Ivorian rural hamlet marks role in slave trade

by Patrick FORT

Kanga-Gnianze (C么te d'Ivoire) (AFP) - The hamlet of Kanga Gnianze is absent from many maps of Ivory Coast, but the rural community attracted stars and scholars this week to mark its place in the sorry memory of slavery.

Clad all in white, France's most capped former football hero Lilian Thuram marched between two rows of men in red scarves and warrior garb, armed with clubs. At the end of the line, a medicine man waited.

The 1998 World Cup winner, who has been an ardent anti-racist militant since hanging up his boots, gave the witch doctor an egg by way of an offering.

After chanting for a while and a symbolic washing of hands, the Ivorian medicine man gave his visitor a small pebble and a branch of peace, then daubed a circle of fine white clay on his forehead.

In a small village whose very name derives from the purification of slaves, folk request such rituals by the sacred stream in the hope of seeing "children pass their exams" and having other wishes granted, farmer Claude Nguessan Nguessan told AFP.

In grimmer days, the place named Kanga, or "slave", and Gnianze, meaning "water", was a transit point for captives from the north and east being force-marched to the Gulf of Guinea.

The village lies about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of today's commercial capital Abidjan on the coast.

On Thursday, Thuram and the numerous Ivorian hosts were joined for a Slave Route ceremony by the likes of Benin's former president Nicephore Soglo (1991-96) and historian Elikia M'Bokolo from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

- 'Culture of peace' -

Participants inaugurated a marker stone to locate Kanga Gnianze among significant spots in the Slave Route Project launched by UNESCO in 1994. Its goals include turning silence about slavery into study, identifying and preserving data and contributing to a shared "culture of peace".

"There is much research still to be done here and elsewhere in the country on slavery," said Aka Kouame, a historian at the Felix Houphou毛t-Boigny library.

He heads a multidisciplinary team taking a census of Ivorian sites linked to the slave trade. National authorities would like to see studies published.

The ceremony of purification practised at Kanga Gnianze is still mysterious. Villagers like to think that it is positive.

"The slaves arrived here weary and this purification gave them the energy, the resistance to carry on," declared Aubin Kouassi Yapi, rocking his 18-month-old son on his knees.

Yapi, 34, says he got the story from his grandfather and will one day tell his son. "This monument is a good thing. So that we remember," he adds.

But for Aka Kouame, the ceremony may have been "like in other places in Togo ... aimed at taming the slaves to make them more docile before they leave" Africa behind forever.

"This remains to be shown," the professor added.

He evoked the European slave treaty that led to the deaths of thousands of Africans and the deportation in appalling conditions of more than 10 million men and women to the Americas.

Even when slavery was abolished in the west, pacts on the trade among Africans were fulfilled, Aka Kouame said.

"The need to remember ... must enable peoples to rebuild," Ivorian Vice-President Daniel Kablan Duncan said. "It's a means of contributing to the culture of peace."

- 'Still connected' -

A small delegation of Afro-Americans took part in the ceremony, including Kelly Page Jibrell, a native of Washington DC who has spent two years working in Ivory Coast's shea butter business.

The members had undergone DNA tests and learned that their ancestors came from Ivory Coast.

"It's fantastic. I have been doing work ... for two years before I knew I had DNA connecting me to the very place," said Jibrell.

With an eye on her six-year-old son Aden, she exclaimed that she initially turned down DNA tests because she "believed in a pan-African identity", but then she grew too curious "to know my roots."

"It feels like an honour," Jibrell exclaimed after passing through the water. "After all these centuries, our blood, our spririt are still connected, and we're celebrating that today."