In May 2018, a friend in Colorado that works as a marine archeologist for the National Parks Service offered me the opportunity to join him and the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) team in Mozambique on their planned trip there in November 2018. I had no idea if the trip would come to fruition and knew very little about the project itself, but I knew that I wanted to travel to Africa and why not travel to Mozambique. In August while I was traveling through France, the dates were set and it was confirmed that I could join the team in Mozambique. I had familiarized myself with the SWP work through their website and did a bit of research about Mozambique Island, or Ilha de Moçambique as it is known locally. As the time got closer to arrive in Mozambique, I was included on logistical emails about the travel, packing lists and the different activities that would take place during the 12-day stay on the island. I began to see the names of the people that are part of this global team but I had no context into their roles, and what types of activities they would be doing during the visit.
I and two others traveled on the same flight to Nampula from Johannesburg, South Africa, which included Dave, my friend from Colorado and Vanessa, a marine archeologist from South Africa. I watched in awe as their equipment started to come in on the luggage belt, enormous cases of expensive equipment that would be used to survey the ocean floor for possible dive sites to search for sunken ships and artifacts. We were met by a local husband and wife team, Ricardo and Yolanda that would assist with customs and bringing the gear to the island (I would quickly learn that these two people were vital to this work in Mozambique). I went through the process of obtaining my Visa, then we set off for the two and a half hour drive to the island. A larger contingent of people arrived two days later and then over the course of the next few days, others arrived from various destinations. This was truly a global team made up of people from the United States, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Zanzibar, all with a shared passion and skills in their respective areas. I was touched by the camaraderie as hugs were exchanged between friends that hadn’t seen other since possibly the last visit to Mozambique Island or Cape Town, or recognition of a name that was now being solidified through a face to face meeting. Introductions were made and I found myself captivated by what I was experiencing. Highly trained and skilled archeologists, historians, scholars, master scuba divers, authors, museum curators and more advanced degrees in one room than you could possibly imagine; all coming together to use their individual skills together with locals to preserve the heritage of the slave trade in Africa.
As a visitor to the project, I was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to learn more about the activities that would unfold throughout the stay and to take in as much as possible. Graciously, a graduate student, Diogo, who has been working in Mozambique for a number of months, took me around the island during my first two days showing me around the historic Fort and church and the new center they are putting together that is used to house the archeology research being done on the island. As we walked around the island, it became apparent that everyone knew Diogo as greetings and conversations in Portuguese erupted. As other people arrived, I joined the first outing that three divers took to do some initial exploration of sites that were mapped during a visit to the island last August. The next day I trekked around with a larger team exploring sites on the island itself that included a tunnel under a school and ruins in a house close by to the school. I have never had the opportunity to watch or participate in any archeology digs as some of my family have done in the U.S. and Mexico but I have walked through a number of forts, castles, and old ruins, throughout Spain, France, and Italy. But now I found myself doing these activities with people highly trained in this field, which was beyond any guided tour imaginable. The small details they noticed like the varied layers of rock, or recognition of the composition of materials, the remnants of a gate, or minuscule details hidden within the floors and walls. After that initial viewing, a smaller group of people went back to those sites with survey equipment to get more precise measurements and explore the area further.
As the days progressed, I have enjoyed watching the entire process unfold. From the duo that goes out every day at six o’clock in the morning, to survey the ocean floor using a magnetometer to identify possible dive sites. To the scuba divers who go to exact GPS locations to look for possible artifacts picked up through the initial survey. The teams who work on the land seeking to better understand rooms, tunnels, and artifacts found in the soil. To keep this work going long after these visitors leave, eight locals have been receiving an intensive dive training course this week and will take their final exam and open water dives this weekend. But that is only a slice of the work as scholars, historians, and curators work with local experts to identify how best to tell this story in the local museum here. This project is committed to developing long-term partnerships through the sharing of information, and the creation of local teams to carry-on this work.
There were a number of other visitors to the team. Tara, who ended up being my roommate, is following the work of this project across many avenues and is writing a year worth of stories, one story per week. I would encourage people to follow this through National Geographic’s Open Explorer work. The former director of the Peace Memorial Museum in Zanzibar, Abdul Sheriff, joined us and participated in a three-day workshop with locals from the Maritime Museum here on the island and we were lucky enough to celebrate his 79th birthday with him.
None of this would be possible if it weren’t for Yolanda and Ricardo, a husband and wife team on the island that has dedicated much of their lives to this work. Their passion is contagious and their knowledge beyond vast. Watching the management and organization of all these different lines of work from boats being available, dive equipment is ready and waiting, trucks to haul people and gear to sites, sharing of historical information and knowing how to get things done on this small, isolated island.
The idea of traveling to Mozambique and to this island, was quite daunting as I was sitting in my rented apartment in Paris imagining what lied ahead for me. What I have experienced is unlike anything I could have dreamed of. My eyes have seen an island that has suffered from years of unrest yet whose people are friendly and appreciative of visitors, whose land holds such history and intrigue, and whose waters provide nourishment and commerce to their people. My head has been expanded through new ideas, knowledge, skills, history, and professions carried out with such passion and diligence for good. My heart has been touched by each and every one of these people. The conversations shared, the passion they exude for their work, and their appreciation for each other is profound. I will be forever grateful for being welcomed into this community and for the experiences I have gained. I look forward to watching their work continue to unfold and for the possibility of seeing them again, somewhere in the world.