Contrasts and Complexities

By Thomas Taylor, Breck Upper School Director

In her debut novel, Homegoing, Ghanaian author Yaa Gyasi traces the paths of two families through multiple generations as they grapple with the devastating after effects of the transatlantic slave trade. One path follows the descendents of Effia, a young woman who remained in Ghana and was married to a British governor, while the other examines life for the children and grandchildren of Esi, who was captured and sold into slavery.  This contrast between life in America and life in Ghana forms the kernel from which the rest of this narrative grows.

Gyasi paints a gripping narrative, and though the novel was gut-wrenching at points, I was tremendously grateful to have read this before I travelled to Ghana myself in July.  The novel, along with other historical reading I did in preparation, gave me a framework for understanding and making relevant everything that I learned during my ten-day pilgrimage to the West African country.  During the first weeks of July, I travelled, along with nine other Americans and Canadians, as a part of a Ghanaian Pilgrimage organized by Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD) and the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES).

While I am certainly still grappling with the enormity of the experience and all that I heard, saw, and learned; one theme emerged quickly for me both in my reading of Homegoing as well as in many of my experiences in Ghana: contrast.  

Gyasi’s novel is certainly a study in contrast. The experiences of the family of Esi in America certainly did not mirror those of Effia’s in Ghana.  But nowhere was this more apparent than in the castle in Cape Coast.  Cape Coast Castle was one of many “slave castles” that lined what was once called the Gold Coast, later the “Slave Coast,” of Ghana.  An outpost for a number of colonizing countries, the castle at Cape Coast is perhaps best known for its operation under British rule.  During the time from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, the structure saw the passage of thousands of bodies through its walls, which, while alarming, should come as no surprise.  The building was constructed with this sole purpose in mind - to aid in the transport and sale of human lives.   

But while it would be easy to imagine the castle as a place devoid of any and all positive human emotion, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, the Cape Coast Castle is beautiful.  It is stunning both in the architecture of the structure itself as well as in the natural beauty that surrounds it. And herein lies the contrast.  Imagine a beautiful, tropical beach. White sand, blue water, fishing boats returning from collecting the day’s catch.  Now imagine that just below the surface of this beauty were the physical, concrete reminders of one of humankind’s greatest tragedies: dungeons that held thousands of people, rooms designed for torture and death, doors through which enslaved people would walk towards the ocean and the middle passage.

In addition to exploring the Cape Coast Castle, we also visited Elmina farther west along the coast, and the Pikworo Slave camp in northern Ghana, near the border w/ Burkina Faso.  In every case, in each location, we were struck by the difficulty we all had reconciling the beauty of the place, with what the place represented.  We struggled, for example, at Elmina Castle as we peered through a small gate in the “door of no return” only to see a lively and exciting soccer match taking place.  This discrepancy was jarring.  Here we were, a group of pilgrims from America in a place that seemed to demand a somber reverence, and yet life was going on all around us. Normal things (like fishing boats and soccer games) simply didn’t have a place adjacent to the symbols of something as unnatural as slavery.

But this contrast was not only a part of our exploration of the slave trade.  We felt it everywhere we went.  While seeking to gain some understanding around the transatlantic slave trade was one major theme of our time in Ghana, we also wanted to use our time to explore Anglican schools in Ghana as well.  This was the reason for NAES inviting educators to join in this experience.  In all, we were able to spend time in six different Anglican schools: two each in Bolgatanga (in Northern Ghana), Accra (the country’s capital), and Cape Coast (west of Accra along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea).  

Every school we toured was unique, but in each case I marvelled at the extremity of both how similar to and yet also how different from our school community they were.  In every school we met caring, engaged teachers and school leaders who were admired and respected by their students.  In every school, we saw students who were curious and engaged and we were reminded that there are certain truths about children that transcend geography.  Kindergarteners are curious and open, middle schoolers are somehow simultaneously unselfconscious and shy, tenth graders are . . . well, tenth graders.  These commonalities and shared experiences were reinforced by a shared Episcopal/Anglican identity.  While the Episcopal Church in the United States and the African Anglican Communions have not always held shared values, in the case of creating safe and loving school environments, there is a shared focus.

And yet in Ghana Anglican schools are public schools, which creates in turn one of the most tangible differences I experienced between these schools and Breck.  As an independent school in the United States, Breck enjoys tremendous resources.  We are fortunate to have the facilities, technology, and supplies that we do, and we are lucky that we can marshal these resources in support of a tremendous education for our students.  Even in Accra, which is relatively wealthy, the Anglican schools do not have enough resources to sufficiently prepare their students for all elements of the nationally mandated exams.  Whether it’s access to new books, science lab supplies, or technology, these schools were in need of more and their needs fell in stark contrast to all we have at Breck.

Beyond this, however, as a group we all were struck by one particular classroom experience we shared.  At every school we visited, the principal would invariably allow us to visit a few classrooms and chat with the students.  It was in these settings that we got to learn so much about the structure of the education system in Ghana, as well as the student’s aspirations, hopes, and dreams.  In one of these exchanges each member of our group was asked what we do back in the United States.  This proved a relatively simple task for most of us: teacher, principal, priest, etc.  But as the focus turned to Heidi Kim (one member of our group), the question grew in complexity.  

Heidi is the Staff Officer for Racial Reconciliation for the U.S. Episcopal Church. In that role, she works closely with the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, around matters of race, equity, and inclusion in the Church.  As she sought to explain her role to the high school students with whom we were speaking, she asked if any of them knew was racism was.  Not a hand went up.  There was a moment during which we were all dumbfounded.  How would we proceed?  Here we were a group of mostly white tourists, explaining the concept of racism to a group of West African children. We were there, in no small part, to begin to learn about how racism began in our own country, and gain some understanding of the roots of slavery.  And yet, we found ourselves humbled both by the children’s question in front of us and also by the task of sharing some concept of racism in America, something that few of us had ever experienced.

As I reflect on the experience, I am struck by how pervasive -- and ultimately how valuable -- these contrasts and complexities were in everything we saw, everything we did, every person we met or with whom we shared a meal or drink.

In fact, it is now difficult to remember exactly what my expectations were before the trip, but I’m certain that they were much too narrow. I know now that we must all avoid the temptation of quick assumptions, or what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author and speaker, calls the “danger of a single story.”  

I am incredibly grateful to Breck for allowing me to have this opportunity to step away from what is familiar and explore a history and a place that were new to me.  I’m grateful to be pushed away from the inertia of the single story of West Africa. I am happy to have this opportunity to share this learning with the broader Breck community, and I look forward to doing so in depth with students and teachers who are fortunate enough to be part of everyday life at Breck.