Ghana's Museums On Slave Trade Irk US Blacks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN African-Americans visit the sweltering slave dungeons in Ghana's coastal castles seeking their roots, many of them complain. Where's the horror of it all? they ask.

What really bothers the American visitors is that these dungeons, where their ancestors were manacled and starved, now smell Disney-clean and sport gift shops. Smiling guides tell little of the ghastly history that went on inside the castle walls.

Ghana has turned the dark cells into monuments of 400 years of slave trade, but US black visitors often regard the restoration - done to earn money from tourists - as a "whitewash" of a black holocaust.

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Ghanaian authorities began to restore the castles in 1991 with $4.1 million from the Smithsonian Institution, US Agency for International Development, and the UN. Two castles were declared as "world heritage" sites by UNESCO in 1991.

The visitors' book of the museum at this castle is spiked with criticisms from American blacks. Valerie Taylor from New York, for instance, was indignant that the brutality was not better conveyed. "This particular guide regarding my ancestry should not be as carefree.... To me this is an emotional experience and should be presented as such, not just an explanation without feelings."

Izaka Nkrumah, from Los Angeles, expressed displeasure that Ghanaians were charged a five times lower entrance fee than African-Americans.

Such comments irritate Ghanaians. Francis Boakwey Duah, regional director of Ghana Museums' board, dismisses the complaints, saying the castles are as much a part of Ghanaian heritage as of black Americans'.

The castles, he says, which are sited on idyllic palm-lined beaches, are part of a grand plan to promote tourism on Ghana's Atlantic coast. Besides, most of the the 350-odd weekly visitors are Ghanaians: "We may target African-American tourists, but the castles belong to Ghana," he says.

Mr. Duah argues that the two castles - which for four centuries were held by colonial powers including the Dutch, Portuguese, British, and French - were used not just as holding areas for slaves, but also as trading centers, and later as ordinary prisons or offices.

Americans, he says, should offer money and expertise, not gripes.

"There are two or three voices claiming we are disfiguring the castle," he says. "But we need to do maintenance and are paying for it with aid which belongs to both whites and blacks in the US," Duah says. "It is natural for African-Americans to be emotional when they see the dungeon. But nothing has been faked."

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, 12 to 25 million African men, women, and children were were sold into slavery, often by warring African tribal chiefs. They traveled hundreds of miles from as far away as the interiors of Ghana, Nigeria, and Benin.

They sat manacled in stifling, overpacked, and dark dungeons for months at a time before being shipped across the sea to be sold as slaves. There were no toilets and little food. Those who misbehaved would be sent to a special airless cell, where they would either starve to death or suffocate.

A third of the captives died even before making the trip. Then, after perilous ocean journeys when many died, they were resold in the US or other countries.

Revising display

Museum officials are making compromises. The educational film at the museum goes out of its way to cater to African-Americans, drawing parallels between the civil rights movement in the US and Ghana's independence and links between both countries' music and dance.

But it also makes the point that the slaves who ended up in North America between 1620 and 1860 accounted for the smallest proportion of slaves taken from Africa - an estimated 1.2 to 2 million. Four million, in contrast, ended up in Brazil.

Plans are under way to restore the dozens of other castles that span the coast. An American diplomat said the controversy - "It is a very delicate issue" - did not show signs of going away.

Atukwei Okai, the Ghanaian poet who heads the Accra-based Pan-Africanist Writers' Association, is doing his best in the spirit of Marcus Garvey., an American black who started Pan-Africanism, a movement to develop global ties between Africans and people of African descent. Mr. Okai says black American critics of the castles have a point, and he, too, was bothered to see the outside freshly painted.

"The castles' preservation should be done in the correct way. We should recognize and receive the [black Americans] and open our arms to them," Okai says.

Ghana presents a cautionary tale for other countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, and Benin, which were also slave-shipping areas and may well want to promote slave tourism.

Perhaps American purists would be pleased with the newly refurbished slave museum in Angola. The modest building on the outskirts of the capital, Luanda, has preserved the horror of the times. The guide describes vividly how slaves were maltreated and the displays show rusted balls, chains, photographs of whipped slaves, and pictures of torture devices.

But where are the visitors? It is a weekend and the museum is practically empty, except for the dozing guard.

He shrugs. "Who would want to come to a former war zone? It is not pretty enough for tourists, " he says.

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