Politics

Full Speech Of President John Mahama At The Opening Of Universities Studying Slavery Conference 2023

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I am honoured to be here today at this conference with such a fascinating and esteemed group of participants and attendees.

I arrived two days ago from Ghana; I travelled by air over a route that an untold number of slave ships, with their human cargo packed tightly like spoons, have sailed again and again and again.

When flying over the Atlantic Ocean, the flight attendants will dim the cabin lights and lower the window coverings regardless of the time of day. Because of this, I never think to look out of the window. It never occurs to me that I am being transported over the Middle Passage, perhaps the largest graveyard of formerly enslaved people in the world.

During the three-plus centuries of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, more than 12.5 million once-free African men, women, and children were carried from their homelands as enslaved people to islands in the Caribbean and countries in the Americas.

On every voyage, roughly 10-20 per cent of the people being transported did not make it. They died from disease or abuse, and their bodies were thrown overboard. Or they decided that death would be preferable to whatever fate lay ahead, so they jumped overboard.

My speech today was meant to focus on loss. I wanted to speak of the unimaginable loss of human resources that the continent of Africa has suffered because of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Every developing nation knows that regardless of how much gold or oil or timber or cocoa or any other natural resources it has, its citizens are, in fact, its best resource.

Think of the loss that the African continent suffered as its warriors, farmers, hunters, carpenters, jewellery makers, tailors, griots, seamstresses, chiefs, doctors and other healers, architects, artists and philosophers were lined up, with shackles and chains at their ankles and wrists, then boarded onto slave ships and carried across the waters—where they were forced to use all of those skills that they possessed to build another nation. To build several other nations—none of them on the African continent.

That’s the irony, isn’t it? When the Western world uses words like “poor” and “developing” to describe African nations; when they try to make Africans feel inferior—meanwhile… people of African descent have served as the economic and cultural backbone of nearly all Western nations; meanwhile… people who made some of the greatest inventions of the Western world are of African descent.

In my speech today, I had planned to quantify that loss—specifically in financial terms.

From the arrival in North America of the first slave ship in the 1600s until the lowering of the final colonial flag on African soil in 1990, the West’s interest in Africa has primarily been financial.

What and how many natural resources to extract? Then, too, how to use those resources for economic gain: sugar plantations, cotton fields, construction, cooking, cleaning—they all required sturdy hands to pick, pack, plant, chop, stir, scrub, hammer, and nail.

Within the Diaspora, how do we begin to calculate the financial costs of slavery to settle on a single number for reparations? How do we begin to do the same on the African continent?

These are serious questions because the damages done by the institutions of slavery and colonialism still echo through the daily lives of most Black people across the globe. In North America, it can be seen in violent (sometimes deadly) policing and discriminatory housing and employment policies.

In Africa, it can be seen in the infrastructural deficits, the need for more schools, hospitals, affordable housing, and better roads. It can be seen in the inability of most Africans to read and write in their native languages despite being able to read, write, and speak in a colonial tongue.

From the continent and throughout the Diaspora, the resounding damages of slavery and colonisation are most painfully evident in the displacement of our people. We are always migrating North or south or emigrating to Europe or North America; we are either being forcibly removed from our homes or moving voluntarily with nothing more than the hope of a better life elsewhere, even though we still love our homeland and wish to stay.

A prime example of such displacement would be the former community of Africville right here in Halifax. The government neglected to provide the Africville community with basic services despite several petitions by the residents, and they allowed it to fall into disrepair.

The area immediately surrounding Africville was used for industrial purposes, and a waste facility was even situated near the residences, a classic case of environmental racism. One after the other, the people of Africville fell ill, and the community was forcibly relocated to homes in another part of town.

Then, the site where Africville had once existed in disrepair as a slum underwent a revitalisation that resulted in the construction of a bridge, port facilities, and new roads. The attention, time, and financial investment that was not given to Africville was suddenly somehow available.

Though it took nearly five decades, I understand that the City of Halifax issued an apology and began the process of reparations for the families and individuals who were affected by the forced removal and demolition of one of the first communities of free Black people in North America.

I hope it inspires more cities throughout the Diaspora to issue apologies and offer reparations for the wrongs done to the numerous Black communities that have been stolen away, burned, drowned, levelled, or otherwise destroyed.

On the African continent, every time a young person packs a small sack and, walks beyond the borders of his or her country and continues north to brave the Sahara Desert to cross over into Europe, it is an example of a voluntary migration. And those types of departures are usually borne of desperation: poverty, hunger, war, limited opportunities, and climate crises such as floods, fires, and drought.

Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet who was raised in the UK and now lives in the US, wrote in her poem titled “Home”:
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck/
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled/
means something more than journey./
no one crawls under fences/
no one wants to be beaten/
pitied./

While travelling here on the plane, I was thinking of all these things: loss, the financial impact of loss, and how to calculate reparations in such a way that they not only acknowledge past suffering but also take into account the current social inequities that exist as a direct result of slavery’s legacies.

For some reason, neither I nor the flight attendant had lowered the shade on the small window by my seat. I pressed my forehead to the pane and stared through the clouds, down into the ocean below. And I thought of the people who’d fallen ill on those slave ships and had their dead or nearly dead bodies thrown overboard. I thought, too, of those who’d escaped the clutches of their overseers, ran quickly, barefoot, to the top deck and then jumped overboard.

Who were they? From what town or village had they been taken?

Ghana, my country, has more slave forts, fortresses and castles than any other country in the world. The once-free African men, women, and children would be led, in shackles and chains, from Salaga in the North down to the Assin Manso Ancestral Slave River Site, where they were given a final ritual bath. Assin Manso was also the site of a market where people who had been captured were brought to be sold and purchased.

This would be a good place to stop and address the questions and concerns many Black people in the Diaspora have about whether Africans sold other Africans, their people, into slavery. To my knowledge, it was not a common or universally accepted practice. Nevertheless, the monetary inducement by the white slave traders created bands of opportunistic locals who raided villages for the sole purpose of capturing people to sell.

So, some African people did sell others, even after it had become clear that slavery in the Western world was not an indentured servitude or practice of serfdom but a brutal institution.

An African-American saying I recently learned fits perfectly in this discussion: “Not all skinfolk are kinfolk!” That was true then, and it’s true now.

On the plane, looking down into the Atlantic Ocean, I wondered about the people for whom that was their final resting place. I wondered about the relatives and friends who had been waiting for them to return home, the mothers and fathers who went to their graves with an aching in their souls, not knowing what happened to their sons and daughters who had simply disappeared.

Or worse, knowing their sons and daughters had been captured and fearing the unknown fate that would befall them.

Whenever Black people from the Diaspora come to Ghana, they visit the Cape Coast castle, one of two fortresses in which captured Africans were held before being transported to one of the numerous nations engaged in chattel slavery.

Visitors to Cape Coast Castle are given a detailed tour of the facilities. They are taken into the dungeons where the once-free men, women, and children were held without food, bathrooms, or light. The floors and walls of the dungeons are uneven, rough, and bumpy in some places. That’s because, over the centuries, the many layers of excrement, blood, and bones left there have petrified and become a part of the structure.

During a tour of the Cape Coast castle, visitors also walk the path that the newly enslaved individuals—always, always, with shackles and chains at their wrists and ankles—were taken to be loaded with the other cargo onto the ships.

The door that leads from the fortress to the outside was named the “Door of No Return.” Standing at the threshold of that door is an astonishing experience. All that is visible is the sea and sky as they stretch out, the blue above and the blue below, then meet at the horizon. You can imagine, to the degree it’s even possible, the terror that must have consumed these African men, women, and children.

Even I, comfortably seated in an airplane in the sky, looking at that endless stretch of blue below, could remember the terror I had seen in so many tourists’ eyes as the Door of No Return was swung open. Those eyes, as they lingered on those blues, sea and sky, understood that this is what our ancestors saw—our ancestors who, just days, weeks, months before, had been in the community, had been loved, had been productive, had been proud…they had been home, and they had been free.

The award-winning and celebrated Canadian writer Esi Edugyan is of Ghanaian descent. She was the 2013 featured speaker for the Henry Kriesel Memorial Lecture Series, the flagship event of the Canadian Literature Center.

Edugyan’s lecture, which centred on a visit to her ancestral homeland of Ghana, was published as a book titled Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home. She writes:

“All our stories are about home. It is our beginning and our ending. And because our stories are life, and our lives are not only what we have done and will do but also what we might have done, the idea of ‘home’ includes both departures and arrivals. Every farewell carries the promise of a return.”

Land was one of the many essential and defining things taken from the once-free African men, women, and children who were enslaved. The knowledge of a homeland. That is not an insignificant thing.

Removing land from a people and people from their land is one form of erasure. Because land is memory. It is a legacy. It is culture. And the source of nourishment. Land is liberation. Look at the world. Look at the nations—be they in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Central and East Africa—that are currently at war over territory, over land.

Allow me to pause here and acknowledge that we are standing on the ancestral and unceded land of the First Nation Mi’Kmaq. If any of you are in attendance, Weli eksitpu’k.

In Cape Coast castle, that exit, the “Door of No Return,” which symbolised such a painful departure, has also been transformed into an entrance. People of African descent from all over the Diaspora come to Ghana specifically to enter through that door, which, from that side of the building, is named the “Door of Return.”

They enter the Cape Coast castle as free people, walk through the halls where our ancestors were held captive, and then exit onto the streets of Ghana. It is more than a symbolic gesture; it is a spiritual reclamation.

The government of Ghana, where so many enslaved people passed through the “Door of No Return,” understood this and wanted it to be a practical reclamation for those interested.

In 2000, Ghana passed an immigration act that paved the road to residence and, eventually, citizenship for all people of African descent who would like to settle.

As I mentioned, my speech today was meant to focus on loss. And, indeed, it has done that—though not in the way I had initially imagined. I must stress that some losses can never be repaired, repaid, or replaced. The loss of human life is one such loss.

All the souls who perished are a loss not just to Africa but to all of humanity. As Esi Edugyan wrote: “…our lives are not only what we have done and will do, but also what we might have done…”.

What might our ancestors have done? What inventions and discoveries might they have made? What art, music, and literature might they have composed?

The pain of that loss has been handed down to us—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who witnessed the misery of the days spent in the dungeon, who saw their relatives and friends die or leap overboard into the sea.

The people of African descent in the Diaspora were born with that pain, sometimes haunting them like a ghost limb.

The pain of that loss was felt by the ones who remained mothers and fathers who never saw their children again, the children whose parents were carried away in chains, and the siblings who were separated by an ocean. We, the Africans who were colonised and oppressed on our own land, were born with that pain, which sometimes haunts us.

This is the very definition of generational trauma, the wounds inherited through epigenetics.

Today, we will listen to speeches and engage in discussions about the myriad injuries of slavery, about the way that racism and anti-Blackness are perpetuated in education, from primary school to the academy, and about the systems and societal mechanisms that institutionalise this inequity. We will discuss and listen to talk of reparations.

As you listen and receive all of the information that will be presented, I would like to ask you to remember these three things:

1. The work of atonement done by somebody else for the injustices of the past should not be confused with the work of healing that must be done by us for the wellbeing and joy of our posterity.

2. We are the answer to our ancestor’s prayers. They survived the unspeakable so that we would be free to soar beyond the limits that society, family, friends, and even our own fears try to place on us.

And, finally:

3. There is a home for you in Ghana, and we will happily welcome you back as one of our own through the Door of Return whenever you are ready.

My brother, the High Commissioner of Ghana to Canada, Ambassador Rashford Sowah, is here with me, and his office will gladly help facilitate your return home.

I was deeply honoured to receive the invitation to speak today, and I am grateful for your kind attention.

Thank you.

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