Dordt College News

Experiencing history through writing

May 10, 2009

Tassneem Ibrahim

What was so special about Highland, Iowa?

Sitting on a tombstone in a cemetery in the old Sioux County ghost town one morning, I let my thoughts wander—who was it, in the grave below me? What struggles had this person faced? What was the cause of his death? What was his story?

As I sat there it felt as though history was talking to me, as if the bones of the corpse somewhere beneath me were trying to tell me something of what they had endured, something of great magnitude. History was crying out to me as it had once done before, about two and a half years ago on another continent, in another country far from here. Strangely enough, sitting on a grave at Highland, Iowa, reminded me of the time I visited Elmina Castle in Ghana in January 2006.

It was over 110 degrees farenheit that day, and my body was drenched in sweat. I was on a high school class trip, so it was mandatory that I go on all these “site seeing” tours. One of them happened to be a visit to the historic Elmina Castle.

On the hour-long, hot, rickety bus ride to the castle, we were told Elmina was built by the Portuguese in 1482, the oldest European building in existence below the Sahara desert. As I listened to my iPod, joked with my friends, and tried to soak up the little breeze that went my way, I couldn't have cared less about ancient European buildings. 

We got out of the bus and were practically blinded by the brilliant sun. A guide began rattling off historical facts. “The slaves, often captured in the African interior by the slave-catchers of coastal tribes, were sold to Portuguese traders in exchange for goods such as textiles and horses. The slaves were held captive in the castle ….” Blah, blah, blah. I was a kid, a high school kid.

And then our tour began.

Our guide informed us that a building situated right in front of the courtyard was a Portuguese Catholic church. When the Dutch took over the castle, they divided that church into two floors, the top floor being used as a mess hall and the bottom as a trade hall.

Slowly, I began to take the tour seriously. I wondered how could it have been Christians who owned the castle? They dared to have a church right in the midst of a slave trade?

A skull was built into the wall over a door in a room called the “Death Cell.” The guide shut the door, and all I could see was a tiny hole of light. It was pitch black and humid, and the cell had absolutely no ventilation. We stayed in there for less than a minute; I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was like to be left to die in a place like Elmina Castle in Ghanathat. I could practically taste the blood and feces from the people who had died in this room.

Africans were placed in this cell and kept there until they died of starvation. Sometimes the cell was packed with so many people that they could only stand shoulder to shoulder. I began to look around at the tourists. Some were white. For a brief second a rush of hatred ran through me. I wanted these tourists to suffer for the sins of their fathers.

The “Door of No Return” was a space purposely built so small that only one person at a time could pass through. From the time it was built in 1452, until the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade almost 400 years later, more than 30 million people of African descent passed through it or similar spaces  to board ships that took them mainly to the Americas, where they were subdued into slavery and used to build the new world.

We had to bend low to enter. One by one we got in, until all twenty-four of us were cramped in this little room. “Silence,” the guide said, “let us honor the memory of those who walked down this road before.”

The silence was deafening. I could hear the cries, screams, curses, and anguish of a continent being systematically stripped of its human resources. No African who exited through the Door of No Return ever came back to Africa.


So what did Highland, Iowa, an abandoned white town in rural Iowa, offer me that morning? Before I walked away, I turned around, and for a split second I could see a little town with a few white people living simply—people going to church, dressed up in their best outfits. I could hear dogs barking and kids chasing each other and running around. I could feel history and I felt a part of it. I felt as though I had touched the lives of people who once inhabited the place just by being there and taking the time to observe and let my mind wonder.

It was a whole different sort of feeling than what I felt at Elmina Castle, but it was triggered by history, history I felt just by visiting a place once inhabited by people I never knew.

Tass Ibrahim was born in Jos, Nigeria, to an Iraqi mother and Nigerian father. Raised in Nigeria by her mother, she attended Hillcrest High School in Jos. As a digital media major and communication minor, she hopes eventually to go back to Nigeria to work in the film/movie/media industry. She says, “I believe that God has equipped human beings with specific talents and gifts. It is almost impossible to touch and reach the masses without the use of media. Nigerians have so much to offer, and with the right tools and mediums they can be heard.”

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