Sites of Memory

Mpho Bowie-Molefe '17 stood, bent over, in a dungeon at a slave fort on the west coast of Ghana, the cruelest place he could imagine. Flanked by fellow Lehigh students, the Botswana native tried to imagine as many as 20 men chained together in a five-foot-high room without windows, soaked in blood, sweat and tears, stinking of feces and fear. Stifled by the heat, and the heat of his thoughts, he asked a searing question: Why would slave owners wither or kill their prisoners, the source of their profits, by providing as little nourishment as humanly possible?

The question surprised Kwame Essien, assistant professor of history and Africana studies. The Ghana native had never heard "nourishment" phrased or framed quite this way during his two decades of tracing slave migration from and to Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Far East. His answer was nearly as startlingly practical as Bowie-Molefe's query. Slaves were not only considered less than human, he explained, they were considered lower than animals. Slave owners could still make money if the majority of their prisoners perished. But they couldn't harvest crops with dead cattle.

As part of an interdisciplinary initiative, this electric exchange took place this past summer during a trip to Ghana led by Essien, who grew up near a slave castle, and James Peterson, director of the Africana Studies program and associate professor of English. Two previous journeys to the African republic were funded through the Iacocca International Internship program and the Dale S. Strohl Awards for Research Excellence in Arts and Humanities. This journey was made possible through financial support from Trevor Bond '83, John Franchini '97 and Ronald Ulrich '67, the latter a champion of wildlife conservation in African parks. The extra money enabled 14 students, nearly double the 2014-15 total, to research everything from garbage collection and recycling to passport delivery and other government services to slavery as torture and tourism; and media and culture. They were scholars, researchers, sociologists, public servants.

Bowie-Molefe, an Ulrich Scholarship recipient, studied solar power in Ghana, where power failures are frequent. The mechanical engineering major concentrated on the accessibility of solar power to low-income citizens, who are largely ignored by government officials because they use the least amount of energy. He found plenty of information outages in Ampomah Village, a developing residential area outside Accra, Ghana's capital. Of the 30 residents he interviewed, 19 said they knew about solar-powered devices but only five could demonstrate how they worked. Two interviewees said they owned solar-powered lamps, an especially valuable aid for children. As Bowie-Molefe points out, the rechargeable lights are easier to study by than candles. They're also less dangerous than fires, a leading cause of Ghana's epidemic of infant deaths from respiratory failure.

Kristen Mejia '17, a Strohl and Grant for Experiential Learning in Health (GELH) recipient, examined access to drinking water in urban and rural communities, an offspring of the IDEAS student's interests in environmental engineering and the politics of health. Her plan to analyze the effectiveness of biosand filters was thwarted by water executives who declined to discuss their products for fear of leaking secrets to competitors. She compensated by questioning more sellers and buyers of bottled water on the street. They confirmed that many Ghanaians are afraid to drink tap water that providers insist is pure.

The efficiency of Ghana's backbone services was explored by another Ulrich Scholarship recipient, Fortunate Tshirangwana '18, an industrial engineering major from South Africa. She discovered that obtaining a driver's license was "somewhat" efficient, facilitated by driving instructors who fill out papers for first-time applicants. Sometimes, obtaining a passport, by comparison, could be annoyingly chaotic. Applicants can wait in the rain for hours on their scheduled date of issuance and leave with only wet clothes and boiling tempers.

The Ghana trip revolved around "Sites of Memory," a study of the transatlantic slave trade through archives, forts and interviews. Iacocca intern Tamara Jones '16 investigated the mental health of slavery's legacy in the African diaspora, a natural choice for a psychology major who wants to be a guidance counselor. Bowie-Molefe questioned the mental health of slave owners who trapped prisoners in windowless, airless dungeons at Fort St. Anthony in Axim, a new Lehigh venue.

"I was confused that they didn't treat their slaves as human, that they didn't at least treat them well, knowing that they depended on them," says the Africana studies minor. "Even produce is packaged in well-aired containers and not squished together."

Bowie-Molefe felt better at the St. George of the Mines castle in Elmina, Essien's hometown. Standing on a deck loaded with cannons, he saw scores of brightly colored fishing boats, signs of freedom near a former prison. Iacocca intern Xavier Cousens '17, relatedly, used the boats in his study of transatlantic attitudes toward slavery's legacy. Some African-Americans, he notes, may consider commerce by a shrine as sacrilegious; many Ghanaians regard that commerce as communal lifeblood. They remind foreigners that their ancestors fished the Atlantic long before the Portuguese opened St. George in the 15th century.

Cousens believes his project made him a better global citizen. "It gave me a more nuanced understanding of Ghana's cultural codes," says the anthropology major, whose parents come from England and Panama. "We have to be more respectful in other people's countries; we have to learn more about their situations before we make judgments. Assumptions are not only flawed but harmful."

"Sites of Memory" participants were photographed and videotaped by Miles Davis '16, whose 2015 Ghana research project analyzed functional areas of supply chain management of Gold Coast slaves by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries. He told peers about his previous year's pilgrimage to the Cape Coast slave fort, where he walked barefoot in a dungeon.

"I wanted to feel hundreds of years of petrified feces and vomit and urine and blood," says the master's candidate in environmental policy design. "I wanted to fathom what the slaves went through, to get closer to how they felt. I wanted to go back to the roots of African-American history, my history, through my feet, the roots of a human being. It was painful, yet beautiful and rejuvenating."

Essien understands Davis' pilgrimage because he, too, was a pilgrim. His mother grew up 10 blocks from the St. George castle in Elmina. Yet he never visited the fort, even though it contains the name of an ancestor, Kwaku Andoh, who was Elmina's chief in the late 19th century.

"My mother told the story growing up, but I didn't connect to it," he says. "It didn't mean that much to me."

Essien's evolution as a slavery scholar began as a student in the United States, where he was introduced to horrifying slave narratives and segregation in the American South. It was during a 1995 visit to a South Carolina plantation that he started "connecting the dots" between the impact of slavery in his homeland and his adopted homeland. He ended up writing a master's thesis on African-Americans in Ghana and a dissertation on freed slaves in Brazil who returned to Ghana. His new book, which is based on his dissertation, is titled Brazilian-African Diaspora in Ghana: The Tabom, Slavery, Dissonance of Memory, Identity and Locating Home and was recently published by Michigan State University Press.

An insider and an outsider, Essien was an ideal guide for first-time visitors to Ghana's cultural crossroads. Jones, for example, was fascinated by "a walking Wal-Mart" of street vendors selling everything from rolls of toilet paper to windshield wipers. She was pleasantly surprised by an abundance of young Ghanaians who wear American clothes, listen to American music and use "What's up?" as a greeting.

"I never felt so American and I never felt so proud to be a black American as I did in Ghana," says the native of Little Rock, Ark. "It made me more sure of who I am and what I am and more in love with my history."

All the Lehigh students plan to turn their Ghana studies into global projects. If Jones becomes a guidance counselor, she expects to use the pride of Africans in their American heritage to inspire African-Americans to take pride in their African heritage. Tshirangwana wants to study entrepreneurial ventures in Ghana by natives educated in other countries; she's particularly interested in a start-up that delivers packages by airplane. Bowie-Molefe envisions spreading solar power throughout Botswana, a sparsely populated, densely deserted republic plagued by water and electricity droughts.

Essien hopes to expand the Ghana trip from coastal to country-wide expeditions. In the meantime he'll continue to preserve his heritage by making sure his young American-raised daughters speak Fante, his mother tongue, at home.

"Language is the center of your identity," he says. "It's so powerful: if you lose it, it's gone."

Story by Geoff Gehman '89 M.A.