On Pilgrimage Monday 22 July 2013
Rob Radtke, the President of Episcopal Relief and Development, impresses me with his direct but gentle manner. He calmly told us on Sunday night that we needed to be awake earlier than expected on Monday morning. A bus would leave the hotel at 4:15 am for the airport and then return to get a second group at 4:30. It is a testament to his guidance, and to the responsibility of this pilgrim group, that we all got up on time.
So, we made our way quickly to the Accra airport, where we were efficiently checked in, as a group of nineteen, on a 6:00 flight to Tamale. The trip was fine, and I particularly enjoyed my first cup of coffee at around 7:00 on the flight. Late!
We packed ourselves into quite a small van, and made our way to Hotel Mariam for a good breakfast, including eggs and oatmeal for me. During breakfast, our wonderful hosts from Episcopal Relief and Development were negotiating for a larger bus. They succeeded, much to our comfort.
The people here are kind and pleasant. Despite what I hear and know about poverty conditions, I sense a peace, an ability to live steadily without undue anxiety or despair. The church people are especially steady.
The streets are crowded and busy. A random sort of efficiency somehow orders the walkers, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, and buses along our road. I do not see many cars at all.
I see road signs that delight me. The titles of the tiny business are often handwritten above the small stalls, roofs covered with tin, that line the dirt road. Establishments of all sorts engage in commerce and conversation. Often, the titles of the businesses indicate some personal faith, maybe some personal revelation that inspired the business, names like, “God’s Grace Hair Clinic,” and “God is Able Enterprises,” “”Springs of Living Water Enterprises.” Maybe the very names of their businesses are prayers. Then there is “No Food For Lazy Man Craft,” and “Give and Take Enterprises.”
We drove about two and a half hours to Bolgatanga, along a road that should never have been paved, for the plain worn dirt might have been easier to manage than the pot-holed pavement. Indeed, drivers have created another lane in the dirt, beside the paved road, in all their attempts to avoid the pounding pits. Our driver is quite good, and he honks his horn a lot. Though it makes our trip seem as bouncy and obnoxious as a New York cab ride, the horn is meant here as a courtesy, warning many bicyclists of what is right behind them. At other times, however, he really is honking at oncoming traffic –and the occasional goat and cattle—to get out of the way.
I was fascinated with the color of the dirt my first few days here, a rich soft chocolate brown, and everywhere. When I mentioned that I admired its color, one of my companions replied, “Well, you are from Georgia, aren’t you?” Okay, right.
After checking in and having lunch at the Ex-Tee Crystal Hotel, in Bolgatanga, we ride over to visit the Anglican Diocesan Development and Relief Organization. “ADDRO.” The Bishop of Tamale, Bishop Jacob Ayeebo, is its Director, and what a lively and impressive man he is. I will come to call him, Jacob the Jolly. He is generous and effusive, and open and truthful. In fact, I am impressed with all the workers here; we hear of what we will see tomorrow: farms, micro-credit operations, and such.
We get back in the bus and drive further north, all the way to the border with Burkina-Faso, in fact. We are at Pago, and we stop to support the local economy by paying to visit the sacred crocodile pond. The legend is that a crocodile saved one of their ancestors, and, thus, they have never harmed crocodiles there. In turn, the crocodiles have become rather tame, and they never attack human beings. We pay to hear the story and have the keepers let us inside the fences, where the sacred pond of crocodiles is.
But we don’t get to the pond, and we see very few crocodiles. The one we want, says the guide, the largest one, has moved down a little to another pasture area. We exit the gate again, and our wonderful ERD worker, Vesta Oduro-Kwarteng, badgers the guide about our having to walk too far. Vesta is a treasure, taking care of us, engaging her neighbors about deals and agreements, and caring for an eleven-month old child, all at the same time. (The child does not come on our daily trips, but he appears in the evenings)
After a few minutes, the see the creature. Indeed, the docile crocodile that we encounter lets us touch his back and pick up his tail. He knows that he will soon be devouring the guinea hen that another guide keeps hidden behind his back. One by one, we have our photographs made.
Back on the bus, we drive a few minutes to the Pikworo Slave Camp. This area, too, seems run by a local family. Our guide wants us to know the story, as told to him by his grandfather, about how three men from nearby regions engaged captured slaves and gathered them here at Pikworo.
The word, “Pikworo” means “rocks of fear.” There are no structures here at all, just rocks, trees, and fields. The place is eerily empty and forlorn and quiet, but what stories those rocks and trees and fields might tell. We see the water spring in the rock and then we see bowls, pits, that were hollowed out in the rocks from which the captured people would eat. We hear stories of chaining and punishment.
The local family, for they all seem related, also gives us a drum show, using one of the truly beautiful rock formations as a drum. This rock sits atop another slab, but with lots of space between the two, thus forming an area for sound and reverberation. The old men pound, while four boys do a make-shift dance.
Then, we walk to the watch tower rock and we see the punishment rock. We hear the torturous details of disobedient slaves being forced to face the sun all day, being whipped, and sometimes going blind. This place is a gathering spot, a transit camp, from which the slaves walked to the Salaga market, then to the coast.
I am struck by the simple telling of these ancient slave stories, from a young man who seems to bear no anger – nor possibly any sense of what the slave economy did to the descendants of Africans who made it to America. Slavery is entangled with race in the United States, and race is a sensitive and challenging subject for most of us; we are nowhere near concluding that conversation.
My experience at Pikworo is brief and not critically deep; but I sense here a rather unencumbered way of describing events. That is, the young man telling us this story seems unencumbered by the way race and slavery have been experienced in the United States for the last one hundred seventy-five years. The baggage just is not here, or, at least, it didn't seem to be today. I know it's a long journey, perhaps a pilgrimage itself.