Monday, July 4.
Leaving Accra on Sunday morning, almost as soon as I’d arrived. After countless hours spent in traffic here, I’ve learned the comparable pleasure of navigating Accra on the weekend. Cars moving briskly, manic tro-tros slightly less manic. A blessing that most Ghanaians are no doubt packed into their houses of worship, singing and genuflecting, allowing harried travel writers to spirit through town unmolested.
The taxi drops me at the tro-tro rank beside Kaneshie Market; here, at least, is the usual big-city bedlam. Hawkers, hustlers, husky women selling flavorless biscuits, piles of transistor radios and LCD lights and other low-grade wares. All that color and chaos is like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych: The Garden of Cheap Chinese Imports. A tinny recording plays on loop, calling out the names of destinations. Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Cape Coast. Takoradi, Takoradi, Takoradi. Before long I am comfortably installed in the frontseat of a 10-person minivan. Tro-tros pull to the side of the road, some slender boy calling out to passengers, collecting fares. Decals on the rear windows: Trust Me. My Lord is Able. Big Daddy. Skinpain. I Am Very Sorry. Be Ware of Bad Friend. Be Ware Jesus Is Coming. May God For Give Us. If Not God…
It takes some time to flee the sprawl of greater Accra – an endless strip mall of shopping plazas and chop bars, auto parts shops and furniture stores. Much of the city’s surroundings seem to be under construction. New shopping centers and the garish villas of the nouveau riche testify to the emergence of Ghana’s growing middle class – the same urban professionals whose imported cars have created, in just the past five years, Accra’s notorious traffic jams. Work crews smoothing tarmac and pouring cement. They’re building an overpass to span the coast road, unfinished off-ramps and pylons like a forest of baobabs. A new four-lane highway points into the interior, optimistic and unfinished. I wonder how many new cars will be on the road before it’s completed.
Finally the city melts away, the road is flanked by the riotous greenery of the tropics – the starburst stalks of banana plants, the domino rows of coconut palms. Above them the power lines strung like the bars of a musical score. The air-conditioning is on full-blast; it feels gratuitous on this gray, drizzly afternoon. The mood is somber, middle-aged men resting their heads on briefcases, a young woman staring dreamily out the window. Cycling through the contacts on my cellphone, puzzling over half-remembered names and the inscrutable shorthand – PALM? COCO? – I used to fix them in time and space. I remember Deen, a garrulous young rasta: I had met him at Kokrobite, a Friday night, when we stood under the coconut palms and appraised the German girls dancing in their tight formations, repelling all advances. He had spent two years in Cairo, spoke fluent Arabic. He told me the pick-up lines he used to impress the Egyptian girls. (It seems they took a particular interest in their sub-Saharan cousins.) Then a procession of Kofis and Kwames. Then Leslie, an American girl in Paris, in town for a conference at La Palm hotel.
Then Mawuli. Of course, I remember Mawuli. A Sunday afternoon, Labadi Beach. Beers outside the Party Palace, heads bobbing to ‘70s disco standards and heavily synthesized ‘80s dance tracks. Young, raggedy rastas approached the tables, selling wood carvings and conches, giant prawns, beaded necklaces, Bob Marley posters. The false familiarity and charms, mouths frozen into pleasureless smiles. Four women sauntered past, heavily made-up, in mesh tops and tight pants, wigs askew.
“You don’t look so bad,” said one. And then, as if that weren’t clear: “You look good.”
We made some small talk: about America, and the weather, and the weather in America. She gave me a frank look. “You have a good dick,” she said. “I can see it popping up in your pants.”
“Um,” I said.
“My pussy is juicy, by the way,” she added.
By the way, you never really get used to that sort of thing. Two men at a nearby table – at first glance, as decent and church-going a pair of Christians as you’d find on Labadi Beach – smiled and laughed as the woman swayed her hips in search of other prey. “I need to change my skin color,” said one, “so I can get the girls.”
“Not the ones you want,” I said, hoping to reassure him.
Their names were Mawuli and Senyo, and they were, as I suspected, not your typical pair of Labadi hedonists. Neatly dressed, somewhere in their late 30s, they told me it was their first time to visit the beach. I teased Mawuli and asked if his wife knew he was there. “You told her you were going to a church meeting, didn’t you?” I said. He laughed heartily, his whole body rocking back and forth. “It is true,” he said, shaking his head. “I told her exactly that.” He appraised the assembled throngs – the leering beach boys, the women in wet t-shirts and bikini bottoms – and took on the grave air of a Sunday preacher. “What I have seen today, it is no good,” he said, those his face suggested otherwise.
Mawuli spoke to me freely, with the easy, generous spirit for which Ghanaians are known. He worked in pharmaceuticals; his company produced some sort of supplement for farm animals I didn’t fully understand. It was a slow, painstaking business, he said. At every turn the banks tried to bleed him dry. Every three months he had to repay 8,400 cedis on a 7,000 cedi loan. The extortionate interest rates charged by the banks – up to 40 percent, according to some estimates – was legalized theft, fully sanctioned by the government. “I think what we need for Ghana to develop is a leader who is a capitalist,” said Mawuli. Under the current system, it was impossible to take an idea, start a small business, grow it into a thriving operation that could employ dozens, support their extended families. The entrepreneurial spirit that was so strong – especially in the poorest Ghanaians – was being strangled by short-sighted policies. The banks were in it to make a fast buck, no matter how much the country suffered in the long term. (“For Africans to handle money, I do not advise it,” said Mawuli.) He had hopes to expand his business in the future, to provide security for his family, but wondered about the policy-makers who worked so hard to entrench the status quo. “What will you leave for future generations behind?” he asked rhetorically, as if an answer might be waiting on the winds.
These thoughts help the hours pass. It is a shorter ride to Cape Coast than I’d expected – we make it in two hours, flat – and suddenly we are climbing the hills, turning through narrow streets of one-lane traffic, everything manic and congested, the city falling away below us toward the choppy Atlantic coast. It is beautiful, like some medieval hill town, the stout ramparts of Fort Victoria resting atop it like a crown. I take a taxi to the waterfront, the Oasis Beach Resort, and find the place swarming with young white volunteers in different states of holiday disrepair. (A sign above the reception desk reassures us that the “Bar operates till the last one drops out.”) Quickly I am sizing the place up – the English girls in their bright cotton wraps, like pasty Fante princesses; the rastas at the bar, saying rasta things – and feel like I’ve been here before. On the beach I’m accosted by guys selling paintings of tall, slender African women with jugs on their heads. Original. Beyond them the fishing boats bobbing dangerously on the gray tumbling waves. The whitewashed walls of Cape Coast Castle, scarred by the wind and sea, atop a promontory jutting into the ocean.
The trafficking of human souls that began in the interior would, for many, reach its end point on these shores. The coast was a motley bazaar of forts and trading posts manned, at different points, by most of Europe’s great maritime powers: the Swedes and Danes and Dutch, the British and French, the Portuguese. Cape Coast was the most prominent of the thirty-odd castles that lined the shores of today’s Ghana. The first trading post was built atop the site in 1555 by the Portuguese, who named the place Cabo Corso – “short cape” – which was later corrupted into Cape Coast. A century later ownership passed to the Swedes, who built a permanent fort atop the remains of the Portuguese settlement and named it Carolusburg, after King Charles X. A turbulent decade followed, with the fort passing between the Swedes, the Danes, and the forces of the local Efutu king. (“The castle was built by foreigners,” a bookseller in town told me, “so the history of it is…a bit strange.”) The land on which it was built, noted Kwame Anthony Appiah in The New York Review of Books, belonged to the king, who “behaved like a shrewd landlord, playing European competitors off against one another to squeeze out better deals.” In 1665, an English fleet took the fort by sea; it was expanded by the English Chartered Company of Royal Adventurers to facilitate its use as a warehouse for the human cargo that made up Africa’s contribution to the epoch’s “triangular trade.” Ships sailed from European ports freighted with guns, rum, textiles and other Old World commodities; exchanged them for slaves along the African coast; sailed across the Atlantic, during which half of their luckless passengers perished; then traded them for coffee and sugar grown on New World plantations. Estimates vary on how many slaves were brutally taken from the continent: 10 million, 20 million – the numbers swell, begin to lose their meaning. Untold numbers passed through Cape Coast Castle’s notorious “Door of No Return.” After capturing it in the 17th century, the British made the building the administrative center for their sprawling Gold Coast colony. It would remain the colony’s de facto capital for the next 200 years.
On Monday morning, having paid my requisite dues to the seaviews and enjoyed a rastaless coffee, I visit the castle for an hour-long tour. I am late – a group has just departed – and am forced to play catch-up. Already the group has descended the long, dank, dimly lit passageway toward the male slave dungeons. Dull fluorescent bulbs hang from the ceiling; it is terrible to imagine this walk in darkness, the bodies pressed together, the fear and unknowingness hanging over everything. The tour group is standing in a small room, a few funeral wreaths propped against the wall. Each of the five chambers in the male dungeons could hold up to 200 slaves, says the guide. They were held for months, crowded together, poorly fed, standing and sighing and sleeping in their own shit. Force-marched from the interior, from their working fields and the moonlit villages they would never see again. A steel collar around the throat; a chain that bound them neck to neck. There were shackles around their ankles and shackles around their wrists, and what a sad shambling sight they were, leaving a trail of tears from the place where they were taken to the windy promontory where they were herded and pushed, as if off a cliff, into their terrible journey to the New World.
Ascending, now, into daylight, into the fresh sea air. Above the dungeons the British had built a chapel for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Ministering to the good white souls who had come to Africa to cart off its native sons. For many, the castle was a stain on their consciences, on their souls. Buried beneath the flagstones in the courtyard is the body of Philip Quaque, the black chaplain to Cape Coast’s white officers for much of the 18th century. Quaque wrote that in the four decades he had spent in Cape Coast, he had not received a single officer for Communion. “The only plea they offer is that while they are here acting against Light and Conscience they dare not come to that holy Table,” he wrote.
Waves pound and churn against the seawall below; the rocks are moss-covered, the ocean blue-gray, fishing boats bobbing and pitching as they set out beneath somber skies. We scatter across the ramparts with our cameras poised. Far below I see a man dropping his trousers and squatting in the shadow of the castle walls – lodging his historical grievance, no doubt, against the injustices of the slave trade. The imposing ramparts, the seaward cannons: it was all a bold bluff by the British. The castle was poorly fortified and undermanned; rarely were there more than 50 expatriates stationed along the entire coast, tasked with the duty of flying the flag for the Crown. Most were the scions of prominent slave-trading families, more schooled in vice and waywardness than in colonial administration. They were “[t]he misfits, the ne’er-do-wells, the alcoholics, the cheats and the bounders,” wrote William St. Clair, in The Door of No Return, “[who were] either never heard of again or…[came] home rich and triumphant, their mistakes atoned for and their honor redeemed.” The latter rarely proved true; the devastating toll of tropical diseases claimed the lives of most Europeans who set foot on the colony’s shores. Life at Cape Coast Castle was precarious, and the place was dangerously vulnerable to attack (it was almost taken twice: by the French in 1756, and by an Asante army in 1825). For all the military bluster, wrote St. Clair, the castle was little more than a “defended warehouse,” its storage rooms packed with rifles and gunpowder, its dungeons with the human chattel that, like the rest of the cargo, had been insured by thoughtful agents in London or Liverpool.
Descending again, we are led to the two female dungeons, each built to hold up to 300 women. For two months they waited until they were brought out in chains to join the others; perhaps one in three, says the guide, survived the long, brutal months of imprisonment. You can imagine them now, during those final moments, the men and women brought together again, a woman searching those dark, somber faces, transfigured by hunger and sorrow, for the familiar light of her husband’s eyes. One by one they bowed their heads and passed through the Door of No Return. The sunlight reflecting off the sea must have appalled after the darkness of captivity. Small boats pitched against the shore: the water here was too shallow for the slave ships, and so the passengers had to be transported by smaller vessels, the shoreline receding, the great ship like a fortress, until they were carried away from the land of their ancestors’ departed spirits.
Taking those same steps ourselves – the Door of No Return now thoughtfully widened, more accommodating – we have reached the emotional climax of the tour. But the scene outside is jarring; there is no time or space for somber reflection, everything is color and clamor and all the riotous facts of African life. Beside the castle is Cape Coast’s port, and the place is unhinged, cacophonous – the cries and curses of fishermen, the roughhousing of boys in the waves, the women selling meat pies and small metal bowls of spaghetti and water sachets, crying out “Yeah, water!” in a nasally sing-song. A forest of masts fly the flags of Ghana and Germany and Israel and Spain – allegiances to foreign football clubs, perhaps, to a girl once met on the beach. A gang of fisherman are working at their nets, pulling them apart with corded arms. Buckets and plastic wash basins full of fish sit in the sand, wet and silver and gleaming in the sunlight. The guide is trying to say something, but it’s impossible to hear him over the din of the port.
Turning back, our attention is brought to a sign posted over the entranceway – “Door of Return.” It was put there by the government, says the guide, as a symbolic welcome to the millions of Africans descended from slaves who are living in the diaspora. Many, the government hopes, will “return” to Ghana – whether for a visit to discover their roots, or to plant those roots anew and call the country home. This courting of the African diaspora continues in the bookshop, where some thoughtful entrepreneur has put together a useful tome entitled Points to Ponder: A Travel Guide When Considering Repatriating Home To Mother Africa/Ghana To Live or To Visit. (Of considerably less practical interest, I suspect, is the volume Ghana Over the Years: The Reflections of a Senior Citizen, by Charles K.B. Tachie-Mason, author of such popular titles as Basic Principles in Rearing Pigs and Steps in Rearing Chickens.) Elsewhere in Cape Coast Castle, the courting is of a less ambiguous commercial bent. In an ironic nod to its erstwhile inhabitants, the stockrooms once used to store guns, textiles, and other European commodities for exchange with slave traders are now souvenir shops; Palaver Hall, where red-faced officials once bartered over the prices of slaves, is the gallery of one Bernard Acheampong, whose nostalgic seascapes and village paintings hang beside stern notices to not take pictures, please.
By the time I’ve cleared the ramparts and run the gauntlet of souvenir stalls along the coast road, the clouds – literal, metaphorical – have parted. It is an afternoon of brilliant sunlight, one I am happy to pass on the beach beside Oasis, staring at the waves. Some token thought is given to the country of my birth on this, its 235th anniversary; still more to the continent I call home. It was on this day four years ago that my plane landed in Nairobi, that my African odyssey began: a long, meandering journey, still a work-in-progress. Not one given to religious sentiment, I offer a few pagan prayers of thanksgiving as the ocean drapes its skirt of seafoam across my feet. At my back, the place that has occupied these past four years with its friendships and follies and misfortunes and misgivings; before me, the open sea.