On March 29th, I was delighted to welcome to Drayton Hall, for the first time, a group of delegates from Guinea, West Africa, and their guide, Dr. Ken Kelly, an anthropologist from the University of South Carolina. The impetus for their visit was an archaeological project by Dr. Kelly investigating a series of sites associated with the slave trade along the west coast of Africa, especially the one on the Rio Pongo, a coastal river of Guinea. The visitors came to see firsthand the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade and to explore the connections in culture and history forged during the 18th and 19th centuries between coastal regions of West Africa and South Carolina. Their itinerary also included a meeting with Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston and visits to Middleton Place and Caw Caw Interpretive Center, operated by Charleston County Parks and Recreation. Drayton Hall was fortunate indeed to be included in this effort to gain insights into this dark chapter of our shared histories.
Organized by Dr. Ken Kelly and historian Jane Aldrich, historical consultant here in Charleston, the group consisted of Ahmed Tijane Cisse, Minister of Culture and Heritage from the republic of Guinea, El Hadj Ibrahima Fall, the Rector of the Nelson Mandela University in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, and Mr. Moussa Fofana, the son of the Chief of Farenya, plus several of Dr. Kelly’s graduate students. Since French is the national language of Guinea, an interpreter was needed. Although I spoke French fluently 40 years ago, I’ve become somewhat rusty, so I was delighted to have Dr. Kelly’s wife, Cecile, as our interpreter. She spoke beautiful French, and the visit gave me the opportunity to converse in French from time to time, which I enjoyed thoroughly.
For their visit, I was hoping that our learning could become a two-way street, that an ongoing relationship could be developed, and that we could sustain the dialogue. Thus when our guests arrived, I showed them around the site and explained about the development of African-American culture in the Lowcountry, but also sought to learn as much as possible about traditional life in contemporary Guinea and about possible ongoing connections between our two regions.
Much of my inquiry was inspired by my time in Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1968. While there, I saw firsthand traditions in rural villages practiced by Africans and African Americans during slavery and after freedom. As we began our discussions, our talk centered around the topography of these two geographically similar areas. When one looks at aerials (Fig.1) of the Lowcountry juxtaposed against the topography of the coastal region of Guinea, it is apparent that these two coastal regions are geographically similar. We discussed with the Guineans the idea that when enslaved peoples were brought from Africa, they found themselves in a place that at least visually looked like their native Africa.
The discussion took an interesting turn as we spoke about how topography and the introduction of malaria shaped development patterns in the Lowcountry. As malaria was endemic to coastal Africa, enslaved Africans had more resistance to the deadly disease while Northern European settlers were more likely to succumb, thus minimizing the efficacy and profitability of white indentured servants and maximizing that of enslaved Africans.
Our discussion then shifted to medicine and to the Conakry National Museum and its major collection of masks and fetishes relating to traditional African medicine. So often the portrayal of this type of medicine is characterized by witch doctors and voodoo. During my time in Togo, I became close friends with Monsieur Daniel, a traditional medicine man, and would occasionally accompany him on his rounds to family compounds in the nearby villages. What he demonstrated was counter to the traditional stereotypes of African medicine from Tarzan-like movies. He would take
with him his bag of medicines and along the way might gather roots, bark, or leaves from plants and mix them into potions. He began his examination with prayer, and before administering to a skin sore, for example, he would first nick himself and apply the salve to himself, and then to the patient. If the problem was a stomach issue, and the medicine was a liquid, he would first drink the potion, then give it to the patient, and conclude with a respectful prayer. There were successful remedies, but if they weren’t, Monsieur Daniel would recommend U.N. clinic in the village to his patients, although the clinic did not reciprocate. All of this showed how we needed to gather as much information as we could about these traditional practices and not simply to dismiss them as “superstitions.” In fact, Mr. Cisse explained that progress has been made in that direction and that in modern Guinean hospitals today, there are Western trained doctors working alongside traditional African healers. This exemplifies the type of cross cultural exchange that is so necessary for us to understand one another’s history, and I was glad to hear of it.
As we spoke, I remembered my many discussions with Richmond Bowens, who was born here in 1908 and who was a wonderful source of oral history. Among his recollections were accounts of traditional medical practices of the African American families at Drayton Hall. We had audiotaped Richmond as he went from plant to plant, explaining their medicinal uses, and he concluded by pointing to the woods and stating simply, “This was our drugstore when I was growing up.” While plants differed, of course, from Africa and traditions had been exchanged with others over time, it is amazing to think that these traditional ways of thinking and of turning to nature for medicine had been brought over on slave ships to Drayton Hall and persisted into the 20th century.
We also discussed rice cultivation, as Guinea is located on what is often referred to as the Rice or Grain Coast of Africa. Even today, rice is grown there on the wet coastlands, and as they described the methods used, they sounded familiar to the practices used at Drayton Hall in centuries past. In order to control water levels in the diked fields of rice, for example, they used a hollowed-out tree trunk with a control door at each end. Although the trunk used at Drayton Hall differed from this African one, the principles of operation were similar.
After a lengthy discussion, we toured the grounds, starting at the Connections Tent. The Guineans immediately spotted the sweet grass baskets as well as the similar African baskets of woven grass brought here from Senegal by anthropologist Dr. Deborah Mack. Mr. Fall told us that these baskets are still made and used in Guinea for a variety of purposes, including as fanner baskets for rice. They also recognized a mortar and pestle reproduction that we use for demonstrating hand milling of rice. The Guineans said that these methods are still used in rural villages today, though they use two slightly different versions than ours. One has a wider mouth and was used for the removal of the husk from the kernel, while the second, with a more narrow mouth, was used to remove the bran.
We then headed into the main house for a tour, where archaeologist Sarah Stroud had set up an exhibit of 18th century colonoware from Drayton Hall. Our guests were excited by this exhibit as they explained that low-fired pottery like this was still made in villages in Guinea, and described the two-to-three day process villagers used to create it. They also recognized one jar in particular from Drayton Hall’s collection that is still used today in their country to burn incense for funeral services or simply to freshen up their homes. The same vessel was also used by doctors to prepare and administer medicinal potions. When I asked why that form was preferred, they said they didn’t know, just that traditional doctors preferred them. Thus the Guineans and Dr. Kelly were able to suggest a possible interpretation of an anonymous 18th-century colonoware sherd artifact from Drayton Hall, one that connects it to the people who made it and their culture, a possible interpretation hard to come by otherwise and that now can be tested.
The visit was such an exciting exchange of dialogue, and I think we learned as much from the Guineans as they learned from us about Drayton Hall’s history. I was honored to be invited to Guinea to conduct fieldwork on the traditional practices we discussed and to get actual video documentation of them being performed. Although I doubt such an endeavor would be possible for me, I truly hope that some time in the near future, this can be accomplished by Dr. Kelly or by Guineans themselves. In our fast-paced and modern world, we have an imperative to document and record as many of these traditional practices as we can in order to study these cultures and their ongoing connections, so that we can learn from them, and in turn they can learn from us. Although this was the first time we had received visitors from Guinea, I truly hope that it will not be the last.