Benin’s history is steeped in slavery, and it is perhaps one of the reasons the country is still struggling today. It’s hard to understand modern Benin’s culture without understanding their legacy of slavery.
Benin is part of what was formerly known as the “Gold Coast” which then didn’t take long to be know as the “Slave Coast,” due to the large number of slaves that were shipped from this region. It’s estimated that about 12 million Africans from the regions of present day Benin and Nigeria, made it to the Americas, yet many, many more died in route. People were stacked like carcasses in ships; only a percentage would be alive at the end of the trip. As Americans, we know the history of what happened to slaves once they reached the Americas, but the slave trade also had an impact on those who remained in Africa.
We took visited a coastal city called Ouidah, which is the home of the Trail of Slaves and the Gate of No Return. The trail leads from the slave markets in the center of the city, down past the salt flats and down to the ocean. Slaves were lead down it before being caged in long dark houses, and eventually taken out to the ocean and off of the continent, never to return. Many of the parts of the journey were designed to dehumanize and weaken the prisoners so that they would be less likely to fight back. It was a powerful trip and the sight of the ocean through the Gate of No Return, as if looking through the eyes of a slave, is not something easily forgotten.
According to historic accounts, the majority of slaves were criminals or prisoners of war. During the slave trade years, Benin was part of the kingdom of Dahomey. Like other kingdoms in the region, Dahomey relied on constant warfare with the other kingdoms and tribes to generate the great numbers of slaves desired by the Europeans. They were sold in trade for things like beads, cannons, jewelry and alcohol.
In a visit to a fort where slaves were kept before being shipped, our tour guide talked about the conditions into which the slaves were put: the dehumanization, the dungeons, the isolation, the darkness, the despicable things done to women. It is unbelievable that any of them made it to the Americas alive. Slavery was horrendous; it brought out the ugliest parts of human nature.
Slavery devalued the worth of the human soul. It declared that a life is not worth that much; it’s worth a cannon maybe, a bottle of alcohol or a bracelet of beads. Both the buyers and the sellers had to see the slaves as something other than and less than human. They rationalized what they were doing and turned a blind eye to the suffering.
We look back at this part of human history and condemn it. We rightfully look at the conditions of slavery and say that it was wrong. Yet, how do we dehumanize others today? How do we turn a blind eye to the suffering and injustices of our day?
Though the slave trade that brought West Africans to the Americas was abolished in the 1800’s, the legacy of slavery lives on in Benin and West Africa. Children from poorer families are sometimes sold and taken across borders to neighboring countries. If a child loses one or both parents or if parents cannot afford to take care of a child, they are often given to more wealthy relatives. Culturally, the relatives are then expected to treat the child as less-valuable than natural born children, as someone to do the unpleasant tasks, as a slave.
This Easter, as we celebrated the freedom that came from Christ rising from the grave, let’s also remember that He was sent “to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).
Orphanages or children’s homes can be a refuge for trafficked children. They can be a place where children’s sense of worth can cultivated or restored. They can be a place where a child becomes more than a number.
One such bright place is an orphanage northeast of the ship in a city called Sakate. The orphanage is associated with an organization called Tree of Life. The place is run by those who had a vision to care for children, to let them know that they are loved and valued. They have lived here in Benin at the end of a dusty road in Africa, for the past 8 years, raising what is now 27 children from mixed backgrounds – some missing both parents and some of which had been victims of or in danger of trafficking. We have had several visits up to Sakate on weekends to interact with the group there, and they have also visited us at the ship. One of them, a little boy named named Jonas, even came aboard for a surgery. It is so good to see these children happy, healthy, and adjusting to living with “parents” in their orphanage family.
Please pray for the orphans of Benin and for each of us as we come in contact with them, that we would show them how precious they are.