Sankofa is a word from the Akan people of West Africa (primarily Ghana and the Ivory Coast). It is both a word in the Twi language and one of over a hundred Adinkra symbols used by the Ashanti people (one of many Akan subgroups). It translates to “go back and get it,” illustrated with a bird reaching back to take an egg off of its back. You’ve probably seen the famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” This is the idea behind Sankofa, though Ghanaian culture takes it deeper. It teaches that, in addition to being willing to go back and learn from the past, one should also not be ashamed of their story.

I had the opportunity to participate in a Sankofa Journey to Ghana, West Africa. I invite you to journey with me now as I share reflections from that experience.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.” Mark 8:22-26 (NIV)

Prior to this trip, I was like the blind man at Bethsaida after the first touch from Jesus. I had sight, but things weren’t as clear as they could be. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans. I am also the descendant of the white people who owned and controlled my kidnapped African ancestors. I don’t know enough about my family history to know whether or not this was by force or choice, but our nation’s history tells me that it was most likely by force.

I grew up under the influence of the likes of Mamie Till Mobley and the “Eyes on the Prize” film series. My first years of school included singing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” at every assembly. I knew a lot about my heritage, but most of what I knew only went back as far as the arrival of the first group of kidnapped and enslaved Africans on the shores of this country. I’d seen Roots (the original series from the 1970s) and read slave narratives. I had some knowledge of the past. I wasn’t blind. But my sight wasn’t as clear as it could be. There is so much I could say about my trip to Ghana, but a particular set of experiences stands out when I think about the idea of seeing clearly.

Our time in Ghana started in Accra, and we worked our way up to the Ashanti region in the cities of Kumasi and Kumawu. While there, we visited palaces, witnessed ceremonies involving the current Asantehene (Ashanti king), visited a regional king, and even had the opportunity to have dinner with the Archbishop Emeritus of Kumasi. Sitting in the room with an Ashanti king and his chiefs brought to mind biblical passages about standing before kings and helped me see it in a new light. My sight became clearer as I recounted the numerous times I’d been told as a child and teen that “we are descendants of kings and queens.” To see it up close and personal opened my eyes, and they can never be shut to this knowledge.

But then we had to leave the Ashanti region. From there, we made our way to Assin Manso, a town about 30 miles from the coast, where numerous slave castles were located. In Assin Manso, we followed the path that my ancestors had walked toward the “Last Bath River.” There, they took what would be their last bath for about three months. (My female ancestors would go through three menstrual cycles without a proper bath. Let that sink in for a moment.) The closest that they would get to a bath would be the moments when they were being hosed off on the deck of a slave ship.

From Assin Manso, we traveled to the coast, to find lodging for the night, in preparation for the next day when we would visit the slave castles at Elmina and Cape Coast. A number of glitches landed us in a swankier than expected ocean resort about ten minutes from the Elmina castle. As we drove up to the resort, we passed a sign advertising their golf course, and I couldn’t understand who would come here to golf? Who could possibly nonchalantly yell “Fore!” while standing this close to the site where so many people had experienced unexplainable brutality, tragedy, and death? I soon had my answer.

Our group waited in the van while our leader went into the lobby to get us checked in. After about five minutes, a few vans and cars pulled into the lot. As the occupants began streaming from the lot into the lobby, we realized that it was a large group of white people. The members of my group, all black people from the United States, had been mentally preparing for what was to come the next day. We had been looking forward to debriefing for the night, having some dinner and getting some rest. This turn of events left us in a hard, emotional place.

That evening, a few minutes before our group was to meet for dinner, I went down to sit by the shore. I listened to the waves roaring, noting how loud they were. This brought to mind the phrase “Let it resound loud as the rolling sea,” a line from James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” As I sat and stared out into the darkness, I thought about the countless numbers of bodies that had washed up on this shore hundreds of years ago. In that moment, the Lord said to me, “I’m here right now, and I was here then.”

At dinner, our group leader asked if I would say a prayer of blessing for the food. I never shared this with them, but the first words that came to mind in that moment were, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,” another line from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” But I knew that if I actually spoke those words, my emotions would crumble under their weight. So I asked God for grace, took a breath, and offered up a different prayer. However, after dinner, I went back to my room and listened to a recording of the song (by the Boys Choir of Harlem) on repeat. I heard the lyrics in a new way, and they ministered to me in a way they had never done. As I reflected on the song, the second stanza stood out to me:

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

My ancestors marched along the dusty road in Assin Manso toward a public bath and inspection. They then marched down to the coast, to be stored in a dungeon-like cargo until it was time to be shipped off.

They withstood the whip, the slaver’s “chastening rod” of choice.

They sighed for their homeland while packed in the belly of ships; they sighed for their homeland while standing on the auction block; they sighed for their homeland while being raped and whipped.

They marched with a steady beat through the peculiar (and cruel) institution of chattel slavery, through Reconstruction’s Black Codes, through the terrorism of the Jim/Jane Crow era and through the Civil Rights era.

They literally tread through paths covered with the tears and blood (and other bodily fluids) of those who had come before them.

I wrote these words in my journal that night: “And because they endured, today, I am actually standing on the place for which they sighed. I don’t know if that’s what James Weldon Johnson meant, but that’s how I’m understanding it at this moment.”

This is my story.

I knew this, but standing there in the homeland of my ancestors helped me to see it more clearly. I needed this new sight to be able to endure our time at the slave castles.

At both castles, Elmina and Cape Coast, the dungeons where slaves had been held were decorated with funeral wreaths that had been left there by visitors from all over the world. Those wreaths acknowledged the tragic history of these castles, and our tour guides shared the verbal histories. We walked through the courtyard that was a gathering place for the kidnapped women who were held at Elmina. Above the courtyard was the balcony outside of the governor’s apartment. He would stand there to choose which woman he wanted to rape that day. Any women who resisted would be tied up in the sun for days, without food or water. The surface of the floors of the male dungeons at Cape Coast consists of solidified human waste.

While at these two castles, I experienced some emotional moments that I may never be able to put into words. One of the saddest things about it all is that two of the three white women in our tour groups appeared to be utterly unfazed by these atrocities. I realized that a part of the reason was because their governments (British and Dutch) had worked to whitewash their nations’ participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. But I couldn’t understand how they could hear descriptions of other humans being treated so inhumanely and not get emotional about it. That disappointed me. But what angered me was the fact that one of the women, in particular, was so uninformed that she didn’t understand why we were so visibly upset and pained. That’s when I began to realize that she apparently didn’t know our story.

So I share my journey with you so that you might know more about my/our story. I share my story in hopes that, like the blind man at Bethsaida, you might also see more clearly. I share my story in hopes that it would lead you to lament and mourn with me in solidarity as a human being who was created in the image of God. I share my story in hopes that you will be convicted to do more when it comes to racial reconciliation. No longer should you hide behind the excuse of not knowing the story of other ethnic groups, not knowing individuals from other ethnic groups, not knowing the pain of other ethnic groups. Reconciliation starts with knowing the truth. My story is a part of the truth of the ugly history of our nation. It’s not an exaggeration, and, contrary to popular belief, not talking about it won’t make it go away.

So, have your eyes been opened? Will you do the hard work of reconciliation? Will you commit to journeying with another and learning their story?

Nilwona Nowlin
Nilwona Nowlin is a redemptive artist, someone who believes in the power of the arts to bring about positive transformation in individuals and communities. She is particularly passionate about helping people discover/pursue their purpose, leadership development, and ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice such as community development, reconciliation, and intercultural development. Recent publications include "To Save Many Lives: Exploring Reconciliation Between Africans and African Americans through the Selling of Joseph," for the Covenant Quarterly as well as devotionals for the Covenant Home Altar. She is also a regular contributor to for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) Commission on Biblical Gender Equality's blog and the lmdj Voices blog of the ECC's Love Mercy Do Justice mission priority. Nilwona earned a B.A. from Columbia College Chicago, an M.A. in Christian Formation and Certificate in Justice Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary and a Master’s in Nonprofit Administration from North Park University. She blogs at thedreamerspeaks.com. You can follow Nilwona on Twitter @nilwona.

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  1. Nilwona,

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, through the lens of your time in Ghana.

    “I share my story in hopes that it would lead you to lament and mourn with me in solidarity as a human being who was created in the image of God.”

    Amen. Amen.

  2. Nilwona- Beautifully written… I was drawn into your experience, anticipating the day I will make the same journey…Thx for the sneak peek.
    Ramelia

  3. Nilwona, I just.can’t.imagine how terrible, how terrible, how terrible. I’ve thought of these things often, knowing both USA and Africa more closely and have often thought of the terrible terrible journeys that so many hundreds of thousands of people made under such terrible conditions … God help us… man’s inhumanity to man…

    1. As painful as it was, I’m glad that I had the opportunity. I needed to experience all of it – the joys and the pains. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bev!

  4. Nilwona,

    Thanks very much for sharing your story. I find it deeply meaningful that the Lord is using music, such an intimate cultural expression of your heritage, to minister to you as you journey courageously towards the truth so that we all might see more clearly.

    Mary

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I grieve with you over the atrocities of the Trans Atlantic slave trade; such a significant part of your history. I cry tears with you over the injustice and pray for God’s redemption to come swiftly to our broken earth. I see more clearly because of your words.

  6. This is such a beautiful post. It is so honest and holds so much emotion. Yes it brings me sadness and regret. Yes it opened my eyes even more. I had never heard of the “last bath” or of the slave castles. Thank you for sharing this history and your experience traveling to experience your heritage.

  7. Bless you, Nilwona. It’s hard enough to reach back and take what is in your history when you are the afflicted, but when you are the afflicter, it’s sobering and can be crushing. I still don’t know what my past held. My people are only recently from this nation. But I grieve with you. I can’t imagine not being moved, as you describe those 2 women. Thank you for consistently using your voice. It’s powerful.

  8. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing this with us here, Nilwona. It is your history, but as receivers of the slaves of your heritage, it is also, sadly, our history. May God be blessed in this telling.

  9. This was beautiful. I have so many thoughts. Through DNA I now know that I cane from Ghana. When we came to America my 7th grade music taught me the most stirring rendition of Lift Every Voice And Sing that has stayed with me. When I think of the legacy of slavery in both shores especially my ancestors it breaks my heart.
    Thanks for sharing your Sankofa story.

    1. Thanks, Andree. During this trip, we had a chance to sit and talk with a gathering of: Ghanaian who currently (and had always) lived in Ghana, Ghanaians who were living in other countries, Gahanaians who had lived abroad but had returned, and black people from the US who were living in Ghana (some worked at the embassy, taught, etc). It was a rich and meaningful time together! The trip reminded me of how the Transatlantic slave trade impacted people on both shores.

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