It took a trip to Africa to change 10 lives forever.
Six months after Irene Toland, Sidney Davis, Robin Almeida and Pamela Ramsay joined a group traveling to Africa, the effects of that trip still have not worn off.
This was not your typical African-safari, point-at-the-monkeys and “feed the children” sort of gig. For these 10 African-Americans, the journey to the West African country of Nigeria was nothing less than a spiritual, cultural pilgrimage.
In Nigeria, the most populous black nation in the world, they underwent a ritual cleansing from what they call, the stigma of slavery. A local king washed their hands and feet as part of the cleansing.
Rituals and royalty
“They woke us up very early, we had no idea what we were doing,” says 53-year-old Robin Almeida. She describes the whole ordeal as an out of body experience, and says she feels a great privilege to have been part of the group.
The king, Eze Chukwuemeka Eri of a town called Aguleri in southeastern Nigeria, conducted the ritual ceremony following Igbo traditional rites. Afterwards, he pronounced the visiting African-Americans as princes and princesses of the royal house, bestowing them with Igbo names. Almeida was given the Igbo name: Princess Ogechi Eri.
The pilgrimage was part of the inaugural Ebo Landing Project, a 2012 initiative of Nigerian historian and scholar, Catherine Acholonu. Acholonu, a former Fulbright Scholar who also served under the administration of Nigeria’s two-time president Olusegun Obasanjo, says the Ebo Landing Project is needed to help African-American break ties with their enslaved past and give them a sense of honor.
“We want to build a generation of African-Americans who have royalty,” says Acholunu.
Blacks on the bad side of the numbers
She claims African-Americans are suffering. For her, the circulating statistics and trends – like the ones that describe African-Americans as less likely to graduate from a university, more likely to have a child outside of marriage, more likely to experience nutrition related illness – is proof of a societal epidemic.
“The African American condition comes from the fact that they’ve been demeaned and denigrated,” Acholonu says. “They feel like second hand citizens.”
“In a sense we are still slaves here [in the U.S.]; it’s just covered up,” she says. “You don’t see it. 90% of the black men in this community are in jail.”
For her, the 2012 trip – her first ever to Africa – instilled a sense of self-respect and dignity.
After the trip, Massachusetts-resident Irene Toland returned to her job as a beauty advisor at a local Walgreens store. She says she is a changed person with a newfound “sense of peace.” The New Hampshire native said she rarely saw African-Americans in her childhood, outside of her family. Her father told her they come from Eastern European Jews, but she felt a cultural disconnect and lack of identity.
“…I just didn’t know who I was, where I really belong,” says the 79-year-old.
This was not her first time in Africa. She’d been to Kenya on a tour, but for her, the pilgrimage to Nigeria was like nothing she had ever experienced. Now, she’s encouraging other African-Americans to participate in the 2013 trip, but admits that getting participants to go to Africa to connect with their ancestral past may be a challenge.
“There’s a lot of shame and there’s a lot of hurt,” Toland explains. “That’s why I’m trying to tell them to know about their history.”
“We black people have been robbed of that history and I don’t know why they are so ashamed of Africa.”
Researcher Dr. Sidney Davis explains the perception of shame this way: “By virtue of being descendants of slaves, by virtue of being descendants of captive Africans, we have a stigma.”
Davis, the director of the NAGAS International Consortium in Boston, believes that a feeling of stigma makes it difficult for African-Americans to come to terms with their African heritage.
For him, coming face to face with that heritage was crucial for the exploration of his own identity. He began to search his family’s history and underwent a DNA test. He got his first results back about eight years ago and learned that his mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited matrilineally) shares genetic traits with the Igbo people of southwestern Nigeria.
With that genealogical information, he was determined to understand more about the Igbo people and collaborated with Acholonu to develop the Ebo Landing Project.
“This makes this all the more special to me, ” he says. King Eri gave Davis the name, Prince Eluemuno Eri.
Inspiration of Ebo Landing Project
The Ebo Landing Project gets its named from Ebo Landing, a historic site in Dunbar Creek along the marshes of Georgia’s St. Simons Island. As the story goes, in 1803 a group of recently- captured Igbo aboard The Schooner York had opted to die rather than submit to a life of slavery in a foreign land. They revolted and walked, together, into Dunbar Creek, where they drowned in a mass suicide. The oral story follows that ever since, the place became known as Ebo (a predecessor of the modern spelling of Igbo) Landing.
Some say as the Igbo walked into the water, they repeated a chant saying, “Orimiri Omambala bu anyia bia. Orimiri Omambala ka anyi ga ejina,” which translates as “The water spirit Omambala brought us here. The water spirit Omambala will carry us home.”
The Omambala River mentioned in the chant refers to a river in southeastern Nigeria known today as the Anambra River. It is in the Anambra River that King Eri performed the ritual ceremony. In that river, the 10 African-Americans were dipped as part of the cleansing.
“It can be a cathartic experience, intellectually and spiritually,” Davis says.
The Ebo Landing story, has been passed down through the generations, with several variations, preserved by the local inhabitants, the Gullah/Geechee people. It’s become part of the African-American folklore tradition, referenced in pop culture, including in the popular children’s story The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and the highly acclaimed 1991 independent movie Daughters of the Dust.
Haunted by slavery…literally
Residents of the island say the Ebo Landing is haunted by the souls of the perished slaves. Local residents and fishermen tend to avoid the area all together and the some of the ones who do go claim strange incidents.
“All the bait would leave the basket or men would be out there fishing and the boat would start spinning around in the water and they lose control,” says Amy Roberts, a Geechee and a lifelong resident of St. Simons. Roberts is the director of the St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition and has heard the Ebo Landing tale all her life. She says residents “hear chains at night” in the direction of Dunbar Creek.
Part of the purpose of The Ebo Landing Project was not only to connect participants to Africa, but also to put the souls of those who drowned in Dunbar Creek to rest by bringing African-Americans to the Omambala River (Anambra River) for a baptism.
Some of the 10 participants plan to return to Nigeria for the 2013 Ebo Landing Project, scheduled for December, and many of them, like Pamela Ramsay, a message therapist in New Hampshire, hope to bring along friends and family. For Ramsay, going to Africa gave a new meaning to her identity.
“I’m a black woman in America, but I am an African-American,” she says. “I can say that now without any hesitation because I’ve been there and I’ve seen it.”
by Chika Oduah | Published in TheGrio on Monday July 15, 2013