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.