Tuesday, September 4, 2007

travelling to the coast

Saying goodbye was bittersweet. I was very sad to be leaving my home for the past 3.5 months and leaving those people behind, but also very excited to be coming back to Canada and all the friends and family that I missed so much. I was also excited to be taking my time traveling back to the South and visiting some of the cities along the way.

We spent a day in Tamale for the final workshop, used to both collect and organize our thoughts and also to give the long-term volunteers a better idea of everything that we did throughout the summer, but it also gave us a chance to say a sort of good-bye to the Northern Region. The best part of the workshop, though, was the end where the long terms presented all of team Ghana with matching shirts, what they called our "Tony the Tiger" shirts. We had a ridiculous ceremony that had all of us laughing and crying and then took ridiculous pictures to commemorate the event. I also distributed the EWB batik cloth that I made with my host-mother to everyone that bought it from me, so we had a very colourful evening.

After the final workshop, I travelled to Kumasi, a large city in the Ashanti Region of Ghana to hang out for a day with 5 other people. We visited the market and the cultural centre, which was really, really cool. The cultural centre wasn't just a large amount of stores, like it is in Accra, but they also display how they do the weaving of the Kente cloth, make the clay pottery we used so much over the last few months, make all the small brass sculptures, as well as the wooden ones.

After spending all of Sunday in Kumasi, Janna and I left our four other travelling partners and made our way to Cape Coast, specifically to the Cape Coast Castle. During the days of the slave trade, the Cape Coast castle was one of the major places that they sold, and then held the prisoners for about six weeks before cramming them onto ships and sending them to the new world.

It was horrible. We went into the rooms where they kept the people between selling them and shipping them, and "rooms" is a very generous word. They were dungeons, small and cramped with very little light and even less air. They would throw the food into the dungeons from above and the people would fight for it. Once you were sold to a specific trading company, the initials of that person or company would be branded into the people's skin. Tribes were turned against each other. Full villages were burnt to the ground as people were being captured. And if you thought about staging a rebellion in the dungeons, the would put you in "the cell", the final room of three chambers and large locking doors about the size of a bathroom with no air, water, or food. They would starve and suffocate you for misbehaving.

During the summer I learned about the slave trade. I had a friend from Navrongo, a town near the Burkina Faso border that told me about the post there, one of the many places the slaves traded hands on the long trek to the coast. There were holes carved into rocks there that they would fill with soup to feed the slaves, but they would still have their hands tied behind their backs so they had to kneel on the hard rock and bend over, an extremely vulnerable position, to drink their soup.

I went to Salaga where there was a major slave market, half-way down the country. Here slaves were bathed, greased in shea butter, and given food to make them look large and healthy. They were tied to the large trees there in chains until the market day, and they would pray to be sold. Why would the pray to continue the journey as a captive? Because they saw what happened to those that didn't get sold.

So, after learning so about it during the summer, it seemed fitting that I would go visit the slave castle, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. I learned that 12 million people over 400 years were forced off the African continent and sent to Brazil (the largest shipment), the Caribbean (the second largest shipment) and North America (the remainder). Areas of the continent became wastelands, and entire tribes were destroyed. This was their Holocaust.

Yet, so many of the people have come to be at peace with it. They're not angry, but they accept it and say that they have learned from their mistakes. On the 1st of August, every year, they set aside a day to remember the tragedies that occurred, and vow never to let it happen again. This year was the launch of a program called "The Josephs", a series of events to "re-establish the African Nation as a nation of all its peoples, capable of delivering on the promise of God to Africa and the African peoples" and to "bring together, more closely, people in Ghana and brothers and sisters in the Diaspora and establish herself as the true gateway to the Homeland for Africans in the Diaspora."

The name, "The Josephs", was taken from the biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers. In the story, Joseph eventually became ruler and forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery. Now the name Joseph refers to all those descended from those that were sold into slavery that make the pilgrimage back to Ghana to understand their heritage and to make peace with their ancestors.

I watched the launching of the Joseph program on the television on August 1st, and it was truly amazing. Many African rulers travelled to Elimina castle to take part in the event. There were many African-Americans that made the pilgrimage for this historic event. There were wonderful speeches and cultural displays, and at the end there was a feeling that Ghana was doing well, and trying hard to make amends with the more horrific parts of the area's long history.

These were some of the things that I was thinking about when I was standing in the dungeons, on the guard wall by the cannons, and then again while waiting by the Door of No Return. The Door was named that because it was where the slaves passed to join the boats that would bring them to the new world. I couldn't fathom how many people had passed through that door, praying that the journey would better than the last six weeks they spent in the dungeons, and hoping that the new world would not be so cruel.

As part of the tour we were brought through that door. I marveled at the view of the fishing boats and people along the coast line, the hustle and the bustle of a large city that had been temporally shut out of my mind as I had journeyed to the past. I almost missed our tour guide saying as he led as back around, "now this side is the Door of Return." He explained that all those that had descended from slaves were encouraged to enter the castle through those doors to help "break the curse" on the castle, and to enter back the way that their ancestors left.

We visited the museum as well and saw the shackles and a lot of other really interesting things, but the day was growing late and we were hungry! We ended up at a restaurant right on the shore overlooking both the coastline and some of the castle and I had some of the best banku and okra soup that I had all summer, mostly because of the salt air and the large amount of fish and seafood they put into it. The service was slow, but that's how it is in Ghana, and Janna and I sat there for a few hours with our new friend from Hong Kong that we met early in the day. We were full and satisfied, but we still had to make it back to Accra that night. We made our way to the tro-tro station (getting sidetracked along the way by pretty jewelry and fabric) and finally rolled into Accra at about 9:30 PM. We made our way to our pre-arranged hotel (where the other 14 JFs were staying) and almost collapsed into bed. It was a really long, really emotional day, but I'm so glad that it happened.

Tuesday morning we decided to head out to the cultural centre, this one being very different from the one in Kumasi. This one was mostly about selling souvenirs, but I was okay with that because it was our last day there and I had gifts to buy! Not only did I buy gifts, but I also bought myself a djembe, a west african drum. It was a little tiring being thought of as just a tourist, being overcharged for everything when we understood the money a lot better than the average tourist, but after we said, "we've been living here for four months, this costs 'x' amount", we usually got a much better deal on it.

Packing was a logistical nightmare, with 16 of our bags in one room and everyone trying to re-pack at the same time, but it ended up being a lot of fun as well with everyone pulling out the gifts they bought and clothing they had made and then trying to cram it all back into our bags without making them too heavy.

And then, in one sudden moment, I realized I was at the airport, surrounded by my friends but also leaving so many behind. I was ecstatic to be going home, but also incredibly sad to be leaving the place I called home for the past 3.5 months. I guess that's always going to part of leaving -- you'll be excited for what's coming but sad for what you're leaving behind.

But I'm not leaving it all behind. I just have to remember the friends that I made and not let the Laura in Winnipeg forget the Laura in Savelugu.