11 October 2009 Slave Camp

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Edmund  Burke

It took 16 months to face my ancestral heritage in Ghana. Last year I visited Cape Coast but I only looked at the Castle from a distance. I told myself I would have plently of time to see the place where Ghanaian captives embarked on the journey to slavery in the New World. I would return to the Castle before I left Ghana. At the Feok festival I became a Builsa and celebrated the victory over Baba Too and Sarana _________ the slave raiders from Paga. Sandema men rose up and fought their brothers who were catching Bulisas, Burkinans and Malians for the White Man. I was proud I lived in a town where they said “Hell no we won’t go!”. The slave camp was only an hour away but some how I never managed to get there. Now Mel, my brother’s wife, was coming and her tour was going. It was time to face the White Man’s legacy in West Africa.

The slave camp is located in Paga on the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso. Baba and ______ , the slave raiders, would travel north into what is now Burkina and Mali and west to Ghana’s Builsa land. They would bring the captives back to the camp where they held them until southern traders came to buy them.

Our guide was a young man about 20 years old. His upper arms were thick and his chest was broad. Two hundred years ago he could have been a part of the story he was about to tell us. Instead he had taken on the culture of his old colonial masters. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and spoke to us in English.

As we walked through some trees on our way to the camp I looked for the buildings where they captives slept. The first stop on the tour was a spring. It came up through some rocks. The oval basin was no more than five feet long and 2 feet at the widest spot. The captives got all their water for drinking and bathing in this one small spot.  The spring is plugged up now. The local people did it because they were so ashamed at what happened and they never wanted another slave camp at this spot. The spring was the deciding factor in locating the camp in Paga.

The rocks where the spring came up were a ledge overlooking a valley and the guide pointed and said that’s where they kept the slaves. There were no buildings. They slept, chained together in the valley open to the mosquitoes, the dry cold  of the hamattan season, the 100+ degree heat of March and April and the dampness of the rainy season.

The granite ledge was the captives’ dining hall. Our guide pointed out oval indentations in the rock. That is where the captives would be served their meals. The captives hands were unbound only during their meals. The ‘bowls’ were carved out of the granite with another piece of granite. Making the ‘bowls’ was a punishment given to unruly captives.

Near the ‘dining hall’ there were three boulders about the size of timpani drums. It’s hard for me to write about this part. My head and heart are going everywhere but to this part of the story. I found some dishes to take into the kitchen. Solitaire was calling out my name then finally I got back to the story. The boulders were drums. In the evenings a few ‘boys’ would come up from the valley and beat the boulders with rocks. There were three local boys at the drums now and they began beating and singing.

Our guide told us that they were trying to cheer up their mates. That they thought some entertainment would make their hearts happy. Our guide said the song they were singing encouraged the captives telling them that this trouble would soon be over. To work hard and look to the day when they would come back home to be with their families, wifes, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. The songs were hopeful. As they sang I had to turn away. I don’t cry in public. While I was turned away the guide told us that after the ‘boys’ drummed the masters would leave cedis( shells, the currency of the time) on the boulders. The masters believed the music calmed the ‘savages’ so they wanted to encourage the drummers.

When I turned around I saw fires breaking the darkness in the valley. Thirty to forty captives were around each fire dancing and singing. I could hear their chains clinking to the beat of  the drums. Their song rose above the valley mournful and hopeful. The smell of bush meat rose to the ledge as the women cooked the small animals the men could manage to catch in their captivity. The smoke from the fires and the dust from the arid ground made it seem like a dream or a vision. I wanted to go down into the valley and dance and eat with them. I wanted to sit with them and tell them how much I hated what my white brothers had done to them, my African brothers. I wanted to tell them that I would have fought to stop that evil and to keep them in Ghana with their families and friends and that I will fight hard to stop it if other such evil ever returns. I will remind those who have forgotten that we are all human beings.

The music stopped and the dust and smoke cleared. It was daylight again. The valley was green with the rainy season vegetation and all the fires were gone. I walked to the drums and laid down one modern day Ghana Cedi in acknowledgement that my ancestors played a part in this evil.

Although there were others with me on this tour, I was scarcely aware of them. This was a private journey I was taking. I was looking at the evil that men can do and looking in to see if I could have done this thing? What little prejudice attitudes and feelings will lead to the bigger prejudice of thinking I had the right to take someone captive and make him serve me. I don’t want any to water and nurse any such seeds in myself.

The next stop was the slave meeting grounds, a euphamism for auction block. Slave traders came from the south to buy these slaves. They liked northerners, say the people in Sandema, because they were taller and stronger. I think there may also have been other reasons. Traditionally the people in southern Ghana are predjuice against the northerners. When they heard my posting, I received a lot of sympathy from Ghanaians around the Peace Corps training center in the south. They told me the northerners were uneducated, supersticious, and implied they were some what less than the southerners. So this attitude allowed the southern Ghanaians to come north and take their “lesser” brothers. It was probably easier for the colonialist to dehumanize the northerners. They didn’t have much contact with them because they spent all their time on the coast, near the trading centers and the ports. Many of the colonialist worked daily with southern Ghanaians.

So the southern buyers gawked at the wares on the auction block. The slave was stripped except for a small loin cloth and his sturdieness and health were displayed for sale.  I heard a horse whinney and looked up to see five roughly dressed Ghanaians dismounting and heading towards the auction block. They buyers were dusty from the journey. Their heads covered with large floppy straw hats to protect them from the sun. I heard one send his boy to fetch water for them all to drink.

The captives for auction that day were standing in small groups in the midday sun with little more than rags on their backs to protect them. I saw a mothers touching her son’s arm in a last attempt to connect before they were seperated. A wife and husband crowded together with their small baby between them. They were quiet but their eyes showed the uncertaintity and fear they were feeling. A father and son stood side by side.

The traders looked them all over and pointed to the new father. The the wife cried out and her eyes plead to go with him. The trader ignored her and motioned for the man to remove his clothing. They examined him like a piece of horse flesh. Firm muscles? Straight and strong back? Good teeth? The camp guard started the bidding. The new father stood straight and faced the valley. He was sold to the highest bidder. Another was put in his place.

Our guide’s voice brought me back to the present. He was saying that after the captives were sold they then marched to the slave bathing place. They had little food and water so many died on the trip south. At the bathing place they were bathed and shaved before being sent to the Cape Coast Castle, the ships and then America.

We then walked to five boulders piled up on each other. Our guide climbed about 25 feet to the top. From there he told us the guards could watch the whole camp, the dining hall, the meeting place, the valley and the punishment area.

From the lookout we walked to the slave graveyard. Many captives died in the camp but there were only a few stone markers. Our guided explained that just like the spring, the local people destroyed the graveyard out of shame. Later they realized they should have something to memorialize the people burried there so they returned these few markers. The graves were communial  graves. Big pits dug in the ground to take ten or more dead bodies.
An unmarked stone was then laid on the mass grave.

Near the graveyard was the punishment rock. It was unshaded open to the elements. The slave was beaten according to the offence. and then made to sit on the rock with his hands chained behind him. His feet were chained around the rock. I could see where the chains had worn the base of the rock away. The captive was made to sit on the rock and turn his face to the sun. If he should turn away to give relief to his eyes he was whipped again.

Here I asked our guide how he learned the story of the slave camp. He told me it was passed down to him from his grandfather. The story has been passed orally through the generations.
I will add to this legacy in a new medium.

My feelings from the day can be summed up in this poem. I hope I have learned the lesson of the slave camp and this poem.

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me —
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Pastor Martin Niemöller


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