I recently, in honor of Black History month and out of genuine curiosity took an African Ancestry DNA test. A test similar to the ones famously taken by Oprah, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Blair Underwood (to name a few). It turns out part of my story (matrilineal) began in Cameroon, a small Western African country that up until this point, I had not thought much about. Knowledge is quite a motivator, and armed with my fragmented piece of the missing puzzle, I am making plans to visit my newly discovered country of partial origin.
A genetic match with the Tikar people, my ancestors made a home for themselves in the North Western region of the country. The ruling class, they controlled their region and the accompanying trade routes enjoying relative prosperity. When the Europeans pushed into Cameroon, many young Tikar people were captured and taken aboard slave ships.
According to records, the majority of the Tikar who survived the middle passage were females (the men, had a very high suicide rate). Transported heavily to the state of Virginia, where they became numbers and mules instead of people with stories. Records chronicling their journeys, their existence were burned upon emancipation, a torched legacy that has kept the past, a painful and infuriating mystery to many black Americans who in its wake have been forced to forge an identity without a clear understanding of where they came from.
Grateful to modern science and the prevalence of African genealogy tests, I now have a point of reference. I am a descendant of a Tikar woman, who several centuries ago, survived the unthinkable, landing safely on American soil, where she gave birth to generations thriving to this day. I am not going to buy a Cameroonian flag to wave out of my window; I’m not going to blast Cameroonian music or cheer extra loud for their football team during the world cup. I’m not going to travel to Cameroon with hopes of a large dramatic homecoming filled with hugs from cousins centuries removed, drumming, dance, and a grand welcome from the chief. I simply stand grounded in my newfound knowledge and am grateful that I have a detailed past to pass on to my son- my future generations.
In 2005, I first made my way to the continent of Africa. I went to Ghana, on the western coast to volunteer at an orphanage. In many ways, this journey was an attempt to understand the mysteries of the past as I spent a vast majority of my time researching and touring the abandoned slave forts at the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles.
A few years back, I wrote a piece originally published by Pilot Guides, about my experience touring the Cape Coast Castle. It is as follows:
Ghana has a smell. It's familiar and distant, like plants, humidity, smoke and burning wood. It's an earthy comforting aroma. As comforting as the dusty red road that leaves its residue on my bare feet and ankles. I came to Ghana to take in all the sights and sounds of its Cape Coast region. Today I would take in the Cape Coast Castle, a beautiful white colonial structure adorned with fading black cannons overlooking a beach. I purchased a guided tour. I wanted the full experience.
I had a 20-minute wait before my tour began and took that time to browse the artisan shops near the entrance. There are a wonderful variety of shops selling carvings, kente cloth, drums, music, art and jewelry. I weave quickly in and out of the shops, taking in their colours and textures.
Once a small crowd of tourists has formed, our tour begins. Our guide is a young Ghanaian man whose English is soft and unwavering. We assemble on the veranda and get a brief history lesson.
The Swedish Africa Company erected the Cape Coast Castle in 1653. The Castle underwent many changes as it grew with the slave trade. Most of the slaves that came to the Americas exited through this site. We learned how slaves were shackled and held in dark, cold dungeons until there were enough slaves for a voyage.
I wondered how difficult it was for our guide to speak so eloquently about this dark moment in history. How many tours had this young man given to be able to speak in such a matter of fact manner as tourists wept touched by his words. Our history lesson complete, we headed onto what would be the most haunting leg of our tour. We were led into the dark dingy brick dungeons that once centuries ago held hundreds of frightened shackled slaves.
We were taken into the women's dungeons first. Our only light was a flashlight. It was a cold dark room. We were silent. Outside, the sound of waves hitting the shore echoed throughout the small room. Inside it was cold, dark, and haunting. Our guide pointed out a faint line on the brick about a foot high. The line indicated that stagnant water was inside as well. Slaves were herded into these rooms for days, weeks, with no food, fresh air or light, they were forced to urinate and defecate in the water that surrounded their ankles, which ultimately left the markings that spoke of their misery.
Slowly we went into the male dungeons. They were almost identical. The same water markings existed. Shining his flashlight, our guide also pointed out markings on the brick that were made by the shackles of the slaves, slaves who had rubbed their shackles on the brick in an attempt to escape or etch warnings to others in their tribal languages. A place like this, takes your breath away slowly. There is no way to fully process the horrors that went on in this space. Many on the tour wept openly.
After the dungeons, we were guided through winding corridors, into rooms that would have housed governors and other officers. We were led outside, up to the balcony where it was hard to adjust to the activity below of fishermen casting out colourful nets, blue water crashing against boulders and sand and laughter.
We examined the canons and were shown the space, a rectangular opening, where unruly slaves were thrown to their deaths from the castle onto the jagged wet rocks below.
Finally we were taken back inside through our final corridor that led to the "door of no return". This was the last door that slaves had to pass through before they were boarded onto ships, never to return. A shrine had been made in a room before the door. A simple structure in two tiers draped in white cloth. Offerings were placed on and around it.
I was struck by the desire to do something but I had nothing to leave at the shrine as some of the others in my group did. I felt overwhelmed with the need to honour this site, but how? I was at a loss. I wanted to scream out, cry, bathe the space with peace. After standing in silence, I approached our guide with a favour. I asked him to permit me to exit through the door of no return. To my surprise he agreed to open it to me, but on one condition, the condition that I, unlike so many who went through before, walked back through.
© Sojourner Walker
I am not sure what I will discover when I finally make it to North Western Cameroon, but I look forward the opportunity to embrace the past and re-claim a piece of my story – that figurative door of no return.
-If any of you are interested, I have been asked to speak at the Sojourner Truth Research Library in Washington, D.C., this May on the topic of the Door of No Return in the Cape Coast Castle. I will post more about this engagement in April.