"Castles and Catwalks" - January 16, 2010
Today we get up early and drive to Kakum National Forest. We are told that this is only one of 3 National Forests that have a catwalk. I have done this attraction last year and I remember how arduous the hike up the trail was and I elect to stay below with Maura and people watch. The students make the hike up to the elevated platforms high above the tree line. The students expect to see animals but there are no animals in this part of the rainforest. It is the dry season and they have gone to other locations where the water is. Even if there were any animals they would not make an appearance with the screaming of the tourists as they cross over the roped walkways high above the floor of the forest. We have a few students who are afraid of heights but I am happy to announce that they all made it back in one piece. There is another group of white students who are also returning from the walkway. They are an assortment of students from various countries who are working on some humanitarian projects here in Ghana. When we see a group like that we always go over and see what they are doing. We are truly the minority in this country and the color of our skin binds us to these strangers.
We then travel to Elmina Castle which is one of the first castles built in this region. Originally it was a Portuguese trading site for gold and other items but very soon these traders realized the value of human trading. We have a wonderful guide who has been doing this for years and his name is Clifford. One important piece of information that he shares with me is the history of slavery before the adoption of that practice by the Europeans. The Africans themselves used slavery as a means to conquer other tribes and to use the prisoners of war during these conflicts as human barter. I think this is an important thing to hear. As a white American our history books focus on the role of the Americans during early slavery here in the US and ultimately the Civil War and abolition. I think slavery is a stain on all nations and that reparations and change in attitudes have to happen with all races and not just the white Europeans and Americans. We also need to modify our history books to reflect some of the origins of the slave trade.
As I tour this castle I am reminded of the comments I heard last year from out tour guide. This year we learn a bit more. He is trying to use words and stories to help us understand the emotions and fears of that era. We are locked in a small dungeon cell so that we may experience some of the sense of despair and fear that the African slaves felt. The stories of the rape and exploitation of the female slaves is especially troubling and when he talks of the separation of the families I start to realize the horror and lack of hope that must have been felt by these people. I am again appalled to see a Portuguese church sitting right on top of the dungeons and realize that the worship of God happened mere feet from the suffering of the slaves. There is a plaque on the wall and I am going to post the picture. Last year I gave a lecture at a church and I ended with that picture of the plaque in the hopes that it might generate some discussion. It was interesting that the audience did not want to discuss this. I think deep down we all know it was a horrible part of human history but it is easier not to talk about it. That is why we must continue to have dialogue about how these events have shaped who the white and black people today in 2010.
After the tour I am able to take some photos of the harbor at Elmina. It is like going back in time and I hope some of my pictures will help to demonstrate these aspects of the African fishermen. They carve out and build long boats from the local trees and each afternoon they leave their harbor to go out into the deeper water to catch fish. The boats have at least 10 men on them. We are here in the early afternoon and some of the boots are returning with their booty. These boats are lying low in the water and when other people in the harbor see these boats return there is a loud cheer and clapping. The returning fishermen are heroes to their community for bringing home the fish that helps to sustain the economy of this village. It is hard for me to imagine how monotonous this life must be but that is the only way that they can survive.
As we leave the castle we are mobbed by local vendors trying to sell us their trinkets. I do not need any of these items and I know that if my wallet comes out I will be swamped like blood to the piranhas. I hate to be rude but I push “my girls” on to the bus and close the doors. The incredible poverty is overwhelming and it is wearing on us a bit. The students are anxiously awaiting a return to Coconut Grove resort for an afternoon of swimming. We have planned these last few days of relaxation and I think it was a good thing to do. We have worked so hard since our arrival and the students need some rejuvenation before they return to the rigors of their academic schedule upon our return. The pool is lovely and we pay a small per diem fee to use the facilities. The pool area is mostly empty and I think the addition of 10 beautiful young nursing students is something they do not see too often. I remove myself from their group and find a chair on the other side of the pool. Maura has left me for the afternoon to meet up with her son who ironically is also here in Ghana with Babson College and they are about an hour away at a competition about entrepreneurship. She leaves with Kwando to make the trip and I am with the students. They are having a great time but I need to maintain my distance a bit. I think it is important for them to be kids and for me (the mother and professor) need to be separate. I take advantage of a shady lounge chair and try to read but once I start to relax I find myself asleep. I am told later that the students came over and took some pictures of me with sleeping with my mouth wide open (not a pretty picture) and they jokingly said it is blackmail material for an A in their next class.
I meet 2 people that day at the pool. One is an American woman in her later years who travels around the world. She is in Africa and will be here for a few months. She travels alone and makes up her itinerary as she goes along. She tells me of her stories in India and Asia and I am curious about how she supports her travel because she stays at nice hotels along the way. She does not reveal her source of income. I also meet another man who is currently in Ghana doing some epidemiological research for a petroleum company. He does not get into details and I wonder if he thinks that a nurse would not understand the nature of his work. He is currently attending MIT Sloan School and has 3 degrees from Harvard. I do not recall his name but he has a former colleague who currently teaches at UML and I need to make a connection when I return. It is funny that when I am in my own country I usually do not walk up to people and start talking( well at least not all the time) but here in Ghana there is some liberty in starting discussions with people you know are from your own country.
The girls try to cajole me into delaying our departure and I give them an extra 45 minutes. We have a 3 hour trip home tonight to Accra and I am ready to leave. After a few posed pictures at the pool we leave. Out 3 hour trip turns into a 5 ˝ hour trip from hell. Actually the first 2 hours were not bad but once we approached Accra we sat in stop and go traffic for hours. At one point our driver took a short cut through some local neighborhoods and we were stopped at least 4 times at police roadblocks. I am angry to think that these Ghanaian police officers are stopping all these drivers but do not offer any assistance on the main roads to maintain some type of order to chaos on the roadways. Because our journey home is taking so long we must stop for gas again. I am amazed to find myself in a VERY clean store at the gas station and imagine my delight when I find some diet coke. I buy 4 for our last 2 days and I know Maura will be thrilled with my purchase. It is now Saturday night and we only have a few more days left. Tomorrow is our shopping day and I have planned a birthday party for tomorrow night. We have had 2 UML students have Birthdays during our trip (Allison and Jody) and I have ordered some cakes. We make an inventory of our remaining supply of American food and we realize that we have 12 packets of Easy Mac left between us. I have also hoarded some Starburst candy so I have planned a birthday feast of Easy Mac, Starburst Candy and Cake for tomorrow night. We are all getting homesick and are anxious to return home.