Sunday, 13 February 2011

Going back to his Routes (Black Heritage Today 2010-2011)

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Walking along the slave routes of West Africa, Kojo Agyeman Jantuah started on an epic journey to discovering his identity - and his destiny. Here he tells his story, which is being documented in a book soon to be published.

“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”

He was just eleven years old when his mother - from the town of Keta in the south-eastern part of Ghana - and maternal grandmother sat him down and told him the man he’d always regarded as ‘dad’ was not actually his father. His biological father was a member of the royal family of the former Ashanti kingdom. A pharmacist and barrister, he had once been Minister ofAgriculture in the last Cabinet of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Apparently he wanted to see his son.

“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),” says Kojo.

“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 my place in life. My school grades slumped and I found that I couldn't settle back into my mother's family.”

Kojo left home in 1983, shortly after he turned twenty and, with a friend, went
travelling around West Africa through Burkina Faso. Their failed adventure at crossing the Sahara desert into Europe took them back to Ghana through Togo mostly on foot, sleeping rough in the bush or in huts in villages provided for them 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.”

Despite his carefully mapped out future, Kojo’s life changed for good when his
maternal grandfather passed away in October 1983. At his funeral in Keta, he met
relatives who had unusually light complexions. “When I asked my mother
about this, she explained that my greatgrandmother's grandfather was Danish. Her
name had been Augustine Ablewoga Swedstrup, an anglicised 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

Fifteen months later, Kojo and an acquaintance set out across the Sahara. It
was an arduous trip, mentally and physically, and a spiritual experience for
him as the realisation that he was trekking across terrain over which Arab traders had transported enslaved Africans north towards the Mediterranean for centuries,
hit home. It left a lasting impact on him. It took them a month to travel from
Gao in Mali to Ghat in southwestern Libya. They covered the final leg, from Djanet to Ghat, on foot through desolate terrain with a Tuareg guide. It was gruelling.
Kojo and his companions were abandoned by their “merciless” guide when one of them became ill and could not keep up. “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,” he recalls. “We made our way slowly until we turned a corner around a huge boulder and there was a group of western people. I realised that I could trust the inner voice that was leading me through life.”

This experience reinforced the faith that his grandmother and mother had passed on to him. “At one point we rested by some ancient rock art in the Tassili N’ajjer. 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,” he says.

Broke, desolate and realising he needed to make and save money in order to continue his trip, Kojo spent several months working on a farm on the outskirts of Benghazi, Libya, under conditions he says was akin to slavery. “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.”

However, six months later the intrepid traveller borrowed money for a plane ticket to Britain where he began college. In 1994, whilst studying Law at university he 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 he called on some African- American friends that he'd met in Caux and was invited to give talks on African history and motivational sessions to young offenders at a detention centre. His 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,” says Kojo. “I went away with a profound realisation that the plight of the young offenders - who were mostly African-Americans - was linked to the history and legacy of the slave trade.”

He returned to England determined to do something about it and wrote a Master's dissertation on The politics of reconciliation concerning the transatlantic slave trade at the Diplomatic Academy of London. He then organised a successful conference on the theme at the Goodenough College in London in 2001.

On Ghanaian Independence Day in 2003, as Kojo was researching on the Internet on Ghana and the history of his family, he came across information about his Danish great-great-great-grandfather, Lieutenant Johan Wilhelm Svedstrup who, as a young man, had decided to join the Danish forces at the Gold Coast.

Svedstrup was responsible for the arrest of the Akuapem King Addum and his accomplice, the Osu grand interpreter, Sebah Akim, who 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
Carstensen exiled the culprits to Copenhagen.

Johan became a crusader for the abolition of the slave trade and the Commandant of Fort Prinsensten in Keta from 1846 to 1848, and was assigned to Fort Prinsensten to help enforce the abolition. At one point the fort was besieged for several weeks by angry members of the local Anlo tribe, who had profited from the slave trade as sellers of slaves because the slave transports passed through their land. They tried to assassinate the young commander but he fought his way back to his small garrison at the fort. After several months of siege and starvation, a Danish ship, Ørnen, came to their rescue and forced the local chief to quit all slavetrade activities. The Danish king later knighted him for his courage.

Like most of the other male Europeans in Africa at that time, Svedstrup got himself an African wife. She is mentioned under the name Titeli. This kind of intercultural intimacy was an accepted and common practice called - with a Portuguese word - ‘cassareriing’. “When Svedstrup left, he also left Titeli and at least one child. Their situation was not easy because Euro- Africans were not popular among the local people,” says Kojo, “but I don’t blame him.” Kojo was even more determined to go to Scandinavia and search for his Danish roots. It was not easy but eventually he found information on the internet about his great-great-great-grandfather and, after a series of random phone calls during 2003, he succeeded in tracking down some relatives 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,” he reflects.

During the course of his Danish language studies at the International People’s College in Elsinore, a local journalist published some articles referring to Kojo as ‘the Black Svedstrup’. Soon after, under further serendipitous circumstances, Kojo found Johan Svedstrup's gravestone. He also found the place called Svestrup where his Danish ancestors had lived for generations - the place which gave the family its surname.

Kojo is the founder of Healing History,
with programmes such as the Healing History Leadership Programme and Healing History Circles incommunities across the globe. The aims of Healing History are to
foster reconciliation, peace and a positive global environment. It involves the facilitation of individuals and groups from personal change to global influence in aid of sustainable development.

“The focus is on identity, values, understanding and leadership in the global village,” says Kojo. “It is essential to heal histories and legacies of personal, ethnic and global wrongs before moving on. Universal African principles of Sankofa (recovered histories) and Mpatapo (reconciliation) with Saharacoaching (identity equals oneness) - SMS - are used.”

The storytelling programme, which highlights personal transformation, is experiential and interactive. Kojo explains, “It walks alongside you through the darkness of fear, lifts you from blame and guilt, allows you to take responsibility and remember you are not alone. It reveals to you what reconciliation with your core spiritual identity is and equips you with tools to enable effective leadership. The goals of human rights education, equality and diversity, global citizenship, good governance and community cohesion are achieved.”

Participants of the programme include adults of all racial backgrounds in communities, businesses, organisations and young persons in education. There is an ongoing partnership with schools associated with the United Nations’ Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation‘s (UNESCO) Transatlantic Slave Trade schools’ project in Denmark. Kojo hopes that his story - and the fact that he is living proof that some Danes, too, have descendants in Africa - will raise awareness about the legacy of slavery and the continuing need for reconciliation between the descendants of all those involved - those who were taken out of Africa, the Africans who remained behind, Arabs and Europeans who sold and transported them and the slave owners.

“Not only white people are to blame - many African agents on the continent and in the diaspora, not to mention Arab merchants, were engaged in slavery and the slave trade,” says Kojo. “I hope that my story will inspire people to listen to the
inner voice, which has led me on such an amazing journey.”

Kojo’s book will be published in 2012.
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