Sequels are often a let-down. The original is rarely surpassed. Ghana, the second time around however, was the exception. Not unexpectedly though. After some R&R, my energy levels and enthusiasm restored, I knew I would see the country in a different, brighter light.
This time, I wasn’t going to let things get the better of me. Laugh in the face of adversity. That said, I wasn’t planning on trying to put my bike on a bus either.
Obtaining visas for Togo, Benin and Nigeria was relatively straightforward. No major embassy hunts. Minimal paperwork. It shouldn’t be this easy. I ought not complain. That said, it still took the best part of a working week.
During this time I was fortunate to have the use of a friends’ apartment in the relatively affluent Abelemkpe neighbourhood of Accra. My bike and luggage had been stored there while I was in England. It was all still there (unsurprisingly). I brought back with me a bag full of books and some chocolate. By the end of the week, the chocolate was not still there (unsurprisingly).
I did venture into the even more prosperous Osu. Cantonments Road is lined with restaurants, banks, offices and supermarkets. Expat heaven. Between the modern buildings and traffic-jammed road, the way was blocked by stall after street stall with anything and everything for sale. Plenty of tourist kitsch of course. Hawkers roamed up and down and weaved between the traffic trying to sell food and flags. Plenty of vuvuzelas too – it was the middle of the FIFA World Cup afterall. I contented myself with pizza and coffee and pastries. Best to stock up when you can. Even if you don’t need them. (I had sufficiently beefed up during my month at home – fill those fat reserves was my motto).
I also attempted to see the old castles and forts on the Accra coast. Osu Castle is now government offices and cannot be visited. It can be viewed from Independence square. The square is a large concreted piece of wasted space. Enclosed on three sides by permanent seating, which also blocks the view of the sea. The fourth side is open to the busy coastal road, lined with numerous flagpoles and not so many flags. I saw Osu Castle – it looks like the government offices it now is. I had cycled here, risking life and limb in the clogged streets. I decided not to attempt cycling on to Fort Usher and Fort James, which probably wouldn’t have been much more illuminating (in a historical sense since Fort James, I believe, is now a lighthouse).
Tro-tros for transport
With the arrival of the weekend I headed for the coast. A taxi to the chaotic, bustling Kaneshie station. Then tro-tro to Cape Coast. Tro-tros are the little minibuses which, once filled, run between towns. Ghanaian tro-tros, unlike similar transport in other West African countries, are a relatively comfortable way to travel. Always cheap. There are seats for 14 and so 14 people travel in a tro-tro. Elsewhere, the number would be closer to 20, not including children who generally take the status of baggage and are shoved into an spare nook, cranny or lap.
Cape Coast on a dull grey day, the wind whipping up the waves that crashed along the shore, is not so much of a beach paradise. The weather seemed fitting for visiting the old forts however. If the subject of slavery isn’t depressing enough; try it on a dull, wet windy day.
Forts Victoria and William are perched on hilltops overlooking the town. Circular in construction, crumbling round the edges, canons in place but unusable except for hanging laundry to dry. Presumably therefore, still inhabited, but not by Europeans.
Cape Coast Castle
Cape Coast Castle is located on the shore front. This was where the slaves were kept before being herded through the Door of No Return and onto ships where they were transported to the Caribbean. Or more likely thrown overboard as fish fodder when they died or caused trouble. The dungeons, dark and dank, where the slaves were kept before shipment must have been unpleasant. It’s hard to imagine hundreds of bodies crammed in to a plain large room, with minimal ventilation and not even a hole in the ground for a latrine. Privacy, pride, prospect all taken away when the shackles were placed round your neck. If you tried to escape or cause any kind of problem, you’d be taken to the cell. With sixty others you’d be forced into a small room, completely devoid of light or ventilation, and the door bolted behind. That is the last time you would ever see the living world. The stench of just 20 sweaty tourists in this room with the door open was pretty awful. 60 people, barely space to sit; door shut, in darkness, no food or water. That is where you would spend your last days. Perhaps you were lucky and died quickly. Otherwise you’d suffer surrounded by dead, decaying bodies. Perhaps clawing at the door or stone floor in a hope you could get out with your fingernails. You can still see the scratch-marks. But that bolted door wasn’t opened until every last one had died. 100% mortality. The only thing I can think of for comparison are the gas chambers used in the holocaust. But death in this cell would have been so much slower arriving. Prolonged fear.
World Cup Fever
That evening, Ghana were playing the USA in the football World Cup. Anyone who owned a television had it tuned in to watch the game. Most had brought them onto the street so as many as possible could gather round. Men, women, young and old; it seemed as if all of Ghana was pinned to a TV, like iron filings to a magnet. That said, not everyone seemed to be bothered with watching; but they all wanted to be involved with the celebrating. And celebrate they did. At the end of extra time, the streets erupted. There was dancing and singing, vuvuzelas and whistles, and flags waved energetically. Children raced up and down the roads. Taxis and motos beeped their horns and flashed their lights. An impromptu parade, a mass of red and yellow and green, moved in time to the theme music, ‘Give me freedom…’ Now that we have, I thought.
A taxi to nearby Elmina in the morning. It was a clear day and the sun reflected brightly off the white-washed walls of St. George’s Castle. Situated on the shores, it lies just over a bridge from the main town, with colourful fishing boats laying side by side like sardines in a tin, lining the riverbank. Fishermen sit repairing nets, as men would have done before the arrival of Europeans and the slave trade became the main industry.
St. George’s Fort
The British St. George’s Fort was built around a Portuguese church, which still stands although is these days used as a museum. The main features of Cape Coast Castle are present here too, although on a smaller scale; the slave dungeons, the death cell with skull-and-crossbones carved above the door, the officer’s rooms and commander’s quarters. The commanding officer’s room was above the female slave dungeons. From his balcony he could look down into the dungeons and make his choice. He had a trap-door in the floor of his room through which he would have sent a female slave whenever he so desired.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of man could live in and preside over such a place. Were all the officer’s comfortable eating and sleeping above so many people who were ill-treated and seen as little more than cargo awaiting shipment? Was it accepted as part of the job? Was it just accepted? I may have learnt a lot about the slave trade and the conditions the slaves were kept in, but I know nothing about the kind of people who ran this business. Can unscrupulous greed blind you to a fellow being’s suffering? I don’t know.
After each tour of the castle, the guide makes sure to say that we are all here to learn about the past – Not to accuse, but to make sure it never happens again. To reconcile. And although the Ghanaian’s nodded approvingly, I found this comment hard to swallow. I agree of course. But at the same time I felt ashamed to be British, knowing it was my countrymen, albeit over 200years ago, who created this fort and used it to trade slaves. I’m not even that patriotic. All I can say is thank you to William Wiberforce whose persistance and hard work resulted in the abolition of slavery.
A short walk around Elmina included the hill up to Fort St. Jago, which overlooks St. George’s fort and the rest of town.
The rest of town is dotted with shrines. You can spot these shrines because they are large and are invariably of some totally random objects or scenes, and therefore look completely out of place. These are Posuban shrines. The work of Asafo companies, which are patrilineal military units in Akan societies. Traditionally, these units were responsible for the defence of the town. Today, they influence local politics and have ceremonial functions. Apparently the shrines are ancient, but don’t look it. This is explained by the fact that the shrines are replaced every few decades to keep up with ‘modern’ thinking. Like the one of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden? Very modern. The ship and it’s crew is a few centuries ahead. I wonder what the next one will be – a giant mobile phone? That would be fitting – it does seem to be the symbol of modern Africa.
Apam or Accra
I couldn’t decide whether to stop for the night at Apam, for the chance to see another fort, or to return to Accra and set the wheels in motion. Apam or Accra? As I walked up to the tro-tros stood outside the Wesleyan Methodist church in Cape Coast, one driver walked up to me asking, ‘Accra?’. My mouth replies, ‘Apam’. Apam it is.
It’s five cedi’s to Accra, but only four to Apam. I kicked up a bit of a fuss when the money collector seems disinclined to give me my one cedi change. Once I had my cedi and the tro-tro was pulling out of town, I opened up the book I’m currently engrossed in and read. Next time I looked up we were passing through Winneba. I put away my book and opened up the map. Oh – Winneba is past Apam. I hadn’t noticed and the driver didn’t stop or say anything either. Oh well, to Accra it is. Decision made. I felt a bit guilty about only paying four cedis for the whole trip but as soon as we were off the tro-tro, it was already pulling away. The guilt lasted about as long as it took to hail a taxi. Less than thirty seconds in a city whose streets are overrun with them.