Hanging on the Harriet Tubman Tour

Harriet Tubman has always been one of my “Shero’s”… she was determined, proud, courageous, fearless and committed to the liberation of her family and people! Sister Harriet is a woman true to my own heart…her story has always resonated with me and I know her spirit and energy runs through my veins. img_2902I remember years ago teaching my 4 children and the Prekindergarten and Kindergarten students in my classes about Harriet Tubman. I used to beam as I listened to them proudly recite the words: “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff and wasn’t scared of nothing either” from the poem by the beloved late and great children’s book author, Eloise Greenfield, in her book: Honey, I Love. So, when Rasheeda Bey – a sister friend, phenomenal doll maker, quilter and artist, mentioned that her quilting circle – Sankofa Sistah Quilting Circle was sponsoring a one-day trip, The Harriet Tubman Tour, to Cambridge, Maryland, I was immediately interested in going. Typically, if I am not the planner of a trip, I usually ask questions to get clarity on the specifics, especially if it involves a flight or is an international trip, but this was a bus trip to Cambridge, Maryland, so I decided to go with the flow. I wasn’t sure what to expect – if we were going to a physical museum, or a tour of historic sites, but either way I was eager to go and so glad I did. In this blog post I will give you a closer look at the life and legacy of sister Harriet Tubman and the environment where she was born, enslaved, toiled, escaped from and returned numerous times to help free many others.

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The trip consisted of a comfortable bus ride, with a bunch of chatty and friendly people (mostly women, although there were a few men in our midst), a group tour with sight-seeing of the environment/geography, local sites and historic landmarks: including the wharf, plantations, slave dwellings, fields, courthouse, general store,   and a stop at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center. The tour was led and curated by a local brother Alex Green. Alex and his wife Lisa are owners of   HarrietTubmanTours.com  A delicious home-cooked lunch was provided by his wife at a local historic church and we also had the opportunity to hear from and chat with some of the elders from their historic community.

 

We embarked on the Half-Day Tubman Tour, considering our drive down from Philadelphia took close to 3 hours. This tour introduced us to the environment where she lived and stopped at a number of significant places in her life. The Full-Day Tour is more expansive in the sites visited. There is also a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Tour that follows one of the routes she took north, connecting sites where she rescued others, found assistance, or reached safety at stops on the Underground Railroad.  The Byway tour encompasses 45 sites and travels through Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The tour has an accompanying map, downloadable or streaming audio guide, and a mobile app. One day in the near future, I intend to take a scenic drive and conduct this full tour using the interpretive markers, audio tour stops, exhibits and historical places.

Harriet Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822. She was the fifth of nine children born to her parents Ben and Rit Ross, and upon her entry to the world she was marked by the label of “slave“. From an early age she also had to face separation trauma as three of her sisters were sold away to masters with plantations in the deep south. Then at the tender age of 6-years old, she was taken from her mother and hired out to cruel slave masters, who inflicted tremendous physical and mental abuse and suffering.

img_2862She not only endured the separation from her family, but she also suffered the lash and later survived a near fatal head injury that left her with permanent medical issues.

 

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The Cambridge, Maryland landscape – Fall, 2018

Driving along the empty highway in Cambridge, Maryland on a sunny day in October 2018,  I  was struck by how rural the landscape still is today. Few cars or vehicles passed us on the road, and it was largely undeveloped as far as the eye could see. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to escape from a plantation there in 1849, the year Harriet Tubman escaped and eventually found her way through Delaware to freedom in Philadelphia. We passed the land where Brodess Farm used to exist, which was owned by Edward Brodess, the slave master who “owned” Harriet’s family.  Harriet was enslaved on this farm and spent her early years there. Brodess hired Harriet out to work (as a young child) for neighboring farmers, which caused emotional trauma, physical separation issues and even greater abuse for Harriet and her siblings.img_2875

Although half of the Black community in Dorchester County was free at the time of Harriet’s birth, her family was not free. She had a burning desire for freedom, justice and equality for not only herself, but also her family and her people. Harriet worked tirelessly toward that goal her entire life.

 

We saw the Dorchester County Courthouse where enslaved blacks were bought and sold on the auction block as chattel. In a desperate attempt to avoid being sold away from her family, Harriet Tubman’s niece, Kessiah and her two children escaped from that very auction block in 1850 with the help of Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley (a free Black ship carpenter). He deceived the buyers and transported them by boat to Baltimore, where Harriet met them and took them to freedom in Philadelphia. Courthouse Square is where they held captured runaway slaves, conductors and agents on the Underground Railroad.

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Dorchester County Courthouse and Courthouse Square

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This city of Cambridge, Maryland later became known as the “Black Wall Street” on the eastern shore of Maryland. There was a thriving Black community on Pine Street and nearby neighborhoods of homes, businesses, art, culture and churches that thrived until the turbulent protests of the 60’s and a major fire that destroyed much of Pine Street. Today, Pine Street still holds a place of importance for Black life and culture in the Cambridge community and houses significant churches and organizations.

 

The Bucktown General Village Store is the site where Harriet Tubman was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight hurled by an angry overseer which almost killed her.  The incident disabled her and left her with severe life-long side effects, including migraines and debilitating seizures. Yet, Harriet didn’t let any of that stop her or hinder her quest for freedom. She truly had her mind on freedom – she was a fighter for justice, a warrior sister-  true to my own heart!

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Bucktown General Village Store
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Intersection where the store is located
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The Stanley Institute

The Stanley Institute began as the Rock School and it was moved to this site in 1867. It was built and run as a one room school-house by the local Black community, demonstrating the determination of the Black community to educate their children in the era of segregation. The school was used until the 1960’s.

As soon as I entered the doorway of the one-room school-house, it took me back in time. I was immediately lost in my thoughts… I always had a dream of teaching in a one-room school-house, with a big old fireplace and wooden floors with oak paneled walls. When my family and I used to drive to the Poconos to visit my parents, there was a one-room schoolhouse on the way – which was also a historic site. We used to stop and explore the schoolhouse, my sons always had to “use” the outhouse and we would drink the cold water from the well. I still imagine what it would be like to teach in a school building like that.  I envision a cozy reading area in the corner of the room with a large recliner with a big pillow – where all the children of different ages would gather for story time… and I would read a chapter book of adventures or tales from far away… I could visualize the little ones laying on their blankets enjoying the stories and eventually drifting off to sleep – with the older ones becoming more engaged in the stories… oh, the dreams of a lifetime educator...

 

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Wood-framed chalkboard

As I looked at the old oak framed chalk board, I was reminded of days gone by, and I reflected on the early days of my parents’ schooling. My mother also attended a tiny one room school-house for her early grades in Bennettsville, South Carolina and her recollection of that school mirrored this one. I thought of all the lessons that had been written and countless children who had written their letters, words and schoolwork on that chalkboard. Today visitors sign their names on the chalkboard as a record of their visitation to the school.

 

I too left my name “Helen T was here” inscribed on that chalkboard as hundreds or maybe even thousands of people before me have done.

img_1352I wrote my name as a testament to the power of the human spirit…a testament that I too, a daughter of enslaved Africans, with great-grandparents from 4 continents, also walked through the doors of this one-room school-house and sat in those same desks that were used over 100 years ago. Yes, the people continue…and I was strengthened as a truth-teller and an advocate for justice. I am blessed to continue to tell our story, the story of a people taken from their homeland and their plight to survive and thrive throughout the diaspora among unbelievable odds.

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Christ Rock United Methodist Church

Christ Rock United Methodist Church is a historic church located in Dorchester County, Maryland, directly across the street from the Stanley Institute. It was built in 1875, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The architecture displays the distinctive characteristics and craftsmanship of the time period from 1875-1911. The initial congregation consisted of Blacks who relocated to that area after the end of the Civil War. The church was traditionally used for church and funerary services, and a cemetery is adjacent on a wooded 1 1/2 acre lot on the grounds.  The church was used until the late 1990’s. In 2011, Friends of Stanley Institute conducted a renovation to reuse the church as a public historical site and museum.

We visited a local church for lunch and Alex and Lisa provided us with a home-cooked soul food meal…fried trout (delicious), fried chicken and Swedish meatballs (for the meat eaters), macaroni and cheese, greens, salad and homemade pound cake. During our lunch we were fortunate to hear from some of the elders of the community who told us stories from their upbringing as well as stories passed down from the early days of Dorchester County. I love to hear their stories! Rasheeda unveiled her beautiful Harriet Tubman quilt – which displays Harriet Tubman holding a whittled wooden rifle, surrounded by images from her life.

 

Our last stop on the trip was to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center. The center has a permanent exhibit detailing Harriet Tubman’s early years in Maryland, her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and her latter life. There were numerous exhibits featuring images, stories and informative panels. Our time was short at this stop, yet we could have easily spent hours here learning more specific information about her life.

 

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First taste of FREEDOM 
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This is a life-size sculpture of Harriet Tubman. She was barely 5 feet tall, yet she was truly a larger than life warrior!

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A huge thank you to Sister Rasheeda Bey, the Sankofa Sistah Quilting Circle for making this trip possible, and to Harriet Tubman Tours for your informative tour detailing the rich history of Harriet Tubman and Black folks in Dorchester, Maryland.

Acknowledgments to The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center Welcome Guide and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Driving Tour Guide for the detailed, and researched information about Harriet’s life and legacy.

Journey through Elmina Slave Castle/Dungeon

Greetings to my readers… It has been about a month since my last post when I shared my experiences at Cape Coast Slave Castle/Dungeon. To be honest, it takes a tremendous amount out of me emotionally to continue writing after re-living that experience. It is a very dark story of an atrocious time in our history when humans were treated worse than animals and deprived of all dignity, humanity and sense of regard. It is an ugly history and viewing the pictures I took and describing the experience took me back to that dreadful place reeking of centuries of torture, abuse and the fight for survival. In this my final post about my first trip to Africa – to Ghana, I want to share a few experiences and pictures of yet another slave castle/dungeon – then move on to my final reflections.

ELMINA COAST SLAVE CASTLE/DUNGEON

Elmira Castle/Dungeon is one of the oldest slave castle/dungeons on the coast of West Africa. It was built by the Portuguese in 1482 and was under Portuguese rule for 155 years. The Dutch ruled next for 235 years, followed by British rule for 85 years. Ghana gained control over the castle just 55 years ago. Standing with your back to the door of the Portuguese Church you are facing the male and female slave dungeons which housed 600 enslaved males and 400 enslaved females. so every-time the enslavers/colonizers came out of their “church” door, their immediate view and reality was the horrors of the slave dungeons… the cries for mercy and deliverance, the hollering from pain, deprivation and inhumane suffering, the smells from 1000’s of bodies forced to lie in human waste wafting in the air, yet the faith, will and strength of African people to live and  believe in a better day.

What kind of people can inflict this upon human beings? Where was their sense of humanity? What God did they serve? What happened to the mindset of the descendants of those people who brutalized and dehumanized us for 480 years? What do they carry in their DNA and psyche? What do we as African people carry in our DNA and psyche? Trauma is real and healing is needed for all. The short and long-term effects of this type of generational enslavement, genocide and institutionalized racism cannot be eliminated by “simply getting over it”; instead,  holistic rituals, prayers, drumming, offerings, therapy, financial restitution and formal apologies are all necessary to bring healing and a realistic attempt to rectify these generational wrongs and bring closure to this horrific chapter in the history of man.

Walking through the hallways of the castle down to the dungeons was a horrific experience. The hallways slanted down and the deeper down we went, the darker and drearier it was, with a pungent odor permeating the air…the scent of generational death and despair…

Our tour guide explained to us the horrors that both male & female enslaved Africans were subjected to! The enslavers would routinely pick the woman/women they wanted to rape! After months of lying naked in human waste (urine, feces, vomit & menstrual blood) these women were dragged to the courtyard for the enslaver to make his choice of which one he wanted to abuse & then the “chosen” ones  were scrubbed in the open for all of the public to view…another level of sheer humiliation before being raped! When the African women got pregnant they were housed in “stone houses” in the village below the castles. Once they delivered they were either thrown back into the dungeons or kept as an enslaved concubine!

Their mixed race babies, with their lighter skinned complexions, light eyes and straighter hair were the product of the rapes of African women, by their White enslavers! Their European features distinguished them from pure bred Africans! These bi-racial children were elevated above the enslaved Africans! These children who were given the names of their European rapist fathers, were forcibly taken from their mothers & raised on the “top” of the castle by the “Whites in power.” Some were sent to European countries, educated & returned to work as slavers themselves! This was another example of the divide & conquer methodology which was employed as a means of control by European colonizers throughout the world! The descendants of these children in Ghana still carry the surnames of their enslavers, such as: VanDykes, Bartels, Jacksons, Robinsons, just as we do in the Americas!! The horrible legacy of slavery still divides us by name, skin color, hair texture & experience! Yet we are one!

I walked into one of the female dungeons, the opening entrance had huge steel bars – I stood behind those bars, clutching them, and trying to envision  the anguish, pain, suffering, torture, rape, abuse and even death my grandmothers, and aunties saw, felt and experienced for generations right here in these same dungeons, on these same floors. I felt their spirit implanted here in this place – and SUDDENLY – I was no longer just me – no longer just Helen! I have always been open to ancestral connections and in that moment, the spirits of my ancestors linked with the “me that is me” and a spiritual entity, fusion, collective energy manifested through my body – I became a vessel and I was aware of it. I felt a surge of energy move through me, and I felt the weight of a thousand people and hundreds of years!  I started sobbing hysterically as I felt the magnitude of this moment. I recognize the depth of these ancestral connections, and the awesome power and energy that had consumed me.

I understand spirit and the way my ancestors guide me in my life. It may be hard to explain to those who believe in religious dogma, or a logical sequence of events, but I know what I experienced. I believe at the moment of conception a “spirit” is formed, and that spirit develops into a physical body -“shell” to interact with others on a physical level. However, when that physical body -“shell” dies – I believe the spirit lives on – just not on a physical level. I know what I have experienced with those who have transitioned. My ancestors guide, warm and protect me. I  also recognized the potential for the ancestral spiritual connections that had attached to me to go in one of two directions – it could manifest as a negative energy that pulls me into recurrent sadness or darkness; or a positive force to motivate me on my journey to continue telling our story.

I must admit I was shook after this experience. I had very explicit dreams that took place inside of Elmina Castle for close to a month after I returned to the US. I finally honored my ancestors again, lit my white candles, gave food & light to my ancestors, prayed for their spirits to be at rest, and vowed to continue to learn and share my people’s stories.

Never forget – “We are the children of those who chose to survive” (Julie Dash  from Daughters of the Dash)

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I was born to do this work – I am a keeper of the culture!
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I wil never forget! I will seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave, and I will always tell our stories!
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I am honored that I a daughter, sister, auntie, granddaughter of Mother Africa was blessed to return to the shores of Ghana, West Africa and the slave castle dungeons of Cape Coast and Elmina and stand in the same place where my ancestors stood and summoned enough faith to propel our family forward for many generations. I draw my strength from their stories and experiences. If they could carry on in the face of unbelievable horrors with no known awareness of what the future would hold – then surely I can live my life on life’s terms. I vow to be the keeper of the culture always. Stay tuned for more cultural journeys.

 

Spiritual Connections – Cape Coast Slave Castle/Dungeon

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Greetings folks: The next two blog posts will culminate my experiences on my trip to Ghana and our tours of two slave castle dungeons. It will be followed by a final post –  sharing my thoughts and reflections on this trip (which was truly life-changing for me). I encourage you – my readers – to join the blog via WordPress or email and/or also share your thoughts, feelings, wonderings, ideas and questions that came up for you while reading this blog – because I want to learn from and with you, and provide a means for my readers to “come along and travel with me”– and experience some of my journeys vicariously through my lens – and converse about it. I also want to be able to inspire others to step out, travel and see the world while visiting new lands, creating new experiences and engaging with diverse people.

After spending several days in Accra and surrounding areas visiting various historical, cultural and artistic sites, we packed our bags to begin the two and a half hour trip to Cape Coast, the former capital of the British colonial administration and embark on tours of both the Elmina and Cape Coast Castles/Dungeons. I was eager to see another geographical area of Ghana, and to fulfill a many decades desire to visit the slave castles/dungeons, which I knew was a necessary part on my journey to connect with my ancestral roots. I had read about the castle/dungeons through historical books and reference materials, documented accounts, realistic fiction and novels. I had viewed movies, documentaries and photos of others’ trips to the castle/dungeons on the coast of West Africa. I knew the painful history (to a point) and felt fairly knowledgeable and prepared to embark on this tour. As we drove through the countryside we passed miles of beautiful natural landscape – a kaleidoscope of trees and grasses – dotted with huge ant hills towering 10 to 20 feet in the air, small villages and storefront shops offering goods and services, and finally a densely populated fishing village with lots of people, business, and traffic on the street.

As we rode through bends and turns in the road – this huge white castle emerged in the distance up on the hill – overlooking the village and villagers. I immediately felt chills run up and down my body. As we embarked from the bus – an eery feeling came over me and I almost felt nauseated. Everyday was a different adventure in Africa and I was open to new experiences, but this was a completely negative feeling – it felt like a dark cloud was hovering above. My senses were on heightened alert as we walked our way across a small bridge, through the wide gates and into the courtyard of Cape Coast Slave Castle/Dungeon to meet our tour guide. We were standing before a towering castle – with a roof top fortress surrounded with cannons –  evoking images of castles from childhood story-books, yet in those childhood story-books there was always a prince or princess in those castles. This castle felt like a dark, dreary place with a deadly history. It reeked of the foul smell of death; and the feeling of generational despair hung heavily in the air.

Cape Coast Castle/Dungeon was first constructed as a fort by the Portuguese in 1653, then taken over by the British and developed it into the status of a castle in 1665. It changed hands several times between the Swedish, Dutch, and British. The Cape Coast Castle/dungeon remained controlled by the British until July 1, 1960 when Ghana became a Republic, with Kwame Nkrumah (my fellow Lincoln University alumni) as its first President. In the entrance way was a plaque that stood out prominently – and as I read it I became completely overcome with emotion. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable explaining to us the initial building of the castle/dungeon and the various groups that occupied and controlled it over the years.

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 Means of Capture: We learned from our knowledgeable tour guide of the various ways and approaches that Africans were captured. There were several methods used to acquire African captives for the purpose of enslaving them. There were ongoing kidnapping and raiding of villages by Europeans who had far more powerful and sophisticated weapons in the form of guns, compared to the bows and arrows of the Africans. They would often set fire to a village and capture those who survived and ran at gun point. There were forced captures used for trade in the Caribbean. Later on Europeans influenced some of the powerful African leaders with gifts to capture and trade some of their own. It is important to point out that before the European invasion into Africa there was a system of “bartering” that existed in Africa – called pawning –  in which Africans acquired people of different ethnic groups through tributes, warfare and wars of expansion. Sometimes the people were considered security for money borrowed, or a debt owed and they typically worked until the debt was paid off. In other cases as a result of warfare they remained in servitude.

However, the concept of slavery in African society was entirely different from the European concept of slavery, which was implemented for hundreds of years through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In the African concept of pawning – the individual was somewhat of an indentured servant – who could work, build a home, marry, have a family and attain status among their so-called enslavers. Therefore, when people mention that Africans were directly involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade – clearly those who did participate, at least in the early generations of slavery, had no idea of the multi-generational horrors they were subjecting their people to with the deception of Europeans bringing gifts. Enslaved Africans, regardless of how they were captured, did not go to the slave castles or get on the slave ships and return to tell their people of their experiences. So, in general Africans participated in what they thought was a somewhat familiar practice with unknown, unfamiliar, dire consequences that changed the face of Africa and the world forever.

I felt the spirit, energy and pain of all my ancestors who suffered in this here place for hundreds of years – yes hundreds of years. I was saddened, broken-hearted, and deeply wounded as our guide continued walking us deeper into the interior of this structure! At the same time, I felt angry and enraged over knowing European people did this to MY people! I kept thinking how could ANYONE do this to another human!!  My mission and purpose became further clarified in that very moment. I was given the charge to tell the stories of my family and my people… to document the rich history, to use poetic language to express their experiences, to creatively show images that reveal their journey, to dig deep and uncover the lessons in their stories, and to share their determination and perseverance so that the next generation of youth, young people and adults will be strengthened and fortified recognizing the shoulders that they stand on.  Moving onward with the tour guide and our group of 11 women I was even more focused, knowing this tour was more than just a guided tour of a historical site. This was a return to a true hell-hole, yet sacred land – where  my ancestors suffered and died for centuries.

Our tour guide described the life of the original slavers on the top of the castle, followed by the other European occupiers of the castle over the hundreds of years. We saw well-appointed sleeping quarters, large dining quarters, kitchen facilities, meeting rooms, and even a church area and prayer rooms for the Europeans. I can’t imagine what god or religion anyone could profess to believe in that engaged in this type of dehumanizing torture, abuse and systematic destruction to a people!

Then we began our descent into the pits of hell…Nothing can describe the smell, feel, sound and aura of the slave castle/dungeons. The air was cold and clammy as we walked down hallways pitched towards the lower levels, or the bowels of the building. There was a foul, damp smell of filth, decay and mildew, with the pungent stench of death permeating the air! It was absolutely horrible as we were walking into these deep dark underground dungeons. I was consciously aware that I was walking on the same concrete surfaces that my ancestors walked on… dirty, hungry, naked and shackled to other Africans from their village and from all over the western and interior part of the continent. I was walking on that same ground they walked on, following the same path into the belly of the beast, not knowing what to expect next. I was walking on this land some 500 years later – and I had returned. Yes…I was blessed to return! So through me, my ancestors live!!! All praises due to the Most High!

The dungeons were deep caverns with very high ceilings and one small window at the top for light and ventilation. The male dungeons held 600 males and the female dungeons held 400 females at one time. Children were not counted and often died from disease and the horrid, unsanitary conditions. The enslaved and naked Africans had no choice but to release their waste – urine, feces, vomit and blood (for the women) on the concrete floor where they were forced to lay – for months at a time….year after year…century after century. The “floor” of one male dungeon was excavated 3 years ago, and 18 inches of solidified human waste was chiseled away, and they found the original drainage ditches in the floors, which had been covered up with human waste for centuries. One in four Africans died in the dungeons. The survivors would be sold and put on a slave ship, which would make room for another 1000 enslaved Africans in the dungeons.  As bad as the conditions were in the dungeons, it was far worse on the slave ships – where only 2 in 4 Africans survived. Yet, ironically, as long as 1 in 4 Africans survived the slavers still made a profit on their “cargo” of enslaved Africans.

As our group went into different rooms, following our guide and hearing more tragic accounts of life in the slave/castle dungeons, I lingered behind in one of the Female Dungeons. I needed to have a moment alone in these death holes. These dungeons were also sacred chambers where my ancestors had to somehow draw strength and faith to carry on for the possibility of a better world!  I laid my head against the concrete walls and began praying to the Creator for strength and guidance. I said to my ancestors in a low whisper that I felt their pain and suffering and I would never forget them, their strength and suffering, and that I would always tell their stories. Suddenly, a spiritual force overpowered me, engulfed me and kind of consumed me... I felt the energy of hundreds of grandmothers surrounding me, crying to me, begging to me and pleading with me to help them. I saw their faces – covered in dirt, dust, ash and tears…with the look of helplessness burned in their eyes – I saw and felt the anguish of young girls lying in fetal positions dying on the cold filthy floors…I was transported back in time and I was one with my ancestors. I was shaking from head to toe and crying and sobbing uncontrollably.

Despite what people say – about death being the end – I personally know differently.  I know death is another level or stage of life… we have the unborn, the living and the ancestors and we are all spiritually linked and connected! I have been open to spiritual connections since my childhood, and recognize that people who are spiritually  open – sometimes have more out-of-body experiences and/or connections to those who are no longer here on the physical plane. I also know that spirits can attach themselves to you – and all spirits do not carry good energy. So I gave thanks to the ancestors for making their presence known to me. I  recognized I was going to need to do a spiritual cleansing (bath, candles, offering) to not carry the spiritual presence or energy intertwined with any darkness that could negatively or adversely affect me. I knew the ancestral energy was present in the castle/dungeons, and it was strong and it was real. So I began taking deep breaths to not lose all focus. Then a slight panic set in. By now the others in our group had went ahead, and a flash came across my mind of being lost and left behind in here – so I hurried out of the room to find our tour guide and group.

In several of the dungeons there was an art installation “In Memorian of the Middle Passage” by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo consisting of hundreds of sculptured heads. The features and hairstyles on the faces of the sculptures was designed to reflect the diverse ethnic groups that were captured and enslaved at Cape Coast castle/dungeon. Some of the heads had blinders over their eyes (showing the conditions we were subjected to were beyond what any human should ever see), and  facial expressions that depicted the horrors and anguish on the captives faces…

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Our tour guide showed us some of the particularities of this place…

A windowless and airless room next to one room in the dungeon where rebellious Africans were put to suffocate to death.

There was a well for washing  the African women who were chosen by the Swedish, Dutch, or British rulers as their latest sexual victim. The ruling officers stood on a ledge overlooking a courtyard outside the female dungeon, and African women would be dragged out of the dungeon and put on display. The officer would choose the African woman or women they wanted to rape. The woman would be scrubbed down with water from this large well, then forcibly  taken upstairs, raped and then thrown back into the dungeon when he was finished with her. The rebellious ones were chained to a ball and chain in an open courtyard with extreme sun bearing down on them and would be left there until thirst, hunger or extreme heat forced submission, or  death overtook them.IMG_6872

Again, and again the anger was burning inside of me, the pain was radiating through my chest, the tears were flowing down my face as I shuddered in agony, envisioning my ancestors – my long ago grandma’s and grandpa’s suffering at the hands of these captors. The depth of the emotion that was brought to the surface in me needs to be expressed over and over in a myriad of art and literary forms to acknowledge the ancestors, release the pain, transform the energy, and poignantly tell the story that must be told and retold until each generation is connected to it and strengthened from it.

The Door of No Return – This is the door that enslaved Africans were forced through into the hulls of slave ships – leaving behind their country, families, language, religion and everything they had even known. They were transported to unknown lands with foreign people traveling on a journey known as the Middle Passage. This trip took months, and they suffered unrelenting torture, abuse, inhumane conditions, and 2 out of 4 enslaved Africans died on the ships from disease and sickness… those who survived were subjected to generational enslavement…

An altar was set up to honor the spirits and ancestors who lived, suffered, perished and survived in this castle… and to ensure that we their descendants carry on their legacy to ensure the story continues and that we can all be strengthened and fortified from it. I left an offering at the altar along with a prayer, and filled a small bottle with some of the remains on the floor – sand, dirt and graveyard dust to represent the connection between me and those who walked through these doors and chambers many generations ago.

My ancestors were taken from this dungeon on these shores and put in ships with the thought that they would never return again – but I their daughter, sister, and descendant returned in the year 2017. As I stood in front of “The Door of Return” with 10 other Black sisters who hail from different cities in the United States, I knew I had indeed returned… after generations of separation from Africa and I still have much work to do.IMG_6909Stay tuned to journey with me through Ghana’s Slave Castle/Dungeon…

Ghana chronicles…

Greetings – I am anxious to finish this blog about Ghana – because I have been on more journeys, and have additional places and experiences to share with you – my readers!

Kakum National Park: Kakum National Park is a nature lovers paradise. It is located about 12 miles north of Cape Coast and covers over 220+ miles of Ghana’s undisturbed rainforest – which unfortunately is rapidly disappearing. It is largely a moist evergreen rainforest with tall hardwood trees that reach over 100-200 feet in height. For more detailed information about the park, species of plants and wildlife check out: https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/tourism/kakum.php

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I initially said I wasn’t interested in going to Kakum National Park in Ghana, because I had heard about the Canopy Walkway which is a series of  rope bridges over the tree tops at 100 feet high.  I have few fears, but height is one of them. I’ve lived in a high-rise, duplex on the 11th floor and was able to somewhat comfortably use my 12th floor wrap-around terrace. I’ve worked on the 59th floor, and practiced roof top fire drills, and in my youth I even walked across the George Washington Bridge…but that was all with a solid surface underneath…this was a rope bridge with a narrow plank to walk on.  At any rate, at the encouragement from my sister friend Sherry I decided to face and overcome my fears. For me this trip was about connecting with my ancestral roots, taking risks, stepping out on faith and letting go!

The Canopy Walk opened on Earth Day in 1995, and consists of a series of suspension bridges with over 1,000 feet of walkway that hang from the trees over 130 feet above the ground. We doused ourselves in insect repellent with DEET, and some of us even wore coiled repellent bracelets on our ankles and wrists and began the trek up the hill. There was a long, steep climb to get to the canopy walk. We started as a group and gradually branched out into different groupings… At first it was a brisk, and stimulating hike up the hills, and even the sisters who needed canes or assistance were joining us. Then after a while the path became much steeper. Several  sisters dropped off and went back down to the ground level. Yours truly kept on… I felt like a mountain climber in training for the Olympics. My sister/friend Bernadette grabbed a stick to use as a walking stick and I did the same. I truly felt like I was on a journey. It was hot, humid, and with sweat mixed with insect repellent – I felt sticky and icky – needless to say, I was literally a hot mess. But, I kept on pushing forward. There were two rest stops along the way – small wooden structures where you could sit and catch your breath. At one of those stops – there were two young African brothers looking very cool and refreshed – checking us out sweating, panting and ready to drop. When we finally got to the top it felt like such a victory – until I saw those bridges in front of me. Panic set in and I thought I CAN’T do this!!! As folks were waking on the bridge it was swaying from side to side. I thought about walking back down, but I remembered  I came here with the intent of conquering my fear of height – so I knew without a shadow of a doubt, I had to do it.

There was a choice of paths – there was one main bridge and then if you turned left at the end of the first bridge you went across 3 bridges, and if you turned right you went across 7 bridges. I chose the shortest route – 3 bridges.  I thought we would go across one person at a time, but multiple people were on the bridge with you making it move even more. As soon as I put one foot on the bridge I was practically in tears – I started praying out loud “OH Allah” …everybody said “DON”T LOOK DOWN!!!” What – I had to look down… I had to know/see firsthand how high I was and what I was actually walking over… OMG!! The fear, panic and anxiety were real. My girl Sherry was up ahead of me doing acrobatic poses and I was yelling – “please keep going”. I pulled myself forward with my arms as my feet somehow managed to move in front of me one step at a time…My fear propelled me – plus I couldn’t go back – there were sisters behind me – so little by little I crossed bridge after bridge and trust me I was thrilled when I saw the last step and then and only then I put my hands up in the air!! FYI: After my Canopy Walk experience, I learned although the bridges appear as though they are constructed like a traditional rope bridge, the spans are made of wire rope, aluminum, and wooden planks, with safety netting to protect people from falls.

Village of Atonkwa: Naming Ceremony & School Visit: En route to the village of Atonkwa where we were scheduled to participate in a traditional naming ceremony we had a “stuck in the mud experience.” It had rained heavily the day before, and the dirt road was full of ditches and muddy water. As our van bounced along on the bumpy dirt road we eventually got stuck in the mud. We saw local villagers – brothers walking alone and sisters with babies on their back and bundles on their head walk straighf on thru red, muddy water up to their v

It was a lesson in patience, as our driver and tour guide called for help and eventually a pick-up truck with brothers came and helped us along our way… including a nice brother named Jerome, wearing a t-shirt  I loved – with the phrase “Black since 1966”, who gifted me with a handmade bracelet. They pulled us out of the mud and we were on our way to the village to meet the Council of Elders…

The Council of Elders consisted of 12 members including the Chief. However, since we were so late due to our “stuck in the mud” experience – the Chief had to leave, and we were welcomed by the Assistant Chief and 10 additional elders. There was a large section chairs set up for the women of the village, and they arrived in varying African garb from young to older. A section of chairs was also set up for us the guests and we walked in and took a seat, only to be told that we unknowingly rude – and we were not to be seated until we First greeted the elders. We all stood up immediately, walked over to the elders and shook their right hand, while holding our left hand behind our back. I shook the hands of the brothers, and hugged my sisters – and called then my Auntie’s. It was a very emotional moment for me. The Assistant Chief asked us individually why we were here and I thought of my ancestors who were forcibly captured and taken from their/our homeland, and I replied as tears streamed down my cheeks – “I wanted to come HOME.” I felt every step of this trip as though I had truly come full circle. This was a necessary trip for my personal growth and development. In fact, it was overdue. The villagers welcome us with traditional drumming, while 2 brothers danced in ceremonial attire. One of the brothers was also a fire-eater and incorporated many aspects of fire in his dance.

After the dancing and drumming, a small table was set-up for the traditional Akan naming ceremony. Names have great significance in African culture and society. In Ghana your first name is based on your gender and the day of the week you were born. Each of us were called up one by one, and an Akan – Fante name was bestowed upon us. A wisdom leaf was dipped in some type of alcohol (whiskey, I think). We were instructed to open our mouth, and  as the brother held the leaf over our mouth and the alcohol dropped onto our tongue, our FANTE name was pronounced and we repeated it. Then the elders clapped and hollered out traditional chants… The name given to me was Efua Nkrumah. Efua means girl born on Friday, and Nkrumah means wisdom – and is also the name of Ghana’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. This name was extra special to me and has also great meaning to me, because Kwame Nkrumah is also my Lincoln University brother – which is the first University I attended.

In 1975 I chose an Arabic name “Habeebatullah Shaheed” which many people still know me by – however; in my growth after learning about the role of  the Arab colonization and enslavement in Africa, I generally stopped using that name. I felt that I should have an indigenous African name to represent who I am and what I believe in. Efua Nkrumah does just that for me. I am not sure if I will undergo the official name change again – but it is affirming to me knowing an African chief in a traditional village bestowed upon me an indigenous name which honors my birth and one of their greatest leaders. Afterwards we greeted our sisters and took pictures and prepared to visit the village school. It was such a heart-warming experience to meet and greet the elders and feel and share the love and warmth.

Atunkwa Village School: A short distance away was the village school. The educational system in Ghana has levels beginning with grades: Kinder 3, 4, & 5, then Primary class 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5, followed by Jr High class 6, 7, & 8,  followed by College – which is the equivalent of High School in the US. However, when talking to a Ghanaian brother who lives and works in the US, he informed me that their college is typically far more advanced and rigorous than high school in the US. Most government jobs in Ghana require graduation from college; while those students who complete “college” are bound for the University.

Many of us on this trip brought a variety of books, pencils, and other school supplies to supplement their school library and provide basic supplies to the children. Marlene, our trip organizer informed us that their library could use a boost so we wanted to help! As a life-long educator, and lover of children I was very excited to visit the school, see the classrooms and meet the children. English is the common language taught in the schools so I looked forward to conversing with the children. We divided our supplies so that we could all personally give some out to the children in their classrooms, along with candy or lollipops, since candy is a universal treat.

We began with a talk by the Head Mistress of the school, who shared their current water dilemma (there was no running water at the time in the school) and asked us to help them financially with they current water crisis. After we clarified our purpose, and mission we presented the school with a large array of books to supplement their scanty library. We were mindful to donate books that were culturally reflective of the children themselves. Yet, I saw a number of children’s picture books on the library shelves  with White characters, with red hair or blue eyes and I wondered what cultural connection the Ghanaian children could possibly make to those images. The key is balance – providing many books that are culturally reflective, and others that expose the students to diverse places, people and cultures. The library was organized numerically and the books were perfectly aligned on the shelves in clusters – appearing  as if the books were there more for decoration than use. It reminded me of the many classrooms I visit in the US where teachers are “hoarders” of books and school materials and they are more for display than student use. I wasn’t sure if the children had free access to these books here either. Hmm, it made me wonder is this an international phenomenon?

When we entered the classrooms I was struck by how sparse they were. I spent most of my time in the classrooms for the younger students, and there were minimal materials compared to our standards in the US. Each classroom had a chalk board, a few charts on the wall, a small amount of paper, a few pens and crayons, along with a teacher’s desk and tables and chairs. We were informed that their school system was based on the British system, one of their former colonizers. This particular school was a Catholic school, which is common throughout the country. There didn’t appear to be any hands-on materials for exploring, manipulation, or role-playing; which are commonly found in my prior experiences.  I would love to spend time with their administration and teachers to first understand their system, curriculum, activities and then work with them to enhance their program. We can truly learn from one another. Additionally,  I would love to create an international  educational project  that assists others in constructing a culturally reflective, developmentally appropriate, early childhood curriculum that incorporates their local artisans, crafts-people, celebrations and cultural traditions.

The children were loving, sweet-natured and friendly. The tradition is for the girls to  have their hair cut very short to attend public school so that there is no jealousy or envy over who has a better or prettier hairstyle. The natural beauty shines through the sun-kissed faces of the girls and boys. I had hundreds of pencils to distribute – and in the classrooms in an orderly fashion, every child got both a yellow and a pretty pencil. After leaving the classrooms with an arm full of pencils – I was almost “mobbed” – not in a hurtful way, but I was surrounded by about a hundred children – pleading, and grabbing for pencils. I started handing them out as hands reached for them – only to find out some children were getting many and others were getting none. The uniforms, short hair cuts and crowd blinded me as to who had already received. Eventually, I had to stop completely to gain control of the situation. It was not a good feeling –  I felt like a missionary distributing goods to the locals. In the future, I would rather come empty-handed FIRST to spend time with the children, read to them, engage with them without the dynamics of materialism. Then afterwards, I would rather leave materials with them.  It would feel more genuine and personal than like a charitable mission!

When we returned to the van we were all reflecting on the day and sharing our experiences. One of the sisters Bernadette told us the day had been life-changing for her and she had discussed how she could support one student in particular. She had already received information on this particular student and what she could provide to help. This sparked an interest in many of us to help out with specific children. We shared with our tour guide and the Head of the School our interests and the ages and possible genders of children we could help. Arrangements were made and families who could use a little extra help or support came to meet us with the head Master of the school. It felt like a extended family sponsor/adoption day.

When we asked the cost to support a child’s education it was so minimal to us, based on salaries and costs and  in the US. It’s all relative. It costs about $85 per year (US dollars) to have 3 uniforms made and purchase all exercise books and textbooks. At that rate,  I decided to take on the responsibility for more than one child.  I became a “Mama” to 3 more girls – My girls are Efua (5 years old and my Akan name sake), her sister Aba (8 years old) and another girl Perpetual (who is 17 years old). The combined cost for all three girls was only $250.00 a year. I feel blessed to be able to help, and pray the connection with these girls and families grows over the years into a life-long, supportive and mutually affirming relationship. We all can learn and grow from our diverse interactions and connections! Now onto another school…

Esbina Educational Centre; Malam, Accra

This is an independent school run by a beautiful, dedicated sister named Esther Amankwa. She is a positive, visionary who wanted to make a difference for the local children. She started this school with her own funds for children from the local village who were not in school or couldn’t afford to buy uniforms or pay fees for school. She began with 3 children and now has over 60 children enrolled. This school is 100% free to the families, and Sister Esther supplies the uniforms and all exercise and text books.

Sister Esther is a traditionally trained Batik artist and she conducts workshops, classes and sells batik fabric to raise money to support her school. We were so fortunate for her to provide us with a full afternoon learning the art and craft of Batik. She talked about the history of Batik, the traditional materials used, and the intricate patterns and designs, including Adinkra symbols. We all created beautiful batiks on cotton fabric squares, as well as on garments we brought with us. For our demonstration workshop, we  only used a few colors, but Batiks can be created with unlimited colors through blending and mixing different colored dyes.

After this wonderful lesson and experience with Batik, we visited the classrooms of her school. The students and teachers were anxious and excited to meet us. There was a positive, upbeat energy that permeated the classrooms. It reminded me of the zest that exists when a new school or program opens and everyone is on board and positively charged and energized. The students recited poems, verses and sang multiple songs with movement for us. We were all touched by their performance and the amount of hard work and preparation that went into their presentations. You could see the feeling of pride on their faces and it touched my heart!

I applaud Sister Esther Amankwa for having the vision, fortitude and determination to open and run this school. Although the 3 girls I am sponsoring attend another school and I will certainly continue to support them, I also want to do whatever is in my power to help Sister Esther with her school. If you are interested in providing books, resources or other support to Esbina Educational Centre, please contact me directly for her information.

In my final post on Ghana – I will take you up close and personal to 2 slave castle/dungeons: Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle.

More sights and experiences in Ghana

IMG_6775Greetings to my readers:  I’m BACK…

I began 2018 with an extended weekend trip to Chicago to see my Mom, sister and family followed by a longer trip to Santa Fe to spend time with my daughter, son-in-law and some of my grands.  Interestingly, when I was growing up 3 generations of my family, including both sides of my grandparents,  all resided in the same town – and while I loved it, I also took it for granted, because it was all I knew. Now my family is spread out all over the US. When I travel I try to spend all my time engaging with family and/or friends to the maximum, and I planned on resuming this blog when I returned. However, life has a way of taking us on unexpected twists and turns and so it has been for me. My back went out on the first day of my vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico with 5 grandchildren eager to rip and run up and down the mountain roads… My body said “Hold up – not this trip” – lol. So, instead I honored my body, slowed down immensely, received some holistic and spiritual treatments, and enjoyed my family in a more laid back fashion. After a few weeks of taking care of me, I am ready to resume this blog… In fact, I am eager to finish sharing my experiences in Africa so I can begin writing about more travels…(my trips and experiences are overlapping!)

Ghana – is so full of life, culture and art in the everyday fabric of the people. Everywhere we went we met crafts-people, including:  wood carvers, brass sculptors, weavers, bead makers, and seamstresses. Yet, in the US many of these art forms have either been lost or certainly not been cultivated in the masses. In fact, we call the few who keep the arts alive “artists.” In Ghana, it is just a way of life. We were headed to Jamestown, when the traffic was halted by a funeral procession – a massive procession, with folks marching, dancing, and chanting along with trucks blaring music –  for a rather long time. The funeral procession was for a young elected official, and they believed he was poisoned because he sat down and drank with someone and then he died. There are funeral traditions pertaining to clothing – red and white colors are worn for a younger person, and black and white colors are worn for an older person.  The Honorable Elijah Muhammad always said certain colors (red and black) had specific  meaning in African society that Blacks in the US no longer understood the significance of. In Ghana there is also a particular manner in which the funeral and celebration of the person’s life is conducted.  There is an initial small-scale celebration that takes place immediately – then the burial and final big celebration takes place at a later date. It usually takes 1-2 months before a person is buried, because the community (all that the person has ties to) has to be notified and contribute  money to bury the person, and feed all the guests to give a proper burial and ceremony. After a lengthy, high-energy funeral procession, with hundreds of people  – we continued on to our destination – Jamestown.

Jamestown is a large fishing village of 5,000 people. Accra began with the Ga people and the original name of Jamestown was Ga Matse’ (pronounced Ga Mashe). The village is part of the Association of West African Merchants (AWAM). I was told there is some negative history associated with the term AWAM – so today if you display westernized behavior, you are called AWAM – which has a derogatory connotation. When the timber marker opened, it took away “the shine” from the Ga people. Fishing is the life of the people of Jamestown. The boat maker is a master carpenter and if you want a boat made you have to pay this specialist to make your boat, and 1-2 months later you get your boat. This is the only way to get a boat in Jamestown. Huge logs are carved to make the boats, and they are pretty sizable – I measured one boat (using a non-standard measurement tool – “my foot”) at over 40 feet long. Although fishing is their life – they observe a “No Fishing” rule on Tuesday.

Jamestown is a highly dense population, with very basic housing units. Many people live in tiny shacks, huts, small shipping containers, and make shift dwellings.  Some of the folks had businesses in the front and lived in the back. The people of Jamestown are resourceful and used many recycled materials in the construction of their homes. Many of their daily activities take place outside the home, including food preparation, cooking, smoking fish and washing clothes.  Everything revolved around fishing. We saw men cleaning fish, women scaling fish and stacking fresh herring and mackerel on huge trays for smoking. The atmosphere was buzzing with the activity of people, the smell of food cooking and the sounds of different languages.

We were escorted by two brothers, born and raised in Jamestown, who served as our tour guides. One brother (with the locs) rounds up all the school age children to send them to school, because the parents want them to work in the fishing business to help the family. He said he realizes it is important for the children to get an education. The other brother became somewhat of a “personal guide”, directing me through the village, greeting everyone and introducing me in different languages: Twi, Fante, Arabic and other dialects. Each language flowed effortlessly off his tongue – and I was amazed at how easily he could visually identify folks who spoke the different languages.

I greeted the sisters and brothers, hugged the elder sisters – “My Auntie’s” and was enamored with the children – who were thrilled to take pictures with me. I felt a kinship so strong – I knew I had come home. Even though our experiences, environment and way of life differed drastically – my spirit felt a strong connection. We are one regardless of time, circumstance, geographic location and situation – we come from the same root – the same source – the Motherland.

The experience of visiting Jamestown was powerful. The people were very friendly, warm and welcoming. From a western lens – the village was poor lacking many of the modern creature comforts we so easily take for granted in the US and other developed countries in the world. Running water, toilets and indoor showers are the norm in most of the US but not readily found in certain areas of Ghana. In the US folks are frequently guilty of being water-wasters and complain if and when we don’t have “enough” hot water. Yet, that would be a major luxury in Jamestown and many other areas. Seeing how happy people are with less makes you appreciate what you do have and not take it for granted. For millions of people throughout the world access to clean water is a challenge. This experience taught me to be more humble, appreciative of what I do have, less wasteful, more resourceful and grateful.

The Kente Village in the Mamobi area

The Kente weavers were absolutely amazing. We drove up to a small dirt area about the size of a little strip mall, with wooden weaving looms – that were made of the most basic materials – wood, string and rocks. The weavers were young brothers, with rippling muscles and strong legs – working the looms with their feet and guiding the yarn with their hands. The rhythm was a steady ebb and flow – and it was fascinating to watch. The end result were beautifully woven strips of kente that were sewn together to make vests, jackets, dresses and throws. One of the picture above shows a distinguished elder shrouded in beautiful Kente cloth.

There were so many wonderful things to see and exciting experiences to have… I couldn’t do justice to Ghana trying to cram all of this into one blog entry…so I am letting my experiences on this journey unfold one at a time – so my readers can slowly take in the images of the environment, people, cultural practices, daily life and history. I want you to travel with me in this blog and experience through my words and images a up-close and personal look at life in different places. In the next blog entry I will continue on my journey in Ghana – through restaurants, a national park, schools, a traditional naming ceremony in a local village,  and a hands-on lesson in batik making. The final blog entry on Ghana will take you up in-depth into the Slave Castle/Dungeons and the horrendous stories that began 535 years ago there, that must be told…Stay tuned…

Come along and travel with me…

Sights, Sounds and Smells of Ghana…

It’s January 1, 2018 and the start of a New Year. This past year was filled with trips and travels to different places, new adventures and life-changing experiences. I continue sharing my journey into Ghana…and her people, culture, sights and history… We were a group of 11 Black women residing in the east, west and south of the United States. They say to travel with someone is to know them, and although we mostly met as strangers we quickly became friends.

The airplane to Ghana was full of a diverse array of people – reflecting different races, cultures, traditions and styles of dress. Chatting with fellow passengers in the airport and on the plane – I learned this trip was a return home for some (after many years of living abroad), a business trip for others, and a vacation still for some. For me it was a homegoing, an educational trip and a learning experience. So my goals were to be alert, pay attention, listen & learn, be open-minded and non judgmental. Upon arriving at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana – (tired and jet lagged after a 10 hour non-stop flight, and a 5 hour time difference) – I wanted to take in every minute of this trip. I began first noticing the people – and their body frames, facial features, distinctive “ethnic” markings, clothing, and their swag – the styles and flavor of the people – the tip in their hat – and the dip in their walk  – MY people…thousands of miles away. I saw people who look like people I know in the U.S. I saw the same face I have seen in places called New Jersey, New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia. I saw the window into eyes that told of a similar story , the same smile that lights up a room, the same warm spirit that wraps itself around you like  a comforting shawl in the cool night air. I saw my people and I felt at home… For once I saw and knew without a shadow of a doubt – that we – Black folks from America are truly African – yes, our journey has been different from those who remained on the continent, but we are connected by story, history, legacy, DNA & roots… I felt the connection – I was HOME!

After arriving at the hotel, we reviewed the varied itinerary  Marlene (our seasoned host and trip organizer) and Awuku (our tour guide) – along with Alex (our van driver) had planned for us. Our first stop was The W.E.B. Dubois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture. The Centre includes a complex with four major buildings, including:  the home of Dubois’s final years, an Administrative building, the Marcus Garvey Guest House, and the tombs of Dr. DuBois and his wife Shirley Graham DuBois. There were many artifacts, photographs and books documenting his scholarship, legacy and commitment to the education of Black people.  Wow this was surreal – W.E.B. Dubois was the premier educator and scholar – the author of The Souls of Black Folk and the first Black person to graduate from Harvard University in 1895, at a time when many Whites still held the belief in the innate inferiority of Blacks! His scholarship proved them wrong. I sat at the desk where W.E.B. Dubois sat and wrote – and while I was in awe that I was actually touching a piece of history – of someone who I had long admired, read about and respected, I also recognized the need to protect the furniture, works and artifacts of this literary and scholarly giant, which were open to the public for touching and not protected from the elements. We must preserve the legacies of our heroes and sheroes!

We went to the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park which is a park, museum and mausoleum honoring the life and legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, a visionary, national hero, scholar, Prime Minister & later President. Ghana gained their independence from Britain in 1960 and Kwame Nkrumah was elected  the First President of the newly independent nation of Ghana. He studied at my alma-mater, Lincoln University, PA and in Britain and became a proponent of Pan-Africanism, with visions to unite all of Africa. He developed many aspects of the country’s infrastructure, including the use of alternative power sources, businesses, schools, and universities. Tema, a former fishing village is a model city commissioned by Kwame Nkrumah with the original goal to replicate cities like it throughout Ghana. Nkrumah was a champion for the poor and less fortunate and they still revere him to this day. Many of his ideals were revolutionary and ahead of its time. As a result, his government was overthrown in 1966, and he was unable to complete his ambitious plans for Ghana and Africa. He was granted asylum in Guinea and later died in Bucharest while undergoing medical treatment.

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At the naming ceremony we participated in later in our trip, I was bestowed the name Efua Nkrumah: Efu – girl born on Friday, and Nkrumah – wisdom. It was an honor to receive this name knowing the work, spirit and mission of Kwame Nkrumah and to also acknowledge that we both walked the same soil at Lincoln University decades apart. Ironically, Nkrumah departed this life in 1972 one year before I entered Lincoln University (LU), and in my youthful naivety at LU I wasn’t aware of his work or legacy yet – but I certainly am now! His motto is something I feel we should all strive to live by daily: “Forever Ever, backward never.” It was informative, touching and fulfilling to visit the centers honoring these two great world leaders: W.E.B. Dubois and Kwame Nkrumah. I was humbled and blessed  to have this opportunity – to touch history – and see first-hand up close and personal – the monuments and memorials devoted to these brothers who were both giants in their own right and left a legacy for all of us to study, follow and extend. Now – as our journey continued, our group of 11 sisters with our trusty tour guide and driver were on our way to learn about some of the traditional crafts and visit some of the craft markets…

The Glass Bead Factory  in the town of Ogbodjo. We were greeted by a young, 15-year-old brother named Wisdom, as the elders in the village had gone to a funeral and this young man stayed behind to give us the tour, so we wouldn’t be disappointed. He was aptly named Wisdom, and he gave us a step-by-step demonstration of the bead making process from beginning to end.

La-Pleasure Beach Resort: We spent the afternoon at La-Pleasure Beach where we had an opportunity to see and purchase crafts, jewelry and artifacts from brothers and sisters alike and have some down time and fun. Some of the sisters went riding on 4-wheelers or horseback riding (the younger sisters in the group – lol), walking on the beach, collecting rocks and shells, getting upper body massages, relaxing, drinking and listening to the drumming and just soaking up all the sights, sounds and smells.

The smell of the salty ocean air always moves me…This was my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, and as I stood at the water’s edge I was overcome with emotion…knowing my ancestors were loaded onto ships from these very waters hundreds of years ago and never thought they or their descendants would ever touch African shores again. I had every intention of swimming in these waters, but Marlene had warned me that the waters here were rough and very “angry.

She was right – the water here on this beach in Accra, Ghana was different from any ocean waters I have ever touched before. This is coming from me – a Sun Goddess, ocean lover, and self-proclaimed “beach bum.” Typically, after a wave crashes onto the shoreline, you feel the water cascade back and the sand slowly recede under your feet. Well, here there was a force and a power, as the sand and water receded that almost pulled you out into the ocean. I had to grab hold of one of the sisters to keep the water from pulling her out. The reality that I was a daughter of Africa, standing on the shores of Ghana, with my feet being washed in waters infused with the spirit and fury of my ancestors who perished and the energy of those who survived. I had come full circle…and this was only Day 3.

Join the blog to get email updates, as I share our journey and experiences at a large fishing village, craft markets, Kente weavers, school visits, Naming ceremony, Kakum National Park and the Canopy Walk, hands-on workshop at the Eka Batik Centre, history and stories at 2 slave castles and dungeons & The Door of No Return and much more…to be continued…come along and travel with me while learning about the art and culture of Ghana…

 

 

Preparing for Ghana

IMG_2383Greetings to my readers – I’m back… I originally planned to write on this blog at least weekly, but life somehow seems to get in the way 🙂 …so two weeks later I’m back…eager to share my thoughts, and reflections as I was preparing physically, mentally, spiritually, holistically and legally to go to Ghana.This trip will be explored and unpacked over several blog posts, showing images and descriptions of people, places and things, because there were too many  incredible experiences to describe in a singular blog post.

I have been to numerous states across the United States and many trips to different islands. This would be my first international trip and I made up my mind 40 years ago that before I go to any other country in the world I MUST go to Africa first. It is the land my ancestors were taken from;  and although my great grandparents hail from 4 different continents: Africa, North America, Australia & Europe – it is the spiritual connection to my African roots and that DNA running through my veins that bonds me to the continent. So it was essential for me to make the trip to the continent of Africa first.

As a little girl growing up in Englewood, NJ – I always felt a sense of wonder and a love for adventure. The Englewood of my childhood was a rustic and wooded land of “enchantment” and there were always new parks, woods and places to explore. IMG_3455My friends and I played make-believe games and explored new parks, factories & neighborhoods in our town and surrounding areas. Since I was a little girl I have also loved learning about  foreign places and different people.  I guess I was on the path to cultural competence – way before I even had a clue what that term even meant. I spent many days transported in time  with movies of Heidi and her grandfather in the Swiss Alps, and was fascinated watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries of under water sea life with my Dad.  I was often confused watching World War II movies with my Dad, wondered why people would hurt other people and was puzzled over the point of war.  Yet, I wanted to one day go to the places I saw and read about  and see the land, the people and the culture for myself. So my love for exploring new lands was born in me as a young child. Now, I had the opportunity to go to Africa – to go home to a land where my ancestors were forcibly captured from.

The book and movie Roots launched me on a mission to compile and document my family story. I have been the family historian since the early 1970’s. I have collected original documents, including: US Census records dating back to 1800, birth and death certificates, photographs and family stories. I can see the strong African features on my paternal family line…from my great-grandfather,  a Blacksmith who hailed from Rocky Mount, NC. I always wondered where did he gain the skill and trade to be a blacksmith – those were trades passed down along family lines, and usually directly linked to Africa. Although I have traced my family history going over 200 years back in documents, and underwent 2 DNA tests revealing predominately West African and some European ancestry – I have still never made a definite link to a specific ethnic group in Africa. So this trip to Africa would  be an opportunity for me to explore my ancestral, spiritual and genetic connection to Ghana – the land of the Gold.

Ghana mapOur trip organizer, Marlene begin sending us a series of emails – each one informative, filled with tidbits and pertinent information we needed to know in preparation for our trip. We learned about the Passport/Visa regulations, required and recommended shots to take, clothes (100% cotton) – and must haves to pack (like medicine, phone chargers, converters, adapters, snacks and wipes of all kinds), things to do, comfortable shoes to wear…and on and on. She sent us book titles and I ordered and read both of them immediately. One book: Home going by Yaa Gyasi was a fascinating novel of two sisters impacted by slavery, and their families through 8 generations in Africa and in the United States. This book, although a novel, was filled with historical fiction and gave a sense of the history of enslavement, colonization and oppression in Ghana beginning in the 18th Century. The other book: Returning Home Ain’t Easy but it Sure is a Blessing by Seestah Imahkus details the experiences of a sister and her husband from NYC and their move “home” to Ghana some 25 years ago. I highly recommend both books as they gave me a greater awareness of Ghana, the history of the people, the culture, traditions and impact of the Transatlantic slave trade from past to present.

 

I began pulling out all of my books about West Africa and African art and reading about the different ethnic groups, traditions, art and cultural practices. With online access to information at our fingertips I poured into reading about Ghana – learning of the foods commonly eaten, the indigenous spiritual practices and common religious beliefs,  the artistic crafts of wood carving, Kente weaving, batik making, Adinkra stamping, glass bead making – many traditional art forms that Blacks in the US have been separated or removed from over the generations. Yet, interestingly, many a Black grandfather used to whittle wood – which is essentially the same work African wood carvers do on larger pieces, and many a Black grandmother made patchwork quilts with appliqué that mirrors many of the traditional batik story cloths in Africa. The more I read and saw – the more excited I became. Our itinerary included visits to a variety of schools, communities and traditional villages composed of diverse ethnic groups; and various business and craft markets where we could see and learn first hand about a myriad of traditional African art forms.

In preparation mode, I began gathering clothes, comfortable walking shoes/sandals, toiletries and electronic equipment. I scheduled appointments for my annual physical (making sure I was in good health before exposing myself to immunizations). I am not a proponent of immunizations today (flu shots/ pneumonia shots) – instead I usually boost up on Echinacea and Vitamin C and I generally do not get the worst case scenario “bug.” However, the country of Ghana requires the Yellow Fever vaccine and proof must be submitted along with your original passport to the Ghanaian Embassy for the Visa to be stamped in your passport. So, after deciding I may be better safe than sorry, I went ahead and got several of the additional recommended but not required shots, including: Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid and Diphtheria/Tetanus. I also filled my prescription for Malaria and made note of when and how I need to take it. So, here I was immunized and in packing mode for this trip – but I realized there was a whole other mode of preparation I needed to make. This was not just any trip…or just another vacation…this was a special trip – a Homegoing and I needed to be spiritually and mentally ready.

 

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I recharged my ancestral altar, offered more light, prayers and energy through prayers and meditations to my ancestors. I trusted more in the spiritual messages that whisper in my ear, emerge in my dreams or plant themselves in my conscious or unconscious mind. In other words, I begin to pay attention more intently. I also started focusing on the spiritual ties that connect us to people through multiple generations (when acknowledged and fed) and knew this trip would be a life-changing experience for me.

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Well I packed everything I thought I would need and then some. I filled my largest suitcase with school supplies (books, pencils, sharpeners) for the children in the schools we would visit and name brand T-shirts to barter with in the craft markets. Finally, the day came – I called my personal Uber driver who gladly drops me off at the Airport at off hours and times and was on my way. During the long lay over,  I begin to meet my fellow travelers. There were 11 of us in total – 11 Black women from all over the United States. Most of us did not know one another, but we each knew at least one person in the group. So the long lay over went faster than expected because we were all talking and laughing and sharing our expectations about this upcoming trip and the experiences we were embarking on.

On board most of us were sitting in different areas of the plane. I was glad I had paid a little extra for Delta Comfort seats because the extra 5 inches of leg room and the greater recline to the seat was more than needed on the long 10 hour non stop flight from Ghana to Accra. I brought books, magazines and the Kindle app on my Iphone as reading material – but I spent most of my time… thinking, wondering, imagining and reveling in the fact that I was actually on my way to Africa! IMG_5965

AFRICA… the “jungle” depicted in stereotypical Tarzan movies from my youth, the land the teachers in Catholic School made fun of, the place I “only” read about in books, the continent where rumors, myths and negative portrayals about the people run rampant… Yet – I know this too is the Africa that gave birth to the WORLD… the place that invented Archaeology, Mathematics, Medicine, and Science… the place that housed the first universities in the world… the continent richest in natural resources. This is the land that has also suffered under enslavement and colonization for hundreds of years. This is the continent I have wanted to go to since 1975 when I began learning the truth of my history and the knowledge of self. Contrary to people’s thinking this place called Africa is a huge continent and this map (above) gives a visual image of the many countries that can fit inside the land mass of the continent. So I sat on this plane for the duration of this long flight and all these thoughts came rushing through my head.

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Through it all, I realized how very blessed and fortunate I was that I was able to make this trip. I continually gave thanks and praise for the Creator for blessing me to return home when I knew without a shadow of a doubt that some ancestor(s) of mine were forcibly removed from this continent and never thought their descendants would ever return.

 

As the plane was making our descent, these are the first images of African soil I witnessed. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I acknowledged the magnitude of that moment. I was HOME… HOME as in the place where I finally felt a sense of connection in the world. Riding through the streets of Accra, Ghana and seeing black people everywhere – brothers and sisters dressed in colorful Kentes, Batiks and Ghanaian cotton, mothers carrying babies on their back and baskets on their head, street vendors, hawkers, crowded streets, tro-tro’s and a renewed sense that in spite of the trials and tribulations, struggles and long-term effects from hundreds of years of enslavement, colonization and now corruption – I had truly returned HOME!!

 

I was ready to check into our hotel, unpack, and begin savoring every moment of this trip. We were given a traditional welcome as the brothers played the talking drums and jimbe upon arrival at our hotel. Stay tuned and join me as we witness neighborhoods, people, craft markets, fishing villages, schools, Slave castle/dungeons and more… Come along and travel with me and experience  Ghanaian life and culture…