Cape Coast – Land of the free, home of the slave

View all the Cape Coast photos

Travelling in the developing world is never a totally relaxing experience, especially when the tro-tro transport have window stickers proclaiming their trust in God to look after them (I prefer not to overtake on blind corners, leaving it to divine intervention to sort out – if there is a God it’s not a traffic controller).  The tro-tro is a beaten-up van that gets jammed full with as many people as possible, bags shoved under the seats, and is a cheap and quick way to get around.  At least that’s what we tell ourselves as we go past the huge billboard with the 2009 road toll numbering in the thousands.  Not sure what happened in 2010 but I’m guessing the toll didn’t go down a lot.

As in most places outside the western world seat belts are entirely optional, if they exist at all.  If there is a belt, the buckle is missing.  The Ghanaian taxis all have a seat belt for the driver but that is only deployed when a police road block appears.  They put the seat belt on to get through the road block, then immediately take it off again as though it’s burning their skin.  The tro-tros don’t have the hint of a seat belt.  You’re lucky if there’s a board to cover the hole in the floor and the door closes properly.  Sarah is freaked out by flying in Africa but the road transport scares me more and seems far more likely to cause injury.

Ghanaians are nuts about football and are justifiably proud of their national team.  Men play football everywhere, on dirt pitches, patches of grass next to the road, any flat surface is a potential place to prove their skills.  We had travelled to Cape Coast in a tro-tro, which was ironically a much better experience than the government run STC coach service which broke down three times leaving Accra.  At Cape Coast for a change of pace we watched the sun go down while having drinks and dinner next to the beach, and when I say next to I mean two steps up from the sand.  In front of us a dozen guys played a game of football with the ocean being out of bounds.  Some guys took a break from the game by just diving straight in to an oncoming wave.  It was high tide and the beach was narrow and steep but these guys were playing pretty seriously.  Later on a guy came up claiming to represent the team and asking for money as sponsorship.  He was chatting away making his pitch when we heard this creaking from above.  He looked up and said “Holy shit!” as a huge palm tree branch crashed down on our table completely obliterating Sarah’s glass.  We knew enough to be worried about coconuts but the branches are a new and interesting form of danger.  No-one seemed too fussed about it.  The glass was swept up and everyone got on with their lives.

Cape Coast is a town famous for being the centre of the slave trade.  Cape Coast and the nearby Elmina both have European built castles on the water which were used to house slaves before they were shipped off like cattle.  We did a tour and it’s chilling and horrifying to hear about the conditions that these people were put in.  We stood in an underground stone room with a tour group of about 40 people which comfortably filled half the room.  They used to put 200 people in a room the same size with just a few small windows at the top for ventilation and a glimmer of light.  There were drains in the floor to carry sewage away but these quickly became blocked so that these poor people would be standing in six centimetres of filth.  They stayed here for often weeks at a time while they waited for a ship to arrive which they would then be crammed in and taken off to Europe. 20 to 30% mortality rate was standard.  The companies involved bought and branded these human beings.  It’s an awful indictment on humanity that we can sink so low.  All the major sea powers of the time were involved.  As one rose to prominence they would take the castle of the previous owners: Portuguese, Dutch, English, Swedes, they all had their snouts in the trough.  Slaves were traded for European goods such as tobacco and weapons and were supplied by the ruling African tribe in the region, captured in wars or criminals offered up.  Not surprisingly these castles had a lot of African-American tourists who can no doubt trace their ancestry back here.

While walking along the beach near Elmina castle, Sarah snapping away, some small boys ran up and asked her to take a photo of her.  One of the small boys had a steak knife which he held in a pose pretending to stab Sarah with it.  I’m not sure to what extent he was fooling around but he stopped when he caught me staring at him.  After the photo a teenage boy came up at started berating Sarah for taking the photo without permission.  When she argued that the boys had asked for the photo he said they weren’t old enough to give consent, and anyway, if he came to Australia and started taking photos of people they would demand money.  This didn’t make much sense.  If it was a shakedown he didn’t approach it the right way because Sarah just deleted the photo.  When we thought about the incident in retrospect it’s hard to think of a place where black anger against white people is more justified so it’s hard to get to huffy about being yelled at.

People in Ghana are generally friendly, if not a little too friendly at times.  Sarah gets advances all the time, not that I can blame the guys, she is gorgeous.  One teenage boy kept smiling at Sarah and touching himself which started to get off-putting.  They are also not shy about asking for money.  The little kids come running out saying “Money! Money!” in greeting.  One of the tour guides we had whipped out his member to take a piss while carrying on a conversation with us.  One tro-tro driver pulled over to take a whizz and didn’t move much beyond the driver’s door to do so.  It’s all much more open and upfront here which usually manifests itself as friendliness but can tip over into machismo bullshit.

Cape Coast itself, like any other built up area in Ghana, is a very ordinary olfactory experience.  The open drains are clogged with rubbish and dirty water, garbage tips are really just a concentration of rubbish, not their sole location.  There is shit strewn everywhere, scattered over everything.  I don’t know if it’s lack of garbage collection or just littering but when it’s hot and humid the sweet stench of garbage everywhere does not make wandering around a pleasant experience.  Add to that the smell of dried fish in all the coastal towns and I hope you’re getting the picture that the cities at best smell bad and at worst are putrid.  Coincidentally I had just read a book about the history of water and civilisation which described the Great Stink in London in 1858 which goes to show that our relatively clean smelling cities are a relatively recent outcome.  Shakespeare’s London would have been much more like Cape Coast than the modern London.

View all the Cape Coast photos

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