in the EXACT place where these atrocities occurred. 

Anger while wondering how anyone could treat other humans that way. 

Hope while hearing how descendants of enslaved people have reclaimed this history. 

Sadness while thinking how different history could have been.”

Not every aspect of the trip evoked pain and pathos. Ghana is a microcosm of much of Africa: Young, ambitious, impetuous, and full of potential. The nation is 70% Christian, 20% Muslim, and 90% entrepreneurial. Before the sun announces its presence each day, vendors are out peddling a dizzying array of goods on Accra’s insanely congested and poorly maintained streets. (I’m genuinely stunned that we witnessed no auto accidents, and I’ll never again complain about Indy’s rush hour traffic or endless potholes.) The air incessantly teems with commerce, whether conducted by people stalking cars or sitting in small shacks on the roadside. There is a small church every few thousand feet; megachurches are at least as common there as they are here.

Black Americans are seen as wealthy, long-lost brothers and sisters of the Diaspora. A mere $10 goes a long way in Ghana; $100 is a small fortune. Our group saw that fact in real time as our relatively small donation to Potter’s Village Orphanage in Dodowa paid for several children to attend school for a year. We were constantly reminded that young people’s hunger for education has an intensity that we rarely see in the U.S.

We also visited a detention facility that housed male youth from ages 12-17. One of the things that struck me was that the facility genuinely seeks to rehabilitate the children. (What a novel idea!) Sentences last from three months to a maximum of three years, regardless of how serious the offense. The facility partners with an American nonprofit organization called the W.A.N.T.E.D. Project, whose founders were part of our group. The acronym stands for “Worthy, Accountable, Named, Thankful, Empowered, and Determined”. It was breathtaking to see transatlantic slavery supplanted by transatlantic redemption and reclamation.

There is so much potential and possibility in Ghana, so much opportunity for African Americans to forge strong relationships with our brothers and sisters. When I was coming of age, many of my friends and I made fun of Africa or spoke of it in denigrating, disrespectful, and demeaning ways. It was childish. Once I became a man I put away childish things. I look forward with great anticipation to broadening and deepening my ties to the Continent.

Maya Angelou, as she always does, summarizes my feelings about Africa better than any other human could:

Thus she had lain
sugercane sweet
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.

Over the white seas
rime white and cold
brigands ungentled
icicle bold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
Thus she has lain.

Now she is rising
remember her pain
remember the losses
her screams loud and vain
remember her riches
her history slain
now she is striding
although she has lain.

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