The Whitewashed Stone: Gold and Ghosts on Ghana’s Cape Coast

In the shadow of a 355-year-old fortress, a former trading post for gold, ivory and slaves, a chaotically organized gaggle of young boys play a game of pick-up soccer. They invite me to join in. I try to keep up, but I’m no match for their youthful endurance. They score goal after goal on me, the ball thudding against the tall, whitewashed stone wall that surrounds what was, for the profoundly 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 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 centre, 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.

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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 this 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 kilometres. Depending on the state of the roads, it can feel longer. The route runs within drumbeat distance of the shore, but there are only glimpses of the sea from the windows of the well-travelled, 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 us 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.

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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. I can recommend the rice balls.

After another Star, I walk back to my guesthouse, 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.

The smell of street food mixes with the scent of kerosene in the humid night air. Music fills the air, streetlamps 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 colourful African prints. Vendors, cars, bicycles, goats, chickens, frogs creaking from sewer trenches, preachers with growling voices – life spills in all directions.

**

The next morning, 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 an entirely inaccurate word.

A voice pierces through the past, illuminated by a lone lightbulb hanging from a rough wire. Kingsley Kofi Yeboah is 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 labour 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 someone else’s ships to come in.

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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, laboured 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.”

When I leave the castle, the young boys are still kicking a soccer ball against the stone wall. Once again they invite the obroni – me, the white man – to join in. Again, they score at will. But showing typical Ghanaian generosity, they cheer me on anyway, as we chase each other in the shadow of history.

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Inheriting a Better Future: Death & Life in Cameroon

In some villages in Cameroon, there is no such thing as a natural death. Traditional beliefs dictate that bad spirits – or bad people – must be behind the passing. Particularly, it seems, if the deceased is a man.

So when Esther Buh Nah’s husband met his demise, she fell under immediate suspicion. Only time-worn rituals, many believe, could determine whether she was responsible.

Her clothes were taken away, her head shaved. She could not eat with anyone else in her village for six months and could only use one bowl. She couldn’t bathe.

“And I was made to drink the water my husband’s body was cleaned with,” says the widow, clutching her government-mandated I.D. card like a talisman, proof that she continues to survive.

If she fell ill from the death-ceremony water or general lack of hygiene, it meant she was guilty. Fortunately for Esther, she made it through the ritual period.

Unfortunately for her, and for countless other widows, the ordeal did not end when she returned to some semblance of normal life in her village near Bambessi, Northwest Cameroon.

That’s because her husband’s land – her land, the soil she toiled to grow food for subsistence and, if it was a good year, for cash sales – was seized by her brother-in-law.

“It’s often greed disguised as ritual,” says Christiane Bossé, a volunteer from Ottawa working as a women’s rights advisor for several community groups in Northwest Cameroon.

“Women are second-class citizens in the eyes of many, so why not take their land?” Unsurprisingly, rites are far less harsh and humiliating for widowers, who are often encouraged to remarry as soon as possible.

Christiane’s youthful appearance makes her age hard to place. She is at the opposite spectrum of Esther and the other widows she is talking to on this day. The faces of those women are etched with an earned weariness that also makes age hard to gauge.

In Cameroon, as in most countries, even those struggling with pockets of extreme poverty, there is a richness in culture, community and ritual. It’s what makes a place unique and offers strength to its people. But, there are some traditions that are simply inhumane.

From widow rites to widow rights

Christiane is volunteering with the group Musab Cameroon, and she and her local colleague Patu Baku are changing widow rites – and asserting widow rights. They are working on a project in five Fondoms – areas that can encompass many villages headed by a traditional king or ‘Fon’– to identify harmful rituals and redress the worst of the practices.

They begin with a series of educational workshops that also serve as grassroots needs assessments. “Woman can be seen as property, and lose access to their house, their land, even their children…unless they marry the brother-in-law,” says Christiane, who holds a Masters in international human rights law, and who previously volunteered in Tanzania with the UN Criminal Tribunal that dealt with the genocide in Rwanda.

“But there are some laws on the books in Cameroon that offer protection to widows. If the women know their rights, they can help themselves.”

Christiane and Patu are holding one such workshop in Bambessi, inside a large community centre near a school. In preparation, young girls are sweeping the dirt floor, the eddies of dust twisting in the morning light.

The session starts in chaos. Fifty people were invited, but many more show up, all claiming to be from the village the workshop was to focus on. And not just women, but men, children, peddlers selling boiled groundnuts…they had heard that money for lunch would be provided.

It’s the beginning of the planting season – and by extension, the end of food stores from last season.

Throughout, Christiane stays efficiently calm, but with a watchful eye to Patu, who quietly but forcefully reins in the crowd. The rest of the day goes as planned.

After a workshop identifies the worst of the problems, Christiane, Patu and the participating groups get to work implementing solutions. “One thing we’re doing is encouraging the writing of wills, and also legal marriage certificates,” says Christiane. “Many women can’t read,” adds Patu, “so that’s why our organization also supports literacy training.”

And they are meeting with traditional leaders, encouraging Fons to make pronouncements against widow rites, and ensure the women retain access to their land. “We hope to have agreements in five Fondoms by next year,” says Christiane, who is also training advocates who will lobby at the village level on behalf of widows.

“Two Fons have already signed agreements, banning things like shaving of heads, of women having to sleep on the floor, of women being removed from their land,” says Patu, “so we’ve been encouraged by that.”

For the Canadian volunteer, this placement in Cameroon – a culturally and geographically diverse country that sits at the crossroads of West and Central Africa – has been a natural progression of her work. “It was the ideal position. It combined the broader picture of development issues with field work. And I’m learning so much here from so many people – there is a strong willingness to change.”

Minding their businesses

But asserting their rights is just one side of a difficult reality for widows. They still have to feed their children, they still have to make a living. It was hard enough before their husbands died.

In several villages in Northwest Cameroon – a region of the country fringed by the barren but scenic Mandara Mountains – local community group Santos Development Organization are helping women, including widows, start or grow their own small businesses.

On the streets of the Babungo market, women in colourful dresses are framed by the sanguine-brown mud brick walls of stalls capped by corrugated tin roofs. One of these market women is Agnes Magoh, a widow who too faced humiliation and hardship following the death of her husband.

“You should have seen her face when I first met her,” says Renie Gnos, a Cameroonian volunteer, “it was gloomy.”

Renie is part of a team of local volunteers who offer training and small business support to women, including widows. “We do basic business training with rural women, women with low literacy and numeracy. There’s five days of training, one day a week over five weeks. We then follow-up after six months.”

“We first go over the basics of business, and introduce them to market research. From that research we determine if their business idea is worth investing in,” says Renie. Other training sessions include costing, book-keeping and customer relations.

“And we sit down with them, one-on-one, to help them develop a business plan. We go over how much they need to bring in to pay off the loans.” The women are given a half-loan, half-grant cash infusion, with six months to pay back what they owe. As loans get paid, the next woman on the list gets support.

The face of hardship, the face of potential

Sifting corn in the murky light of her small shop, Agnes smiles when asked how business is going. “My business is doing very well,” she says. She buys raw corn and beans, dries and prepares the staples, and sells her product to a growing list of customers.

“It may surprise you that Agnes paid her loan back in four months,” adds Renie.

Volunteering alongside Renie is George Harding, a former teacher and manager of the John Howard society in Prince George, B.C. “These women, most of them have no options,” he says. “Life is very, very hard.” George admits they can only help a modest number of women. “It’s a drop in a very large bucket. But enough drops make up a cup at least.”

Market research is very important, he notes. “I do ask myself ‘how many bananas do you have to sell to survive?’ There is a lot of competition in the market and on the street corners.” Some women raise chickens and cook them, some make dresses, some have stalls selling a variety of staples – which in Cameroon can include mobile phone SIM cards, shoes and soap.

“There aren’t too many value-added products yet,” George says, “made from Cameroonian resources. That’s a challenge in Africa – getting the capital, training and machinery to add value to raw products. How do you compete with a cheap product imported from China?” Many a business in North America asks the same question.

Yet so far the program is working well, the volunteer says. “We thought we’d be happy with a 75 percent success rate after the first six months, but it’s much higher.”

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And no one is happier than Agnes. Life has been hard, but she beams as she makes a sale.

“Look at her face. She is bright and shining,” says Renie, pointing at Agnes.

“Because we have learned very much, very much,” Agnes calls out, while scooping up another bowl of corn, in a shop she can call her own.