October 28, 2016

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi: A Travel Review

This month, the book club selection for the Beyond Words Bloggers' Book Club was "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. When this book was recommended, I had no idea what it was about. The Goodreads description describes it as "The unforgettable story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver." 

I didn't think much of the book when I downloaded the audiobook and started listening to it. I don't listen to audio books often, but I'm so glad I did listen to "Homegoing." It was beautifully told. This book truly came to life through the audio book. 

Within the first chapter, I was hooked, and then, the Cape Coast Castle was introduced and I immediately felt like I was back in Africa. Much of this book takes place at the Cape Coast Castle, or with the castle as an important figure in the novel, and rightfully so, as the castle was one of the most prominent in the slave trade. I traveled to Accra, Ghana in 2009 and visited two slave castles - the Cape Coast Castle and the Elmina Castle. These "castles" are both on the water and served, not only as fortresses that housed the colonists but as prisons where slaved were held before being loaded onto ships and sold across the Caribbean. Known as "the gate of no return," these castles were the last stop before crossing the Atlantic. 

Cape Coast Castle
Instead of sharing what I've been reading this month, I'm going to share about "Homegoing," along wit photos from my trip to Ghana in the hopes that this book will come to life as much for you as it did for me.

"Homegoing" was phenomenal. I couldn't get enough of this book. I listened to it in the mornings, the evenings, while I was running...I couldn't stop. The story begins in the late 1700s at the height of the slave trade with the stories of Effia and Esi, half-sisters born in different villages in Ghana. Each chapter follows their lineage across Africa and the U.S., ending in the present day with the very real exposure of slavery's legacy on African Americans today. I felt like this book read more like individual short stories that all tied together. There were stories that were beautiful and others that were heart-wrenching, but at the very core of this story, it is  a very real truth. This is the story of the slave trade, encapsulated in characters whose histories are so deeply rooted in this horrific part of our human history. 

One of the things I loved most about reading this book is how reminiscent were the words in Ewe, Ashanti, and Fante. For example, Akwaaba means "Welcome," and is used throughout the book. When you arrive in Accra, the same phrase greets you at the airport. As described in the book by Marcus, this phase of welcome greets you everywhere you go, at the markets, at museums, at tourist sites. I love it because, it's so much more of a welcome than a simple, "Hello." It's quite obvious that I'm not Ghanaian and so, instead of saying, "Hello," I was welcomed by everyone I met. 

Some of the characters in the books, Abena, Yaw, Amena, and Akosua are very familiar names. In Ghanaian culture, children are named for the day of the week they are born. They are often given a middle name which is their more commonly used name, but I remember by Ghanaian friends christening me, "Akosua" because I was born on a Sunday. I hadn't thought of this in years and I loved reading these names and remembering.

Entrance to Cape Coast Castle
I mentioned that this book truly came to life for me, so to share that experience with you, I'm going to use some of Yaa Gyasi's words to describe the castle, as I think she's such a brilliant writer and will do the castle more justice than I might be able to. 
"This is where the church was.," the rubber band man said, pointing. "It stands directly above the dungeons. You could walk around this upper level, go into that church, and never know what was going on underneath." 
"In fact, many of the British soldiers married local women, and their children, along with other local children would go to school right here in this upper level."

"And soon they were headed down, down into the belly of this large, beached beast. Here, there was grime that could not be washed away, green and gray and black and brown and dark, so dark. There were no windows. There was no air. " 

"This is one of the female dungeons," the guide said finally, leading them into a room that still smelled faintly. "They kept as many as 250 women here for about three months at a time." 
"From here, they would lead them out this door. He walked further. The group left the dungeon and walked toward the door. It was a wooden door painted black, above it, there was a sign that read, 'Door of no return.' "This door leads out to the beach where ships waited to take them away." 

The dungeons were terrifying and, yes, they did still faintly smell. They were so dark. You can see from the pictures above, that they aren't very large. Of the two photos I have of the dungeons, the second one shows a lot more light, but once those doors were closed and the windows were barred, darkness engulfed the space which comfortably held about 40 people. If I'm not mistaken, I believe this upper-level dungeon was used as a placeholder where people were kept while ships were boarded before they went into the dungeons. I can't imagine what it was like to be shoved in a room that size with 250 other people. I don't know if it was like this when the castle was in use, but when we were there, the ceiling of one of the dungeons was covered with bats, which was tremendously unsettling. 

The view outside the "Door of No Return" was breathtaking. It's shocking to think of those who walked through this door must have felt to see sunlight for the first time in three months, see the beauty of the Atlantic on the Gold Coast, and then board a ship to a life unknown. 

The Cape Coast Castle was built to be an impenetrable fortress. While small in size, you can see how thick the outer walls were. Even if someone could escape the dungeons, they would be in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by walls layers deep.

Inside the castle, today, there is a museum that teaches about the slave trade from the African perspective. They even had an auction block.

The castle wasn't meant to mistake any realities. Unlike modern slavery, where people fall victim to fraud or coercion, there was no mistaking the fate of those in the castle dungeons. This sign clearly indicates the fate of those who were sent into this particular dungeon, which was reserved for those who had to be punished. They were locked in this dungeon without food or water until they died.

I know this hasn't been a traditional book review, but I really hope you enjoyed these pictures and my own experience traveling to the Cape Coast Castle. It's been 7 years since that trip and I think about it often. I loved Accra. Visiting the slave castles gave me so much more perspective into American history than any history class I've ever taken. There's a conversation in this book where Yaw is teaching his students what history is and makes the point that it is the survivors who get to tell the story. In this instance, that's certainly true, but visiting the castle gave me the opportunity to experience the other side of the story.

If you haven't read, "Homegoing," I highly recommend it. This is a truly beautiful story that needs to be told. If you did read it, tell me what you thought and link up with us today!

If you're part of the book club or want to be, our next book is "The Pearl that Broke its Shell." We'll be linking up again on November 25, which is Black Friday! We'll be skipping the month of December since our link up falls in the middle of the holidays, but we'll pick the January book in November so that everyone has two months to read the book (and wait for any library holds to release!).

As always, Happy Reading!

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