Semester at Sea offers 300 trips through its international field program, distributed among the 14 stops we’ll be making. These range from afternoon trips around Mauritius to four-day tours of India. SVV and I have been doing half SAS trips, half independent travel, which I find is the perfect balance of alone time and group tours, and one of the things I love best about the SAS trips is the expertise that accompany them and the access to things and places that you wouldn’t be granted on your own (such as a tour of the Ghana Parliament, thanks to one of our students whose dad works within).
While in Ghana, SVV and I opted to go on the Castles and Dungeons tour of the Cape Coast (which quickly became dubbed “Dungeons and Dragons” beforehand when one of the students made a major faux pas in referencing the trip to her professor). This particular trip was an FDP—faculty-directed practica—for three professors, which simply means their classes are required to attend for credit, while the rest of us opted to go out of interest. It also meant we had brilliant faculty members along to divulge their academic knowledge.
I knew absolutely nothing about Ghana going into our time there. I’m not sure if this pegs me as ignorant or is a reflection on the little attention the American school system pays to history outside of our own, but visiting the Cape Coast was a living history lesson for me, as well as for many of the other SAS participants. The western coast of Africa was a major exporter of slaves into the Americas. Before being outlawed in the mid- to late-1800s, vast amounts of humankind were shipped as commodities in the holds of specialized ships to toil in the mines of South and Central America, work the cotton and tobacco fields of the United States or perform as servants and disposable labor in whatever form their purchaser required. This distressing and horrifying history was related to us via our professorial escort Louis Nelson and the guides at each castle in passionate and meaningful detail throughout our daylong trip into the countryside of Ghana. For more on this topic see this and this.
Fittingly, it was a dark, overcast day as we made our way through the slave quarters. These dungeons were built as far back as six centuries ago by slave traders from Europe, yet the people of Ghana harbor no obvious grudge toward the Europeans, which I found pretty remarkable. Elmina Castle in particular was established by the Portuguese during the days of gold trading in 1482.
Despite our collective lack of knowledge of slave conditions in long-ago Africa, I still think this struck a chord with many in our group as comparisons could be drawn to slaves in the American South during the 1800s and the difficult time our country has had with race relations throughout its history.
Elmina Castle was the last stop on the Atlantic Slave Trade, and there was a “door of no return” at the shore’s edge, through which the slaves were led in shackles to boats that would transport them overseas. On said boats, the slaves laid side by side, chained to the wooden deck.
Even our bus full of passengers barely fit into one cell. Can you imagine twice the number of people living in here at once?
Both castles looked like they could have been extracted from a horror movie, but they were both very much real.
The eerie seaside setting was further enhanced by the presence of bats hiding in the dungeons.
After Elmina, we drove up the road to Cape Coast Castle, where we saw much of the same: alarmingly small holding cells, terrible living conditions, troughs through the dungeon rooms that carried the body waste away. This castle was built two centuries after Elmina, in 1653, by the Swedes.
Between our visits to the castles, the mood was lightened significantly when all three buses and 100-something participants pulled up to Coconut Grove Resort for a beach side buffet.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the food in Ghana is killer. But yes, it felt odd to have such a feast after driving through the poverty of Ghana, as well as seeing what the slaves went through for centuries.
However, I did enjoy seeing a slice of this section of the country, immensely: For as dirty as most of Accra was, the beaches and coastal areas were surprisingly clean and devoid of piles of trash.
Driving back to Tema that night was an adventure in itself. The traffic in Ghana is no joke, and we experienced true Africa in the time it took us nearly five hours to travel the 92 miles back to the port. As if we weren’t already feeling like privileged Americans after what we had witnessed just hours before, we had a motorcade of police escorts who not only parted the seas of traffic for our buses to get through, but went as far as to drive down the streets in jam-packed traffic GOING THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION as all the cars pulled into the sidewalks to make way for our fleet of four buses. It was not unlike a scene from the Bourne movies and quite difficult to watch. Have you ever driven straight into oncoming traffic before on purpose? Not stressful at all.
I honestly don’t know what to make of my disjointed time and experiences in Ghana—nor do I think I had enough time on the ground there to form an educated opinion—but I do know it’s not a country that will leave my thoughts anytime soon.