Kamala confronts ghosts of slave trade

As the Americans seek closer African ties in a fracturing global economy, the visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris took on a cultural significance.

Her trip became more than just a diplomatic show of Americans dangling a bag full of goodies to dish out to African countries, it was a legacy of the children of slaves returning to the old continent as agents of the Americas.

During her maiden trip to Africa, US Vice President Kamala Harris found herself fighting back tears at a seaside slave fort in Ghana as she walked down the ugly dungeons where captured men and women were processed and dispatched to their masters in the Americas.

Kamala Harris, a woman of Black and South Asian ancestry, is the most high-profile member of US President Joe Biden’s administration to tour Africa as Washington presses the gas pedal in its outreach mission to Africa to stem mounting Sino-Rusian influence.

“The horror of what happened here must always be remembered,” she said at a press stand on Cape Coast Castle as the sun set on the horizon over the cool ocean waters. “It cannot be denied. It must be taught. History must be learned.”

With her mind alive to mass kidnapping, disease and sickness, rape, and even deaths that captured men and women with no option of escape faced during Africa’s dark trade ties with the outside world, Harris dumped her prepared remarks and spoke bluntly about the anguish “that reeks from this place,” and the horrors suffered by millions of people who passed through the hallways of Cape Coast Castle.

“They were transported, hundreds of miles from their homes, not really sure where they were headed. And they came to this place of horror. Before they were then forcibly taken on a journey thousands of miles from their home to be sold by the so-called merchants and taken to the Americas and the Caribbean to be enslaved people.”

Hunger, illnesses, and exhaustion on account of long journeys claimed many lives of the men and women sold as slaves.

“And yet, they survived,” Harris said, with her voice cracking with emotion while lauding the African diaspora for their endurance and determination.

The awful trade in captured African slaves can be traced back to antiquity. And only estimates exist in the total number of people who were sold. That be as it may, the slave trade marked the point when African communities made contact with the outside world, opening their range of wares from the simple barter trade in commodities between neighboring tribes.

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Slave trade became popular in the seventh century when Islam was steadily gaining root in North Africa, just a couple of centuries before Europeans explored the continent.

Cape Coast Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the largest of the buildings that carry the history of Africa’s dark past in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Like most ancient fortifications in Ghana, the castle also played a significant role in the gold trade, the arrival of Christianity as well as the set-up of the first formal education system in the West African country through Castle Schools.

Today, the castle hosts a collection of art and cultural objects, including ceremonial drums, ancient muskets, shackles from the slave trade, and historic works of pottery.

Closer home, Zanzibar Island was a slave trade hub in present-day United Republic of Tanzania, a country that was part of the destinations Harris visited in Africa, Arab Muslims in North and East Africa sold captured Africans to buyers in the Middle East.

Once shipped overseas, the captured men and women from the hinterland went to work as field workers, teachers, or harem guards, an assignment that informed why the castration of male slaves was regarded as very necessary.

But for Prof Abdulazizi Lodhi, a Swahili and African Linguistics scholar at Sweden’s University of Uppsala, slavery was not entirely foreign, the business fed seamlessly into a rarely spoken chapter of African cultures. “When it came to exports, tribal Africans themselves were the main actors. In many African societies there were no prisons, so people who were captured (during conflicts) were sold,” he told Deutsche Welle (DW).

In Kenya, however, the Maasai had long-running trade ties with their neighbours Kamba, Chaga, and Meru communities but they also traded with the Arab and Swahili traders along the coast, acting as middlemen trading in ivory, hides, and livestock for textiles, spices, and other luxury goods which were transported on donkey and camel backs.

At Cape Coast Castle fort, Harris’ guide Kwesi Blankson told her how captives would often gaze up through the holes in the frightening dungeon ceiling, praying to the gods while singing songs wishing for their death, “because death means freedom.”

In her speech at the historic monument, Harris pledged a new era of partnership between the US and Africa, one that brings into life “a future that is propelled by African innovation.”

“We must invest in the African ingenuity and creativity, which will unlock incredible economic growth and opportunities,” she said.

Across Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Togo Harris announced an investment of $100 million to help deal with the threat of violent extremism and instability in addition to a $139 million deal in bilateral support to economic, business, and cultural initiatives, including anti-malaria programmes.

In Tanzania, Harris talked of a new partnership in 5G technology and cybersecurity, plus a US-backed initiative by New York Stock Exchange-listed LifeZone Metals to open a new processing plant in Tanzania for minerals used in the making of electric vehicle batteries.

In Zambia, Harris announced over $16 million worth of US investment in reforms, including anti-corruption efforts.

Policymakers in Washington are playing catch up to wrestle Beijing’s firm grip on Africa which saw China’s trade with the continent hit $264 billion in 2021, and post an 11 percent jump in 2022 to $282 billion. In 2021, the US recorded $64 billion worth of trade with African countries, experts say.

Additional reporting by Dredan Njau.

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