Black Americans face slave legacy in Nigeria

2001-05-30 13:15

Gberefu Island, Nigeria - The sand trail passed a well where slaves once paused to drink, and ended at a statue of two people linked by chains around their necks. Under a palm tree next to a wooden sign saying "POINT OF NO RETURN," Loretta Butler broke down and cried.

Butler, a state health administrator from Roosevelt, New York, wondered aloud if her forebears had been among the hundreds of thousands of African men, women and children force-marched along this lonely stretch of Nigerian beach onto slave ships bound for the New World.

"I feel overwhelmed to see the place where some of my ancestors may have come from," she said, wiping her eyes.

Butler and 21 other black Americans - 12 of them mayors from small cities and towns, mostly in the South - are touring Nigeria this week to grapple hands-on with the legacy of slavery.

Their journey included a walk in the footsteps of African slaves on the one kilometre sandy path across Gberefu Island to the beach.

From here, as many as 10 000 slaves annually between 1518 and 1880 were loaded onto boats and shipped to the Americas, according to Nigerian historians.

Each year, thousands of black Americans make pilgrimages to Ghana and Senegal, where crumbling slave dungeons have been turned into healthy tourist industries.

Butler's group, however, was among the first organised American tours in recent memory to Nigeria, where up to one-third of all slaves bound for the Americas may have gone through Gberefu Island and the nearby port of Badagary.

Butler's tears were partly out of frustration that most slaves' individual histories have been lost, she said. About all she knows is that her ancestors came from Africa.

The question of slavery's modern-day legacy was equally troubling for her: Why do so many blacks in the United States and Africa still live in poverty?

"Poverty is obviously a result of slavery. We are still fighting that," she said. "We will return with this message."

For many of the visitors, the voyage was a chance to make a personal connection with Africa.

Walking to the Point of No Return, "I could feel my ancestors telling me it is OK," Butler said. "I am home."

Others in the group who have visited Africa before, like Michelle Kourouma, executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors, said she hoped to spread understanding of how slavery dehumanised blacks and whites alike.

"When you're inhumane to another person you undermine your own humanity," said Kourouma, of Atlanta, who can trace her lineage back to her great-great-grandfather, a slave who escaped from Virginia to Canada.

The choice of turbulent Nigeria as a destination gave the Americans a glimpse of urban African life at its most difficult and raw.

In Lagos, Nigeria's main city, Mayor Christopher J Campbell of Eastover, North Carolina, was shocked to see vast traffic jams, piles of burning garbage and people crowded into shantytowns stretching for miles.

"There are some places we have seen that are civilised and some others that are more primitive. It is quite disturbing to see," Campbell said.

"There are a lot of people going without electricity and sanitation. And there is too much garbage, it is hard to promote tourism with a dirty city."

Some expressed surprise that cases of trafficking child slaves in Nigeria and neighbouring countries continue to be reported. The United Nations estimates at least 200 000 children are traded yearly in West and Central Africa.

The mayors' visit, which ends on Thursday, is part of Black Heritage Festival, an effort by Lagos authorities to promote black American tourism.

Opening the festival on Sunday, state Gov. Bola Tinubu said he hoped the tourists would overlook the trash because "we are trying to raise money to clean it up."

Many people in Badagary, the fishing port and former colonial city not far from the old slave port, were hoping the American visitors would bring investment to the city.

Others wanted only to share stories of slavery.

"We all suffered from slavery. It tore our families apart, it made some of us traitors who sold others and made others of us into heroes," said Paul d'Almeida, a Benin-born teacher of French. His great-great-grandfather was a slave who escaped from Brazil and returned to Benin.

At sunset, the Americans and Nigerians did what their slave ancestors could not. Lighting candles, they wound their way back down the trail, away from the Point of No Return.- Sapa-AP