Gold and Ghosts on Ghana’s Cape Coast

In the shadow of a 353-year-old fortress, a former trading post for gold, ivory and slaves, a pack of young boys play a game of pick-up soccer. The ball thuds against the tall, whitewashed stone wall that surrounds what was, for the very unfortunate, their last stop on African soil before passage to the harsh reality of the New World.

Beyond that wall, through the gate and past the thick wooden door, a cracked cobblestone courtyard opens to the sea. Fifteen original canons still guard against pirate attacks, the unused cannonballs having fused together over the centuries.

Cape Coast CastleCape Coast Castle squats on a rocky cliff that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean on the seacoast of Ghana, West Africa. To the east, the castle looks over the town center, a tangled mix of time-weathered colonial buildings, cinder block homes, and shacks capped by corrugated tin. To the west, large dugout canoes wait on sandy shores for muscular young men to finish repairing the pale green fishing nets.

The castle was originally founded by the Swedes in 1653, taken by the Danes and then passed to the Dutch, finally becoming a possession of the English in 1662. It served as a base for colonial activity in the country the British called the Gold Coast. A French bombardment leveled the fort in 1757, but it was re-built in grander scale by the Brits, and this is what stands today as a UNESCO World Heritage site.The airy rooms of the top floor were home to the well-heeled residents of the castle. Sunlight still creeps through the shuttered windows of the Governor’s residence, the patterned shadows falling on warped mahogany floors. But the light stops there.

Below ground level are the clammy, dirt-floor dungeons where slaves were imprisoned. Small slits high in the walls allow a trickle of air into the cells. It’s suffocating for one person, yet hundreds were crammed into these quarters. And there were many such rooms.

The west coast of Ghana, from the sprawling, bustling capital of Accra to the Cote d’Ivoire border, is home to the densest concentration of European forts and castles on the African continent. Twenty-nine of the original 37 castles are still around, stretched out along the shore like hooks on a fishing line. Some are crumbling, some are well preserved, but all resonate with a difficult and complex history. In between the castles are Fante fishing villages framed by palm trees and turquoise seas.

The journey from Accra to Cape Coast town, population 300,000 including outlying villages, is about 200 kilometers. Depending on the state of the roads, it can feel longer. The route runs within drumbeat distance of the shore, but unfortunately there are only glimpses of the sea from the windows of the well-traveled, state-owned buses. Transport comes in ordinary and luxury, with the former making up in character what it lacks in comfort.

Whenever the bus stops, an eclectic grocery store arrives at your window. Hawkers, mostly women with laden baskets balanced on their heads, rush over to sell water, oranges, plantain chips, pineapples, yams, crackers, handkerchiefs and toilet paper. An occasional young man holds up a dead grasscutter, a large, tasty bush rodent that looks like a beaver on a diet. Hands reach up and reach down, and the women run alongside the bus as it picks up speed.

I arrive in the evening, as the African sun casts a warm hue over this faded colonial centre, the British capital of the Gold Coast until 1876. If you are drawn to the grand narratives of early modern history, Cape Coast is a good read. The stories are written in the castle and the churches, in the old European buildings and the Ghanaian homes, in the food stalls and family shops, and in Ghana’s first university and some of the country’s biggest boarding schools.

A bit frayed at the edges and looking its age, Cape Coast is nonetheless an energetic town with a solid enough infrastructure. There is a range of hotels and guest houses available, from well-appointed suites costing around $80, to the sparse $8 room I stay in, with its wobbly ceiling fan and a splash not a shower. (The nicest accommodations are just outside of the city core, but a taxi or a tro-tro – a crowded minivan bus, often with a religious slogan on the windshield – can shuttle you to the castle in minutes.)

I find one of the two restaurants with front-row ocean seats. The full moon is reflected on the crest of the waves as they break for shore, rows of gleaming teeth biting into the sand. I have a Star beer – from Ghana’s first brewery – and a large bowl of groundnut stew, a thick puree of peanuts, spices, and meat of choice, eaten with rice balls, mashed yam, or fermented maize.

After another Star, I walk back to my guest house, past a lumpy soccer pitch at Victoria Park. An orphaned statue of the old queen stands alone on the sidelines, watching the kids play football in the dark.

Ghana Soccer KidsThe smell of street food mixes with the scent of kerosene in the humid night air. Music fills the air, street lamps flicker, and shadows emerge from alleys. Young lovers loiter, the women standing seductively, one hip cocked to the side and the glimpse of an arched back contrasting against the colorful African prints. Vendors, cars, bicycles, goats, chickens, frogs creaking from sewer trenches, preachers with growling voices – life spills in all directions.

After a surprisingly good sleep, I’m at the castle at the opening time of 8:00 am, before other visitors, to better hear the ghosts of the place. From the courtyard, I step down into the dank underground chambers where the slaves were stored – housed being too generous of a word. In one of the rooms, a lone light bulb hangs from a wire, helping to illuminate the past.

I’m startled by the voice of Kingsley Kofi Yeboah, the long-serving historian and curator of the fort. He gives me a tour of the castle’s museum, which has evocative exhibits on Ghana’s history, slavery, and the lives of Blacks after the diaspora.

He then takes me to see the tiny ‘condemned cell’, into which captives who revolted were locked, up to 50 at a time. They died of suffocation and starvation, a deterrent to the other prisoners. The walls have scratch marks. “It may not be pleasant history,” says Yeboah, “but it’s the history of all of us, of you and me, and it’s what brought us here today.”

During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, somewhere around 20 million people were kidnapped and transplanted to the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries. The labor of these enslaved Africans became the backbone of lucrative economies in sugar cane, tobacco, cotton, cocoa, rice and coffee.European merchants generally did not travel inland to buy the slaves, but acquired them (three men to each woman) from African middlemen who in turn had bought them from various African slave hunters. The shackled captives were marched hundreds of miles from the countryside to the coast, the mothers carrying babies on their backs.

At the castles, the prisoners were sorted according to age and sex – families were usually broken up – and bartered for finished European goods including guns and cooking pots. A healthy male in his prime could fetch three rifles.

The slaves were kept in the dungeons at night, sleeping on straw. During the day, they were allowed in the courtyards, where they fetched water from cisterns and cooked traditional foods such as cassava and yam. They might have stayed at a castle for up to six weeks, waiting for the ships to come in.

Kingsley shows me the thick, ocean-facing ‘door of no return’ the slaves were forced through at Cape Coast Castle. Once past that threshold, they were crammed below decks of leaking, stagnant ships, still shackled and packed literally like sardines. Almost one in six died on this ‘middle passage’.

Ending the Atlantic Slave Trade was a long, labored process of changing economic fortunes and rising humanitarian concerns. Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807, France in 1815 and Spain in 1820. However, the trade continued with declining numbers throughout most of the 19th century in places like Cuba and Brazil, until slavery was finally outlawed everywhere in the Americas.

“I don’t want people to come here and just get angry or just feel guilty,” says Yeboah. “We must learn from history, but I think these castles can now show us a way forward, how different people can get beyond the past and figure out how to exist together.”

As I leave the castle, a group of young boys kicking a soccer ball against the stone wall invite the obroni – the white man – to join in. I try to keep up, but I’m no match for their youthful energy and endurance. Showing typical Ghanaian generosity, they cheer me on anyway, as we chase each other in the shadow of history.

Egypt in 10 days or Less

I dreamed of visiting Egypt since I was an elementary school child learning about pharaohs and pyramids for the first time. I finally got my wish in March 2007 as I stepped out of the terminal at the Cairo International Airport to begin a whirlwind tour of the country in less then 10 days.

Arriving in Cairo

Arriving at Cairo’s international airport can be a challenge if you arrive unprepared as I did. As you pass through the terminal to immigration there are no signs or instructions of what to do. If you are in need of a visa it would greatly ease your arrival to know that you need to purchase one from the bank kiosks that line the arrival terminal before you get to the immigration lines. The terminal will be filled with people waiting for immigration and the chaos of travel group expeditor’s attempting to find their charges and speed them through the visa process. Patience is definitely a virtue in this situation.

Upon leaving the terminal I was confronted with a teeming throng of humanity outside. Hundreds of “taxi” drivers wait to persuade the weary traveller to accept their offer for a ride to the hotel and there is no official taxi stand in sight. Likely best to have the hotel arrange transfer from the airport or be prepared to bargain.

Giza and the Horse She Rode In On

Horses Having BreakfastFriends who had traveled to Egypt previously had warned me not to spend too much time in Cairo. This was the best advice I received in advance of my trip. Although the city is huge and sprawling – it is possible to see everything you want to see in a day and a half. We spent 2 nights and 2 days there.

The highlight of the visit to Cairo is the short journey from the downtown hotels to the pyramids at Giza. It is amazing to note how these hulking monuments of ancient history stand against the modern Cairo skyline like some sort of surreal spaceships on the landscape.

My trip to Giza brought with it lesson number two for any traveler’s trip to Egypt – beware of the traveler tout. While waiting for me to arrive the previous evening my traveling companion had arranged for a driver to take me around the city and out to Giza the following day. This gesture was well appreciated as we were short on time and I had a lot I wanted to see. Unfortunately I made one big mistake – I did not have a firm idea of what I wanted to do or in what order.

Overall the day went well – my driver was friendly and relatively safe in the crazy Cairo traffic. His English was passable and we managed to speak throughout the day on a variety of topics. However, the day began badly in Giza. Eager to see the great pyramids – I asked to go there first. As we approached the area of the pyramids the driver asked me if I wanted a camel, a horse, or a horse and carriage. Knowing the camel trick from friends who had been taken on short rides for exorbitant prices, I immediately said no to that quite firmly and asked if we could walk to the site and explore. The driver indicated it was hot in the desert and this might not be the best idea – which should have been my first tip off as it was not warm at all that morning. Suddenly we were on back streets near the pyramids with horse stables run out of shop fronts all around us.

Although I indicated I was not interested in the horses I was not firm enough. Try Try Try… was the call of the shopkeeper of the stable that we stopped at. Before I knew it I was on a horse and caught. Needless to say I found myself paying an exorbitant price for an hour on a dirty horse in the desert and my pyramid experience was ruined. I could see the tour groups circling the great monuments from my horse in the desert. I still had the experience of seeing them – but could not get close enough to really have the experience I was looking for. That said – I learned my lesson about the tourist tout in Egypt. Know what you want, Be firm, ask the price first, agree on the price, again be firm, say NO when things begin moving outside the area of agreement. Final bit of advice to wary travelers – arrange a tour of Cairo and Giza through your hotel or with a guide recommended by your guidebook. Save the hassle and your pocketbook.

Dust to dust… mummies and more

I had been told time and time again that the Egyptian museum is a must-see in Egypt. This is agreed for serious history buffs and those who want to see the mummy collection featured by the museum. However, for those simply curious the museum is a maze of dusty relics which have little to no illustrative information available about them. We chose to guide ourselves through using our guidebook rather than to pay one of the eager Egyptologists outside jockeying to give us a tour. It was the right decision. We saw everything we wanted to see in the museum – including the gruesome mummy collection – in a morning. We were greatly aided by the fact that the crowds were unusually light during the day we chose to visit – but still we felt satisfied by our self-guided tour.

Man made wonders of Egypt

Luxor Small PyramidsAfter a short flight to Aswan on the afternoon of the second full day in Egypt, we entered our planes, trains, and automobiles phase of the trip. Aswan features one of the wonders of the modern world – the Aswan High Dam – which is credited with controlling the mighty Nile River and also the site of major cold war tension when the Russians stepped in to fund and provide technical expertise for the dam after Nasser’s independent politics alienated him from the west.

While the unimpressive dam gets all the credit in Aswan – the town is actually quite lovely and the site of one of the best ancient sites in Egypt – the Temple of Philae. Philae can be reached only by boat – making it a bit of a hassle… but well worth the effort as the views of the ancient temple against the colorful Nile landscape is amazing.

We traveled to Aswan for the purpose of making the 3 hour journey south to the famed temples at Abu Simbol. After a number of issues hiring a minibus to take us on the 6 hour round-trip journey and a sleepless night in a hotel full of Egyptian schoolchildren likely on their first trip away from home – we found our chariot awaiting us at 4am for the long journey south.

Some might say that the trip to Abu Simbol is not worth the 6 hours in a car and a sleepless night – but they would be wrong. A nap on the bus is worth it to wake up in this magnificent place on the shores of Lake Nasser. The temple was “saved” from the rising waters of the lake formed by the high dam by UNESCO. Cut from the cliff it previously occupied – King Ramses’s foreboding welcome to those traveling south on the Nile is impressive even in its current resting place – a fake mountainside just up the cliff from its original location – is a bit strange.

Luxor Means Luxury

After our marathon trip to Aswan and Abu Simbol the team was ready for some serious R and R. As we boarded a dirty train for the 4 hour trip north to Luxor – we had high hopes that the familiar surroundings of the Sheraton Hotel there would be just the ticket. We were not disappointed. The hotel – surrounded by lush gardens and set directly on the banks of the Nile – was just what the doctor ordered. We sank into a world of Sheraton burgers and guided tours.

our arrangements in Luxor are divided into east and west bank excursions. The Temple at Karnak is the feature of the east bank tour. Karnak is an amazing, sprawling ancient temple complex that will inspire anyone interested in seeing, touching and wandering through history. The temple at Luxor is fascinating as well – if for no other reason that the mosque built on one side of it gives you an idea of how deep in the sands the ancient monuments were before they were dug out and restored.

Although for both west bank sites we had an excellent guide – we felt that we could have done the east bank trip to both Karnak and Luxor temples on our own with a guidebook and a taxi. We would have also likely put some time to wander around the souk and other areas of the Luxor city center – which has a lovely walk along the river as well as shopping and restaurants that were recommended but we did not explore.

The west bank was something different though. In this case we felt as though our time and money was well spent with our excellent guide – Gad. Although Gad had a bit of an Egyptian mafia-cool attitude going – he knew his stuff and loved his history. Talking about centuries gone kings and their tombs in the Valley of the Kings the listener could not help but get caught in his pride and excitement.

The Valleys of the Kings and Queens, as well as the Hatsheput Temple in Thebes on the west bank of the Nile are the jewels of Egypt’s tourism crown. Each tomb is below ground – but not as far as one might imagine. We were surprised by this and asked Gad why the tombs lay “undiscovered” for so long. We were immediately informed that the tombs were not “discovered”. Western archeologists may have been making “discoveries” for themselves – but the local people always knew the general location of the ancient sites.

In general, the magnificent and bright colors of the Goddess Nut stretched over the massive limestone tomb of King Ramses IV and the other sites of the Valley of the Kings is well worth the trip. Unfortunately the closure of Queen Nefertari’s tomb makes the Valley of the Queens a bit disappointing. The stop at the overpriced Alabaster factory also was not a highlight – but interesting and without too many sales hassles.

The Homestretch

Continuing our theme of interesting travel options in Egypt we decided to take an afternoon bus from Luxor to Hurghada on the Red Sea Coast. Luckily at this point we had learned the lesson of being firm and sticking to your plan, because despite our research of bus options we were repeatedly lied to and discouraged in our plan by our Luxor tour agent, the hotel staff, and the taxi we hired to go to the bus station. Everyone advised and nearly forced us to take a hired car as part of the official convoy trip between the two cities. Our guidebook indicated this was unnecessary and it was.

The convoy system was developed by the Egyptian government following a series of terrorist attacks on tourists in the mid-1990s. Like everything connected to tourism in Egypt the system has become a method for tour operators and everyone else connected to them to siphon money off the unsuspecting tourist and worse yet it plays on a fear for one’s security – which is not helpful to increasing the reach of the tourist dollar in the country. Although there are some areas where security is a concern – guidebooks are clear on where these areas are. The savvy visitor does not need the Egyptian tourism police and their lazy ways to nanny you through your visit to this fascinating country if you are interested in traveling on your own.

Thus – after a 5 hour bus ride along the fertile Nile and the deserts leading to the coast – we arrived in Hurghada and then were whisked to our luxury Sheraton Miramar resort in El Gouna via private car arranged by the hotel. We arrived in the Disney-like resort designed by American Architect Michael Graves and enveloped ourselves in three lazy days by the pool and swimming in the Red Sea.

Although we did not see much of the coast in and around Hurghada on our arrival – but we made a subsequent trip into town later during our stay. Hurghada is a development disaster. Although the sea coast here is lovely – development of it has proceeded unchecked and one can barely reach the beach through the maze of half-finished concrete buildings. The town caters to eastern European and Russian holiday makers looking for a bargain – as well as students backpacking through Egypt. Thus it is full of cheap eats, t-shirt shops, and cafes with beer for a decent price. Needless to say we were happy that we ended up in our Arabian Disney resort in El Gouna – although the Sheraton Miramar was certainly more Orlando than Cairo.

Concluding thoughts

When I first considered a trip to Egypt as part of my holiday break plans from my work in Kabul, Afghanistan, I was inspired by my own interests in the country – both historical and architectural. However, I was surprised how negative the reaction of friends and colleagues was to my plans.

Some people were concerned about my security traveling in the country and others were concerned about how relaxing the experience would be based on their own experiences addressing the hassles of tourist touts and constant sales techniques directed at visitors to Egypt. On the first point – I found Egypt surprisingly safe, clean, and friendly. Witness the hordes of fellow travelers I encountered everywhere I went and clearly I am not alone. However, I did find the enormous police presence everywhere in the country which rather than making me feel safe contributed to a feeling of oppression. I was particularly annoyed in Cairo to find that the tourist police at every site in the city would not let my driver into most of the sites or demanded he pay a bribe to accompany me inside. Based on the comments many of the Egyptians I met made about their government – the prominence of the police and the cult of Mubarek’s personality is not doing much to improve the state of life in this colorful and wonderfully unique country.

Overall I found my travels in Egypt to be better than anything I could have expected. Although I found myself learning to not make eye contact or respond to constant cries of “what country?” from every taxi driver, store keeper, and street urchin for fear of being trapped in a hard sell – I enjoyed my travels immensely. I found it surprisingly easy to get around. Trains and buses were cheap and on time – although a bit dirty and slow. Egypt Air was relatively cheap and would be an easy way to get around to various destinations. Best of all tickets can be booked online – although prices go up steeply within a week of travel and planes are notoriously delayed. I did have a few bad experiences – particularly the horse trick in Giza – and got tired of constantly haggling with people over prices – but nothing outshone the positive nature of the experience. I would highly recommend traveling to Egypt to anyone and the country is a place I hope to return to.