By DOROTHY GRILLO
The vestiges of slavery here in the United States still exist in symbols and lingering prejudice. In Africa, as well as other countries, however, slavery is an ongoing reality for millions of children. The symbols are there as well.
On our one ‘day off,’ we visited the port city of Ouidah in Benin. Ouidah was the only port in Benin until 1908 and one of the major departure points for African slaves. The African coastline of modern-day Togo and Benin justifiably earned the name Slave Coast. There, on a relatively isolated stretch of beach, stands a large arch with the bas-relief figures of hundreds of slaves, hands chained behind their backs, marching towards the sea. La Port de Non-Retour (the Port of No Return) monument was built in 1992 to recognize this forced exodus and to remember the suffering of those torn from their homes.
The 2.5 mile dirt road leading from the remains of a Portuguese fort in the city to the ocean is still called La Rue de Esclaves or the Slave Road. This stark trail is marked with fetishes, monuments to departing slaves, and statues of warriors, kings and pagan spirits. I could not help but be transported back in time as we stopped to read the inscriptions and listen to our guide recount the stories and history of the slave trade in Benin. It was an extremely profitable enterprise for both European traders and the King of Abomey and resulted in the buying and selling of millions of Africans, primarily to the United States, Brazil and Haiti.
A large square in the center of the fort held captured Africans for months in the hot sun waiting to be auctioned off. From the fort the captives were moved down along the slave road to the auction place, still marked by a huge old tree. From there the slaves were moved to a place called the Hut of Zomai. Now an open field, the hut housed hundreds of slaves crammed into an airless space where they awaited the arrival of the next slave ship in total darkness. The consequences for resistance were forceful and immediate. Prisoners were gagged with a metal bit in their mouths and chained in a basket usually used for carrying animals, as punishment for any attempt at organizing or rebelling.
When the slave ship finally arrived, the slaves were marched the rest of the way to the beach where 300 men and women were loaded into the lowest holds of the hull — men face down, women face up. There are diagrams of the ships showing the precise method of loading the vessel to accommodate the maximum number of human “cargo.” The captives were completely dehumanized — beatings, disease, starvation and rape were the norm. Many opted to jump into the ocean to face the sharks rather than board the waiting ships.
The sadness and outrage we all experienced was almost overwhelming. Tears flowed freely during our prayer and reflection that evening.
We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each — the body, the mind, and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.
— Nelson Mandela, presidential inaugural address
While CRS and other nongovernmental organizations work to improve the health conditions of children, child traffickers conduct a lucrative trade in forced, unpaid child labor. The United Nation’s children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates more than 200,000 children are traded each year in the region, with most of the children being sold from Benin and Togo to the relatively wealthy oil-exporting countries.
You may remember the recent headlines created by a rusty old freighter being refused docking privileges in West African ports because its only cargo was human. However, where there is the greatest need, there is also the highest hope. With every family stabilized through microfinance projects, with every village made more viable with a new well, with every child educated in church-sponsored schools, with every mother imbued with pride in her growing, happy baby, the future of Africa is brighter, and the grave danger to children and their parents is reduced. But our work there, yours and mine, is not just the rich helping the poor. It is not just a feel-good exercise of commendable generosity. We help in Africa because it is the right thing to do, because God calls us to do it. With each malnourished child, with each AIDS death, with each tribal conflict born of ignorance and bigotry, the cost to humanity goes up — and up. The bill may not come due in our lifetime, but it is a legacy we cannot afford to pass on to our children. So prayerfully consider your responsibility to these, our brethren, as you go about your daily life. Find a way to make a small but significant gesture of support and solidarity. When we reach out to those in need, we not only honor the sacrifice of Christ, we become as he was, a brother, a sister to our neighbor.
Dorothy Grillo is the director of Social Ministry for the Diocese of Charleston.