Have you ever been to a slave museum?
What if I told you there was an island with a reggae musician who doubles as a tour guide?
Would you like to listen to the lyrics of his songs?
Or what he has to say about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Badagry, Nigeria?
Cornerstone is such a man. As he drains light colored beer from a glass, I pull up the chair across from his table and sit.
“Should I get you a drink?” He asks. I am thirsty for his story, so I decline the offer. We are at a budget hotel on a tour of this historic town. I am itching to know Cornerstone’s real name.
“Eyama. Simon Stone Eyama”, he tells me. “I go by Cornerstone because it is symbolic to my music and the Zionist movement.”
We are not slaves is one of the tracks from Cornerstone’s soon to be released debut album. He sings about going back to African roots and shedding Western intervention. The change in his name stands in stark irony to these lyrics.
At the Seriki Faremi Williams Abass Museum, Cornerstone explains to the group that a slave loses his name.
Williams was the name of the Brazillian slave owner that bought Seriki Faremi as a child, while Abass was added on when he was sold to a Dahomey slave trader.
As Cornerstone shows us a worn mirror, a tattered umbrella, and other goods given in exchange to local slave traders for upwards of ten human lives, I mull over what is in a name.
This man who the museum is named after is much revered.
All his names are engraved in the tombstone erected at the far end of the museum’s compound.
Should Seriki Abass be regarded as a hero or villain? That is the unanswered question.
I want to ask Cornerstone, but he hurries off to give another group a tour. It is the last I see of him until the following day.
He is to accompany us on a boat ride to Gberefu Island where the slaves were herded off to before being transported by docked ships to lands unknown to them. This route is known as the Point of No Return.
What begins as a long arduous trek from when we disembark ends with stories about a mystical well called The Attenuation Well. Its water was believed to have a mind altering effect. All the slaves that walked this route drank its water, not regaining their memories until several months had passed.
Cornerstone dares us to drink the water to see if it is still potent. No one in the group succumbs and the walk continues.
It ends at the Arch of Departure, a point supported by two worn pillars. These pillars bade farewell to the 3,000 slaves that were bought each day from Gberefu Island and sold at the Vlekete Slave Market.
I recall the excruciating weight of the brass shackles placed on my neck at the museum. They were the same ones the slaves wore as they trekked to the island and were carted away on ships. I think of the baby shackles also on exhibit. It is hard not to cry.
During our chat at the hotel the previous day Cornerstone told me, “if I was not here, I would not have been able to record these songs.” He had spent 4 years in this former slave town after relocating from his home country of Togo to Lagos. “Music is the movement,” was Cornerstone’s summation of the journeys he had undertaken before arriving at this point in his life.
Badagry’s history of the slave trade had introduced him to abolitionists. Their work had struck a chord in the music he now made. In Stone Thrower a track set to the tune of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, he sings about Harry Tubman, John Brown, and William Wilberforce.
I look for an escape from the outpour of heavy emotions after the tour, decline an afternoon swim and take a cab from Bereko heading towards Ikoga Junction. In Badagry, cabs pick up passengers in groups of five, four squeezed in the backseat with one person comfortably seated in the passenger seat.
I think about how Seriki Abass got the legroom beside the driver once he was liberated from his Brazilian slave owner. He then captured his kinsmen, cramping them in tiny cells as he orchestrated the slave trade in the region for his Dahomey master.
As the cab speeds along the Badagry expressway, I get a whiff of sweet smelling, hot peppers. A woman is on her way to prepare for the town’s market day. I welcome the thought of a pepper trade over slaves.