Monday, January 16, 2006

Re-entering "The Door of No Return"

We are choosing the remembrance of Martin Luther King’s birthday to write about our Christmas visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site in Ghana called St. George’s Castle near Cape Coast. This historical fort, situated on a spectacularly beautiful piece of landscape on the Ghana coastline, was built by the Dutch in 1482, 10 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was built by the Dutch to help create commercial dominance in the trading of gold, ivory and spices abundant in Africa and valued in Europe. There is a chain of 37 such forts along the Ghana coastline, a coastline particularly good for easy access to the interior of Africa. Various European powers including the British, Danes, Dutch, French, Germans, Portuguese and Swedes all exchanged power over a period of 200 years. The forts were used as trading posts for the storage of goods and later, when the slave trade developed, the forts, or castles, expanded into prisons for storing slaves ready for shipping.

For our African American family and friends reading this, we can’t imagine the emotions that you, in particular, might have felt in visiting this site. Perhaps one of your ancestors (perhaps one of MLK’s ancestors) went through the narrow “Door of No Return” (see photo) before being packed into the cargo hold of the waiting ship. It certainly made an impression on us to stand in a dungeon where captured Africans were “packed and stored”. The reality of the brutality, seeing the shackles, the dark, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in which they were kept for weeks or months at a time was overwhelming, leaving us with a sick feeling. We saw evidence and heard horrific stories of the treatment they received.

As we often find, one must “follow the money” to understand history. From your high school US history lessons, you might remember that the slave trade was a triangle and all 3 corners, driven by profit, were equally responsible for its “success”…….(1) Europeans who sailed the ships, transported the slaves and purchased the North American products like cotton and tobacco. (2) Africans, who captured other Africans in tribal wars or outright kidnappings to sell to the European ships, and (3) Americans who purchased the slaves and exploited them for economic gain. Although the African slaves were the ones who suffered, all 3 corners of the triangle contributed to our tragic history.

When you view the photo of the Door of No Return, you will see how small it appears. It is indeed small…just large enough for those emaciated prisoners who survived the waiting period in the fort to squeeze through one at a time. It is estimated that tens of millions of Africans were captured over hundreds of years, but perhaps only 20% survived the ordeal to actually make it to the US. An interesting note about this door is that recently an African American family who was able to trace their history back to this spot had a ceremonial “reverse entry” into the fort. We hope the symbolism of their re-entry can be part of the healing journey towards Martin Luther King’s dream of justice and equality for all.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


This morning we woke up to the loud bleating of agitated sheep next door. Later we learned why.

Today is Tabaski, the most important Islamic event of the year and a public holiday in Togo. It commemorates Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac on God’s command and the last minute substitution of a ram when God relents. It also coincides with the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca and is marked with a great feast of roast sheep.

Nationwide 12% of Togolese are Muslim, 29% Christian and 59% animist, the traditional religion which has many deities. (West Africa is the home of voodoo, but I digress.) It turns out that we live in a neighborhood where maybe half of the residents are Muslim. We watched a group of our neighbors 20 feet up the hill behind us slaughter about 10 sheep this morning. There is at least one sheep slaughtered per family. They will have their feast this afternoon after mid-day prayers.

We also learned that since the Islamic calendar is based on a 12 month lunar calendar of about 355 days, this holiday will be about 11 days earlier next time, around Dec 30. And the other major Islamic holiday, Ramadan (a month of daylight fasting) also rolls through the year shifting 11 days earlier each time.

Maybe you already knew this but we are still learning about our diverse world. It seems we should all know something about the major religion of Iraq, where we Americans have 160,000 troops.

Regarding the photos: Viewer discretion may be advised.



Sunday, January 08, 2006

A most non-commercial Christmas

New Year blessings everyone!

Before Christmas seems any farther away, we thought we would tell you a little about ours. This Christmas was so non-commercial, we would have missed it entirely if we weren't intentional about celebrating it on our own. And we now understand a little better why it is so. West Africans hardly celebrate Christmas. When asked why, one Togolese friend said "The Bible doesn't say Christmas was on December 25, and anyway, what is important is the resurrection, not his birth. And we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday." Who can argue with that train of thought?

So basically, Christmas in West Africa goes unnoticed, except that it is a day for food, family and visiting friends. No manger scenes, no gifts, not even a picture of Santa Claus to be seen. But it is a holiday, and families get together. Lots of cooking and eating. A bigger time for celebration is New Year's Eve and Day. Our French tutor described his New Year's celebration: At 8 pm, he and his family (wife, 3 children ages 3 months to 6 years) went to church and stayed with hundreds of others until 4 a.m. (yes, you are reading correctly). They worshipped, sang, and danced for about 8 hours. When the children are tired, they sleep on the floor around the perimeter, or if very young, stay attached on the mother's back. It is a big party—at the church. An hour later, at 5 a.m., all the women in town start making fu-fu, the traditional dish of mashed cassava/yams. The men start drinking "sodobé", a traditional alcohol drink made from palm wine. They sleep it off before the early afternoon when lots of visiting takes place and rice is the main dish everyone serves, because "there is always enough rice." Alcohol is served again, as one is considered a good host only if he provides plenty of alcohol (and rice) on this day. It is important to make visits to your friends (something we were not told of earlier and we are hoping we didn't offend anyone). We stayed home "under the radar" reading and napping.

For our Christmas we traveled to Ghana and attended a Lutheran church in Accra on Christmas Day (no Christmas Eve services to be found in any denomination). We sang a couple carols, and the church had a small artificial tree, balloons and streamers to mark the occasion. The 2 hour service which started with about 15 people (including us) filled up to about 200 people over half way through the service. But once it got going, it rocked. People were singing and dancing in the aisles, but not to "carols" that we recognized. The typical Lutherans that we are, we did not feel quite comfortable joining in. Especially after the pastor made the remark about people being late: "The black man has the time, but the white man has the watch". Then he said "We should be more like the white man and look at our watches" so we could start on time. (We felt a little uncomfortable wearing watches and as the only whites in the congregation.) It seems that the colonial mentality has not been yet erased in their 48 years of independence.

Our Christmas was very enjoyable and relaxing in a bungalow 30 feet from the beach (see photo). The hotel where we stayed had a loud band which played party music in the evenings, not Christmas carols, so the holiday atmosphere we are used to was lacking. But we met a lovely woman who lives and works in Accra and she invited us to have Christmas dinner with her and a friend. So we joined them at a nice hotel in town. They were both American. One, an American world trade expert who has lived in over 30 countries in 3 decades. The other, an artist from Cape Cod who fell in love with Ghana, is building a bed and breakfast on the coast.

After Christmas, we went 3 hours further west along the Ghana coast to the Cape Coast area. We were fortunate to meet a fun French-Canadian family with 4 adult daughters who we joined for the next 2 days. We walked a high-suspension rope canopy walkway above the top of a rain forest and stayed in a cottage/hotel with a lagoon that is home to a number of full gown alligators, and a restaurant that was good for bird-watching: hundreds of white egrets roosting in nearby trees and "weavers," pretty yellow birds that we watched actually weave their nests while eating our meals. But the highlight was visiting a 15th century castle which was later used for the slave trade. We will write more about this in 2 weeks…right around Martin Luther King's birthday. It was an emotional visit, and for those of you planning to visit us in Togo , it should certainly be on the itinerary.

We have not yet taken down our Christmas decorations. Plenty of time for that... just one string of lights, one red garland and a 12 inch artificial tree! We are still listening to Christmas music as we haven't quite gotten our full dose of Christmas yet. We're still burning our red and green candles, and we're still celebrating the birth of the One who gives our life meaning. We're also remembering all the blessings of 2005 and making resolutions for 2006.

To our French speaking friends, who might be wondering if we are learning anything:

Nous vous souhaitons : Une bonne et heureuse année, Santé de fer, Longévité, Prospérité, Succès dans les affaires, Paix, Bonheur, Bon chance, Beaucoup de bénédiction

And a translation for everyone else:

We wish you: A good and happy new year, Strong Health (like iron), Long life, Prosperity, Success in your business, Peace, Good times, Good luck, Plenty of blessings