Tuesday, July 5.
From a distance the castle in Elmina, some 10 miles west of Cape Coast, looks moored off the shore like a cruise ship. It is Ghana’s oldest fort, built by the Portuguese in 1482, and is, according to some, the oldest European-built structure remaining in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a bit disingenuous: the castle has shape-shifted and expanded so often through the centuries that what remains – a great white-washed fortress, perched at the tip of a narrow peninsula – owes its lineage to many bloodlines.
The Portuguese, arriving in 1471, found a flourishing trade in the small port town wedged between the Gulf of Guinea and the Benya Lagoon. Salt produced from the lagoon’s brackish waters was hustled for gold mined in the north; the gold trade was so lively here that the Portuguese dubbed the town, and the region around it, “Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro” – “the Coast of Gold Mines” – from which the modern town likely derives its name. A decade after their arrival, the Portuguese set up to fortify the place that would become their administrative center in West Africa for the next 150 years. The original fort – a fraction of the current one’s size – was sturdy enough to repel three Dutch attacks by sea. But in 1637, with their influence growing in the region, the Dutch succeeded in capturing nearby St. Jago Hill, bombarding the castle with cannon fire, and forcing the Portuguese to surrender. St. George became the African headquarters for the Dutch West Indies Company; in 1666, the Dutch completed Fort St. Jago atop the eponymous hill, ensuring that no other foreign power could capture the castle as they themselves had. They held the castle for nearly a century and a half, until it was sold to the British in 1872. During that time the Dutch expanded the fort, as slaves replaced gold as the region’s most profitable commodity. All that remains of the first Portuguese settlement is a small chapel in the main courtyard, which the Dutch used as an auction hall for slaves and is today a museum for tourists.
The castle tour is brisk, professional and perfunctory. If yesterday it was difficult to conjure the slave trade’s horrors because of the brimming, bustling, high-decibel clamor of the Cape Coast port, today it’s owed to the size of my tour group, which includes three American co-eds whose off-color asides – “Sorry, picture whore!” after a chirpy snapshot of the Door of No Return; “Sounds like college,” after a look at the windowless room where unruly slaves were left to die – are probably better left to the dorm room than the slave fort. The rest of the group – a middle-class Ghanaian family, two sons in matching blue jeans and checkered shirts; a family of ambiguous European provenance; a few young American hangers-on with the malnourished pallor of the Peace Corps; and a Ghanaian high school student, Bright, who I picked up in Cape Coast and brought along for the day – shows the guide polite, if not rapt, attention. We are led into the male dungeons, where a wreath of silk flowers, papery red and white petals, was respectfully laid “From All Onboard Prince Albert II.” We are shown the sea-facing cannons, and the room where the Ashanti King, Prempeh I, was held by the British for four years. We are walked through the governor’s expansive quarters, and across the balcony from which the priapic administrator dreamily mused over the assembled slave women in the courtyard, perhaps briefly, regretfully pined for the wife left behind in Europe to spare her the horrors of climate and disease, and then chose the woman who would perform the rites of the conjugal bed in her stead. (These women – and the daughters they inevitably bore – were deemed the “lucky ones” by the other captives: they were spared the terrors of the Middle Passage. Those who resisted were chained as punishment to a cannonball in the yard, the heavy weight of which we’re invited to test for ourselves.)
Gradually the group begins to drift, lag; there are defections. Bright has stood beside me throughout, solemn and dutiful, venturing nothing (Q: “This is pretty interesting, isn’t it?”; A: “It is.”), disappearing only briefly to field a call from his mother. (“She would like to speak to you,” he says, prompting me to hazard that it’s maybe not the most appropriate time.) After the tour ends, I snap a few pictures in the sunlit courtyard. A bearded man is hunched over the rampart high above, TV camera propped on his shoulder and trained on a striking blonde who walks slowly, gravely across the courtyard. She’s wearing a pretty summer dress and expensive-looking sunglasses and an air of gravitas that vanishes as she reaches the end of the courtyard, flashing a brilliant smile toward her colleague up above. A few brief, professional words are exchanged. Then she moves briskly across the yard, fixes her face into a somber mask, and performs her solemn walk once more.
Moving from the gray sober courtyard, the ghosts of five hundred years, out into the color and noise of Elmina town. The raucous energy of the fishing port, the carnival streets, the thunder of a thousand competing sound systems: today is not a typical day in Elmina, but the start of the annual Edina Bakatue festival. It is the day that Elmina’s paramount chief announces the end of the six-week moratorium on fishing in the Benya Lagoon. By early afternoon, all of the town seems to have crowded into the narrow gauntlet of Lagoon Street. The shops stocked with their cheap imported wares and stamped with their improbable names. Clap For Jesus. Toasted Bread Ent. Nothing Late When Life Is Long. God Is My Provider. Still Blessing Boutique. Peace & Love Spot. Darling Boy Ent. (“Dealing in Phones & Accessories”). Mama Africa, Why Must I Cry.
Bright walks a half-pace in front of me, just off to the side, as if to drive a wedge into the crowd. His presence today has been something of an enigma, and a growing part of me regrets bringing him along. We had met in Cape Coast, near the Methodist Church; he was walking with a classmate, also Bright, and accosted me with his smiling goodwill. School was on its mid-term recess, he said; they had the day to themselves. He asked if he could join me for the day in Elmina, his face frank and unapologetic and altogether free of ulterior motives, though I knew he was implicitly asking me to pay his way. It seemed like a good enough trade-off: he was earnest and friendly, the first youth I’d met in Cape Coast who hadn’t tried to force a conch or batik upon me, and I figured that a bright young high school student who had grown up in Cape Coast would be full of interesting cultural tidbits about a town just 15 kilometers down the road.
He was not. He was sullen in the taxi, sullen in the castle, and sullen as we pushed our way through the assembled throngs of festival-goers who, to a man, looked so chirpy and lit with glee by comparison that I considered shaking Bright’s hand, wishing him all the best, and putting him in a taxi back to Cape Coast. Instead we walk the length of Lagoon Street, stopping to rest in the shade of a canopy where dozens of plastic lawn chairs have been arranged in unruly rows facing the lagoon. Already men and women in their Sunday best are sitting, staring, their faces washed of emotion, waiting with that particular African patience that seems to draw little distinction between a couple of seconds and a couple of centuries. It is past noon, but despite Bright’s assurances, there is no sign that the festivities are set to commence anytime soon. (The most telling indication is that the VIP tent, arranged with heavy, brocaded chairs that would not look at all out of place in Versailles, is, alas, still empty.) Hordes of children have amassed along the waterfront, watching pirogues painted with the festival’s corporate sponsors – MTN, First National (“The People’s Bank”), Protector Condoms – punting back and forth along the narrow, murky channel. The sun is high and unrelenting. I can feel the color deepening on my forehead and the back of my neck.
Bright’s presence has come to feel like a blight, an affliction. He sulks his way through lunch at the Sea View Spot, a cavernous concrete hall pulsing with carnal hip-hop beats which offers, it should be noted, not even a distant glimpse of the sea. Afterward we visit some of the traditional posubans which line the town’s main streets. These concrete shrines, found in Fante settlements across the region, were built by Elmina’s asafo companies – military units in Akan societies which were traditionally tasked with defending the town. The shrines are weird and wonderful and so curiously out of place, sandwiched between the cellphone shops and hair salons, with their obscure mystic symbolism. Here a building is crowned by a painted cement naval ship; another by life-sized figures of Adam and Eve; a third is flanked by two jet planes. I ask Bright, my Native Guide, to help unravel the shrines’ mysterious provenance. Outside one he squints at the sign that reads Asafo Company Five and says, “This was built by Asafo Company Five.” I cannot argue with this tidy morsel of intelligence, though I decide to puzzle through the rest of the posubans on my own.
On the waterfront the crowd has grown, multiplied: the little girls in twos and threes wearing their dusty tulle dresses; the bare-assed boys; the women in their church get-up; the old men as weathered and sea-worn as the ancient mariner. Amid all the color and commotion and low-rent pageantry, beyond the far shores where boats bedecked with the MTN logo jostle with their First National Bank competitors, something archaic is being renewed. Something modern, too: a wail of sirens and a flurry of beefy men jogging beside a caravan of SUVs announce the arrival of the VIPs. The bodyguards have cleared them a broad pathway, this delegation of low-ranking parliamentarians from Central Region. Through the window tint I can see their fat, placid faces cooled by the A/C. Not a single one will leave his automobile until the ceremony has begun.
Finally an emcee in a black Guinness t-shirt and wrap-around shades grabs a mic and begins working the crowd. Beside him a tartlet in tall heels and a short skirt shimmies around, engaging him in no-frills comic banter. The audience is unamused. Having gathered for the boat races, for the triumphant parade of the village chiefs, they only grudgingly indulge this corporate-sponsored tomfoolery. The emcee, moving briskly between Fante and English, recalls for us the celebrated history of the Edina Bakatue festival, turning to his co-host and eliciting the marvelous response: “Wow.” The six-week moratorium on fishing, he explains, was initiated many generations ago to allow the fish of Benya Lagoon to replenish. Is six weeks enough time for said replenishment? asks his partner with a toss of her hair. “That is left to the Creator,” he says. Somewhere a recording of a drum troupe is cued up over the PA system, obscuring the music of an actual drum troupe in attendance. Then a spokesman for First National Bank, the festival’s principal sponsor, takes to the stage, asking the crowd, “Why First National Bank?” before proceeding to answer his own question.
The speeches and canned corporate drudgery, the sponsors’ logos and tinny recordings, do little to prepare me for the actual longed-for moment that suddenly arrives: the procession of the chiefs. Long before the first one arrives, trailing his retinue like an ancient king, there is a palpable sense of import in the air. Something great this way comes, seems to be the prevailing mood. The beating of drums and ringing of cow bells, the waving of branches and fronds, the grinning sycophants, as if some champion prize fighter is making his way toward the ring. First comes the arrival of some sub-chiefs or standard bearers – no one can explain their purpose to me, these grave men carrying walking sticks crowned by the traditional totems – a bronze hand, a fishing boat, a taxi, a scorpion – of some distant villages. And then the chiefs: tall and short, young and old, bald-headed and bespectacled and bearing themselves with unflinching dignity through the full-throated throngs. They are dressed handsomely, regally, in colorful robes and toga-style dresses, their necks hung with gold chains and pendants, their fingers ringed, their heads crowned with gold headdresses. How little has changed since the Portuguese captain Diogo de Azambuja, in the 15th century, met with King Caramansa of the Edina state. The king, according to a written account which survives, “was seated on a high chair dressed in a jacket of brocade, with a golden collar of precious stones…his legs and arms covered with golden bracelets and rings…and in his plaited beard golden bars….[H]is chiefs were all dressed in silk [and] wore rings and golden jewels on their heads and beards.” True, I suspect the gold sequins on a certain chief’s dress were less likely mined than bedazzled; but the effect of all this spectacle is the same. The Rapture has arrived in Elmina; the crowds are singing, cheering, crying out, you can imagine some have walked a full day from their villages to see their chieftains in the flesh. A man beside me lifts his head with pride to tell me the name of his village, buried somewhere in the hinterlands of Central Region. When I ask if he saw his chief arrive for the festivities, he pauses and says with great significance, “There was eye contact.” At last the paramount chief of Elmina arrives on the throng’s adoring shoulders, steadied by some beneficent and invisible guiding hand, shielded by a magnificent umbrella as white and multi-tiered as a wedding cake, and performing what I believe in some American zip codes is referred to as the “Bankhead bounce.” His smile suggests that the ardors of paramount chieftaincy are but a small price to pay for the pleasures of this idolatry. It is, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, good to be the chief.
Somewhere in the commotion, the jostling of sweaty Fanta-selling women, the muscled teens with their affected hip-hop swagger, the brick-shithouse security detail swinging their batons at six-year-old shins, I’ve managed to lose Bright. This is perhaps not the end of the world. The crowd’s peristaltic movement has swallowed me up and deposited me just a few feet from the dais, where another corporate mouthpiece is talking about how happy he is on behalf of so-and-so to be a part of all this. Yet again I’ve managed, with cunning whiteness, to find myself in the middle of the action. I dutifully take out my notebook and dangle my camera from my wrist, as if to ostentatiously assure all and sundry in attendance that I am hard at work for some periodical of note. In a sense, I am – the Washington Post has agreed to pick up whatever story I come up with during my travels on the coast – though in a more immediate sense, as it portends to the speeches and photo-ops and etc., I am not. This sets up a rather curious series of events in which I am an actual journalist masquerading as a pretend journalist playing himself off as an actual journalist. Much fake scribbling in my notebook commences. The chiefs are fidgeting and adjusting their clunky gold wristwatches. Somewhere over my shoulders a boat race starts and finishes. Then the paramount chief rises, lifts the hem of his robe, and slowly, solemnly, wades into the lagoon.
Much has been written about the grave pilgrims and mourners who perform their funereal rites in the shit-filled waters of the Ganges, so perhaps there is nothing surprising about this mixture of the sacred and the profane. Still, I do not envy the chief as he pantomimes the offering of some gift to his ancestral spirits, then drags an imaginary net in from the water, to the rapturous cheers of the crowd. Minutes later, when an actual net is hauled in to mark the symbolic start of the new season, what is dredged up looks unlikely to be gracing many dinner tables anytime soon.
“Full of rubbish and a few fish,” laughs the man beside me.
It is the day’s dramatic climax, and just about everyone in attendance loses their shit. Much cheering and ululating, etc. For most in Elmina, the festivities are only about to begin: Edina Bakatue is a week-long festival, no doubt punctuated by the drinking of copious libations and the catching of the occasional fish. Having had to swim my way out of my fair share of African watering holes in the past, I realize I’ve hit my festival threshold. I’m ready to retreat to Oasis. I fight my way through the crowd, which has put such a press on the waterfront that I’m afraid the dignitaries might start toppling in. Finally, clear of the crush, walking down to Lagoon Street, I manage to catch my breath. Only then do I stick my hand in my pocket and realize someone’s made off with my phone. It is a terrible, sinking feeling to have one’s pocket picked – shame seems to be my prevailing sentiment, followed quickly by inchoate rage. I look around, wondering if there’s someone I can accost, or ask for help, or grab by the collar and shake vigorously. It’s useless; whoever did the deed no doubt did it four or five minutes ago, when I was wedged between the crowds. By now they’re long gone, as is my phone. Anger, then grief, and then the mood passes. I tell myself it was my own offering to the ancestors, or to wealth redistribution on this troubled continent, or whatever. Tomorrow I’ll be out thirty or forty bucks, which is probably the worst part of it. I tell the story to my taxi driver on the way to Cape Coast, and he just laughs and shakes his head.