PHOTOS: Retracing a slave route in Ghana, 400 years on

Prince Tete, a local, leans against a fence of a mass grave at the Assin Praso heritage site, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

ADIDWAN, Ghana — Nana Assenso stands at the grave of his uncle, remembering the man he loved but also a past that has haunted his family for generations.

His uncle was called Kwame Badu, a name that has been passed on through the family in remembrance of an ancestor with that name who was captured and sold into slavery long, long ago.

“Growing up, I was told the story of two of my great-great-grand-uncles, Kwame Badu and Kofi Aboagye, who were captured and sold into slavery,” says Assenso, 68, the chief of Adidwan, a village in Ghana’s interior. He followed the family tradition and named his youngest son Kwame Badu.

This month marks 400 years since the first recorded African slaves arrived in North America to work plantations in English colonies. In the centuries after, European slave traders shipped millions of African men, women and children across the Atlantic Ocean. Many died in horrific conditions on the slave boats, while survivors endured a life of misery and backbreaking farm work.

Clothes left behind by performers reenacting what female slaves went through during their detention at the Elmina Castle. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

For some of them, the terrible journey began here, deep inside Ghana. Captured by slavers, they were marched along dirt tracks for 125 miles to slave castles perched on the Atlantic Coast, where they boarded ships for North America. They never saw their homeland again.

From here in Adidwan, the slaves were forced south, passing through the gold-mining town of Obuasi.

Kwaku Agyei is a pastor and elder in Obuasi. He tells the story of the slave trade to young workers in his neighborhood, the indignity of it mixed with pride in his ancestors.

“They captured us because they realized we were very strong,” the 71-year-old says. “They sent our ancestors to work on sugar plantations. The slave trade made us realize that the white man was cruel.”

But many rulers of West African empires, such as the Ashanti kingdom, whose descendants still live in this part of modern-day Ghana, also profited, selling captured slaves in exchange for guns, cloth, alcohol and other Western-manufactured goods.

Nana Assenso, chief of Adidwan, a village in Ghana's interior, looks on before visiting the grave of his uncle Kwame Badu. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

“Our elders exchanged their children for ‘nice things’ like matchboxes,” Agyei says.

But once again, his pride in his heritage shows through. “I can say our ancestors were the ones who developed America,” he says.

Abdul Sumud Shaibu, 50, also lives in Obuasi and tells of his strong ancestors. He shows a photograph of his grandfather that he saved to his mobile phone. “My ancestors were giants,” he says. “They were well-built and strong. Look at the height of my grandfather in this picture.”

They did battle with slave raiders, he says. In those fights, sometimes they lost. And sometimes they were captured into slavery.

Near the journey’s end in Ghana, the captives were given a last, ritual bath in a river before being sold. Today, the Assin Manso site is a sacred place of remembrance. In this area of mangrove swamps, an image of slaves chained by the feet promises “Never again.”

In the river, 75-year-old New Yorker Regis Thomson sits within circle with five other women from her church and prayed.

Locals walk on a street in Tarkwa, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

“When I think of what my ancestors had to go through...” the American tourist says, adding that she would go back and tell of her experiences so today’s children are made aware of their past. “We have a lot of work to do.”

After they bathed in the river, the captives were then taken on the final leg of their journey in Ghana, to the last place they’d ever see in their homeland: slave forts on the Atlantic like the Cape Coast and Elmina castles.

Saviour Asante, 30, a hairdresser in Obuasi, had given little thought to slave history growing up. That changed with a visit to Cape Coast castle. “I cried the whole day,” she says. “It was a very painful experience to hear these stories.”

From the castles, where European authorities lived in comfort right above the dungeons that held the slaves, the captured Africans walked through the Door of No Return onto the ships that would take them to America. (Reuters)

Photography by Francis Kokoroko and Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

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The gold-mining town of Obuasi, Ghana. The Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, was named after the vast amount of gold found in Obuasi and the Ashanti region. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
A boy walks out of his home in Mampong, a small town in the Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
A man walks past a torn-down colonial building in Mampong, Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Crowds sit for late-night church service in Obuasi, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Boys take extra lessons after school hours in Obuasi, Ghana.(Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Obituaries and political posters along a road in Denyase, Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Abdul Sumud Shaibu shows a photograph of his grandfather, in Obuasi, Ghana. "My ancestors were giants," he said. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Saviour Asante, a hairdresser in Obuasi, shows her gold tooth as she smiles, in Obuasi, Ghana. "I cried the whole day," she said about her visit to Cape Coast castle. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
A woman cooks palm nuts to make oil on the road that connects Obuasi to Cape Coast, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Kwaku Agyei, a pastor and resident of Obuasi, tells the story of slave trade to young workers in his neighborhood, in Obuasi, Ghana. "I can say our ancestors were the ones who developed America," he says. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Children dressed in traditional-style cloth wrappings entertain residents of Kofi Gyan, a village on Tarkwa-Bogoso road, with a nighttime cultural performance. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
A boy gets a haircut as his friends wait in Adanse Meduma, Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Tourists gather at the Assin Manso river, Ghana. Today the Assin Manso site is a sacred place of remembrance, and an image of slaves chained by the feet promises "Never again." (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
British and American flags are among those hoisted on fishermen's boats at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
The town of Prestea, a small mining town in the Western Region, in southwest Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
Traders walk across a footbridge in Adum market at nightfall in Kumasi, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Enestina Kojo, Hagar Boadu Washington and Babara Oteng chat in Prestea, a mining town in southwest Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
A boy, with Elmina Castle in the background in Elmina, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
Locals walk on a street of Prestea, a mining town in southwest Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
A lotto writer inside his kiosk reviews a lottery paper while a customer waits outside with her baby in Mampong, Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
A boy rides along a road in Denyase, Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Artisanal miners take a break in Prestea, a mining town in southwest Ghana. People of Prestea are Wassa people; they have fought wars against the British, and some were captured and made slaves. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
Adum market at nightfall in Kumasi, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
The river Pra, which runs parallel to the Assin Praso heritage village, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
A pastor as he is about to be transported to church in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
Congregants dance as they attend a church service at Mampong, a small town in the Ashanti region, Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
Nana Assenso, chief of Adidwan, a village in Ghana's interior, visits the grave of his uncle Kwame Badu, in Adidwan, Ashanti Region, Ghana. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Nana Assenso, chief of Adidwan, a village in Ghana's interior, before visiting the grave of his uncle Kwame Badu, in Adidwan, Ashanti region, Ghana. His uncle's name, Kwame Badu, has been passed on through the family in remembrance of an ancestor with that name who was captured and sold into slavery. (Photo: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
A woman walks trough the bushes in Prestea, a mining town in southwest Ghana. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)