Sunday, December 7, 2014

30: Ghana: Africa's "Gold Coast"

Cape Town was bathed in golden light as we pulled away from the dock. Our voyage, which in January, February, and even March, had seemed to stretch ahead of us with no end in sight, was in fact, concluding in a few short weeks. We had only two ports remaining, and then we would be disembarking, in Southampton, UK.

A part of me was excited that the voyage would be coming to an end, perhaps because I was looking forward to seeing friends in Southampton and London before we moved on to Iceland and the luxury of traveling on our own. But it was a shame to be getting off the ship just as my sea sickness had miraculously left me. Also other things had became easier and more fulfilling. I was finally making the progress I was hoping for in my Studio Art class. Morning meditation, followed by yoga, which we could now comfortably do outside on deck seven, was a beautiful way to start the day. Well, Tree Pose could still a bit of a challenge with the rolling of the ship, but welcoming the sun on the horizon with Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) filled my heart and mind with calm, and... hope.

Our next stop was Ghana. Some passengers admitted to us that they were not looking forward to this stop, perhaps due to health concerns (yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, etc), but I have to say that I had no such fears, but rather a sense of anticipation.

Young men from Ghana greet our ship as we approach Tema (photo by Gary Griggs).

I knew just enough about Ghana to be curious in learning more. Ghana was the first colonized African country to gain independence (from the British) and it is one of the more politically stable of Sub Saharan African countries. Historically, the land was prized for its gold deposits and now natural gas has been discovered offshore. Kofi Annan is from Ghana. W. E. B. Dubois died in Ghana. Ghana has given the world Kente Cloth, West African Dance, Adinkra symbols, and more recently, Fantasy Coffins.

But I felt the most powerful draw to Ghana after hearing a story on NPR about a documentary that aired on PBS in 2008 called Traces of the Trade. The documentary follows descendants of the De Wolf family as they visit the slave forts of Ghana in an attempt to retrace (and hopefully come to terms with..) the triangle trade route that made them one of the richest families in New England - a trade that continued long after the Emancipation Proclamation. I admired the fact that this family was willing to confront this legacy and meet the truth head on: that they owed their existence in this world largely to the enslavement of other human beings.

We had five days in Ghana. We docked in Tema, spent a day walking around Accra, and then went on a three day excursion that took us to a nature preserve, a village on stilts, and the two best known slave castles of Ghana's Gold Coast: Cape Coast Castle and St. George's Castle (Elmina Castle), while overnighting in ocean resorts. We subsequently met up with the ship in Tokaradi.

Five days here was not enough for me to make "sense" of so far as any person can make sense of any complex country, its people, history or culture. Places of worship were as numerous as street vendors. I sensed a country of wealth and poverty, anger and joy, optimism and bleakness. But that is perhaps easily said about every country on earth. So rather than showcase my ignorance with words, I will let the images speak for themselves, inserting the facts (and of course, a few opinions...)

View from the bus window, heading into Accra.
While people carrying loads on on their heads all through Asia and Africa is not a unusual, Ghanians seem to do it with the greatest aplomb. Here a woman effortlessly balances a "cabinet" of food for sale.

Fun on the Canopy Walkway, Kakum National Park.
This series of seven bridges were creatively suspended 40m (131+ feet) above the floor of West Africa's few surviving tropical rainforests. The walkway was single plank of wood, roughly eight inches wide. What you don't see are the screaming Ghanian teenagers on the bridge in front of us.

The resort where we spent the first night.

Cape Coast Castle.
Originally built by Sweden in 1653, it was captured and used by the British in the
highly organized (and profitable) Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans that took place all along the
"gold coast" for almost 150 years.

Just outside the walls of Cape Coast Castle, the beach is teeming with life.

Fishing and Surfing...

Cape Coast Castle courtyard.
The British officers inhabited the portion of the castle directly ahead, in accommodations designed to shade them from the harsh sun and heat, and allow cooling breezes...genteel living in large comfortable chambers with breezy verandas.
The reality on the other side of the wall was starkly, inhumanly, different.

"Gate of No Return" at Cape Coast Castle
Approximately 10 million enslaved Africans (captured in tribal warfare or kidnapped to sell) were traded
from Africa's west coast for manufactured goods - at rates of up to 100,000 people per year.

Fisherman in hand constructed heavy wooden canoes barrel onto shore at high speeds.

Doorway to male slave dungeon, Cape Coast Castle.
No light. No toilet facilities. No escape. Over one hundred adult males could be housed in this dungeon, which is about 40 feet wide by 60 feet long, and would have been flooded with human waste. Some may say "that was a different time, a different world." I refuse to accept that. They had to have realized how criminally wrong their actions were, but carried on just the same - and went to church Sunday. The plaque at the left commemorates President Barack Obama's visit.

Tranquil seas beyond weapons of war - view to the ocean from Cape Coast Castle.

Joy in the shadow of atrocity.
Boys on wood surfboards, Cape Coast Castle.

Elmina Castle (St. George's Castle)
The first European castle built in Sub-Saharan Africa, it was constructed by the Portuguese in 1482,
and later captured by the Dutch.

Elmina Castle, on the ramparts.

To house the condemned - death awaited those who had repeatedly tried to escape - Elmina Castle

Locked Inside, Elmina Castle.
Reversal of fortunes...our African guide surprised our mostly caucasian group by locking us inside the dungeon.

Elmina Castle
Because the castle was retrofitted to house the enslaved, it is seems just a little less oppressive than Cape Coast Castle.
The Ghanian mid-day sun and heat intensify the overall experience, however.

View over the ramparts, for a glimmer of the ocean,  Elmina Castle

View through Cape Coast Castle....

To the fishing boats beyond.

Staring our journey to Nzulezo (meaning "surface water"), a village built over Lake Tadane
about 90 km (56 miles) west of Takoradi

The whole village is built on stilt platforms accessible only by canoe.

But even a stilt village seems to need a bar...

One of the village elders...
The leaders of the village (not pictured here - they were all men), told us the story of their migration, to avoid bloody confrontation, guided by a snail. The story was told as though it happened but a generation or two ago,
when in fact, it took place hundred of years past.

...and one of the village youth.

The children did a traditional dance for us...

....and their enjoyment in telling the story through dance was undeniable and infectious.
There is little doubt that music and dance transcend barriers of language, country and culture,
to tell a universal story.