Volume 18 Number 3
Surprises in My Family Tree
01 June 2005
Walking along the slave routes of West Africa helped Kojo Jantuah to discover his identity-and his destiny.
I was born in Ghana but spent my early years in Tel-Aviv, Israel, where my stepfather was a diplomat. My memories of childhood include the six-day Arab- Israeli War. I still find myself occasionally humming the tune of Yerushalayim shel zahav (Jerusalem of gold). We returned to Accra and, when I was 11, my mother and grandmother sat me down to tell me that my stepfather was not my biological father. My real father was a pharmacist and barrister, who had been Minister of Agriculture in the last Cabinet of Ghana's first President, Kwame Nkrumah. Apparently, he wanted me to come and spend time with him.
I went to live with my father and his family in Kumasi but I couldn't cope with the tensions that arose because of my presence. I returned to my mother's home in Accra after a year, more confused about my identity and place in life. My school grades slumped, and I found that I couldn't settle back into my mother's family.
All of this, and the fact that both my parents had taught me to stand on my own feet, meant that I did not feel I could go to them for money. So shortly after my 20th birthday in April 1983, I left home without telling anyone. I travelled with a friend towards North Africa through Burkina Faso. At Koupela, where Niger, Burkina Faso and Togo meet, we met a German tourist who persuaded us to turn around, because our proposed route was dangerous. Bandits had robbed him.
The three of us headed back towards Ghana through Togo, mostly on foot. We slept in the bush and in huts in villages, provided for us by chiefs and local people. I decided to find work in Ghana, save some money, and try again to cross the Sahara and get to Europe. My mother, who was then a Superintendent of Schools, found a teaching job for me at a local primary school.
My maternal grandfather passed away in October 1983. At his funeral in Keta in the east of Ghana, I met relatives who had unusually light complexions. When I asked my mother about this, she explained to me that my greatgrandmother's grandfather was Danish. Her name had been Augustine Ablewoga Swedstrup, an Anglicized spelling of the Danish name Svedstrup. Keta had been part of Danish Guinea, which Denmark sold to Britain in 1850. I resolved that one day I would visit Denmark to find my Danish roots.
Fifteen months later an acquaintance and I set out across the Sahara. It was an arduous trip, mentally and physically, and a spiritual experience. I realized that I was trekking across terrain over which Arab traders had transported slaves north towards the Mediterranean for centuries.
It took us a month to travel from Gao in Mali to Ghat in southwestern Libya. We covered the final leg, from Djanet to Ghat, on foot through desolate terrain, with a Tuareg guide.
This experience reinforced the faith that my grandmother and mother had passed on to me. At one point we rested by some ancient rock art in the Tassili N'Ajjers. I was so exhausted that I took out my small Bible and read Psalm 23. The verse reflected the environment: 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.'
Later on three of us lagged behind because the young man who had come with me from Ghana had developed piles and was finding it hard to keep up. The merciless guide went on without us and we lost our way in the scorching heat of the desert. This area was rocky and mountainous. Fear gripped all of us: we knew that people had perished by getting lost here.
We made our way slowly until we turned a corner around a huge boulder and there was a group of western people. I approached one of the men, who directed us to a path that would lead us to catch up with the rest of our party. It turned out that he came from the same town in Germany as the friend with whom I had travelled through Togo. I realized that I could trust the inner voice that was leading me through life.
I spent several months working on a farm on the outskirts of Benghazi, Libya, under conditions akin to slavery, in order to save money to continue my trip. In the autumn of 1985, when a US threat to bomb Libya loomed, I flew to East Berlin, where I surprised my uncle at the Ghanaian Embassy where he was Ambassador. He was a veteran diplomat and politician, and he persuaded me to return to Ghana.
Six months later, I borrowed the money for a plane fare to Britain, and started to work my way through college. In 1994, when I was studying Law at university, I responded to an advert for volunteers to man the kitchen and dining room at the IofC international conference centre in Caux, Switzerland. I spent the summer there, and was reintroduced to the idea of following the inner voice. The idea resonated with me.
Subsequently, during a visit to the United States, I called on some African American friends that I'd met in Caux and was invited to give talks on African history and motivational sessions to young offenders at a detention centre. My subject matter inevitably involved the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The official in charge later told me that he had noticed positive behavioural changes in the young people who had taken part in the sessions. I went away with a profound realization that the plight of the young offenders, who were mostly African Americans, was linked to the history and legacy of the slave trade. I returned to England determined to do something about it.
I wrote a Master's dissertation on 'The politics of reconciliation concerning the transatlantic slave trade' and organized a successful conference on the theme at the Goodenough College in London in 2001.
On Ghanaian Independence Day in 2003, as I was researching on the Internet on Ghana and the history of my family, I came across information about my Danish great-great-great-grandfather, Johan Wilhelm Svedstrup. He was a crusader for the abolition of the slave trade and the Commandant of Fort Prinsenten in Keta from 1846-1848.
Svedstrup was responsible for the arrest of the Akuapem King Addum and his accomplice, the Osu grand interpreter Sebah Akim. They had sacrificed two children of a rival chief by cutting their throats in a fetish ceremony and smearing their blood over their big war drum. As punishment, the Danish governor exiled the culprits to Copenhagen.
Svedstrup had been assigned to Fort Prinsenten to help enforce the abolition of the slave trade. At one point the fort was besieged for several weeks by angry members of the Anlo tribe, who had profited from the slave trade both as sellers of slaves and because the slave transports passed through their land. The Danish king later knighted him for his courage.
After a series of random phone calls, I succeeded in tracking down some relations in Denmark. They sent me a copy of a letter written in 1948 by Svedstrup's grandson, a Danish judge, to members of my mother's family who had made contact with him. It struck me as serendipitous that the address on this letter was familiar: friends I had met in Caux lived in the next block of flats in Copenhagen.
SLAVE TRADE LEGACY
I now work as a life coach for school and college students of African and Caribbean origin in the London boroughs of Bromley and Croydon: the first project of its kind in the UK. I commute from Copenhagen, where I am writing a book about my journey.
I hope that my story will raise awareness about the legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the continuing need for reconciliation between the descendants of all those involved-the slaves, the Africans, Arabs and Europeans who sold and transported them, and the slave owners. I've been working to establish a doctrine of collective culpability as a basis for reconciliation and development.
I hope too that my story will inspire people to listen to the inner voice, which has led me on such an amazing journey.
(c) 2005 Kojo A Jantuah-all rights reserved