It’s been about two and a half weeks now since Isaiah, Marisela, and I went on our first out-of-Accra trip with several families from the Embassy. Andrés, unfortunately, was not able to join us because we left on a weekday and work was too pressing. We all pooled funds and rented a bus from the commissary. The commissary bus rental includes the cost of a driver, which felt like a tremendous luxury. He had made this trip many times before and we were never lost or in any doubt about how to handle police checks, etc. It was nice, for our first trip, to not have those concerns.
We had four destinations: two of the so-called slave castles, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, a beach-side hotel/resort in Elmina, and (the following day) Kakum National Park, the closest national park to Accra and home of the locally famous rainforest canopy walk – 700 meters of suspended rope-and-board walkway through the upper layers of Kakum’s rainforest growth.
Going in to the trip I had misgivings. I was excited to get out of Accra. I’ve enjoyed getting to know our immediate surroundings but I was ready to see more. I had hardly glimpsed the ocean yet, and was eager to hear the waves – notoriously strong here – crashing on shore. Kakum was one of the first tourist sites I’d read about when we first learned of our Ghana assignment and I’d been looking forward to a visit ever since.
But the slave castles. I both did and did not want to visit the slave castles. Of course I had to. Ghana/Gold Coast was not the only African nation to suffer the brutality of the slave trade but it was an epicenter of commerce in general and as the transatlantic slave trade burgeoned human beings became yet another profitable export. The slave castles were fortresses where captured people – those who had survived the trip to the coast – were held for months at a time waiting for ships to take them on the Middle Passage, stories of which are certainly among the most harrowing and shameful in human history.
I know that it was essential to visit these places. But then, and still now, it was hard to reconcile, impossible to reconcile, the enormity of suffering and inhumanity encountered there with a trip to a beach resort and an exhilarating, dizzying nature walk. I had thought about writing this blog entry in two parts – one for the slave castles and one for the rest. But I’m leaving it as I experienced it. You may also feel discomfort at the contrast, but then I suppose I will have more accurately conveyed the reality of my experience.
We visited two castles, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. At both, we visited dungeons where – in room after room – men, women, and children had been held in the dark, crowded together with nothing but crude canals in the ground to divert their wastes. They had been stolen or sold from their homes and forced to walk to the coast. At the coast they could be held for months waiting for a ship, which of course was just a new kind of hell. There were separate dungeons for men and for women and children. There were also punishment rooms for women who resisted the castle officers’ assaults and claustrophobia-inducing chambers where anyone who dared attempt escape would be sealed away until death came.
I challenge anyone who feels race has too long continued to be a charged issue in the United States to visit these castles and continue to hold that belief. The degree of inhumanity, the vastness of the moral violation that occurred there is palpable still today. Atop the men’s dungeon at Cape Coast Castle is a chamber that used to be an Anglican church. The English officers would worship there while their brothers in Christ stood, sat, or lay, many of them deathly ill, in their own waste in the dungeons below. I just can’t think of Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”) and imagine how these officers could purport to worship a loving God who created us all while simultaneously brutalizing these stolen human beings. How many generations does it take to be truly free of a mentality that allowed this to happen? I don’t believe we’re there yet.
We were fortunate to be visiting the castles during an ongoing art installation by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. It is called In Memoriam: Portraits of the Middle Passage, In Situ and consists of 1300 sculptures of heads, a contemporized version of a traditional funerary sculptures, that were displayed throughout the dungeons. These sculptures were haunting and terrifying and beautiful all at once. As we left one room in the men’s dungeons I was stopped in my tracks by one that looked like a teenaged boy. Certainly my teenaged boy, tall and broad-shouldered as he’s become, is as much a man, physically, as that boy was. As many boys were who passed through those rooms.
The Middle Passage – the journey from Africa across the Atlantic – claimed at least two million lives. For every one hundred people who made it across alive (to yet another hell) forty had died at some point along the way – whether during capture, on the way to the castles, in the castles, or during the journey.
The final room we visited at Cape Coast Castle included information on the Akoto-Bamfo installation, some of the sculptures themselves, and several poems. Among them:
I feel left at shore
right at the cursed spot
where our black bodies
dissolved into the blue
nothingness of the
They slave me to carry
in my palms
in the gaps
on their family trees.
To move on from this to our beach resort was . . . I’m sitting here watching the cursor flash and waiting for the right word, which simply isn’t coming. Irreconcilable is the best I’ve got. The resort was lovely. Far, far nicer than anything our personal family unit would likely have chosen (for which Marisela was quite thankful – she has never been on board with our rustic preferences). We sipped coconut water from actual coconuts as we watched the waves crash. The kids waded and splashed, then later swam in the beautiful pool. We ate in the open air with the ocean breeze sweeping through. And bit by bit this luxury washed away enough of the memory of all we’d seen earlier in the day that we could talk again, and laugh again, and open a bottle of wine and take cheer in each other’s company. I’m not sure it should have been that way, but then I’m also not sure how else to respond to that kind of horror than to be in, and be thankful for, the presence of human warmth and friendship and kindness. Not to let those lovely moments erase our experience with the injustice and terror but to be reminded that there is also good and there is also beauty, both in the world and in people.
We spent the afternoon like this, and then the evening. Enjoying the company and enjoying the place and feeling grateful to have the chance to be there together. And the next morning, after breakfast, we headed for Kakum and the rainforest. We left Cape Coast behind, not forgotten – I hope never forgotten – but removed, for the moment, from immediate thought, because otherwise there could be nothing else.
I should mention the kids at this point. They were along for all of this – for the unflinching descriptions of what happened to the prisoners of the slave castles, including the stomach-turning fates of the women who were assaulted by the officers or of the others – men, it seems, mostly – who tried to run and were locked up and left to die. We had visited the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. right before coming here and that really provided a perfect context for them to understand far better than they would have otherwise just how closely those castles and their terror is tied to the history of our nation. As for me, though, and for the rest of us on the trip, the hours spent in beautiful surroundings with good company had eased the intensity of emotions for Isaiah and Marisela.
But then we went to Kakum. Before this visit, I’m fairly certain that our flight from the U.S. to Ghana was Isaiah’s most terrifying experience. He is not a fan of airplanes even in the best circumstances (best for him meaning a short and entirely non-turbulent flight that takes off and lands on time). Our flights here were long, quite turbulent at times, and the flight from Brussels to Ghana ran about an hour late. But given the choice between reliving that experience and reliving Kakum, I’m guessing he might be ready to put his tray table up and his seat in the upright position. Those rainforest walkways were definitely not something he’ll be eager to experience again.
There were seven of them, each about 100 meters, and they were suspended by a network of ropes between treehouse-type platforms. Although we got there relatively early most of the wildlife there is nocturnal, and there were already crowds and crowds of tourists (which is the case every day, I’m sure), so we didn’t see as much as a single bird. But the rainforest itself was spectacular, especially to this desert-dweller’s eyes. Shades of green I’d never seen before, as far as the eye could see. We could see the ground in places, or imagine we could see the ground, if we were brave enough to look down, filtered through layer after layer of leaves and branches.
Isaiah says he doesn’t feel proud of having made it through the walkways because he didn’t have any choice, but I’m proud of him nonetheless. He did it and he did it without complaining, protesting, or even grumbling. He even looked down. It may not have been an experience he would have wished to have, but he recognized it for something worthwhile and he made the most of it, and I’m very proud of him.
Marisela was not particularly bothered by the heights, or the swaying walkways. She was several walkways ahead of me, with a group of other Embassy kids. Isaiah and I were bringing up the rear. I would love to visit Kakum again and stay the night. There’s a “treehouse” where visitors can camp and hope to see some of the park’s wildlife. Maybe that would be a more palatable way for Isaiah to enjoy the scenery there. He and I could hang out in the treehouse while Marisela shows Andrés the walkway.
The trip back to Accra was uneventful – unless traffic is an event. We stopped at a very chill beachfront restaurant for lunch (which took a while – there were 25 of us, after all, which is a lot to accommodate) and ended up getting a later start than we’d intended. At first we were making great time and it seemed we’d be home on schedule. Then suddenly we weren’t. We were at a series of dead standstills for several miles, and what had been a three-hour trip on the way out to Cape Coast turned into about a five-hour trip on the way home.
Our short excursion made me all the more aware of the fact that there is much to see and do here in Ghana, and our two years will fly by, I’m sure. I came home with a new determination to find a car and start having our own adventures. I even scheduled a time to view a car we were interested in – it was for 10am last Friday. So if you read my blog you know that, rather than test-driving a Hyundai Santa Fe last Friday morning, I was having blood drawn and an ultrasound done on my right leg. Tomorrow I’m looking at a Honda CRV. I was waylaid for a bit, but I haven’t lost my determination altogether. Just crossing fingers that I can keep the appointment this time.
I went back and forth about how to share my pictures. In the end I decided that, rather than putting them with the appropriate part of the written description, I’d put them all together at the end, in chronological order. That way you can read about the whole experience, and then see the whole experience.
Next time I will finally tackle our epic home leave road trip, complete with maps to demonstrate just how crazy we are (the trip was undertaken in a Ford Focus hatchback with all four of us AND all of our belongings that we didn’t have shipped straight from Mexico to Ghana).