Badagry, Nigeria, a small fishing village near the Eastern border of Benin, was not in my Lonely Planet guidebook — or any others. None of the Nigerian tourist magazines featured it. When I mentioned this former slave port to young, cosmopolitan Lagosians they looked at me quizzically. My reasons for wanting to visit Badagry were not exactly clear to my fixer, Olukayode, either. But once I saw on TripAdvisor that a ‘Historic Day Tour of Badagry Town from Lagos’ existed, I decided that I would make it there.
Nearly 15 years prior, I had written about the launch of ‘Freedom Schooner Amistad’ which had taken a 14,000-mile transatlantic voyage to retrace the Triangle slave trade. It finished at Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, a relatively unknown former slave “castle” on Africa’s West Coast, where purveyors and merchants did business. The region was lined with these places; they provided a window into what American historians have named the ‘peculiar institution’. For a contemporary black history researcher to discover that Nigeria also had a slave barracoon was akin to Indiana Jones finding the Dead Sea Scrolls.
My plan’s only hitch: access. Olukayode — at my service courtesy of the Lagos City Marathon, which I had run and on which I had reported — consulted his fixers, who brought in their fixers, and so far, no plan. But the Lagos state government had made Badagry — the place where once-free Africans took their first steps into a lifetime of bondage — a national historical site. Wouldn’t the regime want everyone to see it?
Sort of. Two days before I left, the fixers came through, but it wasn’t an easy journey down that heavily trafficked, massively pot-holed, half-concrete, half-dirt ‘highway’ 35 kilometers from Lagos.
The Badagry Slave Museum, a tin-roofed, three-building compound with a large bas-relief of shackled slaves in its walls, stood along a wide lagoon that led to the ocean. As I looked around for a docent, shop or ticket office, I noticed that most of the ten or so people around me, who also lived there, seemed more interested in their household chores than in local tourism. Minutes later, however, an enthusiastic young man named Tobi, wearing a Real Madrid jersey, long dreadlocks and an fervent countenance, appeared. He was willing — almost too willing — to be our ‘state-sanctioned’ tour guide, he said. With few prospects, we hired him.
Tobi first took us past another bas-relief of ‘European Products,’ — sculpted items, such as an umbrella, a gun and two actual empty booze bottles — once used to trade for African people. Next, we poked our heads into the three little rooms: the home and barracoon of Sereki Williams Abass, a former slave who had returned to Badagry from Brazil to become a slave merchant, the richest man in West Africa and eventually, a powerful chief. ‘He was buried in the place where he kept his slaves’, Tobi said in opaque English, as if that made Abass’ participation in the trade more palatable. I snapped Tobi’s picture among disintegrating photographs of Abass and Wikipedia printouts about Abass that, someone had pasted to the wall.
Tobi next brought us to the ‘Point of No Return’ — a long beach where slaves boarded the ships for their Atlantic journey. Along the way, we saw a peculiar site: the half-finished ‘Eko Theatre’, one of six coastal venues designed by the firm Eko Atlantic to bring tourism and entertainment to Badagry and its sister villages across Lagos state. Workers labored steadily in overwhelming heat, cooled with water and Coke sold by an industrious villager who nursed an infant and an old dog, earning probably less than $3 per day. We paused for a minute at one of several wooden ‘Journey to the Unknown Destination’ signs and drank soda, while pondering the haphazardness of it all.
To be fair, it probably wasn’t very generous of me to place my New York ideals on a tourist town in remote Western Africa. A few years back, I had visited the Jordan Archeological Museum, built in 1951 on the grounds of the Amman Citadel, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The Museum was deserted and held priceless prehistoric relics — even the Dead Sea Scrolls — in loose, plexiglass cases with yellowing, hand-typed placards. But in 2014, the kingdom — recognizing the value of its history, as well as the money that could be made off that history — opened the Jordan Museum, its state-of-the-art ‘storyteller’ featuring interactive exhibits, a huge research library and nice-sized tourist shop.
As Jordan, Nigeria is a middle-income country, ranked 23rd in the world in purchasing power. It has a lively, robust and diverse economy. It also has the funds to invest in tourist destinations such as Badagry. Instead, money flows into Nigeria, siphons out through kickbacks on ill-conceived projects by firms like Eko Atlantic — owned by the well-connected Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury — and literally pools in the backrooms of mansions scattered throughout. The sons and daughters of the affluent seem content with the status quo. The day after I visited run-down Badagry, I attended an exceedingly posh polo tournament at the Ikoyi Club in the middle of Lagos. As caterers passed around glasses of Verve Cliquot, Nigerian players showed off their horses, and recently returned spectators — educated in England, Canada and the US — sipped and dished about the latest gallery opening. Never mind the squalor of the slums just two miles away.
It was an enigmatic moment for me, as I tried to square the wealth in my midst with my last hour in Badagry. Tobi had wanted to take us to more slavery and colonial sites for a little more cash. But I’d seen enough. The American black author, James Baldwin, once wrote, ‘It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself… before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.’ I had seen the palpable legacy of slavery and colonialism in Badagry, then play out on the grounds of the Lagos Polo Club, a green island in one of the most polluted, corrupt cities on earth. But modern servitude looks nothing like the shackles of the 17th century.