Bob Marley will probably be remembered as one of the greatest social prophets of the twentieth century. As a result of the enduring popularity of his lyrical and musical compositions, many of his moving creations have been embraced as classics that will withstand the whims of popular ditties whose only purpose is to temporarily excite. Those who have studied the lyrics to his socially conscious songs are fully aware that this son of St. Anne, Jamaica was gifted with a unique ability to expose the negative while elevating the positive.
One of the last compositions that issued from the indigo ink in his well-used pen is titled “Redemption Song.” Those who have seen the actual lyrics are aware that the song also has a subtitle: “The Song of Joseph.” This was Marley’s attempt to see the providence of God in the collective experience of those taken to the West in shackles. The lyrics from “Redemption Song” flooded my mind last Sunday during a pivotal point of my visit to Ghana.
Pain in Paga
My facebook friends were unaware that the photograph of me holding the tail of a live crocodile was a light moment in an otherwise serious trip. The geographical tag for the posted picture reveals the location as “Paga, Northeast region.” Most people who visit Ghana have probably never even heard of Paga, the northernmost town in Ghana that borders Burkina Faso. My primary reason for visiting was not to wrestle with dangerous reptiles, but to retrace the steps that some of my ancestors may have taken on the cruel journey from freedom to slavery.
Before November 2012, I was under the impression that my African ancestors probably hailed from Ghana. After all, this was the place from which most slaves were taken to the Jamaican land that birthed my parents. However, I felt the need to confirm the specificities of my African roots and paid for a DNA test. I was stunned to discover that my African ancestors hail from five geographically distant points on the continent. From the west they came from Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, from the southwest some were taken from Angola. Then others in the southeast called Mozambique home, while those in east-central were located in Rwanda. Finally, some of my African forebears came from as far as Morocco in the coastal north.
Paga is important to me because it is the location of one of the many slave camps that can be found in Africa. Slaves from all over passed through here as they anticipated another three months of a grueling trek that would take them to the waiting ships on the southern coasts. Our knowledgeable guide told the story of the three men who operated the camp. As he shared the way in which the slaves were acquired, a line from “Redemption Song” haunted my mind: “O pirates yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships.” These “pirates” were fellow Africans who sold their brothers and sisters for different reasons. Some were captives of war; some were payments for debts; some were kidnap victims; and some were even sold by fathers who could not afford to feed the many mouths in his compound.
The Perilous Pit
I don’t know under which category my African ancestors were ensnared in slavery’s cruel grip, but I have no doubt that they experienced some of the scenes graphically painted by our Pagan guide. Some of them would have been forced to compete with several other men for a paltry meal that could hardly satisfy a child. Some would have watched their siblings suffer on the punishment stone for defying the overlords. Some would have had their hearts metaphorically wrenched through their rib cages as they witnessed a loved one being sold, knowing that this would be their final encounter.
Upon arrival to the coast, the slaves were cast into Marley’s “bottomless pit” of the holding castles which indicated the “point of no return.” This is where their African traders would make their final transactions with the Euro-Americans whose demand for free labor was the catalyst behind the inhuman trading of fellow humans. Once the quota was met, my ancestors and their fellow travelers on this involuntary journey would slide even deeper into the pit as they were stacked like canned sardines in the belly of ships headed for America, Brazil and the Caribbean.
Wrestling with Redemption
This is Joseph’s song. Brother selling brother for filthy lucre to support a corrupt capitalist system. But the song does not end here. Against all odds is an incredible story of survival. Although physically and mentally exhausted, my ancestors knew how to pray. Although they were viewed as expendable commodities by those who sold and bought them, the God of the universe knew their true value. Hence, Marley observes, “My hand was made strong by the hand of the Almighty, we forward in this generation, triumphantly.” As he penned this line, I’m sure he must have thought about the true intentions of the Euro-American captors who anticipated a permanent slave class. However, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ancestors and their capitalist benefactors of slavery did not count on the Almighty speaking to the hearts of Clarkson, Wilberforce, Sharpe and countless others who used the same system that created African chattel slavery to secure the nails to its coffin.
After rehearsing the collective history of the mass abduction of Africans to the Americas in the first verse of his song, Marley makes an appeal in the chorus: “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom, that’s all we ever have, redemption song.” The chorus rings the bell of hope. Although afflicted by centuries of oppression, the diasporic African family cannot sit by the rivers of their Babylon and weep for a reversal of time or lament about how things may have been had it not been for slavery. The truth is, we will never know how Africa would have impacted the world technologically or otherwise if its social fabric had not been so decimated by hostile foreign entities.
If the African diaspora is to experience redemption, those who are committed to restoration must heed Marley’s command in the second verse of his song and seek emancipation from “mental slavery.” The mental chains that bind can be more deadly and powerful than the physical ones. I was reminded of that just a few moments ago as I drove into the entrance of Valley View University and was greeted by an enlarged image of a European Jesus. Fortunately, the subtle reminders of the attempt to replace Christ with culture have not stifled the resilience of those who seek a better day for Africa.
My time in North Ghana was spent with the mission president, Pastor Fred Agyei-Baah. He realizes that if Africa is to recover from the centuries of rape and pillaging, the sons of Jacob must come together and create a new African future, with the help of God. As a result of his vision, he is not merely concerned with what happens to people after eschatological judgment, for he realizes that God is judging our actions even now. In light of this, he is intentionally providing avenues for economic empowerment for not only his members but the majority Muslim population in his territory. I was glad to spend several days with him as we sang the song of Joseph together. It was a song of redemption that reminded us of our common roots and common goal.
For all those who have a heart for Africa, “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?” As you contemplate your answer, please remember that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton is coordinator of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. He is currently in Ghana where the Center is partnering with the North Ghana Mission on a Shea Butter factory initiative.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5137