From slave post to museum

In Ghana, African-Americans visit castles where their ancestors may have been held before being shipped to the New World as slaves.

The old slave castle looks peaceful today, covered with a coat of white paint and overlooking the waves lapping the rocks along the Atlantic shoreline.

Local boys play soccer matches among abandoned buildings nearby. In the evenings they move into the castle and fill the warm air with the beat of energetic drum circles.

None of this can overshadow Cape Coast Castle's gruesome past for hundreds of tourists who pass through each week to tour the grounds and weep in its eerie dungeons.

Cape Coast lies about three hours from Accra, the modern capital of Ghana, on a stretch of West Africa known as the Gold Coast.

Ghana may well have the highest concentration of slave posts anywhere in the world, giving it the dubious nickname "the shopping street of West Africa."

Dozens of historic castles, forts, and trading posts may still be found along a coastline less than 310 miles long.

In Cape Coast and nearby Elmina, the castles have been converted into well-maintained museums that educate as much as they torment, while many other forts are now inexpensive hotels with breathtaking views of the ocean.

This former British colony has become a destination for African-Americans digging for their roots or looking for a different perspective of the continent that seems to generate only bad-news headlines.

Because it is one of the few stable, democratic countries on the continent, and one where English is the official language, American tourists generally feel comfortable here.

Ghana Airlines offers nonstop flights once a week from New York and Washington to Accra, and British Airways flies through London. Finding a round-trip ticket for under $800 is nearly impossible, but, once you've arrived, you'll find that everything in Ghana tends to be inexpensive.

It's easy to find comfortable accommodations in Accra or Cape Coast for less than $70 per night, and a scenic, safe highway connects the two coastal cities. The best time to go is in February and March or July and August, just before the Gold Coast's two rainy seasons.

The anguish

"I have come full circle back to my destiny: from Africa to America and back to Africa," Atlanta resident Contrena Randolph wrote in the guest book at Cape Coast Castle, built by Swedes in 1653. "I could hear the cries and wails of my ancestors. I weep with them and for them."

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Coast, warns against the danger of forgetting, in poems about Ghana's slavery castles: "In silence and alone mothers hear the cries of their stolen children. The castle breathes sweetness. If people died of all the things they remember, we would live forever."

The tour through Cape Coast Castle is saddening though subtle, as the soft-voiced guide speaks with neither anger nor alarm in his voice. He points out scratch marks nearly two feet high on the dungeon walls, the height to which prisoners' waste reached as they waited, sometimes for months, for slavery ships to take them to the New World.

"Something startles where I thought I was safest," writes Professor Opoku-Agyemang. "The darkness of the dark continent was born here in the fretful culture of dense fear."

The tourist also sees the one-room, windowless cells, where unruly prisoners were condemned to death by starvation.

This contrasts sharply with the roomy, illuminated quarters upstairs for the Europeans occupying the castle at that time.

Historical journey

But Cape Coast's most powerful display is a Smithsonian-funded exhibition saved for the end of the tour. It provides a chronological journey through local history, before the Europeans arrived, showing the traditional lives of local African tribes, both around Cape Coast and also farther inland, where the majority of the slaves lived.

The men hollowed out canoes and painted them with symbols. The women bore baskets of heavy yams on their heads and used simple wooden tools to grind them them into edible pulp called fufu.

Cape Coast Castle sits on a rock that a European man known only as Crispe purchased in 1650 from the king of Fetu, the local tribe, for £60. The people of Fetu reportedly were jubilant at the time of the sale.

But the sweet taste in their mouths soon grew rancid; the exhibit displays leg irons and whips used to corral the slaves into the castle.

Graphic paintings show hundreds of prisoners packed into a ship filled to the scuppers, ready to sail west.

And then they reached America. The Smithsonian exhibit depicts their lives as plantation workers from the southern United States to colonial Brazil: the rapes, the beatings, and the long road to freedom.

Finally, as the historical journey nears the present, the downtrodden African faces begin to radiate hope. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali emerge as heroes for both Africans and African-Americans.

Close connections

A brief video initially focuses on traditional African culture before the Europeans arrived:storytelling, music, dancing, drumming, and food gathering

The video's second half then alternates between clips of modern Ghanaian children and their brethren in America carrying out the same rituals: Enthusiastic young boys shadowboxing on the Gold Coast beach suddenly become Muhammad Ali "floating" in the ring. A young African girl pouring her soul into a song morphs into an American pop icon in mid verse.

Comments in the castle's guest book are a testament to the video's power, recognizing a strong bridge between Africans and African-Americans.

Ajuma Kitwana, from Stanford, Calif., wrote that the United States should have a national Smithsonian museum like this one, teaching the American people about the slave trade.

Similarities between these two cultures linked by history surprised Anthony, a business major from Tennessee studying in Cape Coast for one semester. "I didn't come here because of my roots or to study slavery, but I was impressed by things we have in common," he wrote.

"We both hold communal values and stick together.... Close-knit communities are important for blacks in America, because we are also oppressed in the broader society."

Ghanaians outside the castle hold their American brothers and sisters in high regard because of the US civil rights movement. They also appreciate Americans visiting their country, which is poor by comparison.

Nearly every taxicab in Ghana has an American flag taped to the dashboard, and Americans are sure to hear akwaba, meaning "welcome" in the Twé language.

Small children in the streets jockey for position so they can shake hands with Western visitors.

Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali are household names here. At the Akotoku boxing club in Accra, the star fighter is compared to Sugar Ray Robinson, and his trainer is nicknamed Bing Crosby.

Martin Luther King Jr. visited Ghana on the occasion of its independence from Britain in 1957. More recently, Bill Clinton was here during his second term as US president.

Realizing the enormity of the past

A hotel proprietor in Cape Coast, known as Papa, says that when he worked at the castle as a young boy, cleaning floors, he didn't know what had happened there in previous centuries.

Only when he reached the age of 13 was he told of the atrocities against humanity called the slave trade.

"I cried and cried," he says. "I just couldn't understand it."

Papa now runs the Amkred guesthouse, which receives dozens of European and American backpackers each week. The money these visitors spend for rooms and for food, although moderate by Western standards, is far above what locals would pay, and provides a welcome boost to the local economy.

Food and lodging

The Cape Coast area offers accommodations for the traveler who craves comfort as well as for the backpacker. For $50 to $60 per night, the Sanaa Lodge has single or double rooms with air conditioning (a must for many, since temperatures rarely fall below 90 degrees F.), televisions, and telephone access.

Rooms at Hans Cottage Botel, a theme park of sorts just north of Cape Coast with a restaurant built over a crocodile pond and squabbling monkeys in the distance, are $35 per night and include air conditioning and satellite television.

The Elmina Beach Resort, about 10 kilometers west of Cape Coast, is more luxurious and only a stone's throw from the Elmina slave castle. There, visitors can stay for between $80 and $150 a night, enjoying tennis courts, a swimming pool, and an excellent restaurant.

In my experience, good food isn't easy to find around Cape Coast and Elmina. It tends to be rather bland. But most visitors will find acceptable and inexpensive dining at local hotels.

The past influences the present

Ghanaians are adept at taking what they need from the past, and surviving in the present. They have built one of the proudest democracies in Africa, solidified by free elections several years ago.

They have raised a United Nations secretary-general in Kofi Annan. And they have produced "highlife," their own kind of music that borrows from American pop and hip-hop, but stands alone in its energy.

As evening unfolds in Cape Coast, life switches from past to present inside Cape Coast Castle. At 5 p.m. every day, after the castle grounds have closed to the crowds of tourists, drum circles and break-dancing begin.

Rastafarians pound the bongos, sending their dreadlocks through the air like whiplashes.

Athletic young men position their hands on the castle's hard floor and turn their lower bodies into windmills.

In a place where the horrors of history still echo, a more joyful life goes on.

For more information, see: , the official Ghana tourism website. , Ghana Tourism Network. , Ghanaonline offers tips for travelers and tourism advice as well as information geared toward business visitors.

Besides its cultural and historical heritage - forts, castles, music, and festivals - Ghana's tourist attractions include wildlife, rain forest, and sandy beaches.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.