Its been 400 years since the first slaves landed in Virginia. Something terrible was born with that first shipload. The consequences of the most inhumane economic policy ever practiced on this earth still persist today. Whole societies were disrupted and families were torn apart without any regard for the feelings and hopes of those involved. This system challenged the concept of humanity in ways that has eluded any attempts to explain rationally except in economic terms.
Our societies gave people away to slave merchants who sold them to people who used them as they would horses or mules. The system however birthed whole economies, and generations of slave owners and merchants secured their position in society, on the backs and lives of these unfortunate souls. Current events events have shown history repeating itself, with failure of leadership, human feeling dissipates and people lose sight of how irreplaceable a life is, and visit cruelty upon each other. And now, post Abolition, post Emancipation, the horror of one human being taking away the humanity of another, continues.
I first went to the US as a medical student on a international clinical clerkship. My dear Maryland family was waiting for me at Baltimore Washington International when the Ghana Airways flight landed. The Salaus were present in full force, taking me home in a two car convoy filled with laughter, love and beloved cousins. They settled me down very quickly. I was not allowed to wear the jacket I had bought at the Kaneshie market. My aunt took me to a mall my first morning, and replaced my wardrobe with relevant American winter finery. Fashion that my cousins Kofo, Femi and Deola could tolerate.
It did not take me too long to realize that no matter how much I expected to blend in, I stuck out. It had nothing to do with what my clothes looked like. It was who I was, this was a new experience for me coming from Ghana. I had never felt self-conscious about how I looked. it was strange having to adjust to a new paradigm: the state of being irrelevant until proven otherwise. Sometimes, in the shop or the bank, I was assumed dangerous until proven otherwise.
It has been hundreds of years since emancipation, centuries since the claim to equality for every man or woman, and yet here I was, a medical student, being categorized even before I could speak. And it did not matter how many people finally accepted the fact of what I was, there was always another person I would have to clarify my status to. Someone who would be surprised that I was anything other than what they assumed I was based on how their perception of me.
It has been some decades since those precious Maryland days. I have been blessed with many subsequent trips to that land and other lands which used the slaves from my motherland. And I have never lost sight of the gulf that one must transcend in order to realize the ideals of humanity the way God meant it. I have earned certificates on my walls, accumulated surgeries in my log book, put courses on my CV. But I have seen my country continue to struggle to provide the simple health needs that are so well provided for in the countries where the slaves .
And during the countless times when I have sat across from the doctors from the other lands. I have tried to make sense of the dissonance. How nations with as much resource as mine, would choose to have the health care deprivation that we have. How the dehumanization that nurtured the slave trade, still thrives. The gulf between the developed, and the developing world grows wider. Worlds apart, that will continue to struggle to find common ground, because their realities are so different.
And until leadership matures enough to keep the people provided for, the scourge of slavery will persist. And it will not matter how much I achieve. For the people who do not know me, it is the story of my people that registers first, before mine. The lack of leadership and the absence of a real plan for humanity to thrive among the governed, will headline even the most exalted achievements.
It has been 400 years. We talk about that scourge as if it just passed by and will not happen again. But it was the leadership that failed, that allowed slavery to thrive. It was the lack of planning, absence of fellow feeling, wasted resources, increased appetite for sugar and rum, institutionalized selfishness, that pushed those Africans into the cursed cauldron that the slave trade would become.
I still wonder if 400 years have made any difference sometimes.
By Dr. Teddy Totimeh, a pediatric neurosurgeon who practices in Accra, Ghana