A Day in Salaga, the famed West African Slave Market

We fueled for our big trip to Salaga by stopping for breakfast at our usual place in town. We started the journey to Salaga, passing through many small villages, some with dirt road bumps. About 2 hours later, we arrived and were greeted by some of the town’s leaders.

We quickly walked through the village and set up under a mango tree to interview Alhaji Mohammed Yakubu, a former slave, being born to a father who was still serving his master, Alhaji. The section of town where we interviewed had come to be known as Nguan Alhaji, the town quarter of Alhaji to the community.

The interview was led by Prof. Iddrisu interspersed with questions from students from our group. He provided us with an oral history of his experiences in search of his roots. He recounted his recollection of his journey to find his father’s home village, Ulu in present day Upper Region of Ghana, an area known for slave raids in the 18 and into the 19th century. His father was a household slave of Alhaji in Salaga. The elderly Mohammed Yakubu recalls that he grew to find his father a slave and thus he was also a slave. He was able to grow his own crops and eventually gained freedom.

With Mohammed Yakubu, a descendent

Once in a while, Prof. Iddrisu allowed us during the interview to ask questions. How does the past shaped your perspectives on life today? For so many years, Mohammed Yakubu recalls, his father refused to divulge information on his original village, or where he was taken slave. When asked why his father refused to tell them. Mohammed Yakubu said invoked what might be termed a conversion narrative. The father saw his slave experience as a journey in salvation, from being a heathen to a Muslim. And a return to the past will simply be back sliding into infidel territory. But, the family into which they claimed to have come from, are now dominated by Muslims. In any case, Mohammed and his children have made the journey to the Upper West Region and now reunited with the family. Several questions still longer and answers would be found when we interrogate the interview transcript.

He’s made six visits to Ulu with his children since 1998. We asked if having further knowledge of his past makes the history of slavery more or less painful. To our surprise, he explained that there was no pain involved because we are all humans and should be able to talk about the past regardless of the stigmas others may have. But then, there are many other families in Salaga with slave ancestry who refused to talk with us. Could it be a bigger burden with such knowing, burdens such as shame, quilt or both. It could even be letting bygone be bygones and just think about what today and tomorrow brings. A clean cut with the past then. But then, their houses are still known by many, and that knowledge is not going anywhere soon.

We were led next to the “cemetery” of slaves that died while in Salaga. There used to be a big tree where the dead bodies were laid with no ceremony of respect or proper burial. An elder woman came out to preform a ceremony of libation to honor the spirits of those who had passed. She poured milk and maize on to the base of a new, small tree, marking the place where the old tree had been. The old tree fell in 2014. A visitor arrived to the town a year later hoping to see the tree. Upon discovering the tree had fallen, they donated a memorial plaque honoring those who had given their lives.

We then visited the slavery museum to see the few artifacts of slavery that were preserved by the town. It was a brief, but impactful experience to see the chains, shackles, pottery and some weapons that were recovered from the era of slavery. The lack of artifacts is partly due to individuals keeping these artifacts in their home instead of trusting them to the museum to add to the conversation of the past.

While driving through the town, we passed by a large herd of cattle. Abdulai asked if anyone wanted a cow. A few of us, jokingly, responded, “yes!” Before we knew it, Abdulai got out of the bus, waving us on, saying, “let’s go.” We all went out to greet the cows and the herders. 

We later discovered that we were actually stopping to see a metal bar stuck in the ground that was placed there by the Germans during construction and since then, nobody has been able to remove it. This was during the period when parts of Northern Ghana were classified as “neutral zone” to Germany, France and Brittany in 1880s.

it was time to visit the chief of Salaga. He told us about other visitors that had come to learn about Salaga and asked us to share our experiences with others in the future. He granted us permission to do as we please in the town, and offered us kola as a symbol of our welcome. He graciously took a picture with our group and gave us well wishes for the rest of our travels.

Finally, we visited the tree that marked the center of Salaga as well as where the slaves were chained to be auctioned off. There was a big sign that read,, “Welcome to the Salaga Slave Market.” It was shocking to see this sign advertising the slave trade, especially because the sights we had visited earlier were so lacking in any clear recognition of their significance to history.

The lack of recognition of this significance serve to remind us of the inherent silences in the slave trade.

Salaga is known for being the biggest slave market in West Africa, but it is also known as the town of 1,000 wells. On our way out of town, we stopped to view the numerous wells and baths that Salaga is famous for. We had a nice lunch on the bumpy bus ride back to Tamale.

Other pictures of interest

Written by Andrea, Kosey, and Oscar