Ikee Gardner: Visiting Badagry was the most meaningful trip of my life

African-American Ikee Gardner was in Nigeria recently to connect with her African Ancestry. While in Lagos, she took a tour to historic Badagry, a town reputed for being a hub of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in West Africa. [Interview by Pelu Awofeso]

Gardner in a bamboo shed in Epe town, on the Eastern tip of Lagos

When did you begin to nurture the thought to come to Lagos/ Nigeria–and why? 

IG: During my third year of law school, I started researching my family history.  I only knew as far back as my grandparents, and wanted to see how much I could find out.  My research got me back to 1820 on my Mom’s side, but then the paper trail stopped.  I am a Black American woman, and (as you probably already know) during the enslavement of Black people in the Americas, written family records were kept very rarely, if at all.  I wondered what other people in my situation – Black American young people who wanted to know more about their family – were doing to find out more about their past.

Using Google, I found a website called AfricanAncestry.com. For a small investment, this website allows you to analyze your DNA in a lab.  The scientists compare your DNA with catalogued DNA from over 100 tribal groups in various African nations.  When they find a match, they send you a letter with the results.  My letter says it is 98.9% likely I had a Yoruba woman ancestor. I’ve always dreamed of finding the link between myself and whichever of my ancestors was taken into the slave trade.  Since you can’t argue with science, I decided to go to Nigeria to find out more about the slave trade of Yoruba people in Nigeria.

Gardner with Anago James Akeem Osho, a local guide in Badagry. She is being told the history and operations of the slave cells.

Visiting Badagry was top on your To-Do List. Why was that? 

IG: As soon as I received the letter containing my genetic results, I started reading tons of books and articles about Yorubaland.  I went to the library and took home two giant grocery bags full of books (lol!).  When I read that Badagry was a site of slave trading for many years and that it was located in Yorubaland, I knew I had to visit.

Can you relive your feelings and experiences while you toured Badagry? 

IG: It was a very odd experience.  I wanted to be emotional, but at the same time, I knew at least two hundred years separated me from any person I could possibly share blood with who was subjected to the slave trade.  Also, my family members wanted to see the photos, so I wanted to spend more time in documenting the trip and in photographing it than feeling emotional.  I do think that, if the genetic test is right and if I did have a Yoruba woman ancestor, that she’s proud of me.  I hope so!

And you didn’t just visit Badagry: you also had a letter with you, which you read out, before dropping it into the Atlantic. What was the reason behind that ritual, so to speak and how did you feel that the mission was accomplished? 

Garner holds a string of chains, one of the preserved relics of the slavery years.

IG: My trip to Badagry was based on the theory that the DNA test was accurate.  If a Yoruba woman was in my family (and likely subjected to the slave trade) I wanted to write to her, to let her know I was here.  I wanted her to hear me say “thank you.”  That thank you had to come from my whole family, since we share the same DNA.  I asked one of my family members to help me write the letter, and put all our names on it. It was very important to me to put the letter in the Atlantic.  Ships set forth from Badagry and crossed the Atlantic, after which the surviving people became enslaved in the U.S., Brazil, Cuba, or wherever they landed.  The Nigerian side of the ocean was the appropriate place to let the letter rest.

What was it like processing your travel documents?
IG: Ha – it was highly stressful!  I am so glad I had a college friend living in Lagos to help me through the process.  I was required to send letters to the Nigerian consulate, verify my financial status, and verify that I had someone in Nigeria to support me during my travels.  Actually, Nigeria is the first country I’ve visited which required me to get a tourist visa – and I’ve spent over a year and a half of my life traveling the globe.

I assume that you would have heard—in the news, from the US Government Travel Alert or from friends—that Nigeria may be unsafe for foreigners. Was this the case? If yes, what was your reaction? 

IG: I knew that only the northern parts of Nigeria were threatened by Boko Haram.  I have tons of Nigerian friends, mostly Yoruba and Ibo, and knew of two people who had recently visited southern Nigeria by seeing their Facebook photos.  My friend from college was also living in Lagos, so I knew it was safe to come.

Aside from visiting Badagry, Gardner also toured other places of interest in Lagos like the LUFASI Nature Park (pictured).

What were your impressions after spending days in Lagos and returning to the US? 

IG: Lagos is an amazing city.  Lagos is a difficult city.  Lagos has so much potential to be an international travel destination, except for the bureaucracy involved in getting a visa and the difficulty navigating the city without a friend or family member there.  Because I am confident in the results from the lab, this was the most meaningful trip of my life.  I can never be Nigerian, because I was not born there, nor do I have Nigerian parents.  However (according to the DNA testing anyway) I have Nigerian blood.  So, no other trip will ever be as important as my trip to Lagos and Badagry.

 What has happened since you returned to the US as per your visit to Nigeria?

IG: The trip has been so eye-opening for my whole family.  We’ve sat down as a family to go through the pictures and hear the stories from the trip.   I want to say that I could not have done it without Travel Next Door, the travel company that planned and organized my tour to Badagry.