Abomey, Benin — The ancient dirt road is made of fiery red clay. It cuts a rusty slash through the incredible green of the sub-Saharan forest, where coconut palms and papaya trees fight for light beneath towering armies of mango and 500-year-old iroko trees. Small motorcycles, often carrying two adults and three or four children, buzz by, passing voodoo shrines dedicated to the millions of captives marched into slavery along this centuries-old thoroughfare.
The old slave route runs from the king’s palace in Abomey to the port city of Ouidah, which was responsible for deporting between 20 and 30 percent of all the Africans sold into slavery.
“They were led on foot from Abomey to Ouidah, which took about four days, and then were put on the ship you have discovered. This is the road that the people who were on the Clotilda were led to and walked down,” said Abomey’s mayor, Blaise Ahanhanzo Glele. The mayor shares his last name with one of his ancestors, King Glele of Dahomey, who ruled the kingdom from 1858 to 1889. This makes the mayor both a prince, and a descendant of the man who captured and then sold Cudjo Lewis and his Clotilda shipmates. The mayor invited me to lunch to quiz me about my role in the discovery of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the U.S., and to show me around the town where he was born, which was once the capital of one of the most brutal slaving regimes in history.
Huge canoes ferry children to and from school in Ganvie, picking them up at their houses on stilts, just like a floating school bus.
Ganvie, seen from above.
Children wave from a tiny manmade island their family lives on in Ganvie, in Benin's Lake Nokoue.
This was the view from my hotel in Cotonou, the Royal Benin, one of the nicer hotels in the city.
A typical view down one of Ganvie's watery streets. Members of the Tofinu tribe have lived in the middle of the lake since 1711.
Girls help their father in his store in the market town of Bohicon.
A sculpture in an Abomey garden.
This is one of Benin's signature dishes, which translates as "bicycle chicken." It means the diner is served a wild caught chicken, rather than a farm-raised bird. It is considered a delicacy.
Sculptures all along the slavery route feature faces either missing entirely, or obscured by masks, and hint at the hidden identities of the millions lost to slavery.
Sculptures all along the slavery route — often with no faces and gazes cast down — shame the living for slavery and sins of the past.
This chameleon is the symbol for Akaba, one of Benin's early kings. The country was famed for its early bronze sculptures, many of which were stolen by colonial powers and now reside in the British Museum and other European museums.
This red clay road is the old slavery route. The Clotilda captives walked down this road en route from Abomey to Ouidah, one of the largest slave ports in history.
A detail from one of the numerous monuments to slavery scattered all over Benin.
Study this picture closely and you'll see small slashes on this girl's cheeks, which tell people her tribe.
This man sells traditional African clothing in Cotonou's largest market.
Smoked fish for sale in the market.
This is where the fisherpeople of Ganvie peddle their wares to the landbound public.
A woman makes the rounds with her wares in Ganvie.
A street scene in a residential area of Abomey.
This view from a canon battlement in the old Portuguese fort overlooks Ouidah. The fort was once one of the barracoon prisons used to house slaves before departure.
This gate didn't exist during slavery. It was erected in 1992 at the end of the old slave route. On the other side of the gate is the Atlantic Ocean. The beach there is the last piece of Africa touched by the Clotilda captives.
Roadside vendors chop open coconuts for a quick drink for passers by. After the liquid is consumed, the nut is chopped open and a fine residue is scraped out to be eaten.
This man sells traditonal African clothing on the streets of Cotonou, using a tree as his display rack.
This is a close up of the Gate of No Return. A million or more people were transferred to ships for the final voyage to a life of slavery in the Americas.
Here I meet with His Majesty Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna II, the spiritual leader of Benin's traditional Vodun religion.
Lunch was served outdoors in a shady glade, surrounded by hundreds of exquisite wooden sculptures, from giraffe headed humans and enormous elephants to small faceless figures, whose heads look down or away to the side, meant to shame the living for the souls lost to slavery. It was a large gathering, with perhaps two dozen people. The mayor toasted us with pineapple whiskey homemade on his farm. Then the local Beninaise beer served with a first course of a whole tilapia, pan-fried and heavily spiced, almost like blackened redfish.
A second course consisted of a small, long-legged bird, sliced in half and accompanied by mashed white yams, a spicy tomato garnish, and a fiercely hot green pepper sauce. When the bird arrived, the mayor remarked in English, “Our chickens ride bicycles.” I understood this to be a reference to the diminutive size of the bird on the plate, with its long, skinny drumsticks. Only later did I come to understand that “poulet bicyclette” is something of a national dish in Benin, and signifies the diner is being treated to a wild-caught chicken, rather than a farm-raised or imported bird, considered less desirable on the plate.
The conversation turned to Benin’s slaving legacy and how to use it for good.
“The discovery of the ship, with the story of Cudjo Lewis, this is a very important discovery because it can reconnect the United States and Alabama to Benin. Many people in America came from Benin, but they don’t know it,” Mayor Glele explained. “You see, the people on the Clotilda, and the people who captured and sold them, they all lived in what we now know as Benin.”
This, the mayor said, was the story for most of the people deported through Ouidah, which historians agree was one of the top three slave ports in the world. “They were all from modern day Benin or very close by, as were those who captured them. We have the whole story of slavery here, the captors and the captured, and we live with all sides of the legacy.”
Mayor Glele said Benin would ask for an exchange of artifacts related to Clotida.
“We have to push for the relics to be dug and pushed out of the mud so that the story can be seen here in Africa as well as in America. We have to push to get at least some of it in our museums in Benin, so that when people come here, they know that this is where the schooner came from,” Glele said. “And we will provide artifacts from our side of the story, so all can be told in America.”
The Kingdom of Dahomey stands out among the slaving nations for its brutality and efficiency, as well as a legacy of human sacrifice. Dahomey ruled a portion of what is today Benin, and raided the surrounding countryside annually for hundreds of years, capturing tens of thousands of slaves a year to sell to Europe and the Americas. Most were from smaller kingdoms either in Benin or in the border regions of the neighboring modern nations Togo and Nigeria. This means slavery’s scars remain ever-present in Benin, where most everyone’s ancestors were either capturing or being captured as part of the slaving economy. I believe this has largely been lost on Americans, who view slavery primarily through the lens of forced labor and the hardships of the cotton plantations on this continent. The generational scars emerging in Africa have typically received scant attention on these shores.
Not so in Benin, where a burgeoning movement toward reconciling this past is underway. But it has not proven easy. The current president, Patrice Talon, was attacked during the last campaign for having slave dealers in his family tree. Often, understanding a person’s family history in Benin can be as simple as looking at their face. Ritualistic facial scarification can reveal someone’s tribe, religion and cultural heritage.
Members of the Fon tribe, which ruled the Kingdom of Dahomey during the slave era, are recognizable by distinct facial scarification patterns, which are typically performed when they are children. For the Fon, the marks often signal an allegiance to the native Vodun religion as well, which is the parent for the Caribbean, American and Brazilian forms of Voodoo. The Fon tribal members, who make up the largest ethnic group in Benin, are the descendants of the Dahomian captors. Most everyone else in the country descends from relatives of the captured.
During my lunch with Mayor Glele, both Sacca Lafia, the Interior Minister of Benin, and another man who is one of the nation’s highest-ranking military officers, bore facial scars that link them to different tribes — one to those who did the capturing, the other to those who were captured.
Museums and Reconciliation
“When the Portuguese and the Spanish first came to Africa, they were coming to exchange goods for gold. That was the first relationship. We want to tell the story of how things went from exchanging goods to exchanging humans, why that happened in Africa,” said Nathalie Blanc Chekete, describing a series of new museums planned for Abomey and Ouidah aimed partly at attracting visitors from America and Brazil.
Chekete is with Benin’s National Agency for the Promotion of Heritage and the Development of Tourism. The museums, which are being built in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and are projected to cost more than $10 million, are dedicated to unraveling Benin’s role in this earliest human trafficking, and exploring the nation’s effect on the global African diaspora.
“When people talk about slavery, they think they are talking about Africa,” Chekete said. “But slavery was something that happened once they reached America or Brazil. What happened in Africa was deportation, where Africans took other Africans away from their lands and families and sent them away forever.”
Reverence — and even worship — of ancestors is a central tenet of Benin’s native religions, and remains important even to those who have converted to Christianity and Islam. Most homes have a shrine dedicated to ancestors. The power of this part of slavery’s legacy for Africans was brought home to me a year ago, when Hector Posset, then Benin’s ambassador to the U.S., came to Mobile to travel upriver with me to the area where I found the Clotilda.
Posset was sent to Mobile upon news of the Clotilda’s possible discovery by Benin’s president due to a longstanding partnership between Benin and Africatown. Prichard, and Ouidah became sister cities in 1983, during the tenure of the late Prichard Mayor John Smith. (Part of Africatown is contained within Prichard’s boundaries.) The union was an attempt to reconnect the Clotilda descendants with their home country, more than 30 years before I found the ship. That partnership led to the creation of the Alabama-Benin Trade Forum, and regular visits between delegations from Alabama and Benin. Ultimately, John Smith’s ashes were interred in Benin. I visited his grave in Ouidah, inside the city’s Museum of Tapestries and Hangings. The deputy mayor of Ouidah described him as “a great man” who fostered peace and sought to “heal history’s wounds.”
Dressed in a fine pinstripe suit and tie, Posset performed a Vodun ritual aboard my boat on the back side of Twelve Mile Island, where the ship lies. The ritual involved gin spewed from his mouth into the Mobile River and various incantations spoken in Fon. As he delivered them, first in low, forceful tones, and then yelling, tears began to stream from behind his sunglasses. I asked him what he was saying.
“I am just begging them to forgive us, because we sold them. Our forefathers sold their brothers and sisters. I am not the person to talk to them. No! May their souls rest in peace, perfect peace. They should forgive us. They should,” the ambassador said, wiping tears from his cheeks. “I feel so sad.”
Later, over dinner in a seafood restaurant overlooking Mobile Bay, he revisited the moment and elaborated.
“I am a prince of Dahomey. It was my father’s ancestors who did this,” Posset said, explaining that he, like the Mayor of Abomey, had royal lineage. “But my mother was Yoruba. Her ancestors came here to this country (America) forcibly, they didn’t choose. And it was my father’s family who sold my mother’s family. This is why I wept. I was insulting those who sold them back home. No money, no articles, no stuff can buy a life, but we sold our people. Brothers sold their brothers and sisters. Fathers sold their kids and wife. I will never blame those who came here. I will always beg them for forgiveness.”
It was Posset who first told me of the superstition in Benin about sitting beside a door when visiting friends. Being captured in one of the giant annual slaving raids executed by the Dahomans wasn’t the only way people ended up enslaved. Often times, he said, it was old fashioned kidnapping, orchestrated by people who knew you in your village.
“Sitting by the door, that was how you ended up sold. Your friend, or your relative, he would already have sold you before he invited you over. He would sit you by the door so when the slave traders came at the appointed time, they opened the door and grabbed you. This was even how the heirs to the king would move ahead in line to the throne, selling off rivals,” Posset said.
We have a window into just how prolific the Dahoman operation was as early as 1690, thanks to an account published by William Makepeace Thackery, author of “Vanity Fair,” the cutting satire of English aristocracy. Thackery was made editor of a new publication, Cornhill Magazine, in 1860, and immediately published journal accounts from a Dutch slave trader named Bosman who frequented the Dahomean king’s palace 170 years prior.
Bosman reports that unlike at some ports, where a trader might be able to pick up just three or four slaves in a week by the 1700s, a trader visiting Ouidah could expect to “soon procure a couple of thousand, and fill four ships.” Similarly, an account from a British Naval officer who visited Dahomey in 1850 describes one of the King’s slave raids.
“He moves on his war march with nearly 50,000 of both sexes, or one fourth the whole population of his kingdom. It is scarcely necessary to state that Dahomey is under a military rule and government, and has no parallel in history.”
Of the 50,000 people in the war party, about half were soldiers, and half were people tasked with feeding and imprisoning the thousands of captured people as they were marched down the slave route to the barracoons at Ouidah. The officer also describes the annual “Custom” or celebration the King held, which, in 1848, included about 240 human sacrifices. “Before going to war the king makes a Custom (Vodun celebration) to the memory of his father, which generally lasts a month; and thus ends the year; keeping the nation in a fever of excitement, dancing, singing, haranguing, firing and cutting off heads.”
This human harvest, which lasted more than 200 years, left an indelible mark on the entire society, one that still reverberates.
“Even today in Benin, you can still feel the impact of that time, where people were going at each other and everybody was scared that the neighbor would you know…” Chekete says, her voice trailing off, leaving unsaid the countless stories of neighbors helping slave traders capture people, sometimes entire villages, as was the case for the captives who arrived in Mobile aboard the Clotilda. A member of Cudjo Lewis’ tribe revealed the secret of their defenses to the Dahomans, enabling their capture.
“We are currently doing the research to take on this subject, and see how profoundly it affected the way our society works today, because we can witness a loss of trust, a lack of trust, in our society,” Chekete said. “We want to dig into that period of time to document where it comes from. But we have a feeling that when you have a neighbor who looks at your family and says, ‘ah, there’s some people to sell. I’m going to get them,’ you start losing trust in people, all across a society. And you pass that down through the generations.”
You can see this lack of trust throughout Benin’s society. It shows up in little ways, such as the superstition about sitting in a chair close to the front door. And it shows up in big ways, such as the existence of the floating village of Ganvie, built miles from shore in Lake Nokoue. Today, long and skinny wooden boats ferry tourists and goods out to Ganvie, which is home to 40,000 people living in a city built on stilts. The residents are fishermen, plying their craft with nets and traps from small dugout pirogues powered by sails and oars. They fish — men, women, and children — mostly around elaborate artificial reefs created from reeds and trees to provide more habitat. Many of the reefs double as pens for aquaculture, where residents farm various species to harvest size. Most fascinating about Ganvie is the question of why so many people came to live in houses on stilts in the middle of a lake.
The answer is simple when set against the backdrop of Dahomey. Moving to the middle of the lake in the early 1700s was the only way for members of the small Tofinu tribe to ensure they weren’t captured and sold into slavery by the Dahomans. The water served as a protective barrier because the Vodun religion practiced by the Dahomans forbade traveling over the sacred lake before battle. The Tofinu tribe has maintained its life aquatic for the last 400 years.
Chekete said the country’s new museums would also compare 12th Century Europe to 12th Century Africa and America. In this reckoning, before widespread contact with Europeans, Africa emerges as one of the most advanced parts of the world, with as many as 10,000 kingdoms, some exhibiting early examples of democracy, and metalworking skills as advanced as any on Earth at the time.
“We want to show how before the 13th century, the image of people in Africa among Europeans was something positive,” Chekete said. “And then, in order to establish that slave trade, the foreigners had to downgrade the image of our people, make them beneath, less human — and that’s how racism started, on a global scale.”
It takes 27 hours to get from Mobile, Alabama to Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. The last encounter with the western world takes place in Charles De Gaulle Airport, as you stroll toward your gate through the glitzy international terminal, past storefronts for Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Dior and Hermes. Seven hours later, they pop open the jet door and you step out into the warm African night and the 24-hour-a-day bustle of Benin’s largest city.
For me, arriving at 9 p.m. on Dec. 11, 2019, it felt exactly like home. Not because some sort of emotional connection to the African continent welled up inside of me. Rather because the night air, about 80 degrees and 80 percent humidity, was precisely like the night air as I boarded my first plane back on the Gulf Coast the day before, where the temperature in Alabama was 81 degrees and the humidity at 85 percent.
For the next week, the hot and muggy daytime temperatures, usually in the low 90s by lunchtime, would be the most familiar thing in a world far removed from Africatown and Mobile.
For my trip, Benin’s tourism ministry provided a car and most excellent driver who had honed his skills in an evasive driving school paid for by the oil industry. Patrice Ammasou, with long links to the Alabama-Benin Trade and Cooperative Forum, was my guide and interpreter. He translated for many of the interviews in this story. I can understand a fair bit of French, the dominant language in urban Benin, but nothing of the dozens of local dialects you encounter away from the big city. Without someone who speaks at least Fon, the language of the old Dahomans, you will quickly find yourself unable to communicate in the towns and places where the streets are not paved.
Hurtling along one of the two-lane highways that link Benin’s far-flung cities is an almost psychedelic experience. The rush of colors and sights is overwhelming, with something demanding your attention everywhere your eyes fall. Mangos, papayas, bananas, pineapples, and oranges grow wild and in great abundance. Incredibly exotic flowers fill the forests. Monkeys and 4-foot lizards dash across the highway. Ten thousand mini bikes share the road with you, in a traffic system that seems to grant right of way based solely on how fast your particular vehicle is capable of traveling.
The only slowdowns on the highways come from the speed bumps set up to mark medium-sized villages along the route. Dozens of buildings, ranging from mud huts with corrugated tin roofs to concrete and stucco edifices, crowd around the highways near the speed bumps. The large bumps are designed to bring all traffic to a standstill as the vehicles traverse them, giving villagers a chance to cross the wildly busy thoroughfares.
They also provide merchants hawking everything from palm nuts and peeled oranges to smoked fish, shoes, and children’s toys a chance at the truck drivers, cyclists and other travelers passing by. White faces are seldom seen. I counted just 12 during my travels around the country, outside of Cotonou.
Pull into the larger market towns, and the roadways are lined with stalls selling liquor, cell phones, flip flops, baby dolls, handmade furniture and caskets, and wildly colorful fabric. Tailors are scattered all around, often using old-fashioned foot-operated sewing machines to turn out traditional African garments and western-style dresses often based on patterns and colors you might recognize from the latest Paris runway collection, or from a 1960s Sears catalog. Throughout the country, the scenes are unmistakably Third World, as are the numerous people sleeping rough on the streets in Cotonou.
A Delicate Dance
With those images in mind, I understood the concerns expressed by multiple government officials regarding how the country’s slaving past was portrayed. The creation of the new museums, and a push to attract tourists to the most important slavery sites means walking a fine line as the government simultaneously embraces the past and tries to assuage tribal resentments generations in the making. They fear, with some reason, that descendants of Dahomey’s victims might seek revenge in the modern age, and worry about promoting the darkest parts of the story.
The fears are real. The Rwandan genocide of the 1990s was born of tribal resentments. The current chaos in Nigeria begins at the border, just 7 miles from Benin’s capital Porto Novo. Less than a week after I left Benin, the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram beheaded 13 kidnapped Christians in Nigeria. Tensions between Muslims and Christians have not emerged as an issue in Benin, where the two religious groups vie for prominence with followers of Vodun, the parent religion of the world’s Voodoo offshoots. (About 40 percent of the populace identify as Christian, 27 percent as Muslim, and 20 percent as Vodun.) (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/religious-beliefs-in-benin.html )
Remarking on the seemingly peaceful coexistence of the disparate religions with everyone from government officials to homeless Muslims living on the street, I was told that religion wasn’t something people fought about in Benin, that everyone gets along.
My traveling companion, Will Thach, and I struck up a friendship with a Muslim man named Abou Ismael, who manages his own taxi company. Abou took us to his home, which he shares with his two wives and four children. His father, he said, had six wives, giving Abou 20 siblings. A standup comedian on the television told jokes about living in Benin and one of Abou’s children, about 4 years old, asked if he could touch my white skin.
Later, Abou took us to his favorite nightspot, a bar called Buzz, where a motorcycle hangs over the front door. We drank giant bottles of beer and shared a dish of mutton in red gravy with a thick pancake of mashed yams. It makes a messy meal that you eat with your hands. The meal comes with a pitcher of water, a bowl, and a jar of soapy water. Everyone at the table takes turns pouring water and soap for each other and washing up, then the eating.
Abou’s friends included other drivers, who were Fon. Our waitresses were likewise a mixed group of Muslims, Christians and followers of Vodun. There was laughing and dancing among the group. An older man came and sat with us. I asked how all the different religions and groups got along.
“For us, there is no problem,” said Abou. “We are all in the same place. We live among each other. We have more to do than argue over all the things none of us have.” The older man, whose name I do not know, joined in. “We get along because we don’t have Trump, who is always breaking things.” Then the older man chanted “Obama” three times and said “African like me is better for all the world.”
“People in Benin I think tend to be very peaceful,” said Pastor Romain Zannou over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, black eyed peas and a dozen kinds of fruit. “You know, in families, you will have a mother or father who is a Muslim married to a Christian. This is how it was in my family. My mother, she was a Muslim. When we go to the north, all of her family are Muslim and they still welcome us. There is a such a strong interaction that there is no room for fighting. Benin is small. We are all related.”
Zannou is credited with helping launch the reconciliation movement within Benin. He is also the man responsible for first bringing Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe to Africa, in 1998. Attempts to reach Inhofe for comment for this story over the holidays were unsuccessful.
Zannou said Inhofe’s African journey began courtesy of the late Douglas Coe, who helped organize the National Prayer Breakfast and led a weekly prayer meeting with senators that Inhofe regularly attended. According to Zannou’s telling, Inhofe arrived early for the prayer meeting and found Coe alone with his head bowed and praying out loud.
“Doug prays, ‘Lord, I need somebody to help me. Send somebody. I need somebody. Please. There is so much to be done.’ When Doug opens his eyes, there is Inhofe, who says, ‘What are you asking God? I want to be that somebody you need.’ Doug says, ‘I need somebody to go and love Benin.’ And Inhofe told Doug, ‘I am ready to go and love Benin.’”
When Inhofe arrived, Zannou took him to Ouidah, to the Gate of No Return, which sits on the beach that was the last piece of Africa the Clotilda captives ever touched.
“We walked through the stages of slavery along the route, and then to the gate and I saw Inhofe weeping. He looked at me and he said, ‘Romain, this has changed my life. I did not know the depth of what happened until I am here. I can see it all now, the tragedy. It is one thing to read it in a book, but to be here, it was just so much bigger than I understood.’”
The senator has returned to the continent 20 times since, and calls himself Africa’s best friend in Congress. He encouraged his daughter to adopt an Ethiopian orphan shortly after his first visit to Benin. In interviews with Oklahoma papers, Inhofe describes his work on behalf of Africa as “a Jesus thing.” In a recent interview, Inhofe defended his African work saying, “I’m guilty of two things. I’m a Jesus guy and I have a heart for Africa.” Zannou said the last time he was in Inhofe’s office, his secretary, “she just looked at me, and said, ‘Pastor, what have you done to my boss? He’s like a different man.’”
Zannou’s personal epiphany regarding what was needed came after a visit to a religious conference in America in the early 1990s, where he was dismayed by a standoffishness he perceived among African Americans toward Africans. Told that it stemmed from the belief that Africans were to blame for selling American blacks into slavery, Zannou began apologizing to Americans for the actions of his forebears. He quickly realized that the same sort of healing was needed within Benin, for descendants on both sides of the slavery divide.
“Still today, there are families who will tell their children, ‘don’t go marry in this tribe, or talk to them, because in slavery, they were those who chased our ancestors.’ I wanted to find a community that could be a vivid example of this tension, and I found one in the central part of the country, where you have the descendants of the victims, and the descendants of those who were selling, in the same village,” Zannou recounted. “It was like the wall of Berlin in that town. They weren’t talking to each other. When I spoke to them, they said the only reason they weren’t killing each other was because they would go to prison.”
Zannou brought a group of African American pastors to the village.
“They said, we have come to forgive you whose ancestors sold our ancestors. We can’t keep fighting amongst ourselves,” Zannou recounted. Then they addressed the villagers whose ancestors had been sold. “If we, who are the consequences of the offenses against our ancestors, if we can come here to forgive the offenders, how much more you who are living here with them that have this tension, how much more should you quench the fire and end the tension.”
“Wow! When the villagers heard these people had come all this way to forgive, and here they were, living in the same village and unable to forgive their own neighbors, it made them ashamed. They fell to the ground, both sides, and began touching the feet of the African Americans and apologizing. Now, we have the women in that village in businesses together. A school in that village and all the children, from both sides, they go to school together. The people there now talk to each other. The old troubles are gone there. This is what the whole country needs. The whole world.”
Newly energized, Zannou followed an order God gave him in a dream, to begin ministering to the late Mathieu Kerekou, the Marxist dictator who had ruled Benin for close to two decades. The ruler wasn’t interested, and so Zannou waited. Outside the presidential compound, for hours a day, hoping for a meeting. Finally, after 18 months, his patience won out, and Kerekou agreed to meet with him, inviting him into his office saying, “Pastor, you are a very persistent man.” Slowly, over the course of many months, Kerekou was converted. He became a born again Christian.
During a second term in office — beginning in 1996 as a democratically elected leader after ending his own dictatorial rule in 1991— Kerekou embraced Zannou’s message of reconciliation, most famously during a visit to America in 1999. At a church in Baltimore, Kerekou dropped to his knees and asked African Americans to forgive his nation for its role in slavery, calling it shameful and abominable.
“Benin, my country, was the most important place for slave trade… we are the ones — our ancestors were the ones who sold out your ancestors to the white people, and the white people bought your ancestors and got them into various countries that they sent them just to build their economies, in the plantation, in the factories, farms, just like in America here,” Kerekou testified in the Church of the Great Commission. Talking to Zannou today, you can see his influence in the former president’s conversion from Marxist to reconciliation activist.
“I believe this can also take place at a larger scale, and it must. People who think that slavery is all sins of the past, no need for reconciliation, I think there is evidence in America that this is not true, that the sin is happening yesterday and today, not centuries ago,” Zannou said. “You see that when something happens to an African American, shot by mistake by a white police officer, you see it come back, that sin and that pain it causes, full strength again. It is there on the faces. There are those who want to ignore it, because reconciliation is not an easy path. If it were, it would have happened a long time ago. But it must be our path.”
I heard a similar message a few months ago, at a celebration for a new park in Africatown, to be built on the spot where the Clotilda survivors first camped out after they were freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War. There, I spoke with Jason Lewis, a master chief in the Navy who grew up in the now-abandoned Happy Hills housing project in Africatown. He is a descendant of Clotilda survivors Charlie Lewis and Cudjo Lewis. Jason has also visited Benin, describing his time there as “incredible” and “life-changing.”
He was disappointed at the turn out for the park celebration.
“This is so lackluster, and that’s disappointing because these are the moments that count. This is a moment like Martin Luther King sitting in someone’s house planning a bus boycott, a moment that nobody cares about. But then what they planned, it ends up electrifying America. That’s the kind of moment we are in right now, except we are saying, ‘let’s promote this story of Africatown and how our people survived,’” Lewis said. “Like the Civil Rights movement, this is a moment of reconciliation. Money doesn’t matter. Reparations are nothing. What matters is reconciliation. Reconciliation. Making peace, moving forward. And so we hope we can make this discovery electrify the world the same way Civil Rights did in Selma.”
For Lewis, the discovery of the Clotilda has global implications.
“Whoever did what back then with the slaves, here in Mobile, or in Africa, they have a chance to say, ‘I apologize for what my great, great grandfather did.’ And then we as the diaspora, we have a chance to say, ‘we forgive you.’ But with Clotilda, we have a chance to say it on a world stage, where everybody knows this is the last ship to come in, and we have a chance to have the actual descendants of the people on that ship and the actual descendants of the people who perpetrated it. We have a chance to come together and tell the world, they forgave each other,” Lewis said.
But the Meaher family — whose ancestor Timothy Meaher financed the Clotilda’s voyage and earned a fortune in the slavery era— appear uninterested in reconciliation. They have steadfastly refused to have anything to do with Africatown or the descendants of the people their ancestors enslaved since news of the ship’s discovery. Lewis knows of their refusal but is undaunted. He can forgive, he says, even if they don’t apologize.
“This time on Earth is short. Just imagine, I’m some project kid. More than half of my friends from growing up are dead because of the system we lived in, in school, in society. It was designed for us to fail. But I made it out. I used to go to my grandad’s house in Africatown. I made it out because of what he gave me and my parents. I grew up with those stories about the Clotilda.”
Lewis said he had come to understand the true legacy of his ancestors. They reconciled with their past and the people who wronged them, and they moved on. They built the community of Africatown, taking turns constructing each other’s houses, and a school.
“They built a community,” Lewis said. “But it was dying. And then you show up, this one white guy who pushes us along, saying ‘hey everybody, let’s find this ship and tell this story.’ Nobody else was looking for it, and now the ship is the spearhead for a huge movement toward reconciliation… Our legacy is the one thing we leave behind on this Earth. And it boils down to this one question: Did we, or didn’t we? Now it is up to us to take the ship and use it as a vehicle to reconcile with the past, so we can say to our children that when it came time for us, our legacy is that we did. We didn’t miss this opportunity. We reconciled and we forgave.”
Read Ben Raines’ account of finding the Clotilda. The story ran in Lagniappe’s December 11, 2019 issue and can be found here.
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