Cape Coast, Ghana

“Do you really want to do this?” Michael asks.  He knows that I hang on to images.  The Hanoi Hilton.  Treblinka. 
Hiroshima wiped me out for a week. 
I couldn’t eat, close my eyes. Man’s inhumanity quite literally makes me sick.


So, we take a cab to one of the castles that housed dungeons that kept
male, female and children captive, 200 to a room the size of your average
subway (only without the windows, the flush toilets, or the fresh veggies), for
periods of a few days to 3 months until the imprisoned Africans passed down unlit stone
passageways to The Door of No Return and onto small boats similar to the fishing boats still in use, to ships that would take them
through the middle passage to North and South America. It is the same one that the Obamas visited when in Ghana.

“Africans were
stronger,” our guide explains.  “They were more
able to survive harsh working conditions on the plantations rather then simply
enslaving the indigenous peoples.”

I slip and almost fall as we descend into the men’s dungeon.  The floors are slippery, a muddy looking
covering over the cobblestone floors as thick as asphalt.  This, she explains, is the caked residual of
blood, vomit and feces from the nineteenth century.  I feel nauseous and disoriented by the
darkness as she switches off the light for less than a minute. 

In this picture, a young Dane contemplates the magnitude of what we are experiencing and the guilt that all of European descent must bear.

Directly above the cries from the dungeons stood (stands) canons pointed out at sea and a church,
where the overseers prayed for peace and redemption.  A trap door is in the entryway so worshipers
could look down and check on the status of the imprisoned before taking
communion. Redemption indeed.  Were the overseers clinging to guns and religion on this rock thinking they were worshiping on some high ground?  I stand
there trying to pull logical thoughts together in the blasting wind. Later she takes us down to visit The Door of No Return, which she unlatches and swings open.  Our little tour group steps out into the blinding sun to imagine what it might have felt like for the departing prisoners of slavery.

Our guide is a soft-spoken volunteer who tells us about the
five graves in the open yard of the castle. 
These were not for slaves that succumbed to the horrors, those folks were
either buried in a mass grave or thrown to the sharks.  Instead, this is the final resting place for
four white guys who mostly succumbed to malaria along side the body of one woman.  She was the wife of the head overseer, who
arrived at Cape Coast only to find out her honorable husband was getting it on
with a local.  There are three theories
why she died. 1. She found out her husband had been unfaithful and did herself
in.  2. She too succumbed to malaria.  3. Her husband’s mistress poisoned
her.  “Which do you think?” the guide asks

“Murder.” I reply. 
Our kindly guide does not agree, She thinks malaria or maybe the woman died by her
own hand. 
Later we have a few minutes to ourselves.  She is slight, young, leading our tour with compassion and exquisite detail. A striking beauty
with her braids piled high on the back of her head.  She is well educated, her English impeccable.
“I would think the locals would have wanted to kill all the
Europeans, they were so wretched to them,” I speculate.  She has already told us how some greedy chieftains
had been complicit, trading their enemies and even members of their own tribes for
payments by the European slavers.  She
patiently reminds me that the Europeans and their clients in the Americas were not acting alone.
“I don’t care,” I say. 
“I would have blamed the Europeans and wanted to kill them all.” 
She reaches up to gently take a blond strand of windblown
hair that has attached itself to my angry lip and tries to tuck it behind my
ear.  She speaks to me of the power of forgiveness.  She says that it was the Europeans who
brought Christianity to Africa and for that Ghanaians must always be grateful
for that gift.
I have always thought the missionary movement in Africa to
be an epic case of presumptive arrogance, but I try and see it from her side,
especially since her side comes from such a loving place.
Tonight as I write this I am still trying to digest all that
we saw there: the overseer’s bowed bedroom with 14 windows to catch the cross
breezes from all directions, the special dungeon with no windows for rebel men who were locked up and usually suffocated within two days, to the special dungeon
for women who would not submit themselves to the sexual whims of the guards.  They didn’t suffocate those women, just
starved them and kept them cooped up for years as a model lesson for incoming
females.  I am digesting, but I am not so
sick as I might have been.  I keep
thinking of the deep walnut colored eyes of that young woman speaking to me
about how we need forgiveness in our hearts in order to progress.
“We must forgive others of course.  But it is just as important to forgive
ourselves.  This is how we go forward.”

This picture is from the castle looking north, bare shore similar to what the departing slaves might have seen back then.  It is not a friendly port, but an uneven shoreline with aggressive waves and a vicious undertow.   

The next picture is taken looking out The Door of No Return to the south, onto today’s vibrant community of fishermen, tangles of nets and waiting boats.  In order to get the boats back into shore, men must pull them from the shore, tug-of-rope style.  

We used this photo in our writing at the AISA conference and one teacher observed that these people are all living on the edge, trying to subsist on what they pull from an increasingly debilitated ocean.  When I asked stupid question number 1,067, “what is the unemployment rate here in Ghana?” a teacher’s response was, “it depends on what you consider employment.”  Are these people employed?  If you take coconuts from trees and try to sell them on the side of the road in order to buy a day’s meal, is that a job?  This is the way many or most eke out a living in Ghana.  I remember how over lunch our red eyed cab driver told us that his father is a fisherman and how he had been up all the night before helping him.  How his mother pounds grain and sells it beside the road.  How he took my left overs from lunch home in a bag.

It takes a few days to notice that as you walk down the street, through the markets, you see very very few old people.  For the most part, they don’t exist here.  
I will remember the sights, the heat, and the kindness and good humor of the people of Ghana. We were made to feel very welcome. I will remember the close quarters of those dungeons and our guide’s hand brushing my cheek and her observation that forgiveness is always a component of progress.

Thank you to Lincoln Community School and particularly Rhona Polonsky for helping us plan this side trip.  

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