Tag Archives: cape coast

I hope you can continue coming here.

July 9.

My elaborate attempt to replace my stolen phone lasts the better part of a day and a half. In my haste to buy something – anything – bearing the familiar stamp of the Nokia corporation, I pick up the cheapest model on the Ghanaian market: a little clunker with big Fisher Price buttons that barely respond to my frenetic Morse-style tappings. This seems like a peculiar breed of masochism on my part. It’s worth noting that for the first time in years, my post-Harper’s bank account is able to sustain a little splurge now and then; there are plenty of more ostentatious – or, at least, functional – phones that would fit into my spiffy new budget. Still, it’s not easy to undo five years’ worth of thrift – the minute calculations and sub-calculations on the back of a notebook, the soul’s contortions each time I take a taxi when a simple tro-tro will do.

By the evening, though, I’m full of remorse; the phone is a grade-A shit-job. Not for the last time do I regret not making my purchase at the God Gives Electronics shop, or God Love Phone & Accessories. The next morning I return to the same sidewalk kiosk, brandishing my receipt like it’s the 95 Theses. The seller looks small and wounded. He has – alas! – already deposited the previous day’s sales in his boss’ bank account; the best he can offer me is credit toward another phone. I look quickly through his inventory, a selection of low-grade L7 and Tecno brand phones that have no doubt been hastily assembled in Guangzhou Mobile Phone Factory No. 7. I have seen these models on countless buses and tro-tros in Ghana: the image of a pouty girlfriend (“my baby-girl”) splashed across the screen, Akon hits playing over the tinny speaker. Seeing my displeasure with the rest of his stock, the vendor’s face clouds with untold sorrows. Where can a man today expect to find such heartfelt commiseration from the guy who sold him his phone? His grief is palpable, so that suddenly I – the victim of a crime most foul – am the one who has to stand there, saying consoling words. Soon we become fast friends. “I would not like you to leave here unhappy with what you have bought from me,” he says, with great feeling. His name is Eben – short for Ebenezer – but everyone calls him Cocoa. “Because I am so dark,” he says, touching the skin on his forearm. He is, in his spare time, the presenter of a popular daily show on a local TV station. Sure enough, everyone seems to know his name. “Cocoa! Cocoa!” calls a gang of schoolchildren, laughing hysterically as they march arm-in-arm down the street.

The days pass breezily in Cape Coast. I have quickly managed to settle into a daily routine: a morning Nescafe with my writing at Oasis; lunch of fried chicken and jollof rice from a street stall near the Methodist Church; afternoons with a book on the beach; a gin-and-tonic sundowner, repeated as necessary. Peace of mind is by no means easy to come by after dark. The vultures at the bar circle and swoop, jangling bracelets and saying rasta things. They are intent on selling me some token keepsake with which “to remember Africa” (as if I could forget!). Still, these are happy days. Mostly I am content to keep to myself, having built around me a fortress of solitude as impressive and imposing as the one squatting a few hundred meters down the beach. My companions are Elmore Leonard and John Le Carré; my conversations are grudging.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my fondest encounters are with a young deaf man who patrols the beach, collecting money for some dubious secondary school. He writes his name in the sand – Julius Kofi Ahorsu – initiating a conversation that we have at the end of a stick. Julius is pleasant, eager. He writes the word OBAMA in bold letters and looks at it with a certain pride of ownership. As if to underscore his point, he unfolds a page torn from a German magazine, a picture of the American president himself – Africa’s favorite son – standing square-shouldered behind a dais. Julius was there for the president’s 2009 visit to Cape Coast. He pantomimes the highlights: the passing of the motorcade, the solemn speech at the castle, Julius going bat-shit crazy and giving the president a big thumbs-up. It was, no doubt, a glorious day. Much taken by Julius’ gentle, enthusiastic spirit, I fork over a few cedis and sign my name on his pledge sheet beneath the names of other foreigners. Julius pumps my hand vigorously, his eyes big and emotional, his head bobbing. Then he scurries off down the beach, jogging in ungainly strides and dodging the edges of the waves.

The next morning – the sky low, the rain misting – I decide to break the monotony of the past few days and visit Kakum National Park, a rainforest less than an hour’s drive from the coast. The bus station is full of the usual market bedlam, the hawking of meat pies, cough syrup, toothbrushes, insecticide, hard-boiled eggs, detergent, Lasex and Lord brand razors, lusterless apples, and a dizzying array of cheap, nutritionless biscuits. An old man approaches selling packets of onion seeds and a single green pepper. Another carries a stack of slender books titled Golden Ghana History. I buy one for a cedi – about 65 cents. The author is one Bobby Acquah, “a.k.a ‘Blessed Bobby’…a renowned musician who have worked with most of the country’s top bands, namely Senior Eddie Donkor’s band, Nkomode’s Band, Bishop Bob Okalla’s Band, Kaakyire Kwame Appiah’s Band and many more.” On the title page is an “appreciation”: “I’m most grateful to God the Almighty for making what seems to be impossible, possible for me today. God, I say you are wonderful.” The historical tidbits are random and of dubious grammatical provenance, the photos grainy reproductions from other textbooks. It is impossible to imagine what fate awaits those who take their history lessons from Blessed Bobby – the young Ghanaian students sent forth into the world, armed with their knowledge that the Bank of Ghana was established in 1963 and the Second World War ended on “11th May 2945.”

The sky has opened by the time I reach the park, the rain coming in at hard angles. At the entrance I make an offhand comment about the crappiness of the weather, to which the guard, looking blankly at the sky, responds, “This is rainforest.” His deadpan logic is irrefutable. An army of school buses has already filled the parking lot, the students pouring out in their matching uniforms, gangly and high-spirited and intent on quelling any designs I had on a contemplative nature walk. The line for the toilets is out the door. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, I dutifully join the ticket queue for Kakum’s canopy walk – a series of rope bridges suspended some 100 feet above the forest floor. It is the next in a series of disappointments. The Ghanaian parks department seems to have realized that this is the park’s main draw: the ticket price, just 9 cedis when my guidebook was published two years ago, has jumped to 30 (around $20). It seems like a steep price to pay to share a bunch of narrow walkways with excitable high-schoolers. The day is all but wasted. I buy a plate of red red and fried plantains at the park restaurant and sulk in my misfortune. I’ve spent 40 minutes in a tro-tro to browse in the Kakum gift shop and eat lunch. Leaving the park, there’s a small commotion at the entrance: a luxury coach with the initials V.I.P. splashed across the side has managed to wedge itself beneath the main gate. The whole structure – a rickety frame of timber crossbeams with a corrugated awning – rocks dangerously with each surge of the bus. Behind the wheel a nervous rasta is working the pedal, trying to extricate the bus without bringing down the proverbial house. I have never before seen a rasta bus driver in Africa, and perhaps that is with good reason. On my way out the guard I’d encountered earlier looks at me and shakes his head. “You said it. Today is a bad day,” he says. “You said it.”

It has been, though, in spite of everything, a good week. Having gotten the most out of my beachfront bungalow at Oasis, having felt myself 10 years too old for the backpackers at the bar on Friday night, I leave Cape Coast Saturday morning for Ko-Sa, a Dutch-owned beach resort some 20 miles west along the Axim road. It is a cozy spot, with a dozen bungalows hidden among the tropical growth and an airy, thatched-roof restaurant facing the sea. After Friday’s clouds, the day is hot and clear; when I arrive there are a few young Dutchmen playing beach volleyball with some Ghanaians, and a couple of young boys offering to scamper into the trees and bring down coconuts for 50 pesewas – around 30 American cents – a pop. Everything seems friendly and low-key, after the relentless touts of Cape Coast. There is a wide beach where a few young volunteers are lying on towels, and a small swimming area protected from the ocean’s rough surf by a narrow reef. I have absolutely nothing planned for the next few days, which suits me just fine. In the afternoon the sun casts its golden rays on Ampenyi, a small fishing village about a 10-minute walk down the beach, lighting the tops of the coconut palms and the stone church supposedly built by the Dutch who landed here more than 300 years ago.

It is a beautiful, tranquil place to pass a few days, knee-deep in the thrillers I picked up at the Black Star Bookshop in Cape Coast. Sitting on the beach, alone with the ocean and the seabirds doing their dizzying pirouettes in the sky above me, I have a pleasing vision of myself in much the same state of repose in Zanzibar a few months down the line. Whatever doubts I might have had are at bay here; I can imagine happily living out my tropical-island fantasy, fortified by a few simple pleasures as I devote myself to my book. As a general rule, I try to avoid too much planning in my life; but as plans go, I could certainly do worse.

Sunday morning breaks gray and cool, the ground still wet from last night’s rains. It is a slow start to the day, a procession of coffees as I wait for the sky to gradually clear. After breakfast I go for a walk along the beach. A small armada floats in the bay, the hulls colorful and weather-beaten and bearing slogans about God’s greatness or imminent arrival. Some of the boats are moored and bobbing gently in the shallow water; others have been hauled up to safety on the sand. A dozen fishermen are sitting nearby, young and old, their arms bulging with muscles, working the knots out of their nets. It is slow, conscientious work, and they go about it with great diligence, though engrossed in a half-dozen conversations at the same time. Further along the beach a group of men are drawing a boat onshore, pulling on thick lengths of rope. “Come!” a young man calls out to me – not a patronizing entreaty to give a few half-hearted tourist tugs, but an earnest call for some extra muscle. I oblige him, getting a few encouraging cheers from the others. The rope is thick and damp and coarse with sand. We heave once, twice, crying out rhythmically in unison, our feet digging in. It is strenuous work, and our modest gains seem to be undone each time the ropes go slack and the boat drifts back into the water. A woman chewing a stalk of sugar cane gives me a withering look. “Obruni, hurry up!” she says.

The beach is crowded with villagers: the men in their ratty shorts and sports jerseys, the women in their bright tropical dresses. The mothers and wives of Ampenyi are carrying plastic basins full of tuna and sugar cane, or balancing trays of watermelon slices on their heads. Most have babies bundled tightly to their backs, and other small children near at hand. There is something joyous and communal here: the women laughing, crouching, scaling fish, haggling over whatever scandalous price someone has offered for their tuna; the men working at their nets, teasing the women, going at everything with an easy, convivial rhythm that suggests that life is short but the days are long. The boat we’ve been laboring to bring to shore has slowly pushed itself back into the water, but no one seems too perturbed by this: there will be some joking and horseplay, a boy getting wrapped up and wrangled into the water, and then everyone will return to their positions in the sand to try again.

Behind me two scrawny teenagers are rough-housing in the sand, taunting each other in Fante, laughing hysterically. One wears a Boston Celtics jersey and the other the colors of Chelsea FC, and they are pleased to make my acquaintance. They introduce themselves, giving first their Christian names and then their Fante equivalents. Much good-natured joshing commences at my lack of a Fante moniker. I flex some imaginary muscles and tell them to give me a name that denotes great strength. A passing girl, a friend of theirs, suggests “Anhodin,” typing it out for me on her cell phone. For all I know this means “fat bastard with a farmer’s tan,” but for now, “Anhodin” it is. The boys laugh wildly.

They are 16 or 17, classmates, and, as it turns out, teammates for a village football club, Freedom Stars. After the preliminary inquisition about my country of birth and football allegiances, they say they’d like me to meet their coach. We walk toward the village, our flip-flops making wet, sucking noises in the sand, a few cold raindrops falling. If the people of Amenyi had spent their morning in church, singing the Lord’s praises, they have by now returned to their domestic duties. Cooking fires crackle in the doorways, little fish heads getting burned to a crisp, vats of maize meal being stirred by fat, matronly arms. Children, naked, deliriously unsupervised, are running everywhere, splashing through puddles, their belly buttons protruding like doorknobs. Sunday, Ampenyi. The village is like an excavation site, the ruined remains of an ancient city. It is impossible to say if the dilapidated villas are being built up or crumbling down. Laundry hanging from broken pillars. A sense of mortality, fleetingness. The terrible patience of Time. Vincent, the elder of the group, leads me to the house of their coach, a polite man in his early 30s called Peter. The place is poured cement floors and concrete blocks and a draft through what’s left of the windows. The team, says Peter, hasn’t managed to raise the funds for the coming season. They go through their practices and daily drills and then sit out while the other village teams compete. The faces around me are young, forlorn – an early schooling in life’s disappointments. They have their football and their friendships and then what? If I can contribute anything at all, says Peter, it will take just 120 cedis – about 80 U.S. bucks – for the Freedom Stars to join the league. I promise to see what I can do. The team gathers outside for a photo op, arranging themselves in practiced positions – a striker here, the goalkeeper there – and pose, as if they’re about to hoist the trophy.

Afterward Vincent takes me to his house to meet his father. An old, congenial man wobbles from the living room; he is eating his lunch, grains of rice still clinging to his lips. He takes my hand and pumps it warmly.

“I hope you can continue coming here,” he says.

Advertisements

May God For Give Us.

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.