What an incredible country! Never having been to Ghana or any other part of Africa, I didn't know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised.
We got into Ghana on Sunday morning; I got up at 6am to hang out at the 7th deck b/c I love watching us come into port. It was very cloudy and hazy and we couldn't see anything exect for a few distant shadows of small fising boats going out to sea. There was a distinct smell of burning wood and garbage which was strong but comforting. I was really excited as we started getting closer to port and got a pilot to take us into the harbour. This was the most industrial port that I have seen so far. Everything was brown and you could tell that this was more of a commercial port than a vistation port. It was really cool to see the ship parallel park into a spot that only gave it a clearing of a couple of feet on either side. Takoradi part of a two-city government called Takoradi-Secondi. Takoradi is the commercial business town and Sekondi is where the people actually live and more of the culture exists as well.
The gate to get into town is about a half-mile from the ship so ventured a little out of the ship but didn't get a chance to get out of the port in the morning. By 11am, I was drenched from a 15 min walk because of the 85 degree heat and humdity. Since Ghana is one of the largest exporters of cocoa beans, there was a cocoa processing plant right next to our ship in the port. Cocoa beans don't smell anything like chocolate when they are not roasted and ground. They have this sweet pungent smell (which reminded me of being back in Belize in 07 and chewing on fresh cocoa beans from the pod while walking through the jungle). Here I could see cocoa beans being bagged and taken to get made into chocolate.
On our voyage prior to landing in Ghana, we learned about the child slavery market associated with cocoa processing in Ghana and how most chocolate companys (i.e. Cadbury, Nestle) have taken steps to stop buying from people who use child slaves...but the largest company that refuses to sign international agreement is HERSHEY's!!!!!!!!! So as you get ready for valentine's day, please take a stand and DONT buy Hersey's! Some of our students even started a valentine campaign where they wrote valentine's to the ceo of Hershey's to ask him to stop using chocolate processed by child workers.
I took an SAS sponsored trip to a town called Winneba on the first day. The local tribal Chief, mayor and other officials came to the ship to visit and have lunch with us...they were all blown away by the ship and it's size. Some people wore traditional robes and others wore western clothes. The Chief also brought his umbrella carrier who was also his translator. After lunch, we boarded buses for our 3 hr busride to this town of 40,000ppl, just west of Accra. We first went to the town hall, where the Chief and Mayor offically welcomed us, poured alcohol libations to the Earth Gods to provide us with a safe stay in this fishing town. Winneba is a sister city of Charlottesville, VA so there is a close relationship with UVA and the University of Education, Winneba. We got to our hotels, got some dinner and headed back to the University for an awesome presentation of local culture and traditions. We heard from a local Anglican choir, traditional dancers, local music and also were officially welcomed by several university officials. I met this student named Frank who played the traditional Xylophone which was really cool. It's made of local wood, fiber and gourds and sounds really cool. We were at this little hotel called "Lagoon Lodge" down a dirt road close to the lagoon in town. This was also SuperBowl Sunday so lots of students went in search of a bar w/ the game, I was pretty exhausted so I chose to just stay in.
Next day, we were taken to the Music Department at the University where the students played some incredible impromptu jazz music, traditional bamboo flute & drums, tribal dances and we all got to learn some local dances as we interacted with the students and faculty members. I even did a small Bharatanatyam performance and sang some songs with the South Asian music (Hindustani) class I'm taking on the ship. J We got to check out some local markets and had one of the best meals I've had in a loooong time!A local dish I have fallen in love with is RedRed. It's a tomato and bean stew with rice and fried plantains…these are the sweetest plantains I've ever had! I also tried Kenke - a steamed fermented corn-meal dish (see recipes!) and some other deliciousness!
This was probably one of the most intense experiences of this journey so far. Cape Coast (CC) is a town about 1.5 hrs from Takoradi. We left the shipyard, took a taxi to the local TroTro station. TroTros are these little minivans (like an Indian Maruthi Van) that you can get to get around Ghana. These are more frequent than the public transporation but also shady. You go to this packed and bustling market and get a ticket from a window for 3 cedi (about 2bucks) and get into a van. They wait until they fill the TroTro to leave so you get to be somewhat spontaneous as to when you get to your destination. So we took this TroTro to CC and walked around the bustling market place with lots of fried fish (this fishing town is right on the water), beautiful tomatoes, local palm-soap, palm wine, and lots of people walking around with different goods to be sold on their heads….i was truly amazed by how much some of these folks (mostly women) carried on their heads without even an ounce of worry about it falling!
We finally made our way by foot towards the Cape Coast Castle, a relic of the times of slavery. But first we happened to see the House of Baobab Vegetarian Restaurant…clearly I got really happy at this! The food was delicious (I had some more RedRed!) and learning about the NGO that this restaurant supports made the food even better! The House of Baobab is a non-profit that was started by Edith, this German ex-pat who has settled in CC. She has started a school to teach street children and low-income kids the traditional arts and crafts of West Africa. They get free education and training and get connected to their culture and history…all for free!! How cool is that? Anyways, the restaurant, the bed-and-breakfast upstairs and the craft shop of things the students make all support this venture is fully funded by this woman's passion, donations and some funding from the German government. Check out more about this organization at: http://www.africa-action.de/cont_121.lang_en.kissi-baobab-children-foundation.php.
During this lunch we also met Hassan, a local student from the University of Cape Coast but originally from the northern countryside who told us an incredible story of his life and his family back home. More on him later…
After lunch, we went for a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, one of the largest slave market/dungeons from the time of slavery. I knew this would be emotionally hard but I didn't expect the intensity and energy of being in this space. When settlers first started coming to this part of Africa, it was for the gold and cocoa and the Dutch built a wooden structure to be their trading post. But then the British came, and built this beautiful three floor castle (plus underground dungeons) for the purpose of slavery. When I walked through the gates and got my ticket, I entered this open courtyard that seemed very peaceful. There were three graves (the first governor of this castle, his wife and the first African Anglican leader of the church that was here) and on the far end, I could see a series of cannons and beyond that the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The castle is triangular in fashion. The right side is the entrance to the male slave dungeons with the children's library (what used to be the church) and a look out post. On the left was the isolation chamber, the former slave market/art space, offices, governor's quarters, female slave dungeons, and the Door of No Return.
Here's the tour:
First we started with the Isolation chamber which was used for slaves that were disobedient. This is the only original door left in this castle and there were two more inside that are lost. The chamber is dark with a small opening at the top of the high ceiling, damp with a musky smell of mold, moisture and remains of hundreds of years of suffering. Once people were thrown in here, there was no getting out until they were dead. They had no food, no water, no sanitary systems and filled with rotting bodies around them.
Above this is where the Slave Market used to be. They were brought in, closely examined and sorted. Though most of this operation was run by white men, many of the middle men bringing people from across western Africa were thieves and other folks that had been shunned by their communities and tribal chiefs who used humans as their yearly payment to the white settlers. Once they were brought to the castle, the men and women were separated and the strongest were sent to the dungeons while the weaker ones became slaves running the castle. In this case, being stronger damned people to living in horrific conditions to weaken them for the arduous journey across the Atlantic to the "New World". After being sorted, they were branded with initials noting who had bought them and where they would be sent.
Then we went to the male slave dungeon. We walked down this steep slope as we entered a dark room; this was the first of 5 chambers (about 30ftx20ft) and each held 200 people. There were several small opening high on the walls for light, no ventilation, little grooves on the ground for "sanitation" and nothing else. This is where the guide showed us several lines about two feet above the ground. According to sediment testing, it is believed that there was up to 2-3 feet of human waste and dead bodies filling the room with 200 people living here for over three months at a time. Just thinking of it makes me nauseous….I can't imagine what it was like to actually live through it. This chamber led to four other similar chambers which lead to a tunnel that went to the ships (more on that later). There is also s small altar that the slaves had created as a way to keep their traditions and hope. One sickening feature of these dungeons were the small openings about 4ft wide and 6ft tall at the top of the front wall. These openings were right below where the church used to be. Slaves who would misbehave were hung through these openings so that it could serve as a warning to people in the dungeons. Just imagining this life is ridiculous!
We then exited these dungeons, we walked across the cannon walkway. These were put in later to protect the castle and the "goods" from invasion. This is also where women who refused to sleep with the governor or his men were tied to cannon balls and left in the heat for days without food or water. Below this walkway are the remnants of the tunnel that was used to bring all the men to the Door of No Return to be loaded onto ships. There are windows where spies would look at the slaves as they walked through to count folks based on their branding and to make sure they were are there. The entrance to this tunnel (from the 5th chamber of the male dungeon) were sealed when slavery was abolished as a memory of the people who passed through this hallway.
The women's chamber is pretty intense. There were only 300 female slaves at a time in this castle and they were split up into two chambers and had even worse conditions than the men. Again, there was no sewage system, healthcare and they were right below the governor's chamber. He would come down and choose a woman/girl. If she refused, she was chained to the courtyard or thrown into the isolation chamber to die. Friends who went to Elmina Castle (about 20 minutes west of CC), said that there is actually a balcony over the women's dungeon and a stairway that went from this chamber directly to the governor's room.
Next is the Door of No Return…named so because this door lead to the dock where, in the middle of the night, people would be shoved onto ships and taken to sea. This was also the last chance where families could say their goodbyes, if they could find each other before the cross-atlantic journey which 75% of them didn't survive. The ones that did survive all this monstrosity were then sold as slaves and started working on plantations from the Caribbean to the Americas.It was really hard for me to walk through this door thinking of how it must have been for thousands of people who were forced to go through this door. Today, this door leads to a small fishing village with fisherman fixing their nets and getting on with life. It was strange to just be on that dock and look out onto the ocean and the lives and stories that passed through that door. Once the slave trade was stopped, this doorway from the dock into the castle became the Door of Return when the bones/remains of several slaves were brought back to their homeland by ship through this door and given a proper burial. As soon as you enter the door, there is a sign that reads "Akwaaba" (welcome) to talk about the power of coming home and reconnecting which I thought was pretty cool.
There is a great museum on the third floor which has chains, branding irons, and other artifacts from this castle and also had a history of how slavery came to be. I was really proud of the Ghanaian people for preserving this place and taking part in teaching the history from this side of the Atlantic. I wish we would teach more about this time of our history in the U.S. It's just sad to see how much of this history is presented without any emotion or connection to current day issues of child slavery, sex trafficking, poverty and disease.
The last piece of the tour was seeing two plaques. The first was revealed by President Obama & First Lady Michelle on their visit of this castle in 2009 the second plaque is by the Ghanaian house of commons talking about how we need to remember the tragedy of this period of their history and yet anger is not the answer; healing is.
Hans Cottage "Botel"
After this experience we needed some time to process and we went off to get a taxi to our hotel for the night. We decided to stay at this place that was called a "botel" because of it's location on a lagoon with lots of animals, birds and native vegetation. The coolest part were the crocodiles that lived in the lagoon. It was cool to have dinner overlooking the lagoon, the hundreds of egrets and several crocodiles swimming around. I even got to pet two of them! J
Hassan came over to hang out for a while and we got into this interesting conversation when he asked if I was married. I said, "no, I'm gay" which he didn't believe and was a bit shocked (apparently I'm the first gay person he has met) for a while but finally was able to get over it and we had a great conversation about sexuality, culture and things like that! I was also with a lesbian couple and a straight woman so it was a fun evening.
Kakum National Park - Canopy Walk
In the morning we left early with Hassan and his friend's cab to Kakum National Park. They have these bridges they have built 40 meters (about 120 feet) above the ground/trees so that it feels like walking on top of the trees! It was sooo cool! We didn't see any of the animals (most of them are nocturnal) but we did have some beautiful views and fun pictures! On the way back to CC, we got stopped by Ghanaian police with a huge gun for having too many people in the car (we had no idea that you can only have a total of 5 people in a taxi; we had 6). The driver got a ticket and we felt bad that he was doing a favor for Hassan and that he got in trouble for it. But we all survived and made it back to town alive.
We hung out on the beach next to the castlefor a little bit before getting a TroTro back to Takoradi.
House of Baobab School - Komenda Junction
On my last day in Ghana, I visited the House of Baobab school and their facilities in Komenda Junction. It was cool to se children learning how to do batik, sewing and other crafts. They even had a self-sustaining garden of veggies, mushrooms, medicinal herbs. They even have a bike shop where they collect bikes and fix them up for students so they don't have to walk to school from far away everyday! They are building several residence halls for the students that stay on campus. There are several cool things about this place and it's cool to see how much they have done. And the best part is that students don't have to pay anything to be a part of this program!
Overall I loved this country and can't wait to come back!