Like that which the Wind Carried Away

To read about it in your high school textbook is one thing. But to actually experience the Trans-Atlantic slave trade through your own senses is another.

Approaching the castle, you really don’t know what to expect. The week before you dreamed about horrific images of mal-nourished people being beaten mercilessly and treated like human waste. Last night you tried to emotionally prepare yourself for the torment. And today comes. You stand in front of the castle. All of those dreams, lectures and last minute preparations are washed away by beach waves of nerves and anxiety.

Or at least that’s how I felt…

Re-visiting Cape Coast and the Elmina slave castle felt like a new experience. I knew exactly what I was going to expect, but it was as though my memory had failed me because I missed out some crucial details like the putrid vomit smell mixed with stifling mold that covered the walls of the female dungeon quarters. However, that gut wrenching odor couldn’t be compared to real-life conditions some hundreds of years ago. Imagine a hot, stuffy room overflowing with 150 or more women crouching to preserve space. Their own menstruation, feces, vomit among other fluids surrounding them. Since there were no separate quarters for children, young boys would be kept in the male dungeons and the young girls would be kept with their female elders. A girl under 10 years old in those conditions is nearly unfathomable, outside of the fact that this was once–and in some places in the world, today–a reality.

The room had very little ventilation, and one of the openings in the main female dungeon led to the magazine, where ammunition was kept. Gun powder fumes and other explosive gases would seep into the female dungeon quarters, suffocating the already dying and the sick.

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Taken by me in 2011

In front of the main female dungeon was an opening where, after the Governor chose his woman for the evening, she was made to wash up in front of her counterparts and white, male captains. After being washed and given a small portion of food for sustenance, she was led up a flight of stairs that took her straight to the Governor’s bedroom. There he had his way with her, either for the night or for longer. Still, this abuse was not enough. She would then be violated and raped in sequence by his subordinates, all before she returned to the miserable and foul quarters to rejoin her peers.

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Photo of the stairwell leading to the Governor’s room. (taken in 2011, my first visit to Elmina)

After the tour of the female quarters, we were taken around the rest of the castle. Towards the end of the tour, we visited a dungeon were slaves were taken to be punished. There, “unruly” slaves would be kept until they died. At times, the living and the dead would be chained together, and although the captains knew one died, they did nothing. The mental and emotional torment had to have been tremendous. The living slave had to sit, idly awaiting his own death.

We were also taken to the door/dungeon of no return, where slaves were gathered before they were shipped across the Atlantic. Standing in that room, many of my colleagues shed tears of disbelief and anguish. Around us, there were wreaths that were placed by past vistors– commemorating the loss of their ancestors to this trade of human cargo.

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The final exit for the slaves. (taken in March 2011)

Today this castle stands as proof to much of history’s nightmares and dark secrets. Much of African Diaspora as we know it today, started with selling and trading–with Elmina as one of those sites. Many people would like to hush the whispers that are heard through these castle walls, claiming that we’re in a post-racial society. But how could we ever be? Many of us still wear the brand that made us to be sold and traded in the first place. My skin color could never change. Neither can the shape of my nose, lips, nor the coils in my hair–at least not without external modifications.  Furthermore, because we’re in the 21st century oppression changes shape accordingly–so please don’t think because you aren’t being sold and made to be a slave, that you aren’t just that: a slave. Our ancestors that left those Atlantic shores are like the chaff which the wind carried away…

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Tro Tro Chronicles

Back again for my infrequent updates of my travels while studying abroad in Accra, Ghana.

To say that I am enjoying myself is not only an understatement, but also an insult. I am taking in every experience possible, without hesitation or question. And in doing so, I’ve managed to be safe and have a ridiculous amount of fun! For certain, if I was in NY, I would be stressed, swamped in work and more than likely, bored out of my mind.

Here, however, it’s the absolute opposite.

I’ve immersed myself into the maze of public transportation, and like other developing countries some Ghanaians use a form of informal transportation via the tro tro service‘– and I use the word service very loosely. Because to be very honest, for some Ghanaians customer satisfaction is not the number one priority in providing services. So when getting on board a tro tro be sure to ask clarifying questions like, “where is this going?” And provided that you know where you are going, you can declare in an uncertain voice “Osu?

Sounds obvious right? But it is so easy to not only get lost in a place where you are totally unfamiliar, but also in a place where–like many cities– people are simply trying to get through their day, get to where they’re going and to make a dollar. So far, I haven’t gotten lost, but I know a couple of other students who have.

Standing a designated bus stop (or simply by the street side) with traffic whizzing by, vendors and peddlers bustling up and down the sidewalk and in between cars– suddenly a 13 seater van pulls up. Some passengers hop out, others stare on, eyeballing the oncoming passenger. The mate, or the guy who serves as the driver’s assistant in collecting fares, among other things, shouts Osu! Osu! Osu! Osu! aggressively pointing at the van. Before you know it, another van pulls up, over flowing with people–elbows and black faces jutting out of cloudy, sliding windows. The other mate persists over the voice of his rival, Osu! Osu! Osu! Osu! pointing even more insistently than his counterpart. Now you’re left with the choice, but you have one concern: you aren’t sure if the place you’re going to is on the way to Osu. What do you do? You can ask, but the mates are in such a hurry to gather new passengers to replace the old ones in the midst of everyone shuffling to get on.

You can imagine how you can easily get swept in and end up at the wrong destination–not to mention if the mate dupes you. He can easily not give you back change because he knows not only are you an obruni by your accent, but you more than likely don’t know where the hell you’re going. Nonetheless the fare will more than likely be less than 1 cedi, which is roughly about $.50 USD. At times, you’ll even pay as little as 30 pesewas –about $.15 USD.

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Photo of typical tro tro in Ghana (photo credit: ghanaweb.com)

In all of this, I must say I have a love-hate relationship with the tro tro system. Sometimes they can even break down, or the interior may be so rusted and tattered, you have to be careful where you step or sit. But once you do find that tattered seat in which you’re comfortable, riding a tro tro is a fun experience. You can meet friends; you may even see some of same people on their daily route. Eyeing traffic and seeing women carry a basket full of plantain chips on her head are all scenes and interactions that can easily be overlooked when riding in a chauffeured, air-conditioned car service. There is more of a distance created between us and them when sitting in an avis rental versus a Twi inscribed tro tro among average, everyday Ghanaians.

To me, it’s crucial to any abroad adventure that you take part in the activities and mundane experiences of the locals. So live a little, sweat a little.

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image credit: info-ghana.com