I recently returned back to the States after nearly three weeks in Western Africa. It was an absolutely amazing, life-changing time, and I’m still reeling from all that I learned and experienced there.
One of the places I visited was Elmina Slave Castle. Located right on the coast, the gorgeous scenery is sharply contrasted by the horrors of its history. Poems are not my strong suit, but I composed one, anyway, following part of my journal entry about it.
May 15, 2015:
I’m more than overwhelmed as I try to sum up my emotions and experience from today.
We got up at 4:30am to head to the slave castles, which was a long drive away; I’m not even sure how long because I ended up falling asleep on the bus, still tired from the bustle of the last few days. After a quick breakfast on the road, we arrived at Elmina Slave Castle. Dr. E had told us prior to the trip that visiting this place (as well as Cape Coast Castle, which we experienced later) would be on the same caliber as visiting concentration camps in Europe, and it was absolutely true. We stepped inside the fortress, admiring the beautiful structure and the waves crashing along the shore, but everything changed when our guide started telling us about the history. For nearly two hundred years in this beautiful castle, African men and women were captured, held against their wills in unspeakable conditions, beaten, starved, tortured, and shipped off as slaves to Europe and the Americas, with women left behind to serve as sex slaves.
There was a cannon ball on the ground, and our guide explained that “rebellious” women were forced to stand chained to that cannon ball for days in the beating sun, with no food or water, and sometimes ordered to pick up the cannon ball and hold it, a difficult task for a healthy man, but nearly impossible for a starved woman. Zarek picked it up and I extended my hands.
“You won’t be able to,” he warned.
“Let me try.”
He slowly placed it into my outstretched hands, supporting most of the weight still himself, and even then, my arms began to shake under the weight of it. I tried to imagine how these women could have done it, and felt a lump rise in my throat. “Take it back,” I whispered, and he did, setting it back on the ground.
As we stepped into the female slave dungeon, I immediately got goose bumps and felt the hair on my arms rise. I don’t know how to describe what I felt. It was as if I could hear the voices of all of the women who experienced the horrors here while the Portuguese and Dutch soldiers enjoyed clean, luxurious rooms and went to church—church! I’m embarrassed to be a Christian—above these hellholes. I could sense their souls crying out to me. Mariah walked over to me and whispered, “Can you feel their spirits, too?”
I nodded wordlessly.
Our guide then took us to a holding “room” (if it can even be called that) with a heavy wooden door and a foreboding skull and crossbones above it. We all stepped inside and then he shut the door, which closed with an echoing thud and left us all in complete darkness.
“This,” he said slowly, heavily, from the other side of the door, “is where the women who attempted to fight off their traffickers were sent, to be made as an example for the other female slaves. They would be shut up in here with no food or water until they died of thirst and starvation.”
My heart was pounding, and I fought against the panic rising in my chest as the voices grew louder and louder, calling out for mercy, for peace, for justice. Our guide unlocked and opened the door and I stumbled out into the blinding sunshine of the courtyard, gasping and utterly overwhelmed. The tears I’d been fighting against all morning spilled over, streaming hot and silently down my face.
Here in this place
where souls were extinguished
and humanity forgotten,
the sun’s warm embrace envelops me;
She is scorched and burned.
I run my hands along the cool stone wall
as she is thrown against it.
The ocean breeze gently kisses my face and caresses my hair;
soldiers strip away her clothes and dignity.
Waves beckon, inviting me to enjoy their frothy playground.
They carry her to her death.
“Akwaaba! You are most welcome here!”
And as her lost voice cries out to me,
I open my eyes and realize
the salt on my cheeks is not from the sea.