Elmina Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482. Since then, it has served as a hub for trade and a fort for military protection for the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and, since independence was won in 1957, the Ghanaians. It is a place where ivory and gold and spices were sold to overseas traders. It is a place where ships in the bay fired volley after volley of munitions when one European power sought to unseat another. And it is a place where thousands and thousands of African slaves were brought, imprisoned, and sold.
As we walked through the dungeons and saw the places of punishment and horror, I felt the strange, witness-bearing presence of the men, women, and children who huddled in those places. Many died there. Those who survived were squeezed through a tiny hole in the castle wall that was once big enough to pass crates of spices through. Slaves, of course, needed only enough room to pass through one at a time in order to lower the already infinitesimal chance of escape. It was standing in front of that place--"The Door of No Return"--that we paused for a silent moment of reflection and prayer.
As I think back to the power of that moment, I'm curious why it had such unusual sway over my heart and soul. I walk in places where slaves walked every day. I live in Decatur, Alabama. For practically my whole life, I've lived in the south, which is to say that I've lived in a place whose past was defined by the transatlantic slave trade. So why did I need to travel across the ocean to feel that connection?
Maybe it was the skill of our guide at the Castle. Ato Ashun not only led us through the corridors of that place, but he told the story of slavery in a powerful, touching, yet not overly dramatic way. Or maybe it was the new relationships that have been formed with Ghanaians. Or maybe it was the fact that we've been pilgrims on this journey for long enough now to feel emotions more acutely. I really don't know.
There was a woman who burst out of the passage that led to the Room of No Return. She and her group had gone where only a few minutes before our group had gone to stand silent and pray. Perhaps overcome with the spirit of the place, she emerged sobbing and wailing. It was a mournful sound that arrested all who stood in the open courtyard. She had been to the place where slaves were led to be put on ships, and she had emerged from that place where so many others did not.
As I recall her wailing, I get a renewed sense of the odd mixture of specific and anonymous that Elmina Castle represents. For me, those thousands and thousands of African slaves are nameless, and I hide behind the comfort of the abstraction that the composite of so many enslaved lives creates. But at Elmina I also feel them, smell them, hear them. They come alive, and the abstraction is ripped away, and I am devastated as I ought to be.
Before long, I'll head back to Alabama--back to my home. As Ato Ashun said, "There is only one reason to come here--to come to Elmina Castle. It is so that we never forget and never allow such a thing to happen again." He charged us to take that message back with us. I keep wondering what it mean to return to the place where many of those slaves ended up. As I fly over the waters upon which they sailed, how will that voyage be different? I think my heart broke a little bit in that place, and I think it's supposed to stay cracked.