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How Christianity Played Major Role In The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

How Christianity Played Major Role In The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Slavery existed in most ancient cultures and still exists in varied forms in some countries today. Slavery was publicly utilized to build wealth in ancient and modern cultures, but it is now considered an act of injustice against mankind. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was no exception. Christians who claimed to put God’s compassion and humanity at the center of their faith were engaging in such heinous business operations to make money. 

The church’s involvement in this business enterprise appears to be contradictory to its aim of love for all people. The motivations for the church’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade are examined in this paper. It traces the biblical origins of the slave trade in relation to societal attitudes toward riches. It looks at how the church’s concept of slavery was molded by the Judaeo-Christian scriptures and the Greco-Roman culture, how the church perceived slavery, and the reasons for its involvement.

Slave Trade as a Form of Injustice Against Humanity

The extent to which slavery has been unjust and inhumane to society cannot be fully discussed. People’s freedom and rights to live as human beings were taken away by slavery. Some of the plaques in the castles show that slaves were denied their human rights. One of them mentions how these slaves were kept in such filthy and inhumane conditions. Slaves were only given enough food to keep them alive. Small conduits were uncovered on the dungeons’ floors, which, according to the tour guides, were supposed to convey their feces and urine into the sea. The consequence of the slave trade is stated on a plaque in the Cape Coast castle, “may humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity.”

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In the dungeons, many slaves died. Some slaves were imprisoned in castles and sentenced to death for activities that the slaveholders considered punishable. In the castles, several female slaves were sexually molested. Slaves were treated and transported as though they were commodities. Before and during their journey across the oceans, they were “shackled in chains like beasts, underfed”. Slave ships were crowded with men, women, and children to the point where they became “floating coffins,” with half of the slaves dying of sickness and cruelty. During the Atlantic journey, some slaves committed suicide. Slaves were turned into commercial goods once they arrived at their respective ports. To attract purchasers, they had to be displayed in slave marketplaces. When the slaves arrived at the slave masters’ mansion, they were conscripted into inhumane and brutal labor.

People were stripped of their traditional religious rituals, disconnected from their cultural roots, and “robbed of their sense of place in the world” as a result of the slave trade.

Slaves were ripped from their native civilizations and introduced to their masters’ alien ones. They finally realized that they didn’t fit into their slave masters’ society. They were victims of long-standing social and racial persecution. The slave masters’ primary goal was in accumulating wealth at the expense of the slaves’ human rights.

The slave trade benefited not only the slave owners but also some indigenous leaders in the African communities where the slaves were transported. The slave trade fueled civil conflicts in the slave’s homeland, as the fighting became a means of obtaining additional captives to sell to slave traders. “The slave raids and conflicts fostered callousness among African slave traffickers, their agents, and escorts, who became active instruments of barbarism against their fellow Africans,” Buah laments. Slavery had an impact on the population of the homeland, depriving it of both youthful and vigorous human resources and natural resources. The nature of the trek across the Atlantic Ocean required only the strongest and most active individuals to make it. When seeing the dungeons of castles, descendants of slaves cannot help but cry out their feelings as they remember the slave trade and the atrocities committed against slaves from their capture to their transit to the Americas.

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People’s Oppression And The Bible

Most world societies have been transformed as a result of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. The religious traditions of Judaeo-Christianity had such an impact on Europe that they influenced the cultures of their colonies.

The Bible’s influence on the subjugation of other peoples was not one-sided. While oppressors looked for reasons to oppress others, oppressed people looked for reasons to free themselves. The Bible, which served as the foundation for Christian social beliefs, was also to blame for the unequal relationships that prevailed in the Americas between master and slave. When missionaries first set foot on African soil, they labeled African cultural and religious activities as fetishistic and heathen. They utilized the Bible to justify their enslavement of Africans to the point where white Christians in South Africa believed they were God’s chosen ones on a divine mission. Apartheid was not seen as morally immoral and evil by Christians because of their mindset.

Old Testament (OT) scriptures were used to justify slavery and mistreatment of people from other countries, particularly Indians and Africans.

The curse of Ham is mentioned in Genesis 9:24-27, from which the Hamitic theory and views against slavery were created. This passage tries to show that slavery was not created by God, but rather as a result of Noah’s curse on Canaan, the son of Ham. This view meant that the slave’s submission to his master was divinely sanctioned.

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For fear of the slaves learning about the liberation stories in the Bible and rebelling for their freedom, the slave masters did not initially introduce them to it.

When the Bible was introduced to colonized and oppressed Africans, they saw revolutionary potential in it, which they used to legitimize their battle against injustice.

They began to discover a wellspring and sense of liberty in biblical characters such as Moses, Joshua, and Daniel. In this setting, the Bible serves as both an instrument of slavery and a weapon of liberation.

Biblical Roots of the Slave Trade

Slavery as a Business Asset in Ancient Near East (ANE)

Israel has cultural similarities with its neighbors. Knowledge of the ANE nations’ lives and thoughts sheds light on several Israeli cultural traditions. Slavery in the ANE could be traced in part because of archaeological discoveries and ANE documents such as Hammurabi’s Code, Assyrian Documents, and Nuzi texts.

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Slavery was relatively frequent in the ANE. It was so pervasive that neither freemen nor enslaved people ever sought its eradication. It began about the fourth millennium BC and served as a supplement to free-hire labor. Slavery was used in a variety of economically significant contexts. In regards to the acquisition, sale, and treatment of slaves, ethical and legal arrangements were made. A statement giving witness to the legal custody of slaves by the person and the state can be found in Hammurabi’s code. Slaves could be owned by both the state and private individuals. Slaves were owned by the state in the palaces and temples. Prisoners of battle were brought to the temple as slaves, as well as offerings and dedications from slave owners. For fear of famine, free people might freely donate their children to the temple. Slaves may be able to gain property in particular circumstances. Helping slaves flee was a capital offense.

The majority of slaves in the ANE were foreigners who were frequently captured during battle and employed as slaves in the winners’ countries.

These could even be paraded and sold in slave markets. Enslaving adversaries was preferred to killing them, despite the fact that it was considered social death. Only a small number of prisoners of battle became slaves among the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hittites, and other eastern monarchs, and the majority were established in the country as palace and temple serfs.

Another method of obtaining slaves was debt slavery

People willingly sold themselves into slavery so that the slave masters could provide for them. However, depending on the country’s debt-slavery regulations, these slaves may be released after a specified amount of time. Before the time of Hammurabi, there was a self-sale of persons into slavery among the Babylonians. It was legal in Babylonia, Sumer, and Assyria from the third to first millennia BC to sell one’s offspring and relatives into slavery, and parents who couldn’t feed their children abandoned them to be adopted or sold by anybody who wanted them. A Mesopotamian legal record shows that Sin-balti knowingly sold herself into slavery. As a result, if she chose to enter a different house and work as a slave for someone other than her lord, she would be punished accordingly.

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Slavery was employed as labor, although it was not the favored method due to its economic “viability.”

Slave labor was not viable since the slaves were unwilling to work and some even managed to escape. The majority of them were inexperienced and lacked the necessary abilities for the job. As a result, continual supervision of the slaves was always necessary, which was costly. In most cases, hired laborers who were free people were used, and slaves were used as domestic laborers who didn’t require any supervision or competence.

Slaves were considered movable property that could be passed down through the generations, and some were even given as dowries. Slaves were branded in such a way that some had their ears pierced and others had their masters’ names written on their hands with a red-hot iron for easier identification. In the ANE, children born to slaves whose spouses were provided by slave owners remained the slave owner’s property, and the freedom of the slave parent did not always entail the freedom of the slave offspring. Male and female slaves were sometimes coupled to increase the number of slaves available to slave masters. Slaves born to slave owners had a special status as family members, and in the event that the slave owner’s estate had no son as heir, the male slave born to him may inherit from him. Slaves and slave owners’ children, as well as free citizens’ children, were considered free citizens.

The Impact of Ancient Israel’s Slavery Experience

Slavery was practiced among the Israelites, just as it was among the people of the ANE.

Slaves in ancient Israel were both a financial and legal asset. Slaves, for example, were included in Abraham’s possessions in Genesis 24:35. Israel’s enslavement system was distinct and distinct from that of its neighbors and other ancient civilizations. Slaves in Israel were generally bought slaves, debt slaves, and war captives. Israel’s excellent treatment of slaves was impacted by its own enslavement experience in Egypt. Slave rights were incorporated in Israel’s legal codes and sacred scriptures. Slavery was not explicitly condemned in the Old Testament (OT), save in a few prophetic verses like Amos 2:6 and Isaiah 50:1, the former denouncing the selling of the righteous and impoverished and the latter figuratively referring to Israel. Slaves could be sold in Israel, according to Exodus 21:1-11. In these writings, the term “selling” refers to not only the purchase of possession by payment but also the handing over of a property and the sale of an object with the hope and right of redemption later.

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The experience of Israel as a slave in Egypt and the command to follow Yahweh’s commandments formed a model for how they treated other slaves. In the land of Egypt, Israel is referred to as a slave. The number is used in the Old Testament to roughly translate “slave,” and it has to do with work. It could be used to refer to a royal servant, servant, vassal, loyal, and other terms of the same nature. The Qal verb derivatives or cognates are employed to signify “to work,” which is consistent with the goal of God’s creation of man in Genesis 2:15 according to the creation accounts. In Genesis 2:15, the goal of putting a man in the Garden of Eden is stated in the following phrases (to work and to take care of it). It is a verb infinitive with a third-person feminine singular suffix that refers to the Garden of Eden. Working was destined in the creation and was a part of humans, but after the fall of man, the land became difficult to work on due to the curse mentioned in Genesis 3:17-19.55

Enslavement was employed against the Hebrews in Exodus 1-2 when Egypt used slavery to diminish its population. This was in direct opposition to God’s command to people to multiply. According to biblical history, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and then became captives in Babylon, which was portrayed as a yoke of slavery in various writings. This enslavement experience established the foundation for Israel’s slave treatment. The Israelites were commanded not to treat other poor Israelites who sell themselves as slaves, but rather as bonded employees, in the instructions for the jubilee year in Leviticus 25. In the year of jubilee, they were to set them free. They were not to be harsh with the slaves. These directives caused some disquiet among Israelites. The Israelites might, however, make slaves of other countries and foreigners living among them, according to Leviticus 25:44-46.

Slavery-raiding of fellow Israelites was made illegal in Deuteronomy 24:7. Solomon enslaved the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites who the Israelites were unable to entirely exterminate during the war, according to 1 Kings 9:20-22. He did not turn the Israelites into slaves. This indicates that non-Israelites made up the majority of slaves in Ancient Israel. Slaves were branded and were the owner’s permanent property, recorded among his other goods, and maybe passed down as an inheritance to future generations.

Israel had slaves in the temple (netinim)

Some were appointed by David to serve the Levites, according to Ezra 8:20.

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These were temple slaves assigned to help the Levites with their cultic duties in the sanctuary.

Those who could not pay their debts were forced to serve their creditors as slaves in exchange for the debt. Due to the high-interest rates, the enslavement of debtors by their creditors was the main source of slavery during the second temple period. Repurchase might, however, be used to redeem these debt slaves. After serving their creditors for six years, they could be released free in the seventh year. They could choose to remain slaves to their lords indefinitely.  These were typically domestic workers with legal rights and protection who were regarded as members of their debtors’ homes and collaborated with family members.

Israel had no prisoners of war at first because it was assumed that wars were waged on Yahweh’s orders and that they did not claim glory for themselves.

All prisoners of war were supposed to be killed. Israel later developed a sense of pity for their war prisoners, and it was a better option for them to sell them than kill them. Many slaves were obtained as a result of David’s wars, and some were maintained as “perpetual household servants, brides (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) or concubines, and construction workers (2 Samuel 12:31).”

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Slaves were treated as human beings and were protected by local customs and regulations, even though they did not have the same rights as free people.

The covenant and the Deuteronomic rules paint a positive picture of slavery.

Slaves were not barred from participating in socio-religious activities. They were allowed to participate in the Sabbath, Passover, and other holidays as long as they were circumcised. They had certain privileges in their relationship with their masters. It was against the law to torture a slave to death. This was supposed to provide their human security and safeguard them from their owners’ dehumanizing and exploitative attitudes. As previously stated, the slaves were supposed to be set free in the seventh year. According to the slave’s request, an ear-piercing ritual was performed as a mark of permanent enslavement.

Despite the slaves’ rights, there are reports of possible mistreatment. Slave mistreatment is documented in some literature. 2 Samuel 8:2, Numbers 31:9-18, and Deuteronomy 20:11-14 are among them. Some Moabite prisoners of war were executed in 2 Samuel 12:31 in order to inspire dread in the Moabites. 80 The Israelites are allowed to slay captives of war in Numbers 31:9-18 and Deuteronomy 20:11-14. These texts represent ANE practice, in which certain war prisoners, men, boys, and even women, were executed while the girls were enslaved. Slaves breaking away from their captors are mentioned in 1 Samuel 25:10, indicating their inhumane treatment and desire for independence.

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Slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome

The New Testament (NT) is best understood in the context of Greco-Roman civilization in the first and second centuries. Slaves were utilized as labor “to maintain Greco-Roman culture and society” by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who took use of war prisoners to develop a slave economy. The Greeks believed that slavery could not be abolished. Individuals, families, the state, and even religious temples “morally justified and accepted as natural” the owning and use of slaves. As a result, even though slavery was against nature, the Roman laws considered it legal and acceptable. Slavery remained a viable commercial venture in all of Palestine during the Ptolemaic period. During the Greco-Roman period, the region was home to slaves from many backgrounds. It was lawful to own slaves and keep them in the family, however, they did not have the same privileges and status as family members.

Some female slaves cared for children, did housework, and worked in the sex trade.

Some slaves were treated well by their masters and served in a friendship bond, while others were treated horribly and served in a terror bond. Some slaves gained their requirements from their owners through deception, flattery, and trickery, and these vices were to be passed down to the children entrusted to their care. As a result, even free citizens became corrupt as a result of slavery. Slave owners encouraged slave unions to raise their children as additional slaves because they wanted more slaves. Female slaves were treated differently than male slaves, even if they lacked marketable abilities, as long as their sexual honor was not jeopardized.

Slaves were subjected to various sorts of inhumane treatment, including being separated “from their families, tribes, identities, sense of respect and dignity, self-determination over their bodies and time,” as well as being denied the same legal rights as free people.

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Slave owners were thought to have the right to use physical violence against their slaves, such as beatings and torture. Other emperors, like Augustus, Claudius I, Domitian, and Antonius Pius, attempted to restrict the slaves’ inhumane treatment. Slaves were instructed to add value to their profitability rather than their human dignity since their value was based on their profitability rather than their human dignity. The majority of Greek slaves were educated and worked in fields like medicine, education, and business; they also held positions such as accountants, personal secretaries, administrators, and municipal officials. Despite the fact that some of these jobs had high social standing, the value of their services was determined by the profitability of the activities they performed. Slaves educated their owners’ children and performed other tasks such as document writing. In some circumstances, unemployed workers willingly sold themselves into slavery in order to attain the necessities of life. Slaves could be emancipated at the owner’s discretion by the Romans.

The New Testament’s Douleia and Doulos

The use of the terms (douleia) and (doulos) in the New Testament indicates that slavery existed in the New Testament. The Septuagint uses the words doulleia and doulos to translate and its cognates, as well as pe’ullh, which means effort, compensation, or reward on a few occasions. Doulos is mentioned times, especially in Matthew and Pauline letters, where it is translated as servant or slave in English editions. The terms servant and slave are not interchangeable and must be distinguished. A slave is owned and must submit to his master’s will, but a servant could not be owned indefinitely. The servant only serves the master if both parties agree. In the Septuagint, servant is sometimes translated as (pais) and other times as (diakonos). In Proverbs 10:4 and five times in Esther 1:10; 2:2; 6:1, 2, 5, the Septuagint uses these to translate I73 (servant) and the substantive form of n*1U7 (to minister, serve).

One can identify douleia’s use as imagery in all of the NT texts where it appears.

The term “slavery” is used, but not in the same sense as “being owned by someone else.” The negative sense of Pauline use is used in opposition to freedom. Christians are no longer slaves to their history thanks to the Holy Spirit. They are not controlled by sin or death in the way that a slave owner is controlled by his slave. In the New Testament, the figurative meaning of douleia means “the state or condition of being subordinate, servility.” Though the term has a negative connotation on a secular level, when used metaphorically, it takes on a good connotation, removing the compulsive undertone.

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A slave is referred to as a Doulos in both secular and religious contexts. The religious sense is being employed as a metaphor. The secular sense of the word “slave” is alluded to in several of the writings. The appearance of doulos and its cognates in the New Testament indicates that slavery existed at the period. Doulos is a religious term that describes the relationship between Christians and God. The relationship between Christian slaves and their masters is shown in the Pauline epistles. Slaves were integrated into the early Christian society, and their status as slave or master had little bearing on their relationship with the Lord.  Slaves were to take advantage of the opportunity for freedom when it was presented in 1 Corinthians 7:21.

(Kidnappers, slave raiders) are mentioned as immoral people in 1 Timothy 1:10. This implies that kidnapping people for the purpose of selling them into slavery was a common practice at the time. The scripture condemns kidnapping because it was considered improper in the Old Testament to kidnap fellow Israelites.  Slaves are mentioned with family members in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1. Paul suggests that the runaway slave Onesimus be accepted as a brother rather than a slave in Philemon. The purpose of the epistle was to mend Philemon’s relationship with his slave Onesimus. Although slavery is not condemned in the New Testament, Paul does not endorse it. Paul had to deal with an institution that the early Christians couldn’t change but could only tolerate. Slaves were involved in the early house churches, according to certain sources, and were exhorted to be physically obedient to their masters.

In the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Church and State Worked Together

The Portuguese started the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century when they brought slaves from Africa to work in Brazil.

Slavery had previously been established in Africa. In the trans-Atlantic trade, the church and the state were considered collaborators, both directly and indirectly.  Both passed legislation to help each other. The state fueled commerce with Judaeo-Christian scriptures and ecclesiastical declarations. Some argued that the trade was justified by Leviticus 25:46, which allowed Israelites to acquire and maintain slaves, and the fact that the apostles never requested for slaves to be freed. They discovered that the trade was divinely prescribed in the sacred texts.

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In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Dum Diversas, which allowed the Portuguese to enslave people.

Some believed that the slave trade was crucial for the state’s survival. The trade was practiced by some missionaries, monks, and nuns. Slave raiders brought chaplains with them to the castles to minister to the captives. Before the slaves were transported to the Americas, these chaplains witnessed atrocities committed against them. The monasteries and nunneries treated their slaves with fairness and humanity, but they failed to persuade other slave owners to do so. Sundays were seen by the church as a free day for slaves to rest and care for their spiritual well-being, whereas the governments required slave owners to take their slaves to catechism and church.

The slave trade in Africa was aided by domestic and international causes. There was a demand for slaves to labor on the tobacco and sugar plantations in the Americas, according to slave masters. Before falling to the Muslims in the eleventh century, the West African kingdom of Ghana had previously dealt in slaves. Slavery did not end with the Muslims’ intervention; in fact, it grew in numbers until the eleventh century. Purchased slaves, war captives, and hardened criminals were subjected to various forms of slavery in other West African countries like Ghana. Slavery was a lucrative business for African rulers and raiders, so they brought captives from the hinterlands to the coast to trade for textiles, tobacco, and gunpowder.

The Church of England did little to convert slaves during the British colonization of Virginia in North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, citing “ancient beliefs preventing Christians from holding fellow believers in servitude.”

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To avoid such situations, slave owners refused to have their slaves baptized, prompting the church to pass a law in 1667 declaring that baptism did not change a slave’s status. This law had little effect on the slave conversion process. Some denominations were split on the subject.

Slavery was the order of the day during colonial times, and with political institutions harboring and participating in it, it was on many people’s minds.

Slavery was abolished in 1865, and the decision was welcomed with both acceptance and opposition. St Anselm (1033-1109), an archbishop of Canterbury, had already attempted to abolish slavery before the trans-Atlantic trade began. Some people believed that having slaves and being a slave was inhumane, while others believed that being a slave and owning a slave was normal and natural.

This battle between the state and the church continued. Some people began debating whether or not being a slave and holding a slave were ethically reprehensible. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued Sublimis Deus, asserting that all peoples are human beings with the right to liberty and must not be enslaved. Emperor Charles V of the Roman Empire was dissatisfied with the bull at the time, and he demanded its cancellation. Authorities reported priests who preached outspokenly against the practice. In a similar vein, the Portuguese government opposed Pope Urban VIII’s proclamation against slavery in 1639.

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There were attempts to halt the lucrative business back at the point of departure, but these were greeted with opposition. Some African traditional rulers who opposed it and attempted to put a stop to it were unsuccessful. Affonso I of Kongo (1456-1543), who was schooled by Portuguese missionaries, saw that the slave trade was terrible and intended to stop it; nonetheless, the trade became more profitable to the point that more Portuguese, as well as certain local leaders, became involved in it. In Senegal, some local chiefs challenged Almamy of the Futa Toro’s attempt to stop the trade in the late 1700s. Some chiefs traded slaves to keep their people from starving.

Following the United States of America’s independence in 1776, there was agitation for the abolition of slavery in the new nation, which was greeted with hostility.

In 1776, the Quakers expelled individuals who insisted on keeping slaves from their midst, while the American Methodists and Baptists banned slave ownership among their members. Since roughly 1843, certain ministers and preachers have held slaves, and this choice of these denominations has not been fully followed. Some denominations remained split on the topic of abolition. In 1818, for example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church declared that slavery was against God’s law, but opposed its abolition. Slavery was not tolerated by the Catholic Jesuits, and they did not want slaves in their towns.

Slavery abolition was a contentious issue among Americans. Slavery was sanctioned by God, according to those in the south, and it provided African slaves with the benefit of being removed from their heathen and uncivilized environment and “given the privileges of the gospel.” The northern abolitionist movements, on the other hand, argued that slavery was against God’s will. The irony is that although slavery was becoming less profitable and economically sustainable in the north, the south relied heavily on slave labor. For people in the south, the economic benefits of slavery accounted for their support for the practice, to the point of regarding it as God’s will.

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Despite the fact that the church was complicit in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Christian denominations were instrumental in raising awareness of its atrocities against humanity. The decision to abolish the slave trade in the United States of America proved so contentious among Christian denominations that, with the exception of Catholics and Episcopalians, most other faiths split.

Concern for the poor and the zeal of British Christian denominations such as the Anglicans, Quakers, and Methodists to evangelize and rid society of evils played a key role in ending the slave trade in Britain and its colonies during the nineteenth century. Individual Christians from the evangelical revival, including prominent men like Grenville Sharp and William Wilberforce, led the charge to abolish slavery in the British colony and ensure social justice. Grenville Sharp tried to persuade the courts to release slaves who had entered the country. The English Christian evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce influenced the British government in 1807 to pass laws that abolished the slave trade in 1833.

Conclusion

Slavery has existed as a source of labor in most cultures. Because of its profitability, ancient cultures were oblivious to its injustice against humanity. It was tolerated by the ANE cultures, which enacted laws to protect it. Ancient Israel, on the other hand, allowed it but moderated its atrocities based on its own slavery experience. Although the NT writers did not directly denounce it, there are a few signs that it is harmful. The church became involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a result of society’s drive to create wealth.

The importance and profitability of wealth and commerce at the time, like in other ancient cultures, blinded both the church and the state to its unfairness and atrocities against mankind. The church did not have enough biblical evidence to abolish it, therefore it was permitted and maintained. This evolution was accounted for by the interaction between the state and the church since its inception. With time, many in the church began to see slavery as an unfair act against humanity, and they began to speak out against it. As a result, pro-and anti-slavery arguments arose in both the state and the church. The heinous business was eventually put to an end thanks to the efforts of some church members.

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This article is originally a Paper Presented By Emmanual Koko Ennin Antwi, and Published on Scielo.org.za

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