For many visitors, the UNESCO World Heritage slave forts that dot the coastline of Ghana in West Africa are moving, thought provoking symbols of a bygone era. My assesment is a bit more tempered.
I had been volunteering on a Liberian refugee camp for the past 8 weeks and was sorely in need of a break. As a college student who had taken classes on the African diaspora, a visit to the two main castles in the city of Cape Coast and the smaller village of Elmina was a must.
Showing my lack of familiarity with the public transport system in Ghana, instead of leaving directly from the camp which was well on the way to Cape Coast I retraced my steps back to Accra, the capital, the only place I knew where to find transport. This did set me back a bit, but I was able to dine on a delicious bowl of rice, complete with sauce, lettuce, and beans for roughly 50 cents. While the camp did have more amenities than I expected, it could not compete in serving up as delicious street food (although I might have to make an exception for the grilled chicken).
Without much difficulty, I was able to find the bus to Cape Coast. The fare set me back about 3 dollars for a 3 ½ hour ride. Unfortunately, I was one of the first to board which meant I had to wait until the bus filled up until we departed.
The ride itself was fairly uneventful. One castle is passed before reaching Cape Coast. It was incredible to see the small, unpretentious tin houses in the village cramming up against a massive stone structure hundreds of years old. The backdrop to much of this voyage is a beautiful palm-lined beach. The various roadside vendors selling different forms of bushmeat on a stick also make interesting visuals for a visitor.
Unfortunately, I was not quite able to enjoy the trip as I would have preferred. One aspect simply being the nature of any tro-tro (bus) ride. Going 4 people to an aisle, is a bit too much in what is essentially a mini-van. This uncomfort I could have anticipated. What was more vexing was the quality of the road. This stretch is part of the main route into Ivory Coast and the castles are one of Ghana’s main tourist destinations. However, significant portions, which I later heard have been under construction for years, are not even paved. This makes the ride a bit more bumpy and considerably longer.
I arrived in Cape Coast around 3, a bit tired but ready to hit the town. As I only alloted myself 3 days away from the camp, I decided to go straight to the castle. I didn’t really know the city but I could make a vague guess as to where the ocean was and ventured that way.
My haste turned out not to be the best decision for two reasons. The first quickly became apparent, as the weight of the duffel bag seemed to steadily increase every minute. The castle was indeed quite impressive and for a while I did forget the bag on my shoulder. The dark, damp slave dungeons were the most chilling aspect of the tour. Our tour group felt crowded enough in there, it was rather hard to imagine an even larger group being confined there for weeks.
The large offices and living quarters that seemed to get more commodious the higher up one went were a stark contrast. The view out across the Atlantic and along the coast, filled with the ubiquitous fishing boats and palm trees was quite beautiful. But at one point this was marred. As our tourist guide led us to the edge of the fort, we encountered one of the fisherman below defecating on the small rocky ledge that seperates the fort from the ocean. This led to cries of ‘shame’ from the Ghanaian visitors while those of European descent seemed a bit more uncomfortable. For me, this only contributed to the strange feeling derived from everyday activity taking place with the very unusual backdrop of 400 year-old European buildings. The castle also contained an interesting museum on Ghana’s Central Region and the accomplishments of Africans in the Diaspora, mostly Americans.
Yet throughout my entire visit, I could not get those depressing dungeons out of my minds. The tourist guide certainly hit hard against the British for their evil in perpetrating such a monstrosity. There seemed to be something of a calculated plan to instill a feeling of guilt in the European visitors. Right outside the castle there were several youths hanging out, appearing to be about my age. Each approached me with a story that may or may not have been a scheme designed to separate me from my money.
The second drawback of my visiting the castle first became clear as I left around 5 looking for lodging. Each place I visited was full (at least 5). After following around a group of Belgian and German tourists who spoke much less language than most of the Ghanaians and realizing that I was getting no where in securing lodging, I begin to get a bit nervous.
The sun was starting to set so I decided to head off on my own to take care of business. I stopped a German couple walking along the road to ask for their assistance. Unfortunately, there was a man biking behind them and he almost plowed right into the lady. After several profane curses, he pedaled off. The couple suggested a place that was a bit further than I should have been willing to walk at that time but I went for it. Near the hotel, I ran into a group of Brits who I informed of my predicament. They offered me the floor of there room if I could find nothing else. I thanked them and went on to the hotel.
It’s a shame I cannot remember the name of the place to warn future travellers about venturing there, but it is mentioned under lodging in the the Bradt travel guide on Ghana, 2nd edition. After passing the bus station, not a safe place for any traveller, and entering a more ‘township’ looking part of town, I saw a sign for the hotel. It was a left and up a steep, steep hill. I finally get to the top. I see nothing but a big deserted lot. The exception is a couple that looks harmless enough, but radiated the vibe of two individuals having an affair. They pointed me in the direction of the hotel. This took me up yet another steep ascent, though shorter, but the lush vegetation on either side and the absence of light was a bit frightening. As were the enormous potholes in the road, I didn’t want to sprain an ankle up there.
Well, I get to the top and there is a huge parking lot and a huge round building. But there is absolutely no sign of any people. No cars, no light, nothing. The building appears to be what could easily have been the biggest nightclub in all of Ghana’s Central Region. But I quickly beat a retreat. I take dinner at the hotel where the Brits I met are staying and wait for them to return. I consider myself fortunate to have a floor for the night.
The next day I head out to Elmina. I go to the shared taxi rank. But before I realize what’s happening. The taxi driver pulls out with me alone, forcing me to pay the rate for 5 people. As this is only two US dollars for about a 10 mile drive I don’t complain too much. We hug the coastline, passing Cape Coast University and a community of what I am told are Togolese fishermen. I arrive at the Elmina Castle rather early, it will be about 45 minutes until it opens.
I head to the lagoon side market right across the road from the castle. I approach a boy of about 10 at a stall and purchase what is becoming my trademark, a bowl of rice. I sit beside him on his bench eating and witness a fight break out right in front of the gates of the castle, one of Ghana’s premier tourist attractions and the oldest European structure in Africa (1482). I wander around the back of the castle to pass time and encounter another one of those strange sights that provides an interesting juxtaposition. This time, the space between the castle and the ocean is a bit larger. Instead of a rocky ledge there is a grassy beach. On this beach between the castle and the ocean is a dilapidated basketball court.
I enter the castle right as the door opens. The group of us is only five (the lone African is from the Ivory Coast), so I am able to get considerably more out of the tour. The guide engages in none of the Euro bashing so in favor at Cape Coast. He does provide some humorous moments, after uttering “the Dutch who are from Holland” he gets a chuckle from the other three guys in the group. It turns out they are from the Netherlands. The Elmina castle is not as structurally sound as its Cape Coast counterpart, several parts of it are fenced off. But it does boast a Portuguese church, a better gift shop, and is much less crowded.
I enjoy being able to roam the fort, imagining myself transplanted back in time, undisturbed by any visitors. I head out and cross the lagoon and climb the nearby hill to the smaller, not as old Fort St. Jago built by the Dutch. The fort does not have much going for it, with the exception of a friendly caretaker who waived the camera fee for me, some very beautiful views, and a beautiful women who was apparently living on the top floor of the fort with her boyfriend.
With the view I was able to get a better grasp of the layout of the town. Leaving the fort, I ventured around the old Dutch section of town. It was picturesque, with a Dutch cemetry and shrines from militia companies, but the unwanted attraction of the village’s children was a bit of a nuisance. One group was better than the others as they only wanted me to play soccer with them. I found a place to stay in Elmina but decided to venture back to Cape Coast to go online and enjoy its more cosmopolitan amenites befitting a regional capital.
However, I decide to take dinner back in Elmina. It was an ordeal getting back there as I discovered Elmina has its own special station in Cape Coast. At the bus station I originally go to, they refuse to direct me and try to get me on a taxi. The restaurant is right opposite the beach, and the curve of the land allows a nice view of the castle. I am joined by two men. One who seems, to be in his 40’s is sporting a NBA jersey. His friend is more talkative. He seems to do well for himself, has a mistress, is an administrator at Cape Coast University, and oversees a fleet of fisherman. Yet he mainly seems interested in getting contact information for rich Americans from me.
The next day, I venture to Kakum National Park. It is not to far inland but seems worlds away from the coast. Going to a touristy park by tro-tro seemed a little unusual, but I was not the only one. A guy about my age got off with me. He was going to help his Aunt cook at the café there. The rain forest canopy walk (the only one in Africa) was interesting, though a bit scary. However, I saw no exotic animals. The most interesting organism was an enormous tree that would take over 10 people to link their arms around the circumference.
I change my plans to head back to the camp from the park. I want to depart with an air of the cultural and historical that was missing in the rain forest. I take lunch at the restaurant right next to the Cape Coast fort. Again, I was struck by the juxtaposition of drinking beer and eating chicken curry only meters away from where one of the world’s greatest tragedies took place. This becomes especially evident in view of later events. There is only one free table open in the popular spot. It seems to be in what is the bachelor’s corner.
At one table is a man who I engage in a brief conversation, he is from Germany. At the other is a black man with an ipod. The service is a bit slow. A young Ghanaian who appears to fashion himself as a Rasta enters the restaurant. He approaches the German, it is not possible to tell if they are prior acquaintances or not. After a short talk he leaves only to come back with two women in tow. After experiencing a fair amount of pestering myself over the last few days, this scenario reminds me it can go both ways.
A meandering cat gets me into conversation with the other man. It turns out he is a naturalized American, born in Nigeria but teaching at a University in Georgia and has just wrapped up teaching a summer course at Cape Coast University. We really hit it off when I discover that he is about to publish a book on the refugee camp where I am volunteering. Thus, the cultural and historical flavor I was craving was fulfilled in a way that I could not have imagined. I return to the camp refreshed, invigorated, and with a renewed sense of determination that had flagged considerably