Before we left we were instructed to look up the day of the week on which we were born. Our host explained that in Ghana babies are given many names that together represent their unique place in the world. The day of birth is the first name to be given, with others to follow once the baby survives to the eighth day, including, at a minimum, the name of a family member or ancestor to be emulated, a religiously affiliated name and a surname that is usually associated with the father. Listening to a Ghanaian share their full name is like listening to the beginning of a story, my favorite kind of story. A story about people, places and history all woven together into a rich and textured tapestry. A story without a true beginning and one that you hope will never end.
This impression of rich connectedness is what continues to linger with me as I sit and reflect upon my trip. In Ghana, details of birth, life and death matter. People and places matter and serve to elevate the expectations that surround individuals and their future legacies. This is why marriage is taken so seriously, with families investigating the character of potential mates and their respective lineage. With so much at stake, a union must be acceptable and worthy of one’s inherent promise.
And then the slave castle, the final destination of our trip. To bring people who mattered so much- men, women and children; chiefs and honored wives; mothers, daughters, aunties and uncles, each with important legacies and expectations surrounding their lives. And then to strip it all away. To defile, shackle and humiliate. To squeeze them through the place of no return.
People do matter. But their connectedness matters even more. People are part of families and communities. They are from specific places. They are part of stories and legacies that weave together in complex patterns over time. When we elevate people and their stories, we give them honor, we adopt a long-term vision, we think beyond ourselves. But when we break the connectedness and devalue people, the implications reverberate further than we can know.
Even before I left Ghana, I found myself trying to explain the lessons of the castle. Through texts and pictures I told my children that I had stood in the dungeon, that I had looked through the bars and touched the walls of the point of no return. I tried to convey the power of these experiences when juxtaposed against the nobility of lives and stories.
When I think of sending UB students to Ghana, I hope they will experience the extremes in this order, first beholding the elevation of humanity before confronting its annihilation. Somehow the sequence seems important. As my dear and wise friend Oluwafemi once explained, in order to achieve our potential we must continually dip ourselves in gold. This is the gift that Ghana has given me, one that I hope to continue to share.