Pilgrimage To


The land where Africans were pressed into slavery draws African-Americans for a moving encounter with the past.


October 20, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | By Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Inside the sunlit courtyard of a sprawling 15th-century castle off the coast of Ghana, a handful of men and women are gathered in a circle, holding hands and preparing to pray.

The waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash and rumble nearby, but one can almost hear a pin drop in the solemn hush that has fallen over this assembly of bronze, beige and ebony faces.

A regal woman wearing colorful robes begins to speak. "For our ancestors," says Dr. Patricia Newton, a physician and president of Sebayit Tours, the Baltimore travel agency leading our small group of mostly Marylanders. "For their strength," she continues, "and what they endured, we give thanks."

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about Ghana in Sunday's Travel section, photo captions identifying Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle were transposed. The Sun regrets the error.

Newton then passes around a bottle of water for each person to pour "libations" on the ground while sharing their thoughts.

The ritual is meant to pay homage to the millions of Africans whose harrowing odyssey into slavery can be traced to these West African shores.

One woman starts to cry. Others wear pained expressions that speak volumes about this place, where the past still resonates as loudly as the beat of an African drum.

We are at the infamous Castle of St. George d'Elmina, the oldest of the so-called slave castles dotting the jagged coastline of this nation of 18 million people.

During the slave trade that emerged here in the late 1400s, these one-time trading posts and military forts became holding places for captured Africans who were later put on slave ships bound for Europe and the Americas.

Today, more than 25 of the forts remain. Elmina and Cape Coast Castle, a few miles away, have been designated World Heritage Sites by the United Nations.

This might not seem a particularly upbeat destination, but travelers from all over the world -- particularly African-Ameri-cans -- are making excursions to Ghana and other parts of Africa to view such sites.

Much in the way that Jews visit Israel or Catholics journey to Rome, African-Americans are making cultural pilgrimages here to explore their heritage and their roots.

"The classic comment is, 'I just want to see the motherland before I die,' " says Newton, who this year has organized expeditions to Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. "I had one man tell me that he didn't care which country in Africa," she adds. "He just wanted to step foot on African soil."

Henderson Travel and Tours in Silver Spring -- reportedly the oldest black travel agency in the country -- first journeyed to Ghana in 1957 for the nation's inaugural independence celebration.

Today, the company books about 100 trips annually all over the continent.

"Once, we had to go out and market Africa," says owner Gaynelle Henderson-Bailey. "Now it's had a ripple effect. We find once we send anyone, they tell family and friends."

But Henderson-Bailey acknowledges that "many Ameri-cans are ignorant about Africa." What they typically get on television is "famine, coups, disease and starvation," she says. "People are amazed to see big capital cities and wonderful sights that are traditional, cultural and historical."

Slightly smaller in size than Oregon, Ghana is a diverse country with coastal areas, grassy plains, low bush and savanna, as well as a tropical rain forest. The most densely populated areas are near the coast in the south, Kumasi in the Ashanti region to the west, and the capital city of Accra.

Although the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Americans this summer because of ethnic clashes in the far north, Ghana enjoys a democratic government and mostly stable politics.

Coast of slavery

Elmina castle, built in 1482, is known as the oldest surviving European edifice in the tropics. Columbus reportedly stopped here before he sailed for the New World.

The whitewashed citadel sits on a cliff above the port town of Elmina, which derives its name from the Portuguese word mina, or gold mine.

When explorers arrived in the late 15th century, they found gold -- hence this former British colony was dubbed the Gold Coast.

Initially, the castle was where gold, ivory, spices and other goods were traded among the locals. That all changed when the export of human cargo became more profitable.

Elmina castle, with its picturesque backdrop of palm trees and white-sand beaches bordered by the shimmering Atlan-tic, became a place of horrors.

The dungeons are dark and disquieting. Iron shackles line the walls. A skull and crossbones marks a holding cell where the defiant were left to starve to death.

"What these walls have seen," says castle guide Felix Nguah, while pointing out trapdoors and rope ladders used to take African women to the captain's private chambers.

There is the hypocrisy of a church near a slave auction block, but perhaps most gripping is the "door of no return," the last stop for captives before they were stripped and branded, then marched to waiting slave ships.

Those wishing to vicariously relive the experience can walk through the same stunted metal gates.

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