Kakum National Park and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana: A Personal Essay

The canopy walkways of Kakum National Park

By Guest Contributor Eccentric Yoruba, cross-posted from Beyond Victoriana

Our next guided tour was to the Kakum National Park and Cape Coast, which is home to several colonial castles. Once more we woke up really early in the morning and got into a bus with other Nigerians and off we went on our two hour journey to Kakum. The national park is famous for its canopy walk, which has several hanging walkways above a thick forest. Apparently, some people find the canopy walk challenging and cannot go through it, that is totally understandable. It took a while walking through the forest until we reached the walkways. One by one, we were guided to them, but not before we were warned not to swing the walkways and to refrain from such behaviour.

There are seven canopies in total. I took the shortcut, which means I walked through only three. “Are you scared?” one of the men– presumably a safety guide–asked me when I turned left for the shortcut.

“Yes, I am absolutely frightened,” I replied even though I had a huge grin plastered on my face and had paused to take a picture a few moments ago. As I walked hastily through the shortcut, I heard the man say behind me, “You’re lying.” In front of me a little girl was crying while her mother told her not to be scared: “We’ll soon reach the end.” I felt sorry for her.

Part of the reason I had chosen the shortcut was because I wanted to see Cape Coast. To be honest, I was dreading it at the same time because I’d heard stories; of the slave dungeons and the Door of No Return, of people breaking into tears while there, and I wasn’t ready to be caught unawares by several strong emotions and end up crying in public.

All I wished for was that my camera wouldn't fall tumbling down

In the end, of our Nigerian tour group it was only my mum and I that took the shortcut so we had to wait and wait for the others. The journey to Cape Coast wasn’t too long and I knew we had reached our destination when I was pointed to a castle that stood atop a hill. That castle was Elmina Castle, but we were going to Cape Coast Castle.

We had a brief tour of the museum within the building first. The museum was dedicated to the Cape Coast Castle: how it was built, what materials were originally used to build it and the ones used to renovate it, etc. Next was the tour and by the point I was already getting impatient; I wanted to leave. I guess one might say that I found it a bit uncomfortable, the way tourists were about taking pictures of everything in the castle. I personally did not take any pictures of the Cape Coast Castle. I found its view of the ocean breathtaking, though, so I did take pictures of the ocean and the beach. In those pictures, the cannons still ended up making an appearance.

The tour began with our tour guide talking about how African chiefs sold people to the Europeans as slaves. He described how the slaves were washed and oiled so as to appear healthier and attractive. The guide then talked about how the most rebellious male slaves were punished by being locked in a room with no light or windows, after which he told every single tourist to enter into the room. I entered and came out almost immediately because of the impatience I referenced above.

There were a few people complaining about the smell of the room. “It is dark here why do we have to stay in here all together?” to which someone replied, “It is to appreciate what they went through.” And my head exploded: Appreciate? Really? Even if they locked us all in there for a day, we still wouldn’t know what it was like to be a slave. You’re tourists who paid for a vacation, what can you appreciate? And why use the word anyway?

The view of the ocean at Cape Coast Castle, with the cannons jutting out beneath.

Next were the male dungeons. There was little to no light in the dungeons with the only air coming in from really small open squares (I can’t even call them windows), high above in the walls. The guide explained to us the filthy conditions of the dungeons, how previously the human waste stood at 6 feet high. And people kept on taking pictures, a blinding flash here and there “to preserve the memories.” And I wondered what sort of memories they wanted to preserve. In my opinion more than half of the people that see/saw Cape Coast Castle and take pictures end up pushing the horror of slavery to the back of their minds. It is just an amusing tour–I mean, people do talk about it but they are not angry or baffled.

I remember a colleague from work went to Ghana and came to my office to tell us about his journey. He had taken the Cape Coast Castle tour yet all he told us was how the governor used to select the finest women and rape them. He mentioned that he thought it was ironic that the castle had a church while all these atrocities were happening, and he also told us how a woman, an African-American, told off a bunch of white tourists for taking pictures at the Cape Coast Castle. He thought she was over-reacting: “Why was she so angry, they were just taking pictures.”

We were shown the graves of some guy and an English couple (later on that day, my mum would tell me how she read somewhere that Zimbabwean officials stated that they were going to exhume all the bodies of colonialists and send them to their respective countries). In the female dungeons we were told how the English colonialists raped female slaves. Apparently if a female slave became pregnant she would be spared the journey across the Atlantic and given a house. She would also be made a mistress. “That is how today we have Ghanaians with surnames like Johnson, Williams and the like,” the tour guide explained. I had always assumed those names were ‘slave names’ who knew they had an European ancestor? One woman told me the better option was to keep a rapist’s baby, “It is better than being sent to work as a slave in a foreign land.” I preferred that the choice not be limited. There should not have been such de-humanisation in the first place.

The guide led us to “the Door of No Return.” Now it is a door, but back in the day it was a hole that the slaves had to crawl through. It was from this ‘door’ that slaves were loaded unto ships bound for the Americas. “See how our ancestors were forced to go there and here we are struggling to get American visa.”

Our guide showed us that there was also a Door of Return now that descendants of slaves have the ability to return to land their ancestors were taken away from. The tour continued through the church (which has since been transformed into a library), the governor’s room, and the room that used to house the auction where slaves were bought and sold. We had reached the end of our tour.

I walked into one souvenir shop in the castle and struck a conversation with the salespeople there. There was a man with an really nice smile with a penchant for Jamaican slang and the Muslim girl eating fufu and pepper-soup. While on the cruise earlier on my holiday, the Nigerians on the table I sat at had commented about how I looked Ghanaian, so I took to asking the Ghanaians what they thought.  The guy with the nice smile said I didn’t look Ghanaian because my body was fresh! I think he was referring to my skin tone. I related this his colleague who shook her head and said, “You’ve really embarrassed us! How can you say Ghanaians don’t have fresh skin?” She told me I looked like her cousin.

I bought two books at the store: Girls’ Nubility Rites in Ashanti by Peter Saprong and A History of West Africa 1000-1800 by Basil Davidson. I stayed at the store to chat with them because they were amusing, but soon I had to return to the bus.

Move out of my picture damned castle!

In the bus while drinking bottles of malt, the usual comparisons began: “Look at how excellent this tour is. Nigerians could do the same, we have history.”

To which my jaw connected to the floor. Some idiot once claimed that Africa had no history prior to colonisation, only darkness, and to my horror, people actually believe this. How can a Nigerian be happy claiming that colonial castles are “history”? No, they are not. Colonialism only forms a part of African history, but somehow this is irrelevant.

“There is a castle in Badagry…Lagos. We can do this in Nigeria too.”

The debate spiraled into other topics: “What I want to know about is those Africans who sold their own people, what about them?”  and me in my wee voice had to say, “Why is it that slavery is associated with black people and Africa? White people were slaves too but that is conveniently forgotten.” When I tried to speak up on how we have much older history than those colonial castles in Badagry, however, my voice was drowned out.

I wondered where the pre-colonial Ghanaian tourist sites were. Our guide at the Cape Coast Castle mentioned how the name “Ghana” is from the ancient Kingdom of Ghana which is nowhere near modern Ghana. So knowing the Kingdom of Ghana and all its history (which I do) is not the same as knowing the history of modern-day Ghana. Still, I’m sure that Ghana has its own kingdoms and such. I’m sure there are historical monuments out there, but I know nothing of them. At least now I’ve been moved to add them to my banks of knowledge.

  • Medusa

    To be honest, I’m not sure what the problem is with taking pictures of places where human rights abuses occurred. Pictures are a way of preserving a memory, and slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade are not things that should ever be forgotten.

  • Aries3_04

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I had the opportunity to visit both Kakum and Cape Coast three years ago. The feeling of being there is beyond words for me. Keep spreading the knowledge and awareness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1100342 Justin Pierce Baldwin Gerald

    I remember visiting the killing fields in Cambodia, and Tuol Sleng (the related prison/interment center), and I did take pictures, not to pretend I could ever experience it, but because, even though this was only a few decades ago, a lot of my peers are entirely unaware of its existence, so I wanted to at least try and share it with them. However I was by myself, silent, and not laughing or carrying on.

    I’d like to visit West Africa, though. I don’t know where my own motherland is, but it would be cool to find it and see it.

  • Sejw

    This essay reminds me of poet Toi Derricotte’s book, Tender; the first section has poems all about being at Elmina.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    That sounded like a really intense visit. I’ve never been to Ghana or anywhere in Africa, for that matter. But I’ve visited India (my motherland), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and a few other countries. I spent a day in Jeddah where we were driven around by a Pakistani cab driver who pointed out some public execution spots to us. He told us he witnessed a public hanging of a young man (and i think he might have mentioned a woman, too) for premartial infidelity and he told us how he found the whole public spectacle of it horrible and dehumanizing. it was chilling.