Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cape Coast - Two Days With My Ancestors

I never had much appreciation for  Ghanaian history until I moved to America. As a teenager living In Ghana my connection to history mostly rested with my Cultural Studies teacher in the classroom. Once school closed everything remained there, except for the knowledge that stayed with me- partly because I needed to know them for my exams. Now, in the United States, even as a teenager, I never fully understood the emotional reaction to African history, i.e. slavery, by African Americans. I thought they overreacted with slavery this and slavery that and repatriation there and what not. It wasn't until I hit about age 21 and began exploring and growing curious about my history that it hit me: that the Cape Coast and  Elmina dungeons are a BIG deal.

Being away from Ghana for about 12 years has helped to produce a great appreciation for a history that is part of my identity. When I decided to go on a two-day vacation in Cape Coast (located in the Central Region of Ghana) just to get away from the noise in Accra, I was unprepared for what lay ahead. In my mind, I was going to relax, rejuvenate and connect deeply with nature (all of which I did). What I didn't realize, though, was that in order for me to experience this I had to undergo some needed pain.

One view of the Cape Coast dungeon
The goal of the first day at Cape Coast was to explore, the first destination being the Cape Coast dungeon (I refuse to call it a "castle" because it's far from that). I went with my friend and two other friends (also visiting from America) that we had just made at the resort. At the dungeon, we were first asked to visit the museum unsupervised while we waited for our tour guide. The museum experience was mild  - I teared up a bit but it was nothing intense. And then it was time for us to begin the actual tour. We began with the male dungeons, which turned out to be emotionally draining for my friend and one of the new friends we had made. My eyes clouded with tears from time to time, but the emotions weren't unbearable so I decided to continue to the female dungeons. That's where everything began to build up for me.

The female dungeons were separated by a walkway that led to the "Door of No Return," the door that led to the sea and ships. Now, as an advocate for women's empowerment, it was difficult to remove myself emotionally from the scene at the female dungeons. As the tour guide provided details, all I could do was to place myself in the story. One of 150 women crammed into the small space fighting for fresh air provided by two small windows located very high up the closing walls. I envisioned myself being dragged out by a guard or "master" forcefully stripped naked of my clothes and raped however many times, just like that. The shame, the helplessness, the violation, anger, sorrow, disgust. I envisioned myself being thrown back into the small dungeon with the other 149 women only to find out later that I was pregnant as a result of being raped by a man who used me to gratify his sexual desires or fantasies. I envisioned my ancestor going through this, a great great great grandmother or aunt or cousin. I wondered exactly what their thoughts were, the fear; their countenance, unexpressed emotions; the state of their hearts, yes, their hearts, which should have been a wellspring of life for them.

I was beginning to feel hot and getting lost in my thoughts. The tears were coming down now. Was I really seeing a mother with a child cowering in the corner or were my thoughts coming to life? Just then the guide's voice interrupted me and I went outside.  He then announced that there was one final stop to make on the tour : "The Condemned Cell."

This was a very small cell created for defiant slaves, all of whom were men. The story behind "The Condemned Cell" is that all of the men who resisted capture were placed here, 50 at a time. This particular cell had no windows or lights and once the door was shut it wasn't opened until the 50th person died of hunger, thirst and mental frustration. Everyone in that cell breathed in the rotten smell of human decay until the last person was gone. On the interior walls of this cell are markings of teeth and nail scratches by the prisoners. To better demonstrate their state of mind, my tour guide shut the door of the cell and turned off the light before narrating the room's historical relevance. This was my breaking point. It felt as though my spirit were connecting with whatever was there - the heaviness was unbearable, the tears uncontrollable. I brushed them aside and forced myself to stay and feel it, feel them, yes, my ancestors, but i couldn't. I could no longer listen or stay in the cell. My tears were now falling in fat amounts on my cheeks and I immediately asked to be let out.

For several minutes, the fresh air outside couldn't console me. I felt drained, literally. I know they were there. It never once felt like I was listening to a historical account. No. It felt present. They were present. I finally understood the journey. It was real.