Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ghana Journal III - Elmina Castle

On our next to last day in Ghana, my daughter, Maia, Bernadine, a family friend and I set out for Cape Coast, intending to see the castle where our enslaved ancestors were kept. Yes, castle. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it at first when others referred to Elmina castle, and Cape coast castle. Somehow an eleven year old girl’s memories of royalty and castles lived on -- the enthrallment with gold, fine jewels, the pomp and circumstance and the drama -- collided with the notion of dungeon. That is the word I put on a place where Africans were held captive before shipped across the Atlantic, not castle. I had been fascinated by British history, the Queens and Kings, learning about them in school the summer my mom and I spent in London. No mention of the slave trade, least nothing that made an impression.

There in Ghana the romanticized version of royalty had to catch up with all the subsequent years of my life. We ended up at Elmina castle, instead of Cape Coast castle, because the former is closer to where we had lunch by the water, Coconut Grove Resort. We’d done the Canopy Walk at Kakum Forest, and yearned for some good food. The water helped calm the irritation that had arisen among us, particularly Maia, about the tense walk on a board plank strung with rope high above the forest. Nothing steady about it and sturdy is up for grabs too, given the netted rope that served as un-reassuring side rails. Concentration was key, and not on the forest.

As we left the Forest, Felix our driver called our attention to the dying coconut trees. Somehow we hadn’t noticed on the way there, rolling fields of tall, barren trunks a nub at the top, besieged with some disease, its remedy not yet identified.

We arrived at Elmina castle late afternoon. The conversation between us faded, as we approached on foot, amidst a swarm of young people, each insisting we give their wares and words attention. The massive off white structure with black trim, peeling, under a magnificent blue sky loomed, and I felt my body brace before we crossed the moat into it. Immediately after paying to get in, extra to take pictures, I felt incensed. Why should I have to pay? I thought, African-Americans should get in for free. It’s not like we wouldn’t donate to keep this monument to the Maafa, the Great Disaster. I let the feeling go as I stepped into the central courtyard of the castle, flooded with light.

Kwesi, our tour guide, a handsome young man, in his early 20’s with espresso colored skin and a velvety voice, had such gruesome stories to tell, such grim inhabitable spaces to show us. Ground level and below. Up on the second floor, your fate told clearly by which staircase you took there (the back steps, of wood) or the wide polished ones, the Governor’s suite, a balcony, the Portuguese kitchen, the Dutch kitchen. Three hundred women corralled in a lean corridor, lit like a closet, with little attention to their bodily needs. Above their heads, Dutch church services were held. Standing in that space I tried to imagine myself there with my ancestors, but made a fast mental retreat. I wanted to scream a mad woman’s protest, long and loud, the unraveling kind where the woman's hair is all wild and her eyes glazed, house shoes on her feet. But I stayed quiet. For a special occasion, women got herded in the courtyard, for the Governor’s pick, as he surveyed below from the balcony. The chosen one had had the privilege of being cleaned with the collected rain water. Cells a tad larger than a phone booth for trouble makers. And then the last stop for the Africans in Elmina, the cube of darkness, except for the rectangular opening in the wall, the door of no return. Here began the loading onto ships for the Middle Passage, nearly 3 months after being in Elmina's dungeon. Here is where I placed the offering I had brought, a piece of rose quartz from my ancestral altar at home. I put it next to the wreath Kwesi said had been left by other African-Americans. Here is where I said a prayer to my ancestors, honoring them for what they endured, words that could barely touch the unfathomable.

Kwesi acknowledged the role of some Africans in capturing other Africans to sell to the Europeans, and the chiefs who bartered in African lives. I found some comfort in this expression of accountability, even as Kwesi and I both know that no African could have strung a bridge in his or her mind from slavery in Africa to that in the Americas. The presence of Kwesi, in his reverent manner, throughout, was a balm in Elmina. Fifty two years since Elmina came into Ghanaian hands, five centuries since the Portuguese built it, the first prison in Africa for those who lived and died through the Maafa.

Photos by thandiwe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ghana Journal II -- Food and Fabric

Four out of the five. That's how many nights we ate Ghanaian food. Three of those nights in Accra we hit an outdoor restaurant where we religously ordered kelewele, spiced fried plantain cut like apple slices, and jollof rice. I don't know what seasonings go into that food or whether it's the palm oil, but the flavor is got-to-have it. I liked Red-red, a bean dish, too but I didn't keep ordering it like I did kelewele, jollof rice, and fried fish. I compared kelewele from our hotel, Coconut Grove, her sister hotel Coconut Grove Resort, dining next to the water, and our regular Accra spot, the winner in my view. But Maia, my daughter, said the cook at the guest house where she stayed topped the restaurant's version. She got instruction in making them under the cook's supervision, and has made them since back in the States. I can't wait to sample! The only night we didn't eat Ghanaian we went to an Indian restaurant, invited by Maia's cohorts, who touted it to be the "best Indian food in town." I can't speak on that but my shrimp briyani took a delicious notch up on the spice over the one back home. The other Ghanaian delight not to be missed is their cocoa. Even with mostly water and a little milk, the chocolate flavor was sublime!

All over Ghana, in the bustle of Accra or along dirt roads in the countryside, women wear some of the most well-fitting skirts and blouses made of strikingly colorful fabric on the planet. I'm talking women of all sizes, those with big hips, bountiful breasts as well as those more modestly endowed, or downright lean. Not once did I see a woman with her skirt "cupping her behind" as my mother used to say when she took me shopping as a girl and a dress or skirt I was trying on was too tight and wasn't coming home with us. The Ghana ankle length skirt follows the waist and hips with precision, and the kaleidoscopic colors of the fabric, along with the creativity of the blouse, and precise tailoring, all add up to beautiful, elegant women. Fabric is everywhere for sale, the colors and designs a vibrant feast for the eyes. I bought one of the loveliest batiks from a roadside stand manned by an adolescent boy whose mother had instructed him not to bargain, and though I doubted him at first, he made a believer out of me.

Kente and adinkra are the most prized traditional cloth from Ghana. Kente is an intricately woven cloth of silk threads that come from the okomantan spider. There are many designs, and at one time, a particular design was associated with a particular clan or social status. It is woven in narrow strips which are then sewn together. On my second trip to the Cultural Arts Center I bargained well for a piece of kente and adinkra. The adinkra cloth is stamped with adinkra symbols, each one representing a particular belief or principal of Asante (also spelled Ashanti) culture. Sesa Wo Suban, Transform my life is one of my favorites. That's why it's in my blog heading. One day I'll figure out how to get the symbol there too.

Next and final Ghana Journal - The Castle (where the enslaved were held before making the Middle Passage).