Cape Coast & Elmina Castle

So close! I almost, almost bought that field program for the Slave castles & Dungeons from SAS (and I promised myself I would try to avoid their trips by all possible means). But at breakfast it turned out that a bunch of my buddies was planning to go to see one of the slave castles by themselves. Well, why not, thought I.

But before going I ran to the art stand at the market by the ship and bought the paintings I wanted. Actually, I might buy two more. I really liked this artist, Diana Awuni. Ghanaian impressionism.
So, the shuttle bus took us to the port entrance. And the shuttle driver called his cousin and told him to take us to the tro-tro, which is some kind of local public transportation. The cousin, whose name was Vincent, was wearing a grey SAS long-sleeve, torn at the right shoulder seam. The shirt, he said, was a present from the voyagers of four years ago, “for my good service”. So, Vincent appointed himself our tour guide and walked us to the tro-tro stop, chatting all the way. And that’s when he tried to charge us 40 cedis ($20) each for the whole day, including, he said, transportation and his service. Well, I brought it down to 30 in a couple of minutes, and the deal was struck.
Then the fun began. The tro-tros really are the public buses; they’re mini-vans that can fit more people that they seem to be capable to fit. Thankfully, we took the small one, with only five other people together with five of us. And if at first we thought that the tro-tro was ours for the day it turned out that nopes. So on we went anyway. Thank god it wasn’t as hot as yesterday, and at a certain moment it started to rain, which was very refreshing. But oh my god that road. The air on the road, or, to be precise, the absence of any breathable air! I honestly do not know what fuel they use for their cars in Ghana, but the cars would leave clouds of grey or black smoke behind them, and you have to breathe that in. Also, they’re always burning something in the green by the road, some garbage and dry palm branches and stuff. My throat is still sore from this air, and I can’t wait till the ship leaves the port so that I could go out and breathe. Because even now I can smell this road dust in our room.
The tro-tro journey took us about two hours; from time to time, it would stop, some people would get off, some people would get on. At last, the last stranger left the car, and the driver dropped us off almost next to Elmina castle. We walked there through the market – a huge one, I must say, for it was the market day in this area – as always, got attacked by some street souvenir vendors, but they all got lost once we reached the castle.
Now this castle, Elmina, is 531 years old; it’s the oldest slave castle in West Africa, owned firstly by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch, and then by the British. It does not look big at all, but it held 400 women and 600 men – the slaves, plus the guards, the merchants, the officials and the governor. Walls of white stone, red tiled roofs; the smell of moist all over the place. We paid the entrance fee and joined the tour, that first took us to the female quarters. I didn’t really get what exactly that room was used for (later they told me that tiny room accommodated all castle’s female slaves), but oh my god, the air! I walked in, and I choked, and I couldn’t breathe, and I made my way to the window as quickly as possible. The walls were thickly covered with mold, and the smell of mold and wet stones and hot moist created some unbearable combination. As soon as we left the room I, after coughing for a while, asked our tour guide how many people died in that goddamned place of the air only. He sighed and said “a lot”. And said that it was always like that, mold and moist, moist and mold, all around the castle.
He showed us the little square in the female headquarters; it was used, he explained, when the governor wanted to pick a woman for the night. He would walk along the balcony upstairs and make his choice; the woman would be cleaned and delivered straight to his bedroom. Those who resisted were tied to a chain on a heavy iron ball and left alone under the rain and heat to serve as a warning.
Through the male quarters we entered a room that was the only place in the castle where female and male slaves could meet; it was the room that lead to the room that lead to the harbor, and there brothers and sisters, parents and children could have a chance to say goodbye, for mostly they all were sold to different customers. The ships picked their livestock at the harbor to trade in the foreign lands.
There was a church in the middle of the castle’s main square, now an exhibition hall. Before it was used as a school, as a shop, and before that – as an actual church, in the first decades after the castle was built. To the right from the church were two cells. One, with a big window, served as a “drunk tank” for misbehaving officers. The other, with a skull and bones drawn above the door – as a tomb. The slaves who tried to put up a fight or escape were thrown into that cell and locked there, no food and no water, until the very last of them died.
The governor’s quarters occupied the top floor of the castle, a lot of space for just one person. And a lot of space to serve that person. A very depressing feeling, after all we’ve seen downstairs. Despite the fact that all the rooms were empty, even the air in the old governor’s rooms felt different.
We watched the lively market on the other side of the bridge, sitting on the rusting cannons on the castle walls. Long colorful boats coming and going, people selling and buying, and living their lives, next to that castle that used to be one of the symbols of pain and woe for the African people, for slaves were brought to Elmina from all over the continent. The guide was telling us about the past that should not be forgotten; I was gulping down the fresh ocean breeze and trying to suppress the feeling of thirst and hunger – we haven’t eaten all day – it just felt inappropriate at that place.
On the way back to the tro-tro that was waiting for us at the market we bought some freshly baked bread from one of the women on the street. We sat in the car, took a few sips of water, and sunk our teeth into the bread. It was delicious, soft and sweet.
On the ride back to Takoradi we were picking up other passengers, again. My head was buzzing; Vincent was insufferable, talking so much without putting any sense into his words. And he kept asking “do you understand me?” all the way, but no I did not, with all my English skills; neither did the others, native English-speakers. And he talked and talked and talked, and his words just made no sense.
One thing we did understand at last: Vincent tried to persuade us to pay 10 more cedis each so that the tro-tro would take us straight to the port. And once we tried to discuss it, we got the same stream of meaningless words again. So at a certain point I just cut him in the middle of the sentence and started asking yes/no questions. After a while it worked.
We reached Takoradi, checked the time and agreed to be driven to the port, lowering the price in half. We jumped out of the tro-tro right on time to hop on the shuttle; and the shuttle left right on time to get us to the ship before the field program buses, so there was no line at all.
Ohh, we’re sailing, and I can already feel the change in the air. Awesome. Now, tomorrow we’ll be in Tema (Accra), where I have my Global Music field lab (which is a drum&dance workshop, gotta be fun). I promised myself that if all the vendors from our little port market will follow us to Tema, which most of them are doing, I would buy two more small paintings for my room.
Now I feel almost relaxed, with fresh sea air going through the vent, but in fact I’ve got some work to do, which I am not very disposed to do because it’s definitely way more than was agreed upon… Hey ho.

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