Weekend in Cape Coast || July 24th to July 26th, 2015
Elmima + Cape Coast Castle
This weekend we travelled West of Accra to the coastal and fishing city of Cape Coast. Nine of us Tufts students were joined by Dr. Bilsen (our program director), his wife, his three (adult) kids Albert, Steven, and Dinah. The agenda on our trip was to go visit Kakum National Park, the Elmima slave castle, and the Cape Coast slave castle. Going into the trip knowing that we were about to approach extremely emotional topics for some members of the group, I was honestly quite nervous about how the weekend would play out, but thankfully, I think that everything worked out with the best possible outcome.
I think I’ll skip most of the parts about Kakum since it was basically time spent dicking around and there are quite a few thoughts on my mind about the slave castles that I would really like to pen down. Though I will say, Kakum has these canopy bridges about 700m above the ground that I, more than once, basically thought my life was going to end on. But getting a couple minor heart attacks aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the views that the park had to offer. Our tour guide pointed out many of the trees along the path that the Ghanaians used for various things such as furniture, medical treatment, and etc. He calls the forest a ‘natural supermarket’ which I thought was quite a fun way of characterizing it.
That was day one. The next day we planned on going to tour two of the largest slave castles in West Africa, Elmima and Cape Coast.
I’m still not exactly sure what I even want to say about the experience…
I find it difficult to talk about what the experience was like as an individual without considering the context of our group because of our racial breakdown. Over half of our group considers themselves either African American or partially African American, three of them are white, and then there is me. This was one of the things that I was conflicted on throughout the day. In my background as an Asian American, how do I fit into this experience and how am I supposed to react since my ancestors were neither possible victims nor instigators of the slave trade.
I knew that some of the African Americans felt as if no one else really has a right to feel sorry or cry since it wasn’t their ancestors who were taken from their homes, but what if I did because I couldn’t help but feel for this tragedy of humanity. How could anyone feel impartial about these atrocities when it’s right in front of your face? I get that this kind of experience is one that is unmeasurably important to many African Americans who may have had any one of their ancestors captured and held captive in any one of these slave castles and that the space they need for mourning and reflectance needs to be respected, but is this not a moment for everyone to remember what had happened here and prevent such atrocity from ever occurring again? Correct me if you think I’m wrong. But that’s the way I ended up taking it. My main goals for the day were to take in the experience, be a support to anyone in the group that needed it, and try to learn as much as possible.
From beginning to end, the whole experience was so different from going to learn about the slave trade in a museum or a textbook. Nothing in those mediums could ever compare to the full effect of standing in a slave dungeon and being forced to imagine what it was like a couple hundred years ago to be held captive in some of the worst conditions imaginable. The castles that we visited resided right next to the ocean to give easy access to ships coming and dropping off goods and collecting slaves. Unlike the conditions of the slave dungeons, the other parts of the castle are beautifully designed and constructed to the extent where someone who didn’t know of the castle’s slave trade history could mistake it for a luxurious ocean-side oasis. It was absolutely a bizarre juxtaposition to witness and one that actually made me quite nauseous. The feelings only intensified when our tour guide at the Cape Coast Castle pointed out a square of ground raised a couple inches higher than the rest in the dungeon. That piece of ground contained the flesh, blood, bones, and waste remnants of the slaves during their captivity. Our tour guide explained that the dungeons were originally filled much higher with the remains of the slaves but that it had been removed years ago when it became a point of visitation for Africans and other foreigners alike. In my head, I was trying to imagine what that even might have looked like at the time and I honestly just felt physically and mentally ill.
However, one thing that really bothered me throughout the tour was the actions of some of the non-Tufts group on the tour. Besides us, there was a group of white tourists and a group of African tourists. While it wasn’t that surprising to see the white tourists use the castle as a photo opp as they were also the ones with their hair braided and wearing their bathing suits and cover ups to a slave castle… it was surprising to see that from the African tourists as well. During the tour guides explanation and every time we stopped, people would be pulling out their phones, smiling for the camera, and trying to capture their best angle. The whole attitude reminded me of mainland Chinese tourists who go places solely to take a picture of themselves there to show their friends and then go shopping. At one point, I caught an African lady sneakily trying to have her husband take a picture of her next to me like I’m the first Asian girl she’s ever seen. But just in general, I found the behavior inappropriate for the context and it just raises a lot of questions to me about the African perspective on topics like slavery, colonization, and the Western world.
To end on a lighter note though, one of my biggest nightmares came true this weekend. A lizard almost crawled up my ass when I was sitting on the toilet—not my finest moment of the trip… or in life.