Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ghana diary

Recently a friend of mine traveled to Ghana - partly in order to search for her roots and partly to enjoy the local culture. I spent a long time absorbing the wealth of detail she gathered during her trip there. She also gave me permission to post some pictures of the local life there and I got to be an armchair voyeur of the culture there. Among the many images, two sets of images struck me the most and I want to describe them to you.

The first was the underground dungeons that ware holding cells for slaves in the 1700's before they were loaded onto ships waiting at the harbor for onward transport to the plantations of Caribbean or the Americas. The images are haunting, severe and speak of a time that remains a bloody spot on blotting paper of humanity.

This excerpt from an article in the venerable economist some time back makes the situation a little more explicit:

The dungeons can still shock, two centuries after their last inmates were freed. Damp and fetid in the tropical air, immersed in virtual darkness, this is where slaves were kept, often for months at a time—before being led down a tunnel through the “door of no return” to ships riding in the surf, ready to begin their appalling voyage over the ocean.
Just one of the countless inmates left a written record. Having been sold to white traders for a gun, a piece of cloth and some lead, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano recalled waiting in the dungeon till his time arrived: “To conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but rattling of chains, smacking
of whips, and groans and cries of our fellow men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beaten in the most horrible manner.”
Of course, there are always two sides of a story as the following passage pitches to us tellingly:

A smokescreen still covers the African role in this pernicious trade. It is an awkward fact that the traffic could not have existed without African chiefs and traders. Europeans rarely went far from their forts; slaves were brought to them. Indeed, when the Europeans arrived the slave trade and slavery were already integral parts of local tribal economies. One of the few Ghanaian historians to touch these issues, Akosua Adoma Perbi, writes that “slavery became an important part of the Asante state [the Gold Coast's most powerful] right from its inception. For three centuries, Asante became the largest slave-trading, slave-owning and slave-dealing state in Ghana.”

The second aspect of her trip that struck me was a more joyous one. The aspect of coffin making among the Ga tribe of coastal Ghana. They believe that once an individual dies, they need to move onto the nether world in style and hence they tend to make coffins that represent some aspect of a person's life to ferry the person onward in afterlife. If the person was part of the fisher folks, then the coffin would be carved out of wood and would resemble a fish or a fishing boat. If the individual worked for the armed forces or was a security guard in the government, then the coffin would resemble an aspect of military life – say a cannon or a tank. This aspect of Ghanian life seems to be both frivolous as well as artistic.

The coffins seem to be made with a lot of love and care for something that is going to be buried into the ground never to be seen again - almost represent an aspect of mandala-art to me - done once beautifully, but destroyed forever by its erasure. Nevertheless, these photos capture both the sordid aspects of the slavery that flourished until recently as well as the artistic aspects of Ghanaian afterlife.

After enjoying the wealth of cultural detail second hand, I told her that after our children grow up, I would persuade my wife to take a trip over to the gold coast of Africa and see all this for real.

Hope you enjoy these pictures as much as I did.

The calm and serene seas of the gold coast hides the atrocities that must have taken place here 200 years ago.
Entrance to the dungeons. The slave masters used to live upstairs while the slaves holed up in the dungeons below.
The male and female dungeons were separated for obvious reasons (of course, a wooden engraved sign like this would not have existed then - this is for the tourists - I guess). The discoloration on the sides is from excrement. About 150 slaves were crammed into a room of this size with standing room for most. Until the ships came (sometimes three and four months late), the slaves had no choice but to defecate and urinate on themselves.
The 'point of no return' - an underground passage stright out of the dungeons into the holds of a cargo ship waiting to transport them for a triangular trade whose apex players included the Americas, Ghana and England. (The “triangular trade” as it was known, whereby slave-ships left European ports for west Africa with rum, guns, textiles and other goods to exchange for slaves, and then transported them across the Atlantic to sell to plantation-owners in America and Caribbean, and then returned with sugar and coffee, also fuelled the first great wave of economic globalisation.)

Afterlife for fisherfolk

The intricacy is amazing and humbling
Destined for someone from the armed forces - I am sure...
A shoe merchant, perhaps?


Hungry Hyaena said...

Hi, Sunil.

I've read about the ornate, individualized coffins before - in this excellent piece from the Guardian - but I always get a kick out of seeing them.

Sunil said...

That indeed is an excellent article. Thanks for sending the link over. Very useful to add to the repository.