Words and pictures by Natalie Jacobsen
“Take your shoes off,” says Joshua Kwasi.
A delegation of 56 people, most representing Charlottesville, pause for a moment, eyes darting and sweeping the stone floor, glancing toward the sandy, exposed path before them.
“Why?” asks one member.
“Because this is sacred ground,” says Kwasi, the tour guide at Assin Manso, known as Slave River, in Ghana, Africa.
There is a silence heavier than the humidity of the rainforest as people slowly take off their shoes, then tentatively step toward the edge of the stone floor, hovering before plunging their feet onto the worn path.
The path is a sliver of the more-than-300-mile route on which captured Africans were marched, dragged and sometimes died as they were taken to the coast before being forced onto ships bound for the Americas. And now, barely 200 years since the enslaved previously walked the path, the delegation members slip their toes, then their feet, into the same sands, which have remained otherwise undisturbed and protected, “as a reminder to all of us, the lessons of history,” says Kwasi.
A natural tunnel of dark green shields the path from the sun; the sand is soft, the walls of thick brush and bamboo on either side feel protective.
“Here, you can see pineapple plants on the left side, every few feet. These are 400 years old. They were planted to show a path to escape, if possible—it leads away from the river, and to safety,” says Kwasi. Pineapple regrow each year, even after being harvested. They don’t look extraordinary, but on this path, the significance of their presence is enough to make visitors catch their breath: The pineapple plants were once beacons of hope, a last chance for those lucky enough to make a successful run for it.
After a few steps, nobody watches where they walk. Wildlife, rocks and sharp plants haven’t been on this path for a long while.
Low voices are muffled by the warm air, stifled beneath the canopy. It is difficult to see ahead, with a number of meandering turns. But at last there is a clearing, and an archway: a smooth white gate reading Last Bath in black letters. A delegation member grasps the side of the gate, gazing down the hill at what looks like a serene landscape: Two thin rivers, embracing at a fork in a bamboo grove, quietly ripple toward the western coast of Ghana, where it will meet the Atlantic
“Those clumps of bamboo shoots are centuries old; imagine—each of those clumps,” says Kwasi, gesturing to half a dozen along the river banks, “once saw 30 to 40 enslaved persons shackled to them overnight.” Only the whispers of the rivers merging are heard for a moment. “This is the site of the last bath. We call it that because after marching 300 miles, many had not bathed. They were covered in defecation, menstrual blood, vomit. …They needed to be cleaned before auction,” says Kwasi.
“Bath,” normally carrying a connotation of comfort, in the slave trade was as horrifying as every other aspect. “It was very violating and humiliating, especially for the women,” says Kwasi. The river was the last freshwater in Africa the enslaved stepped into before being imprisoned in the slave castles and taken to the ships. Many who rebelled or fought against molestation during a bath may have been drowned. Parents may have drowned their own children to release them from their fate, Kwasi says.
At the entrance to Assin Manso, Kwasi points to two headstones with the names Crystal and Samuel Carson.
“These are the only former slaves who have been repatriated to Ghana, and here they will rest, free forever,” says Kwasi. “One is Crystal, who was one of the first documented in Jamaica who starved herself to death; preferring death over enslavement under her master,” he says. Their remains were returned and reburied in Ghana in 1998. Every July 1, there is a celebration to honor their return.
Beyond their gravesite is a wall, a “memorial of returned”: It’s a place for descendants of the enslaved to write their names and a message, if they choose. To the side is a small theater where the delegation watches a short film, Goodbye Uncle Tom. The graphic film shows a glimpse of the reality of the slave trade at the Last Bath, the auction and on the ships. Delegates grimace at scenes showing guards making the enslaved eat by forcing their mouths open with rusty tools and dumping gruel down their throats, or the methods in which they treated those with diarrhea.
The delegation is led down worn steps, past children carrying bundles of firewood, to the shore. Members are invited to step into the river. Some leave tokens, others hold hands, and many clutch their chest as they touch their fingers to the surface, feeling the silky water rush over their skin. Salty tears fall into the fresh, clear water. Several bow their heads.
The group is quiet as the guides perform “libations,” a ceremony of pouring special liquor into the river, thanking the ancestors for protection and welcoming the delegation to Assin Manso. Thunder rolls overhead as the last drop of alcohol hits the river.
The Charlottesville-Winneba Foundation, led by Mayor Nikuyah Walker and former mayor Dave Norris, visited Ghana from May 1 to 10 to explore the origins of slavery.
“A big theme of this is how do we move forward, dismantle structures of white supremacy and the exploitation that continues to impact people,” says Norris. “There are painful parts of our past, but opportunities for leaving a legacy. …I wish we could’ve brought thousands of people—we need more experiences like this.”
The trip itinerary included an exploration of Winneba and the market, a visit to Cape Coast and Elmina slave castles, the Assin Manso River and Kakum National Forest, along with sites that Charlottesville and UVA support through initiatives. Throughout the week, diplomatic visits with Winneba’s City Hall leaders, the University of Education’s chancellor and board and Central Ghana’s prime minister and related dignitaries were arranged. And, in the middle of the trip, May 4 and 5, was the annual Aboakyer Festival, in which the region’s tribes and strongest male warriors venture out into the bush to catch a deer by hand, as part of a sacred ritual overseen by the region’s tribal chiefs and leaders.
The foundation was built on the friendship between Ghana native and Charlottesville resident Nana Ghartey and Norris in 2009. Norris helms the foundation, a nonprofit that connects the cities through efforts and initiatives that extend beyond the standard Sister City stipulations laid out by the Sister City Commission, which promotes understanding and fosters relationships in Charlottesville through cultural, educational and humanitarian activities.
“A Sister City relationship works best when there is a grassroots effort within the community,” says Terri Di Cintio, co-chair of Charlottesville Sister City Commission, about forming a partnership, of which Charlottesville has four. “It can take [several] years of back-and-forth exchanges, paperwork and official agreements between both municipal governments before a Sister City arrangement is established…it’s not an easy friendship that is simply ‘struck up.’
This trip was organized by the Charlottesville-Winneba Foundation; although it was a Sister City visit, it was not organized through the Sister City Commission. The delegation trip, therefore, was paid entirely through the foundation and by the delegates, and not the SCC, Charlottesville taxpayers or the city. Di Cintio says visits from Winneba to Charlottesville have been limited due to visa complications.
The foundation has sent a delegation to Winneba to explore, study and connect with the city and culture on five different occasions. The size and interest of this delegation—the largest that has ever visited—was spurred by the events of August 12 and the controversy surrounding the Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues: How does Ghana grapple with its past? What do Western Africans see when they look at relics of a dark past? Where does Charlottesville fit in with the slavery narrative?
At the University of Education in Winneba on the second day of the trip, the delegation hears a lecture on the transatlantic slave trade from professor Eric Sakyu Nketiah, who discusses the extent of the global slave trade.
“One of the triggers for the Americas getting involved in the trade was due to the exhaustion and deaths of the Native American slaves; they needed the manual labor as they were industrializing,” says Nketiah. The economic expansion of Europe and the New World drove Portugal south into Africa, where tribes and leaders were already engaged in slave trades across the African continent, and with Greece, India and Egypt. Historians estimate that 15 million enslaved Africans were taken to the Americas alone.
As a coastal city, Ghana was at the heart of the trade, and was targeted by the Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and British for colonization. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of all enslaved Africans came in and out of Ghana, many having been captured from surrounding countries, most prominently Nigeria, the Congo and Burkina Faso.
And an institutionalized form of slavery existed in Africa, before the Atlantic trade began. Ato Ashun, a guide at Elmina Castle, says, “They were considered servants, and were indentured due to crime, debt, prisoners of war, pawns or other circumstances. They could buy or marry their way out,” he says. “It is not the same degree or treatment as when the Europeans came to enslave the peoples.”
There was a system of “managerial ability,” which meant servants could, with time and effort, become the head of house and marry into the system, and become royalty. “In Ghana, there are so many chiefs whose ancestors were not royal, but became so through hard work,” says Ashun. “This was not possible at the plantations in North America.”
Europeans began participating in the slave trade in 1410, setting off a 400-year-long transatlantic trade, and a series of inter-tribal wars in Africa, with a domino effect of weapon smuggling, family betrayal and capturing individuals for trade.
In 1471, Don Diego from Portugal set off to Ghana to build the first slave castle. “It was the first instance in which a chief sold land legally to Portugal; he had been hesitant due to cultural differences,” says Ashun. “The Portuguese promised to use the castles for materials and other imports; they did not follow that promise.”
“Most coastal countries and tribes participated in the trade,” says Nketiah. “It wasn’t until 1526 that King Nzinga Mbemba of the Congo protested and voiced opposition to the trade.”
His voice was drowned out by the overwhelming global demand for slave labor, and of other leaders of African tribes and nations, as the Industrial Revolution spurred the urgency for palm and groundnut oil consumption and growth of other cash crops, including tobacco and cotton.
“There is an outright denial of truth of our history of slavery,” says Dr. Clifton Latting, a Birmingham, Alabama, resident who witnessed and participated in the civil rights movement in the ’60s and ’70s, and a delegation member. “My history begins with slavery. School taught me that Africa was nothing but animals and wild people swinging through rainforests. It is an atrocity that we need to confront, and everyone needs to face the truth of our country.”
Charlottesville’s sister city—Winneba, Ghana—is a vibrant mecca of rich history, culture and festivities. On May 4-5, the delegation witnessed the annual Aboakyer Festival, which drew Africans from all over to take part in the ritual deer hunt—and brought music, dancing and colorful attire.
Despite an ocean between them, Winneba and Charlottesville are sisters through commonality (their populations and the size of the cities are comparable), and several initiatives that tie them together. After becoming sister cities in 2010, they have had to meet certain requirements in order to maintain the friendship, as established by the Sister City Commission.
Centuries prior, Winneba had been home to some of the first peoples in Ghana—during a migration, Northern Africans from the Sahara came south seeking water, and many settled alongside the lagoon at the outskirts of the main city. Today, the lagoon and the fishing village that stands where one of the original villages once stood, Akosua Villa, is a World Heritage Site, stretching far into the bush and toward the distant hills. The site is maintained in part by the efforts of the University of Virginia Center for Cultural Landscapes at the School of Architecture. The program researches and provides feedback for how the region can preserve and protect the waters, with the influx of pollution. It has been predicted that within 20 years, “climate change will change, or erase, this [body of water] completely,” says a local guide.
The delegation toured the local area Trauma and Specialist Hospital, which has a partnership with UVA Health System. Annually, through the Charlottesville-Winneba Foundation, in an initiative started by the late Holly Edwards, a large shipment container of medical equipment, books and resources for patient care is donated from UVA to the Winneba hospital. The sprawling hospital campus has paintings on the walls, and nurses dressed in rich green uniforms push carts into rooms. There is no AC, but fans whir overhead in each patient care room. In the pediatric center, paintings of Disney characters adorn the walls. Karen Ellis-Wilkins, resident chaplain at UVA Health System, blessed the infants and newborns at the center, and brought suitcases full of hygienic and care items to donate to the hospital.
The doctors welcomed the delegation, and spoke of the benefits of the relationship.
“We are able to keep this hospital great because of you…the bond with UVA gives us an opportunity to provide care and facilities to mankind of Winneba,” says the head doctor, Dr. Richard Anongura. Walker explained the delegation’s mission was to explore the origins of slavery, and visit the establishments of Charlottesville’s sister city.
“We are growing to overcome [slavery],” says Anongura. “It is so tough to understand. …I share your emotions. We need to keep collaborating to move forward; you cannot sit in one place and despair.”
Across the street is a secondary school that Walker hopes will establish a connection and pen pal program with Charlottesville High School, to exchange ideas.
Another Winneba initiative is the Helen Project, of which Walker served as first vice president in 2010. “This initiative was started by a delegate from a previous trip,” says Norris. “It’s an example of an ordinary citizen in Charlottesville coming up with something extraordinary out of one these journeys to Ghana.”
The project gives grandmothers the resources and finances to run their own businesses and take care of orphans.
“I’m really interested in helping out with their cause through whatever means necessary,” says Walker.
Many delegates found inspiring the matriarchal structure of the city; most of the entrepreneurs and business owners were women while the men were typically seen fishing or doing construction work.
“Even the children are entrepreneurs. Each family has a specific commodity, but even when there are competitors, they work as a team, working together by any means to survive and help each other out to survive,” says delegate Tanesha Hudson. “We do not have that in Charlottesville, but if we did, we would be unstoppable.”
From Slave River, it is a 31-mile journey to the coast; in Ghana, that means to either Elmina Castle or Cape Coast Castle—they are within a 15-minute drive of each other.
Pulling into Cape Coast on the third day, delegation members notice the resemblance to European architecture; the structures are starkly different from the landscape of the other cities they have traveled through, which typically have smaller, one-room buildings and structures made of tin roofs and mixed materials for walls. These buildings have smooth stone walls, archways, tiles for roofing, balconies and windows with shutters. The bustling energy of the coastal town is also in contrast with the more laid-back feeling of towns further away.
Rounding a corner, Cape Coast Castle comes into view: A white stone building streaked with black, rust surrounding window frames, waves grabbing at the sides that dip below sea level. Canons point at the bus windows as it makes another turn and pulls up to the bridge.
“The way waves break on the walls at Cape Coast…there is a thunderous sound as you enter the courtyard. A wave smacked the castle when we walked in, and it went right through our bodies, giving us chills,” says Brandon Dillard, manager of special programs at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. “Many people here, even for the last moments of their lives, may have heard those and felt those reverberate in their skin.”
A guide shows the delegation a plaque revealed when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Cape Coast Castle in 2009. Beside it stands the entrance to the dungeons for enslaved men. There is a steep slope down; many walk tenderly through the darkness, gripping someone’s hand for support or running their hands along the wall.
It is near pitch-black in the dungeon. The entrances have low arches, beckoning one to duck, but the ceiling opens up higher once inside. At the top of one corner is a small vent of air—most dungeons have no vent or windows of any kind. The group is made up of about 30 people. It’s crowded, and within moments, the heat is unbearable, making people shift with discomfort, some wiping their brow. There is a faint stench, of air trapped below for years upon years, and something else not quite identifiable.
“One thousand men were put in here at any one time, for 400 years. Many stayed up to three months in one of these dungeons,” he says.
“This floor seems smooth, blackened and soft,” says the guide, gesturing to everyone’s feet. “There is brick, deep down, but this blackness is nearly a foot thick of fossilized feces, blood, tissue, bodily fluids, hair, from centuries and millions of enslaved held here.”
His words are a punch to the gut, and the smell suddenly becomes apparent.
Along the walls and covering parts of the floor are cement heads, sculpted with faces depicting pain, horror, fright.
“An artist was commissioned to create 1,000 male heads, showing what the enslaved may have looked like, and expressing how they may have felt,” says the guide, holding up a head that is blindfolded. “This shows how many of them left this dungeon—blind, and not knowing where they were going next.”
He is quiet for a moment as the delegation looks around the dungeon. A wave breaks the silence, and the guide beckons the group forward to the female dungeon—much smaller, and divided into sections. Both women and children were housed in the same dungeon, and some women gave birth while imprisoned.
“Not surprisingly, the babies died very shortly…and their bodies tossed into the sea,” says the guide.
Flowers and gifts in heart shapes are left alongside 250 sculpted heads. The hairstyles are striking, distinct and unique for each woman. “They reveal what tribes they may have come from…some hair is not all of the way finished, to show the manner in which they were captured: They could have been in the middle of getting their hair done,” says the guide.
Just beyond the female dungeons is a glimmer of light. The sound of the ocean is louder.
A flood of light pours in from the Door of No Return, an icon at each castle. “The last point every enslaved person in Africa traveled through before going to the Americas,” says the guide.
He lets each delegate go through the door, out into the port, where hundreds of small fishing boats are lined up. Young boys are outside, selling art and trinkets to tourists.
The guide beckons everyone back through the door. “You are the lucky ones. Everyone who went through that door never came back through, but you did,” he says.
The delegation visits the second slave castle on the second to last day of the trip, just as the golden hour arrives. The coastline is awash in gold, palm trees silhouettes against the yellow sky. In the distance, a darkened, sprawling figure surrounded by jagged rocks sits on a jutting peninsula: Elmina Castle.
“History not memorized or learned from is doomed to be repeated,” says guide Ato Ashun at the entrance to the world’s largest and oldest slave castle. “This is not a place to visit, but a place to correct.”
There is a heavier feeling at Elmina than at Cape Coast. The courtyard is more open, but something sinister lingers on the once-white walls streaked with gray. A moat void of any water today surrounds the castle. The ocean is turbulent, but the high walls muffle the sounds of the sea.
In the courtyard, Ashun explains that slaves who rebelled were beaten in front of the other prisoners as a warning. “And if they were especially difficult, they were put in the cell of the condemned; beaten, then thrown in total darkness and without air, food or water—there they stayed until they died.”
There are centuries-old carvings in the cell, shaped like a handprint. “We aren’t sure if they are tallies of how long prisoners lasted…or formed by those who clawed at the walls desperate to escape,” says Ashun.
Winding around the castle, Ashun shows the delegation the female dungeons. They are more open than previously viewed cells, at first a seemingly welcome sight, until Ashun says, “There are no doors, just bars, so the governors and soldiers can pick who they want, then rape them as they please.” When an enslaved female was assigned as a mistress to a governor at the castle, she would often stay longer, until after she gave birth; the child would be raised apart from her, and she would eventually be killed and replaced, or sent on a ship bound for the New World. Often, though, women died in childbirth.
“They were given no help during menstruation or childbirth. They were often humiliated or ‘tested’ by soldiers in front of the other women…and those who could not be tamed were strung up and forced to stand for days, chained to cannonballs and refused food and water,” says Ashun.
The male dungeons are bleak, windowless, without ventilation, void of humanity. In the corner, a small door opens. Elmina’s Door of No Return faces a solitary dock for a boat to pull up.
Each delegate takes a moment to pause in the doorway, put their hands on the sides and step through, before coming back into the darkness and ducking through to the main dungeon.
The castles today stand as reminders to the world. They are not glorified. They are not cleaned. They are, simply, what they are: Black marks on history, encased in white walls.
“I thought that by coming here, it would give me a better sense of the struggle that Africans went through when they were captured and enslaved, and while it has given me a clear depiction of exactly what it was like…it has been really hard…in conversations I have been having, whether it’s statutes or race—slavery is the root of all of it,” says delegation member Myra Anderson.
On the final evening, the delegation held a closed-door reflection on its experience. Smaller groups discussed what they witnessed, experienced, felt and how it related to Charlottesville, August 12 and nationwide issues of race relations.
“Based on the discussions with the group, I’m not sure [if we’re ready to have] those hard conversations, but those are the hard ones we need to have,” says Walker. “People are saying they feel they need to walk on eggshells. They shouldn’t have to feel that they are walking on eggshells. If you keep something to yourself and think it’s okay, it’s not—there is no change that happens from that.”
For many African-American delegates, it was the first substantial number of days in a row in which they said they did not experience racism, discrimination or micro-aggressions in day-to-day activities.
“They made me value the little things more: embracing family, not be so busy, love one another. This is the first week I have been able to breathe easy because I was not discriminated against. They are rich in spirit and rich in culture,” says Hudson. “When I took time off, I told everyone, ‘I’m going home.’”
Anderson says, “When you have a clear understanding of where you came from, you have a clearer idea of where you are going.”
Some delegates said they need more time to process and reflect on the experience.
“There is no way you will digest everything in just 10 days, but take it all with you when you go home,” says delegate Marie Poole, who has previously traveled with other Winneba delegations.
“[The river] felt very heavy. It rotates a lot in my mind with other thoughts,” says Walker. “It will take a while to process. We’ve been going every day, all day—I’m still thinking about it all. But I’m learning. Just learning—and that’s a positive, when you can go somewhere and learn something.”
A few people have started making connections to the tumultuous events of August 12.
“1924 was an important year: Monticello started giving tours while Virginia was a segregated state, the KKK reconvened in Charlottesville and the statues of Confederate leaders went up,” says Monticello’s Brandon Dillard. “People have this notion that everything was segregated 200 years ago…but actually, that’s the legacy of the post-Civil War era.”
Dillard and Niya Bates, public historian of slavery and African-American life at Monticello, want to push visitors to the presidential home into confronting topics such as rape, consent, power and complicity surrounding slavery.
“There is such emotional power at Cape Coast, and that is something for years we have been advocating for at Monticello,” Dillard says. “They run the gambit of knowing full well that those kinds of horrors happened there, that people suffered, and we want people who visit there to understand and feel it. We have some projects coming up that we will focus on reflection and contemplation. We will focus on systemic racism and what we can do today to move forward.”
For many, there is a feeling of hope, despite the horrors they came face-to-face with.
“And in the midst of all of it, there is a level of pride that I feel, because I come from resilient stock,” says Anderson. “Everything done to them was meant to break them down, deny them, physically and mentally enslave them, but despite all of this, I look and see that we have had a black president—we still managed to rise. It gives me hope today. They fought since the first day they came to America, and we are still fighting today—it is in my DNA.”
The sun has set on the western coast of Africa. The waves play at the shore near the Windy Beach Lodge, lapping at the base of palm trees surrounding the patio where dinner is served.
Polite words of thanks are exchanged, as well as gifts, between the mayors of both cities and distinguished guests.
“We thought, ‘Is it a good idea to study the origins of slavery?’” says Nana Ghartey. “We thought, ‘No, we couldn’t do it.’ But look, we have had one of the most successful trips ever organized.”
“Because of the political climate, there is fighting and heated discussions [in Charlottesville]… but I haven’t done that here,” says Walker. “I know there has been some healing that I’ve needed after a tough campaign year and my first three months [in office]. I want to thank everyone for making this journey. Hopefully the relationships we build here will go far…and I hope we go home and work on how we will connect this experience [to the August events].”
Drinks are raised. The ocean stirs in the distance. A quarter moon, full at the beginning of the week, hangs low in the sky, glowing yellow. Lightning strikes the horizon; high above, stars peek through streaks of clouds. A gentle breeze brings relief from the heat, as delegates hug and shake hands with Winneba citizens, wishing each other well.
As the evening winds down, Anderson stands to deliver a poem she wrote, encapsulating her experience, her voice ringing out across the beach:
“When the stories of our ancestors are echoed over and over and over, / My soul will be nurtured, my spirit rejuvenated, my heart will ignite and / My feet will align in your pathways. / It is then that I will walk in the footprint of your history, then sings my soul.”
This story was updated at 10:07am May 25 to reflect the year Nikuyah Walker served as first vice president of the Helen Project.