We spent last Saturday in this town with a Ouidah local- Ray's French teacher,Tarsasis, and our friend from Cotonou, Leontine. We followed the The Slave Route (Route de Esclaves) from the site of the slave market, where men and women were sold as a commodity in exchange for sugar and weapons, to the beach 3.5km down the sandy road. There were several stages along this route, one involved the Tree of Forgetfulness- a tree planted and blessed with magical powers so that upon circling the tree (men 9 times, women and children 7 times) they would have forgotten their names, their family, their identity, and the life they were leaving.
The next stage is called 'Zomai' and translates as 'where the light is not allowed.' Slaves would spend many months in this room before finally being shipped off-- disoriented, weak and their spirits broken. Those that died inside the room were thrown into a mass grave. The next stage involved circling the Tree of Return, to insure that their souls would find their way back home. Today, the final stage is marked by the Gate of No Return- a simple monument that leads to the beach.
Our visit to Ouidah, and subsequent conversations with our Beninese friends, raised some tough and uncomfortable questions to tackle. Do we, as white Americans, bare a responsibility to individually apologize for the past? And to who? Do we bare this responsibility because of the color of our skin, irregardless of the fact that our families did not participate or directly benefit from the slave trade? As a friend here put it (Im translating and paraphrasing)- 'you [Americans] have reaped the benefits of growing up in a nation that was built by the labor of Africa's strongest. And Africa has suffered.'
The same friend asked if we were proud of our country. Indeed we are, but not of every aspect of its past or recent history. Is it enough to be well educated about the abuses of the past? And to work to not repeat them, whether on an interpersonal or structural level?
Who do you ask for forgiveness? God? What individual would have the right to forgive, if not only symbollically?