Cape Coast, Day 5: Above the treetops and into the past

Today has mostly been a catch-up day for work and we spent all of it in the hotel, so nothing of note to report for day 6 in Accra.

However, yesterday was our day off, so we decided to make the most of it and take a day trip down to Cape Coast

After a rather pleasant and traffic-free 2 hour ride, we began the bumpy ascent up to our first stop was Kakum National Park. The condition of the road this last hour of our trip was similar to the one we had to take up to Ashesi. It wasn’t unbearable, just uncomfortable, and mostly I spent a lot of it cringing in secondhand worry for Christian’s (our driver this week) car every time I heard a questionable bump or scrape.

But, finally, we rolled up into the national park and paid 50 cedi (roughly 12 dollars) to do the canopy walk. There were other options, including a nature hike with a guide around Kakum that we might’ve taken, but we also wanted to have ample time to explore Cape Coast Castle and head home before traffic got too bad, so we decided to stick to the main attraction of the canopy walk.

kakum1

The holding area while we waited for our tour guide.

We took a fairly easy hike into the first part of the forest and up a few flights of stairs. It probably took no longer than 30 minutes to get to the entrance of the forest proper and the incline wasn’t steep, but it was also probably more exercise than I’ve gotten in quite some time. I was at least glad to have worn comfortable shoes and brought a water bottle.

kakum2

From the entrance, it was an easy 10 minute walk to the entrance of the first bridge. Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I jumped at the chance to be the first to cross.

canopywalk2

Ok, not really. I mean, I did want to be the first to go across, but not because I’m an especially intrepid explorer. Mostly it was because I wanted to get away from two other American tourists in our group who were very loud, very annoying and very embarrassing. “We’re not all like that!” I wanted to say out loud to the group around us – but instead I just ran away onto the rope bridge first.

canopywalk1

I thought it might be more frightening than it ended up being, especially since I have a very intense fear of heights. However, even though the rope bridge sways as you walk across it (and one of the seven bridges very memorably tips to the side) and you’re very cognizant of how high up you are, they also seem very structurally sound. The rope walls are also high enough that you don’t fear tipping out and over. There were seven rope bridges in total, strung across very large trees in the forest. There were landings attached to the trees where you could take a moment and admire the view around you.

canopywalk3

It’s exceptionally peaceful…or rather, I imagine that if you are lucky enough to go with a group that doesn’t include two loud Americans talking about the cocktails they had in Accra and what a bore it is to get henna tattoos in India, then it’d be exceptionally peaceful. I was told that there are animals in the forest but that they are mostly nocturnal, probably to avoid insufferable tourists.

However, other than the loud tourists, it was a very enjoyable experience. The forest itself was cool to hike through. Given the climate of Ghana, I expected it to be more like the tropical forests of the Philippines, but it’s decidedly less so – mostly deciduous looking trees with a few tropical ones thrown in here and there. We learned that there’s a literal tree house that you can spend the night in and then take a night walk with a guide to see all the mostly nocturnal animals. Had we known this, Lisa might’ve planned our weekend differently in order to take advantage of such an opportunity but, alas, it was not to be.

From Kakum we headed back down to the Cape Coast proper and visited the famous/infamous Cape Coast Castle, a former British castle and one of the largest slave ports in all of Ghana and West Africa.

We entered and were able to walk around the castle and look at the surrounding area for a bit, which I enjoyed because it afforded us a beautiful landscape to look at and a way to view the surrounding area’s town.

Prior to the start of our tour, we went into the the second floor of the castle and walked through the museum that was housed there. It was a very impressive little exhibit and I learned quite a bit about the history of Ghana, including the slave trade, the African Diaspora and the culture of the peoples of Central Ghana – specifically the Akan peoples. I was about 3/4 of the way done with the museum exhibit when we were called back to the entrance of the castle to begin our tour.

We gathered around a doorway at the far end of the castle, the ground sloping down into complete darkness.

dungeon

I have no photos of the interior of the castle. It seemed disrespectful, somehow, to take photos of places that had witnessed so much suffering and misery.

As you walk slowly down into the darkness, you can feel the air pressing in closer, the heat settling against your skin. The path slopes gently downwards and turns to the right. Our group gathered together on a slope just beyond the light of the door, barely able to see three feet in front of us. The only light before us was one small shaft of light from a roughly hewn window far above us, no more than six inches across and a foot high. Despite the faint glow of daylight from the still open door behind us and the sliver of light from the window, the darkness still felt heavy and oppressive.

Then, our guide, Oscar, began to speak.

We were in the slave dungeon for the male slaves. Men would be held in these very rooms for at least six weeks at a time, sometimes as long as three months. Imagine, he told us, being trapped in this room, shackles around your neck and wrists and ankles. The door behind you is barred shut, the only air and light coming from that small window far above you.

Even just the thought of it felt suffocating.

He turned on the light and we descended further into the room, a dank stone room perhaps the size of many people’s living rooms.

And it was there, in that room, that nearly 500 men were held. They would be awaiting a ship that would send them to parts unknown and where they would live out the rest of their lives as slaves. There was a groove in the middle of the stone floor that made its way around the edges of the room and wound its way out. This, our guide told us, was the only toilet to speak of for these 500 men. A ‘toilet’ that archeological evidence shows would contain human waste that came up nearly to my waist.

It was astounding to think of. There were only perhaps twenty five people in our group total, and the room seemed still rather small. To imagine even a hundred seems impossible; 500 seemed unfathomable.

We moved on from the room and passed two other dungeons that would have held men. We entered a room with an awkward wall jutting out from the middle of it with something that looked like an altar coming out in front of it. At the far end of the room was a stack of ribboned wreaths with various organizations listed on them.

The awkward looking wall with the altar in front of it had once been the entrance to the tunnel that slaves would take to get to the door that would lead them to the ships. See, almost the entire time that these slaves were in the castle, they would never see the light. They would be held in the dungeon, then travel through a tunnel underneath the castle until they squeezed through a door at the end of the castle that would take them outside and into a canoe, where they would then be loaded into a slaving ship.

The entrance of this tunnel, then, was the beginning of their journey into slavery. And as bad as the holding cells had been for them all, what awaited on the other side of that tunnel was much, much worse. So, the tunnel was sealed off, a symbolic gesture that represented the sealing of the slave trade, the end of this chapter in Ghanaian history. And today, there was an altar to a native god – one of fertility – where people would come and speak with their god.

The ribboned wreaths – including one from Michelle and Barack Obama – that littered the ground had been brought from people all over the world, members of the African diaspora who had paid a visit to Cape Coast and thought perhaps some of their ancestors had been held there.

We walked on to the women’s dungeon. Here, the set-up was the same – 300 women packed tightly into a room made for half that amount, the only light two small windows far above the ground. Women would be taken almost nightly by British soldiers and raped, the especially beautiful ones handpicked by the governor that ran the castle.

It was a horrifying picture, more so because every part of it was true.

From there, we went back outside, the light seemingly blinding after even that small amount of time in semi-darkness. The sunlight was on our faces, a breeze that smelled like the sea blew across our skin; it was already hard to imagine the oppressive darkness and heat of the dungeons below. Oscar then pointed to the building directly above the dungeons, a plain white structure built on top of that place that held so much suffering and human misery.

That building, Oscar told us, was the church. While men groaned in the dark, British soldiers sang hymns to God right above them. While men slowly suffocated in the heat and smell of their own waste, the governor enjoyed the feel of a cool breeze and the view of the expansive blue ocean in his rooftop room.

view-from-the-top

The view from the Governor’s living room

It was an abhorrent thought.

The end of the slaves’ time in this castle had them going through what had been dubbed the “Door of No Return.” It was the exit that slaves would take that would place them outside the castle and onto the ships that would carry them to slavery. This door was the end, the doorway that guaranteed that you would never again return to the place of your birth. Once you passed through that door, you knew you could never again look on your homeland.

The door, we were likewise told, had been widened from its original size. It was now the size of double doors, rather than a small hole that one man would have to nearly crawl through to get to the other side.

We walked out of the door as our guide painted the picture for us: the men and women would emerge one by one into the blinding light, nothing but forest around them and a great big ship before them. They would be loaded into the ship, still shackled, pressed together as tightly as possible and spend another four, five, six months in the dark hold of a rocking ship.

But, Oscar said as we stood on the other side of the door of no return, looking at into the vastness of the ocean and imagining the horrors that awaited the slaves on the middle passage and beyond, look at the sign on the door behind you.

We turned and looked.

door-of-return

The plaque had been put up, he told us, as a way to commemorate the return of the diaspora. It was a way to show that though the slaves themselves forced through that door and were never able to return to their homeland, their ancestors could and were now returning, were now completely free to do so.

The tour ended where it began – at the entrance to the male dungeon. Beside it, Oscar pointed out a plaque that had been installed by the chiefs of the major tribes. Here, he made one last poignant observation and plea to all of us who had been so affected by the tour. That while slavery as it had been described on this tour was long over and done with, modern slavery continued all over the world – human trafficking, forced labor, educational segregation and systemic racial discrimination.

It is up to us all to work towards justice, he exhorted, to put an end to man’s inhumanity to man. Let us not be like the British soldiers, eyes bowed in morning devotion as men beneath their feet bowed under the weight of their chains. Let us reject living like the Governor, who looked out every morning to admire the beauty of the sea while perpetrating the injustice and torment beneath him.

we-vow

It was a moving experience, and timely given that today in the states is Martin Luther King, Jr. day. It was difficult to think about the brutality that mankind has and continues to bring upon itself, but I’d rather be forced to look at it and confront the reality of it than pretend it never existed.

All in all, Cape Coast was a great place to visit and completely worth the six hour drive (combined) that it took. While Kakum made for great picture opportunities and fun storytelling, I know that I’ll never forget my visit to Cape Coast Castle. I’m grateful that I was able to visit and that I’ve been able to share it with all of you.

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2 thoughts on “Cape Coast, Day 5: Above the treetops and into the past

    • optimisticynic says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Tina! First, I hope you’re doing well! I was thinking of your russian winter tea A LOT during Christmas time and wishing I had some! Anyway, yes, the tour through the castle was very evocative – I almost wish I had taken pictures so that you could really see how small the and dark the rooms really were. Even standing there, it was almost beyond my imagining how much suffering man could inflict onto man.

      Like

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