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RGOD2: The Freedom Tree remains a somber symbol even today

Imagine being handcuffed and having your feet shackled with the agreement that if you can make your way to a particular tree and touch it, you can be a free slave. The catch? You had to move rapidly to avoid the bullets fired by your owner and his friends!

This was a horrible blood sport and the Freedom Tree is a real symbol of this horrific chapter in human-rights abuses on a global scale.

As the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights brings its deliberations to a conclusion this coming week, I am sad to leave Africa and my African friends behind and head back to the USA. My most vivid memory of the trip is this Freedom Tree. Located on the island of Georgetown, five hours from Banjul, the Gambia’s capital, this former slave colony is steeped in history, and stories of “wounded memory.”

For three hundred years, the island served as a principal staging ground for the lucrative business of selling captive Africans from Senegal, the Gambia and Ghana to work the plantations of the New World. The Gambia River opened its mouth to the Atlantic and so this is one of the most historical sites where African-Americans can trace a fragile but tangible link. Three million slaves may have passed through these waters.

Where culture and history have been deliberately obliterated for millions of African slaves and their 35 million descendents living in North America, the only place we can be sure about as to ancestral roots is Georgetown and a few other historic settlements in this region. The award-winning series “Roots” made another island much closer to Banjul, Kunta Kinte Island, more famous and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a helpful historical interpretive center. There is no such center in Georgetown and it in its forgotten neglect, there is a deeper story and memory to recover and hopefully begin to heal.

From arriving by a little metal boat charging a few cents to cross the deep river from the mainland, we entered a world of tragic stories and betrayal. Our first guide was a young teenager who had made his hometown’s story a living tradition. His 10-year-old brother listened to him as we visited the different sites. I met several leaders from the community here, a council member and the island’s cultural chief.

The tour included a visit to a dilapidated house of a “freed slave,” the prison/holding tank and an underground larger cell where the river would often flood into the stone chamber holding a hundred or so terrified souls. Holes in the walls of the chamber above eye level are still are visible and provided a chute for the slops of food given to the unnumbered chained women and children who were captives here up until the beginning of the 19th century. Taller people had to bend over and this flooded dungeon had no sanitation, so we were told many would die of cholera. Two separate cells for solitary confinement were reserved for the most “stubborn” slaves.

The curator of this real life “chamber of horrors,” who is in his mid-30s, took us upstairs to an open space under the original metal roof that served as a makeshift classroom for visiting school groups and tourists. Chains and locks were strewn on the floor. Little handcuffs reminded us of the incarceration of children, and one of the restraints bore the name of a company in Bolton, England. After the long struggle of religious abolitionists to end this inhumanity, the British government set up a military station to warn traders to stop the slave trading. We were told they would fire a cannonball across the bow of a vessel as it entered these crocodile-infested waters years after slavery had officially been abolished.

The island was extremely strategic for the British and they controlled what went in and out of this region for many years.

The Freedom Tree grows in a recently constructed walled memorial garden, across the street from the town’s police station. Our two young guides approached the Freedom Tree with reverence and solemnity.

“This is the Freedom Tree where a slave could try to earn their freedom. This was a kind of sport orchestrated by the various slave owners and there would be a competition to see which slave could hop in their fetters so they could touch the tree. If they could touch the tree without getting shot by the European traders, they earned their freedom,” the young guide said.

He carefully removed another set of rusty handcuffs that swung from one of the branches of this rubber tree. The original tree keeled over in 2002 and the locals replanted this one as a reminder of a key symbol of what Georgetown Island’s direct ancestors had endured. When a slave was freed, he could live in a house like that, as the guide pointed to our place of disembarkation. “Under the floor, through this stone arch, the free slaves would keep their children when they were disobedient - to teach them a lesson,” he said.

Ironically, the crawl space under the house was a kind of mini-version of the slave quarters we had visited. Often the oppressed continue to oppress others as a kind of cycle of violence and inhumanity. What a world!

The older curator and the young man both told me about how the European traders first bargained for slaves, often using alcohol, mirrors, tobacco, beads and other trinkets in the same way that native Americans were seduced to sell lands and each other to the strangers. African chiefs would preside over initiation ceremonies where the strongest and most able would compete in the forest, but instead of winning a prize and being initiated into manhood, their chief would sell them off to the slave traders who would weigh them like cattle or pay for them according to the number of teeth they had. This system ensured that the strongest and largest would-be warriors would instead be chosen to survive the harsh Atlantic crossings. They were tricked by their own cultural heritage.

Another building about a quarter the size of a football field was a larger holding cell where everyone was chained by the neck to a couple of U-shaped wall mounts. This ensured everyone was somehow connected to another and was always controllable. The trouble makers and leaders of the group were simply given the opportunity to earn their freedom or be placed in solitary confinement. Escapes from Georgetown were rare, given most captives could not swim or did not want to be crocodile bait. The stories were horrific and the young man assured me that everyone on the island is taught to swim now. The interpretation of the past is very much in every stone, every branch on this sad island.

Each year, locals celebrate a Freedom Tree festival and the local hotels are filled with returning African-Americans to a place of wounded memory to rediscover some semblance of their fragmented identity. The local people in Georgetown see it as their moral duty to help these distant relatives to reconnect with the land that once betrayed them. When nightfall came, only half of the island could be lit at one time -- another kind of metaphor about our global shadowing of the horrors of colonial history ... still living in the shadows in places like the Gambia.

Local hotels are struggling to upgrade their hospitable facilities with modern conveniences such as rooms en suite. We ate dinner at one of the hotels and again, we were welcomed by young men in their 20s who took enormous pride in this local heritage and hospitality. One hotel co-owner told me he was a woodworker and how proud he was to create the furniture inside the spacious rooms with beautifully woven grass ceiling tiles framed by rich local woods. A dinner of delicious chicken curry was our evening’s reward for walking through these haunted, unpaved and unlit town streets with our friendly guides. They were our lights. Everyone could not have been more welcoming and glad to see us.

Yet the legacy and wounds of the past remained in peculiar ways as a kind of hidden branding on all of us, just as owners branded their human possessions hundreds of years ago. It was not unusual to hear one African call another African “Boy!” in a kind of derogatory retort that reminded me of racist engagement of American whites to their African-American neighbors. This was a shock for me to see this kind of African communication with one another. The other shock was to learn about the local name for Europeans. “Two Bob” was a phrase I heard a lot of during my time in the Gambia, from kids in one of the local schools to taxi drivers trying to get my attention. I am old enough to remember pre-decimal coinage in Britain where a “Bob” was slang for a shilling (about 5 cents).This was the name given by freed slaves who now worked for payment and their new (white) employers would be called by what they were owed for a week worth of work –Two Bob or Two Shillings. Even after two centuries of living outside the slavery narrative, the deferment to calling each other “Boy” or “Two Bob” subconsciously soloed each other into master and slave once again.

I found all of this enlightening and disturbing as I reflected on many of the issues that faced the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights, and there was clearly a contemporary place at the table for the curators of the Gambia’s sad history. The cultural and religious leaders of this region, if invited to share their stories and wisdom, would have a lot to say about human trafficking, what to do with Africa’s leaders who squander their people’s freedom, property and future in collusion with European and Chinese multi-national companies. Resource wars are still a major factor in the abuse of human rights and Africa is still deliberating if they can support the International Criminal Court to try her current chiefs who are selling their people into slavery still or to beef up African Courts to bring people to justice. All of the issues discussed at the conference had been experienced before in Georgetown.

Half of the eight high-profile cases of leadership abuse were referred by Africans to the ICC but there is also growing skepticism about the effectiveness of these kinds of judicial systems in bringing about reform. The conference asked the question: “How come Nigeria can produce 2.4 gallons of oil a day while half her people live on $2 per day?

As I looked at many of the faces of the younger Africans attending the conference who spoke about the difficulties of being LGBT in 38 African nations today where they are treated as criminals, I thought about the cellar under the house where the freed slave lived. Why are Africans keeping part of their younger generation under the floor of their legal and social systems and using the laws of their colonial oppressors as the moral litmus test for African tradition and culture?

The Freedom Tree was a symbol of the worst possible period in Africa’s tragic history, but clearly, these issues have morphed into new challenges and new forms of inhumanity. “Two Bobs” and “Boys” have not disappeared. They are us.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.