I first read this story by LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Francine Kelley on her Facebook page, and the grief, power and joy of it brought me to tears. With her permission, we share it here.
So there is a story to this photo I’d like to tell, especially for all those who donated so I could go to Ouidah, Benin, last summer. I volunteer every year in Chicago to teach yoga to a group of girls from Niger and Benin with a fabulous not-for-profit called Expanding Lives (EL). Each summer, four different young women, the first in their families to go to secondary (high) school, come to Chicago to learn skills including leadership, peer mediation, women’s health, entrepreneurship, computer skills and yoga. They take what they learn home to their villages to share with the young girls there. Last summer EL organized a conference for alumnae of the program in Ouidah, Benin and I was one of the volunteers who went, to teach yoga and women’s health. This photo is from one of the cultural experiences from that trip.
This stretch of beach is at the end of the Route Des Esclaves – the Route of the Slaves from the slave market in Ouidah to where the ships would take the slaves away. Where I’m looking would have been what they saw, plus a large ship and a tiny canoe which would take them across the rough waves to the ship. Many had never seen (or heard) the ocean before, and Mami Wata is fierce here. It must have been terrifying, especially in the dark (they were taken at night to avoid escape) and after days of trekking through the wilderness in shackles.
I thought this was going to be a brutal experience for me, but it turned out to be very different than I expected. It was raining when we got to the slave market – the start of the route – and our guide said we would go anyway because the slaves didn’t have a choice of the weather. Knowing I had a rain jacket in my bag I contemplated leaving it there until I heard a deep and resounding internal “No!” From that point on my ancestors were with me. They let me know in no uncertain terms that it was because of their survival that I was able to take this walk – in freedom and of my own volition – and that under no circumstances was I to turn this experience into an act of suffering.
Throughout the entire journey they kept repeating. “We survived!” And I knew that this experience would forever transform my perspective on my ancestral history. Previously I thought of my history as one of enslavement and oppression. But along this journey I was reminded that indeed it is a history of survival. Through all the brutality they endured, they survived. And because of their grit in the face of adversity, I am alive.
When we got to the water, I put my feet in and was greeted immediately by Mami Wata the goddess of the ocean. In our conversation, she reminded me that there is power in my lineage and that I should never forget the strength of my ancestry. In that moment I lost track of time and space. I felt the triumph and power of my ancestry, the power and absolute love of the goddess and the power of my own form rooted in the earth/sand. It was amazing – the completion of a cycle.
I went to Benin to teach yoga and returned with a gift beyond anything I could have imagined.
Francine Kelley, LFYP, LCPC, SEP, E-RYT is a body-centered psychotherapist in Chicago. Francine’s work joyfully and effectively combines the principles and practices of LifeForce Yoga with the somatic awareness approaches of Somatic Experiencing. This mindful, collaborative approach helps trauma survivors to feel empowered to manage their own emotional states, move beyond limiting habitual responses and achieve greater self-awareness, acceptance and peace. Francine can be reached at email@example.com. More information about Expanding Lives can be found at www.expandinglives.org.