Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sabbatical Day 10

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Cape Coast Castle, and Germaine the Bostonian

We met Emmanuel at 10AM for our tours of Cape Coast and Elmina Castles. He said that he thought we should go first to Cape Coast, which is the larger of the two and which has an extensive, new museum as part of it. It would turn out to be the only one we would go to see.

I'll describe the castle and our reactions to it, in a bit. First, let me tell you about Elmina.

I have already described the surprisingly poor conditions of the streets in Elmina. From the moment we got outside the resort's gate they confronted us again. The street back to the main road would have been impassable for either of our cars at home. Emmanuel drove a minivan, and I am not sure how he managed. The street out to Liverpool Road, the primary artery into Elmina, was rutted from rain and unpaved. The car had to climb up off of the street onto the Liverpool pavement which still was pocked and pitted and punctuated, occasionally, with speed bumps and humps that had been placed along the way to prevent speeding.

Daytime made Elmina come alive. All along Liverpool Road there were merchants and peddlers. The merchants were set up in shacks from which they sold everything from fruit, vegetables, and fish, to small appliances and dishes. Some offered auto or electronics repair. It seemed that all of them were busy. Then there were the "spots" and "chop bars." Spots are local drinking establishments, where alcoholic beverages are served. Chop bars are eateries specializing in some local dish. Both kinds of establishments are open air with some seating, usually resin plastic chairs, occasionally under a shelter of some kind. Some have a wall around them. I will admit, I was never quite brave enough to venture forth into one.

Google Street View photo of my ATM
Before we could go anywhere, I knew that I needed cash, since that was how Emmanuel would be paid. So, I asked him whether there might be an ATM anywhere nearby. Once we'd crossed what I had assumed the night before was an exit from the highway, we were in Elmina's downtown. He parked along a curb and pointed across the street to a small building painted yellow with a sign over it with the gold letters "GN" in a brown square and the words, "The People's Bank," underneath. Off to the left was a similarly yellow booth with an automatic teller machine mounted on the wall. "Try that," Emmanuel said. I opened my door and stepped out into the heat and hustle of Elmina.

The most common
denominations of the Ghanaian cedi
I remember that the ATM, because of all the traffic and the people streaming past it, did not seem very secure. Once across the street, however, I could see that there was a man in uniform standing at the bank entrance not far off. Feeling somewhat more assured, I checked my phone's currency app for how much cash I ought to need today and performed the transaction. Cash emerged in a variety of sizes and colors. I set some aside in a pocket for Emmanuel, for later, and zipped the rest into the travel wallet I was wearing around my waist.

Now, we continued on to Cape Coast.

Cape Coast Castle is a solemn place, once you're inside. Outside, we ran a gauntlet of hawkers. In front was Kofi, who introduced himself and asked my name. When we came out, he said, he would be waiting for us and hoped that we would be interested in purchasing some of his paintings. I said, that was not why we were here. He promised me the best deal I could hope for. The moment was reminiscent of my visit to Haiti, when some friends of mine and I took the horseback ride up to the Citadel. I'd grown tired by then of the hawkers who greeted us, it seemed, whenever we emerged from a vehicle, and shouted, "Allez, allez, allez!" In perfect English the man in the lead said, "Why would you just say, 'Allez, allez!' Don't we deserve some respect!" He struck at my Christian conscience then, and here, thirty years later, I tried to be respectful but as swiftly as I could ushered Coco and Gwen inside.

Emmanuel introduced me to the ticket seller just inside, and we purchased passes for a castle tour and admission to the museum. Emmanuel now said that he would wait for us outside the castle, that the tour would begin in about twenty minutes, and that the museum was open until then for us to browse.

The museum docent invited us in but warned that we were forbidden to take photographs. The exhibit chronicled the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade and Cape Coast Castle's role in it. The displays seemed very well presented and relatively new, and I wondered whether they perhaps dated to 2010 when President Obama and his family had come for a visit. Not that I thought the exhibit had been constructed only then, but that some renovation might have been done prior to the President's tour.

There was more to see than we could absorb fully in twenty minutes, though. By the time we were called for the tour, some other visitors had arrived as well, all of them African American men in their twenties and thirties. There were three who were clearly led by a massive fellow who said he had been here before and was bringing along his friends in order to acquaint them with their history. A fourth did not appear to be with them. He was light skinned with a full beard and wore a backpack.

Our tour guide was Kwesi. He spoke slowly with a rich Ghanaian accent and crisp consonants, often repeating phrases and syllables at the ends of his sentences for the sake of our comprehension. Kwesi started the tour by leading us from room to room - cells perhaps fifteen feet square that housed a few score men at a time on slanted cobble floors with small central trenches down the center for the runoff of human waste. "Feces, urine, vomit," he repeated in his description of each room. He pointed out the ventilation openings high on the stone walls from which not only air but the occasional bucket of water or food would be dumped - water to wash the prisoners and floors of the "feces, urine, vomit," and food for the prisoners to portion among themselves but which, he reminded us, would have first landed on the same floor.

At some point early in the tour, the big guy who had been on it before excused himself to his friends and Kwesi. Now it appeared as though he and they were scouting locations for a movie or a video he wanted to make, as he said he was pretty familiar with this, having toured Cape Coast Castle before, and was going above to look around there.

Men were not the only captives, but they were the greatest portion of them. Women and children had separate holding areas, similarly appointed. They were not kept as families, even if they had been captured as families. Instead, women were housed in a setting like the men. Kwesi reminded us that they would have had to stand "not only in feces, urine, vomit, but also in the outflow of their mens-tru-a-tion, menstruation." And I will admit with no small amount of embarrassment that this condition had not occurred to me. Coco, evidently less affected by the course of Kwesi's narrative than I, but clearly feeling the effects of the heat of the day and the poor ventilation of the castle, excused herself from the tour for the sake of a breeze and some water. Our guide pointed her toward the ticket booth where there was shade and company.

As we exited the women's confines in order to observe the children's quarters, Kwesi noted to us that in the case of young women (or "maidens," as he referred to them), their chamber's ventilation provided also an opportunity for Europeans who were seeking concubines to observe and reserve for themselves "ones they found desirable." He noted also that pregnancy, even that resulting from a European rape, could result in a positive outcome for a woman captive, or at least a delay in her entrance to the Middle Passage. Nevertheless, Cape Coast's castle was nowhere anyone would want to be delivering a baby. It now occurred to me that I had my ten-year-old daughter with me, and my embarrassment and discomfort set in, in earnest.

Door of No Return
In 2017, each room is illuminated with a single, exposed lightbulb, but Kwesi would not turn on the light until we had entered and gathered, so that we could each gain a sense of the darkness the captives would have experienced upon entering. In the last room on this level, he closed the enormous double door behind us. Once the darkness had engulfed us, he turned on the bulb that hung from the middle of the ceiling. It now caused to be illuminated a sign with the words, "Door of No Return," which hung over another door opposite us. He explained that this door we now were seeing was the final one through which the captives would pass, as they would leave Africa behind and, chained hand and foot, board dinghies that would take them to the ships they would enter as human cargo bound for the New World.

He opened the Door of No Return and invited us out onto the dock. From here we could see beached fishing boats and fishers tending their catches and their nets. The pace of life we had seen all along the coast from Elmina continued uninterrupted. We took photos and talked among ourselves about what we had seen and heard, and then Kwesi called us to where he stood, in the doorway we had exited moments before.

Above the passage was another sign: "Door of Return." Kwesi told us that, when Cape Coast Castle was established as a national treasure and historic site, the government of Ghana determined that it should be a symbol of hope and reconciliation rather than one only of despair and injustice. "So, they placed on this side of the door, 'Door of Return.' 'Door of Return!' so that no one shall ever walk through that door again and not know that their homeland is ready to receive them back. It was on that side the 'Door of No Return,' but" he insisted, "this is the truer side, for it is for evermore the 'Door of Return.'" We all spoke words of agreement and slapped high fives of joy and solidarity.

Beach alongside Cape Coast Castle, as seen from beyond the Door of (No) Return
One might have thought that this high point would end the tour. But Kwesid now took us all above, to the levels of the castle where the Europeans stayed, where soldiers and the governor of the facility resided - dined and danced and slept and prayed. Yes, prayed. A curious depravity had moved them to locate a chapel directly over the captive men's quarters. As if to underscore the perversion of putting a place of worship above the hellish rooms we had just witnessed, there was even a shaft in the floor just outside the chapel. Through this guards would monitor on Sunday the movements and any conversations the captives might have been able to conduct among themselves. After all, it was the Sabbath and all the Europeans would have been therefore expected to attend worship.

As near as I could tell, we walked every room of the castle, ending in the courtyard outside the entrance. Coco was there with a collection of docents and tour guides, telling stories and enjoying company. Here at the end, most of our group dispersed, but the young fellow with the beard and I were examining some books that Kwesi had recommended. I told him my name and asked him his.

"Germaine," he said.

What brought him here? I asked. "Pilgrimage," he said. Us too, I confessed. I told him that I am a pastor from St. Louis interested in learning more about my country's heritage. He said he was a graduate student at Boston University and had always dreamed of traveling in Africa. "Where are you staying?" I asked.

He said that he was traveling on his own from city to city in Ghana and finding places to stay as he went. "I think you are a very brave man," I told him.

"You'd be over-estimating me," he said. "Everywhere I've gone, I've met wonderful people who have provided me with wonderful accommodations. It's felt really very much like home."

I confessed that it hasn't felt much like home to me. Some of this, I said, may have been because I'm a white guy with a gray beard. (I was thinking of the gauntlet I was going to have to face on my way out of the fortress, and how Kofi was surely going to try to sell me paintings I didn't want and wouldn't take no for an answer.) We wished each other well for our journeys ahead and went on  our way.

Germaine and Kwesi in conversation on the castle ramparts.

Guns of Cape Coast

Plaque commemorating the visit
of the Obama family
Outside, sure enough, there was Kofi rushing up to me. Other sellers accosted Coco and Gwen. Emmanuel watched me in disbelief as I accepted the bracelet with my name on it Kofi said he had made while I was inside and the shell greeting "My American friend DAVE" he placed in my hand with it. I looked up, and Coco had ducked into the minivan but Gwen was near tears running toward me with a peddler close at her heels saying, "Dad, she wants you to buy this!" I ushered Gwen to the car as quickly and effectively as I could, then turned to Kofi and said, "Why would I buy paintings that I don't want, even if you are the one who painted them?" He paused, pointing at two of them which he rolled up and shoved in my hands.

"Because it would put a smile on my face," he said.

The one who had chased Gwen over to me said, "You want him to smile, don't you?"

I looked at Emmanuel, who shrugged, then turned back and handed Kofi eighty cedis (about $18). He did indeed smile.

Monitor lizard in palm tree
In the car again, Emmanuel said, "Elmina Castle next." But I told him that we were pretty exhausted for a day - emotionally and, frankly, financially. "Just take us back to Coconut Grove." He slowed down as we approached Elmina Castle, so that we could snap some photos of it, but drove on through town and back to the resort.

We had a late lunch, then splashed around in the pool for a bit. The groundskeeper had treed a young monitor in a palm tree, and we all marveled at just how big it was.

Late in the afternoon, Gwen asked if she could go for a horseback ride. The horses at Coconut Grove are a mix of Arabian and Nigerian, and on the way to the stables, I told Gwen about the Mandinka and other tribespeople of West Africa and their pride in breeding and horsemanship. I told her that keeping horses was a centuries-old practice here and that she was taking up something her genetic ancestors perfected. She rolled her eyes, slipped on her helmet, and let the groom lead her away down the beach.

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