Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Anniversary of Sorts

"You can take a Ford to Cape Coast."

Say what? I didn't quite get it. Did the hotel clerk just advise me to take a Ford to my destination, a coastal town south of Kumasi?

She had. This turned out to be an almost-generic term for the sleek, new, air-conditioned vans that privately transport passengers in Ghana. I'd looked into buses the day before and they left both too early and too late, so I had the taxi driver drop me off at the private bus park (the public buses leave from their own station), where I cluelessly wandered around the dusty lane, getting into the wrong queues.

"This is the Accra line," explained a university-aged man in a business suit, waiting in the longest line. "For Cape Coast, you need to walk two more blocks over."

I walked two more dirt alleys down, and was lucky enough to get into a "Ford" that was leaving almost immediately. This meant getting a seat all the way in the back in the sun, but this being Ghana, it wasn't so bad. Crowded, yes, but in Ghana, they don't shove in 20 people where there should only be ten. In any case, we have 13 passengers, a driver, and a lot of hand luggage. I'm guilty of the hand luggage. My passport and laptop bag never leaves my lap or shoulder when in transit.

Four hours took us to Cape Coast, which is on the sea. But I wasn't there for the beach. I was there for the history. Cape Coast features a famous slaving castle. Like visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia, this isn't a lot of fun. But it feels necessary and appropriate to revisit and learn about atrocities when traveling. In this case, the history is complicated by the knowledge that my own country was in part built on these atrocities, prior to the Industrial Revolution and the advent of automation.

Since I was in the back seat of the van, the taxi drivers in Cape Coast had plenty of time to get a good look at me and start jostling for my attention. One in his mid-twenties was all over me before I even got out of the van.

He was a bit too eager, grabbing at my bag and jumped around like he had a tail to wag.

"Easy," I said. "You need to cool it or you'll scare tourists instead of getting them into your taxi."

He nodded solemnly, and I cracked up. Then I felt bad, so I did select his taxi.

He didn't let up inside the car. "WheredoyouwanttogoIwilltakeyoucheap?"

I was relieved to be dropped off up the hill at the Mighty Victory Hotel, a budget lodge I'd picked out of my Kindle guidebook. This was like budget lodging in Asia--cheap, en suite, a little crumbling, complete with towels, linens, wi-fi, and restaurant. And all the answers I needed about how to get to the activities I had planned.

"You'll be pushing it to try to get to the national park today," explained the friendly owner. "The last entrance is at 3:30. See the castle today today and tomorrow morning, you can easily go to the park and then continue on to Accra."

I left my bags in my room and hurried out on foot to make my way down the hill to the shore. I passed men sitting outside at pedal-Singers, surrounding a huge pile of denim. And then further on, shops with funny bible-referencing names. "The Blood of Jesus Sewing Centre." "To God Be the Glory Cosmetics." "God's Love Bikinis." That sort of thing. Okay, I made up the bikini one. But you get the point.

The sun was low in the sky and I entered the castle just in time to get attached to the tail end of the day's tours. The man who took my admission fee hurried me down into the men's dungeon. I couldn't see at all after being in the bright sunlight, but in a minute, my eyes adjusted. I could see a diverse group of tourists all surrounding a thin Ghanaian guide, who was lecturing in the stuffy, humid basement.

The guide showed us where the tunnels had been, which the kidnapped Africans had been marched through en route to the Door of No Return. In the women's dungeon, he showed us the gash in the stone in the corner that was the only toilet for the whole dungeon. He showed us a well which had once been a dungeon, but there hadn't been any air so that hadn't lasted long.

The dungeons were of course small, dark, and appalling, but the worst part of the castle was the Door of No Return.

"Here, the men were all shackled together and led one at a time through a small door. This way they were easier to control. And because of the shackles, no man could throw himself overboard from the small boat or he'd take the other men with him. This way they were led into the small boat and out to the slaving ships."


And today was the 150th anniversary of the first shot being fired in the Civil War. This castle was beautiful—whitewashed, pleasant, jutting out of the rocks just above a lively fishing village where men brought in nets and children kicked a soccer ball—in contrast to its terrible past. I found the plaque commemorating the visit of President and Michelle Obama, and stood there willing my eyes to stop watering. Seeing this place firsthand brought it all much closer to home, closer than any of the Civil War battlefields my mother had taken me to as a kid, much closer than visiting the living historic village of Harper's Ferry. I'm from Virginia, the home of the great general Robert E. Lee, near Jefferson Davis Highway, not far from the front lines, where towns in the Shenandoah Valley had changed hands repeatedly, though I never bothered to memorize the crazy stats (I leave that to my mother). And never had slavery felt more real than here at this fort.

"State's rights my ass," I thought. "Kidnapping and processing millions of random Africans into hell and servitude isn't okay on any level, no matter how you interpret the Constitution."

And that's how I spent my anniversary of the first shot fired in the War Between the States.

And in the evening? I stared at a progress bar on my laptop, while everyone else in the hotel restaurant watched soccer.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! And an appropriate place to commemorate Fort Sumter, and be grateful that something good came out of the tragedy known as our Civil War.