Monday, December 1, 2008

Praying in the Devil’s House

The transatlantic slave trade went on legally for over 300 years, half again as long as the United States has been a nation. Somewhere between 12 and 20 million of Africa’s strongest were shipped as slaves to South America, the Caribbean and the US. There were other long lasting slave trades: from East Africa to the Arab world and from Southeast Africa, India and as far away as Indonesia, to South Africa. We encountered this last when we visited the Slave Lodge in Cape Town where the enslaved peoples were imprisoned and forced to build that Dutch colony.

But some of my ancestors survived the transatlantic slave trade and the most emotionally and spiritually important part of our pilgrimage for me was to confront that cruelty, that brutality, that failure of the human spirit. Goree Island, off the coast of modern Senegal, was one of the most important transit points in this trade in human life. It is quite possible that some of my ancestors passed through Goree before the Middle Passage to the US.

I think all four of us had been preparing ourselves for the visit to the island, not knowing what we would find or what our reactions would be. I thought I was ready to be in the place where so much violence had been done. We certainly found evidence of that violence preserved in the renovated Slave House, one of many on the island. The house was surprisingly small, perhaps the size of a middle class suburban home in the US. Upstairs had been the spacious quarters for the buyers, with a veranda looking out to sea and twin staircases leading down to the small courtyard, open to the sun. It was in this courtyard that the Africans were inspected like livestock before being purchased.

Surrounding the courtyard were the airless cells, most 8’X 10’, where dozens of Africans were held for up to three months. The 2 tiny cells, no more than three feet high, under the staircases where the “recalcitrant” slaves, those who resisted, were crammed, often packed so tight that it was difficult to close and lock the doors. The special cell for virgin girls, kept separate so that the buyers could have sex with them. Often the girls offered themselves willingly; if one conceived, she and her child were spared the Middle Passage and were allowed to live on Goree as free persons. The special cell where underweight Africans (less than about 140 lbs) were force fed black eyed peas to increase their weight so that they could be sold. The “renovation” of this house included removing some two feet of compacted human excrement from the floor of the cells.

And the “door of no return” through which the Africans were forced on ships for the Middle Passage. It was the only exit for them, either onto the ships or simply thrown into the sea if they became ill or resisted too much. During the slave trade the waters around the island were perpetually inhabited by sharks.

I had prepared myself to hear the story of the complicity of religion. The missionaries were the Europeans who received the captured Africans on the coast and held them for transit to Goree. The missionaries, among others, supplied the African tribes with guns and alcohol to encourage them to continue making war and taking the prisoners who were then enslaved. They traded one gun for one slave.

I had not, however, prepared myself for commercialism. Goree has become a tourist attraction. The ferry leaves the mainland on the hour, filled not only with pilgrim/tourists, but with shop keepers insistent on selling jewelry and trinkets. “What is your name? Come visit my shop.” It was hard to find a moments peace. At first, I resented their intrusion on my spiritual space. But then I realized that they were simply doing what they could to survive, no less than the Africans who were brought to the island in chains.

Nor had I prepared myself to imagine standing in the courtyard of that Slave House, cut off from my people, enslaved and being inspected for sale. I had not prepared myself to wonder whether I would have survived, nor for the raw anger that welled up. But, most, I was unprepared for the admiration I felt. Admiration for the courage, the strength, the perseverance of those who survived this violence and lived to father and mother a people in a distant land. Since that visit to Goree, I have felt so proud and so thankful for the gift of life and the legacy I have been given.

As we began our visit to Goree, the four pilgrims stopped at the church which had been built by the Dutch when they controlled the island and the salve trade. (At various times the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British controlled the island). Inside were images of the Black Madonna and a Black Jesus, obviously new additions. This was the church where the slavers went on Sunday to confess their sins, I wonder whether they even knew they needed forgiveness. Did their prayers even mention slavery? From the moment I saw it, I thought of the church as the Devil’s House.

As we sat in the cool interior, I found words of prayer.

Spirit of Life and of Love, Dear God,

We have come as pilgrims to this site of almost unbelievable brutality and violence. This place is a testament to the capacity for human cruelty. Sadly there are so many other places where that capacity has been unleashed. Our history as a species is replete with examples of our willingness to inflict suffering and death on other human beings.

We have come as pilgrims also to remember the incredible courage, strength and faith that allowed some who passed through this island to survive, to endure, to keep the spirit of life alive.

Both the capacity for brutality and the capacity for love exist in all of our hearts. A belief in our innocence is not an option. We must find a place that can know the reality of both.

As religious people, confronted by the reality of human cruelty, we are called to avoid despair. We are called, always, to search for the path which points toward compassion, respect and love. May we find the strength, the courage and the faith to match those who survived this place.

As Dr. King said, “Out of the mountain of despair, we will hue a stone of hope.”


Photos and videos from Goree Island

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Final Webcast - from Lagos

Unitarian worship in Lagos

Here are a few video clips that provide a taste of the wonderful worship service at Unitarian Brotherhood Church in Lagos, Nigeria on Sunday, November 23, 2008.

The Children we have seen on our journey

Today we attended church at the Brotherhood Unitarian Church in Lagos, Nigeria. This is a Unitarian church that was started in 1918 on an island in Lagos, which is the oldest part of the city. This was our first opportunity to closely observe children with their parents. On other occasions we have seen children in different schools in Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana and once in Uganda we saw children in an orphanage. I was happy to see that today the children we saw were a bit more like children in the U.S. Although they were very well behaved, sitting through the whole church service which was twice as long as a typical UU service in America, they were occasionally "figgety" and even feisty with each other and the parents were sometimes a bit fussy with them as well.

I had no idea what the children we would meet on our trip would be like. We have all seen those television ads for organizations who are trying to "save the chilren" of Africa. But, I didn't know what to expect. I have been pleasantly surprised to find the children we have seen to be much healther than any children depicted on television. They have looked healthy and well cared for. Maybe a few had running noses, but those were the exception. For the most part the children we saw at each of the schools were wearing uniforms. Almost all the children we have seen at various schools, as we have driven through their villages, were wearing uniforms and the uniforms were all different colors, not the navy jumpers and shorts with white shirts I have seen in other places.

It has been quite something to see the level of education these children have demonstrated, singing to us in their own language and then switching easily to English. Today, while driving to the church, 'Femi Matimoju's 7-year old son, read us a short book in English. His mother said that both he and his 5-year old sister are learning English and French in school, as well as Yoruba their native language.

I don't know what their school looks like, but the ones we have seen on our trip have been very, very bare by U.S. standards. They have had narrow benches to sit on and if they were really lucky they had a bench to use as a desk. Only one school we saw had desks for the students and even those were used by two children at a time.

We, Americans, have so much. And UU's in particular have so much and care so much about educating our children. All of us on this pilgrimage are committed to inspiring support for the schools we've visited and the children we've met. In fact, our hearts go out to them. Opportunities to provide support are in development. Let's all be as generous as possible.

Friday, November 21, 2008

African tips

South African Rands, Ugandan and Kenyan Shillings (different from each other), Senegalese Francs, Ghanaian Cedis, and Nigerian Nairas--In 20 days we will have managed six different African currencies and exchange rates. How much and whom do you tip?

How many times have you asked yourself, “How much tip should I give?” Whether at home in the states or traveling abroad, tipping people for their services is sometimes the completion of the transaction. And whom should you tip? For example, do you tip everyone who touches your bags? I do feel bad for the porters and others who are used to making money carrying bags for travelers. The brilliant invention of the suitcase with wheels has practically put them out of business. And, airlines that charge passengers for curbside check-in have further cut into the money that porters make. Who pays the airline fee and then tips the porter too? But now-a-days having wheels simplifies the matter: it’s easy to avoid offers to help with our bags altogether and so the question of the tip doesn’t come up.

How about restaurants and room service? Are service charges included on the bill and does that suffice for the tip or do you give a tip to the person who waits on you in addition to the fees presented on the bill?

And chamber maids or housekeepers? Do you leave a tip for them? If so, how much? Taquiena Boston, Director of Identity-based Ministries, and I have an agreement (one that I think she and Meg Riley, Director of Advocacy and Witness, share) for tipping the people-usually women- who clean our rooms. In the spirit of social and economic justice, we leave a tip and we do so each day rather than waiting until check-out. It seems to make sense and it is fair to the staff in that it takes into consideration that there may be different people cleaning the room each day.

Tipping daily becomes a practice of mindfulness. It means remembering and having the right bills each day for leaving at least three dollars per hotel registrant each morning before heading out for the day’s activities.

When our scuba diving club travels annually on a two week trip to somewhere where the weather is warm, my husband always suggests that travelers prepare by going to the bank and getting $100 one-dollar bills. Club members are happy to tip knowing that our travel business enhances the local economy and usually the people who work in these service jobs are people of color. We also see ourselves as ambassadors and the impressions we leave influence the way local people remember our club, African Americans in the states, and Americans in general.

My conscious has grown over the question of tipping. One day while working in downtown Washington, DC, standing in my business suit with briefcase in hand, I hailed a taxi. An elderly African American man stopped his cab and drove me to my destination. I asked how much I owed, calculated 15% exactly for the tip and handed him the money. I heard him say as I was leaving the cab, “It figures.” A sense of regret followed me out of the cab and hung around for a long time dissolving some of my business naïveté. I started using 15% as my minimum tip rather than “the tip.”

Since then, my daughter has been employed in the service industry. Waitressing and bartending have been decent paying jobs with flexible hours allowing her to earn money while she is in college. She has taught me well when it comes to tips. Some wait staff only get paid a few dollars per hour because they make their money on our tips. They also have to “tip out”—share percentages of their money—with other staff members. In some cases all of the money is put in the pot and divided at the end of the shift. ; If not for her, I would have never known all of this.

When she and I go out for a meal, I often pass her the bill and let her decide how much we will pay for the tip. We never disagree. At the end of her work day when I ask if she had a good day, we understand that part of the question is: “Did you make good tips?” Even when the work is not so enjoyable, good tips can make it more bearable. Now she works in a place that she loves and even if the tips are not great, there are other things that keep her committed to her place of employment.

On this journey with many stops, it has been challenging to be mindful enough to exchange money before going to my room. That means I have not been very good at my practice of l eaving daily tips. In Soweto after two nights at the Holiday Inn, I left a good tip in the room on check-out day. After our morning site visit, we returned to the hotel to get our luggage before going to the airport. A front desk employee called me over to tell me I had left my money in the room. I smiled and told her that it was a tip for the staff. She thanked me with a smile.

It is possible that for people who work directly with customers in the service industry, our tips might help them to get ahead in life. At the end of this writing I am going down to the hotel desk to exchange some US dollars for francs so that I will have money to leave when we check out in the morning.