Accra, the Cape Coast, Dodowa
09.22.2009 - 09.25.2009 88 °F
AKWAABA, Welcome, to our Ghana blog! We have had a wonderful time in this country, capped off by today’s extraordinary visit with the Noyam dance company, about which, much more later.
By the rumblings below us, it seems we are about to set sail for a seven-days’ journey to Capetown, South Africa—yes, we have begun to glide past the pilot boat that leads us out of the harbor. But it actually does feel like we’re leaving part of our hearts in Ghana, home of the warmest, kindest, most spirited people we’ve met.
As we looked out bus windows, people smiled and waved, and as we walked in streets and markets, people complimented our “nice family.” I, Caroline, enjoyed being hailed as “mama” or “mother” everywhere we went. Particularly after the female restrictions and coverings in Morocco, it struck me as wonderful to have two different teenage boys call out to me “Strong woman; I like that!” (when I was walking purposefully toward our bus, as trip leader on the job; and when herding inside the bus female college students who were besieged by jewelry sellers).
The people are far and away the main reason for several of us feeling Ghana may be our favorite country so far, pretty amazing given the long hours we spent on buses every day here in the worst traffic we’ve ever experienced.
“Underdeveloped country": apparently that means, in part, a serious lack of roads and public transportation. It seems that building roads and railways for general transport wasn't a high priority of the British Empire, except for the extraction of gold and cocoa and other resources. (We learned that 10% of the world's gold used to come from here and that Ghana now ranks as the second highest producer of cocoa, just behind Brazil.)
Our first day in Ghana was spent largely in traffic, in the company of an ebullient, lovable guide named Nii, whose four-part full name, when he pronounced it all, sounded like a long and complex sentence.
He took us from Tema port to Accra along what he said was the historic migration path of his own people, the Ga, who, he informed us, originally came from Israel long ago, and so are Jews, though the practice is very much watered down. It was hard to see the historic trail he wanted us to grasp, but we were fascinated by the teeming crowds of present-day Ghanaians all around us. In fact, being stuck in traffic for hours every day of our visit was revelatory: it allowed us to witness the astonishing vitality, industriousness, creativity of the Ghanaian people, who live and work and sell everything imaginable along the sides of—and right in the middle of—Ghana’s roads.
We admired the skill of those balancing huge loads on their heads, a carrying option we realize we should consider more often. The ship's librarian made with Cyrus’s help a list of the assorted items you could purchase while in traffic, and within a few minutes it read like a Walmart inventory: gum, candy, chocolate, and large wall clocks:
Let's see, tupperware and sports jerseys; books, cds, wall mirrors; blankets, newspapers, drinking water; loaves of bread, sunglasses, Obama t-shirts; as well as non-Walmart items like a string of smoked fish, fruits and vegetables like yams and cassava, sugar cane, plantain chips, and hard-boiled eggs.
And we couldn't miss the enormous affection expressed everywhere for our own dear president, as well as his wife, whose recent visit here was clearly a treasured memory.
We were delighted to be able to pick up at the bookstore of the University of Ghana, Legon, a 4-volume set of inspirational Barack Obama comic books, published in Nigeria, telling his life story beginning with his father’s birth in Kenya and then the romantic saga of his parents’ meeting in Hawaii (She: “Now I know why you keep being ahead of your class despite your social engagements. You don’t allow the slightest opportunity to slip by without studying. You’re such an inspiration to be with.” He: “But that is the primary reason I came to America. And truly Ann, you’ve become part of that inspiration.”)
Though Obama won the billboard saturation contest by far, the name we heard and saw most often was that of Ghana’s own great hero, the founder of this first postcolonial African republic:
Jahan and I have been teaching a Ghanaian novel steeped in disillusionment about Nkrumah in the latter part of his era (the corruption, greed, poisoning of hopes for real democracy), but we heard nothing but praise for him; more than one guide told us “Dr. Kwame Nkrumah will never die,” because his ideas about African independence and progress are still alive and guiding the nation. On our first day, we were taken to the site of his monument and mausoleum, and later enjoyed visiting the home of his ally W.E.B DuBois, who followed his pan-Africanist vision to move to Ghana at age 93, and spent there his last few years--also a cherished hero of the nation.
On the second day, we traveled to the Cape Coast and Elmina castles, trading posts of the Swedish, Danes, Dutch, British, and Portuguese at various times, and most famously, key sites of the Atlantic slave trade. The story of our trip there would be incomplete without mention of the highway episode in which, once we had run the course of the only 18 miles of concrete road in the nation (part of a much larger planned highway never finished, our guides lamented, since Nkrumah’s 1966 overthrow), an impossible, sprawling traffic jam loomed ahead. Our impressive guide (next in line to be chief of his people, he told us) jumped off the bus and “negotiated” with the police (for an unspecified amount of cash) a police motorcycle escort, complete with blaring siren, that led our three-bus caravan, drivers’ hands on horns, speeding through the multiple lanes of vehicles that suddenly had to jump out of our way on both sides of the road, for about 20 minutes, while perhaps a thousand pedestrians, workers, sellers, residents, on either side of the road looked up at us to see what imperial personages were passing by. Apparently, this is the way things are done in Ghana; for cruise ships that pay for the service, a guide informed us, it's standard practice. Our busload cheered to be freed from the jam and whizzing toward our destination, while in the front seat and watching one near-miss after another after another, I as the day’s trip leader gripped the rail and sat wondering whether to make an official request for safe driving. This thrill-ride was, after all, police-led.
But we arrived safely in the beautifully sunny beach town of Cape Coast, for an unforgettable visit. There we walked and sometimes crawled through the actual dungeons where enslaved Africans, ancestors of so many dear ones and neighbors of ours in the U.S. were held in utterly abysmal conditions, often for 3 months, while the merchants who had purchased them waited for the ships on which to transport them across the sea. Making our way through the dark dungeons of the 17th century Cape Coast Castle and then in the afternoon through the even older Elmina Castle, it was hard to realize that we truly were seeing what the guides said we were seeing: the actual, miserable cells where hundreds—sometimes a thousand—people were held together, in darkness, in stench, with little food or water, dehumanized and tortured, deprived of any rights, captive to an unimaginably cruel commercial scheme. We almost stumbled over grooves in the floor, made to carry some of the human waste outside. Here's a shot of the interior of the male slave dungeon at Cape Coast Castle:
That the slave trade went on for some 400 years was difficult to ponder, as were certain hideous details, like the church sitting just atop the men’s dungeon at Cape Coast Castle, surely in earshot of great suffering:
That was also where a plaque recorded Obama's historic speech and visit with Michelle and kids in July. On the other side was the exit door to the slave ships known even then as the Door of No Return, visible in this picture:
Nowadays, where the slave ships used to pick up their human cargo are instead fishermen and their hand-dug boats:
At Elmina Castle, first built by the Portuguese in 1481, we were shown not only the dungeons but also particular cells where resisters were abandoned to their deaths, and the balcony from which the governor would choose a woman daily from those herded into the courtyard below. We were struck by the strange contradiction between the natural beauty surrounding us and these little hells:
Our students said, and we agreed, that this was about as educational a trip as one could ever have taken.
Outside of Elmina Castle, in the town of Elmina, as if to counter all that history of death, was the most vibrant public scene we have ever seen: crowds of many hundred gathered to buy fish from the fishermen, come in at noon in boats with colorful flags.
Then we saw big buckets of fish being carried, sold, and smoked by hundreds of hands.
We ate lunch at a beautiful, peaceful hotel on a lovely stretch of Atlantic beach.
It was the only manicured resort spot we saw in Ghana, and some students decided to stay for the night.
On our third day in Ghana there were pleas for a little down time, so we stayed on the ship in the morning, the boys amusing themselves by boxing in their room, with socked hands, I believe. In the afternoon we went on a little shopping jaunt into Accra (long trips into traffic being again worth it for the sights and encounters). Extremely assertive jewelry vendors, after finally giving up on selling to us, offered the boys highly useful lessons on respecting elders, and other Ghanaian wisdom. While I found them a little in violation of our personal space norms, the boys were lit up by the encounter.
We were up before dawn and out early the last day, our trip having been moved earlier because of the horrendous traffic. In a village named Dodowa about 2 hours away, up a dirt road our bus couldn’t manage, we met the gracious, welcoming, accomplished dancers of the Noyam African Dance Institute. And though we were terribly mis-dressed for this day-long dance class (having thought we were just going to a dance performance, and dutifully sweating in our permethrin-infused long sleeves and jeans, doctor-recommended to ward off mosquitoes and the dread malaria, while all around us college students frolicked in shorts and tank tops), we found ourselves performing in a day-long African dance class, and loving it!
First they bestowed on each visitor a coconut, to drink the juice and try the meat, though the kids wrinkled their noses at the slightly acrid juice.
Then dividing the group in two, they taught us the traditional Kpanlogo dance, which we then performed for each other. Look at those boys getting into it!
After a wonderfully cooling West African rainstorm, which made a terrific noise on the tin roof, and a lunch of jollof rice and chicken or fish, some of us elected to be drummers instead of dancers.
(Note: the woman in this photo is not Caroline.)
For me, this was a dream come true--they didn't just let us try out the drums and cowbells, but trained us to play them in an ensemble while others danced, in an extended, ecstatic session--of our family, four of us in a line pounded out one rhythm on drums while Eli happily played another rhythm with the group on bells.
Finally, this beautiful dance troupe performed for us.
We said very fond goodbyes, exchanging email addresses with our teachers, and returned to the ship. In the evening, we set sail with full hearts and a sense of great good fortune in having landed in Ghana. Our final day's tour guide gave a moving speech, asking us to be ambassadors for Ghana in the larger world, to counter misimpressions many have of Africa as uncivilized. We won't be able to keep ourselves from doing so.