Saturday, January 29, 2011

Slave Castle: Part One

Date Written: 29 January 2011

St George Castle (Elmina Castle), Elmina, Ghana

Elmina was built by the Portuguese with the permission (and lease agreement) of the local chief in 1482. It is the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa. The castle was first used as a trading hub for gold, ivory and other goods. The rooms housing slaves were originally constructed as simply storage rooms. The Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1637 and took over the castle as well as the trade. However, the slave trade displaced most of those goods by the 17th century until 1814 when the Dutch abolished the trade. The Europeans did not do the actual capturing of slaves but rather relied on the Africans to do this for them in exchange for a variety of goods including guns and powder, rum, tools and horses. One slave could be had for as little as a bottle or two of rum, likely due to the volume of slaves depressing prices. 1871 saw the transfer of the fort to the British, solidifying their hold on their colony, the Gold Coast [roughly present day borders of Ghana] while the Dutch received British forts in Sumatra. Most of the slaves that passed through Elmina went to the Caribbean and South America, particularly Brazil.

This room fit about one hundred and fifty women while they waited for the ships to arrive. While they could use a system of pots through the bars to use the restroom, they were forced to menstruate on the floor, causing an unimaginable stink as well as making them sick. Imagine being stuck in such a room with people who you cannot even communicate with as most of the slaves that passed through Ghana were from away, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and even Cameroon.

The cannonball pictured was used to punish the women who resisted rape. Any such woman would be chained to the ball for an entire day without food and water as an example to the others. As many as four hundred women would cram into this courtyard as there is a walkway above where the governor would pick a woman to spend the night with him. Occasionally, the governor would become fond of that woman and would either set them up as servants, or if she was pregnant when the ships came, he would set her up in town in order to keep his children close by. These mulatto children enjoyed a middle status as they were superior to the Africans but inferior to the Europeans.

Notice the difference between the two doors. Above was the door to the European’s jail cell. If a European chap misbehaved, usually due to copious amounts of alcohol, he would spend a few hours there.

Below is the door to the slave jail cell. Some slaves were freedom fighters and fought the chains with the same passion they fought their most bitter enemies. The slavers could not have such individuals abroad the ships nor could they have them mingling amongst the other slaves. Thus, they were brought here to die of either dehydration or starvation. The holes in the door provide the only light and the only direct fresh air.

This is the infamous door of no return. One at a time, each slave passed through this door and was taken down into boating which would take them about a kilometer offshore to the bigger slaving ships. It was narrow as the slaves were starved enough to fit through or else they might use their strength to resist. Until the jetty was built, the water came right up to the walls of the castle

Overall, it was a very sad experience as to be expected. The guide was essential in explaining what things were as most of the artifacts such as chains, shackles and other items were in other locations. That made it slightly more difficult to truly place oneself in a slave’s shoes and made the tour a bit less emotional. One constant theme was the crash of the waves against the rocks and that helped visualize what had gone on here as the slaves would have heard the same sounds.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Beach Day

Date Written 27 January 2011

Today we finally went to the ocean. Legon is probably about 5-6 miles away but we have not yet been to the beach. It was quite stunning, very long, developed in only developing world charm, no high rise hotels or pavement in sight.

Swimming was an altogether interesting experience. While wave hopping was similar to Maine, the ocean was so warm. However, there was some trash, mostly plastic bag bits it seems although only once did one stick to me. Otherwise, you just felt them rub briefly against your legs. I tried largely in vain to bodysurf although trying to do that and hold onto one’s sunglasses (essential to see the waves) was difficult. We also played a great game of beach football (soccer) with our guides and some other beach goers. It was fun and my team won. I was relieved that I was not totally awful and almost scored once. We took the most cramped tro tro ride yet. We fit five across in several rows on the way back despite the usual number of four across which is cramped to begin with. We needed twenty two spots in a van that in the US might legally seat 12. Fun stuff though and we made it back to campus directly since we essentially chartered the tro tro for a nonstop ride.

A couple nights ago, we discussed the upcoming trip to Cape Castle and the tours of two slaves castles in Cape Coast and Elmina. We will be staying in a beautiful oceanfront hotel on stilts, within sight of the Cape Coast castle which was used in the slave trade. In the past, some students were particularly affected by the tours of the slave castles. It depends on the tour guides as some simply spell out the facts while others make the experience more vivid. Apparently in the past, some students took issue with the fact that the hotel was so close to the castle, one even pointing out that for she knew, she was sleeping on the very ground her ancestors were buried. Our program director also pointed out that for the first time, there are more black students than white ones in our group, a change to the usual make up of one or two black students per trip. It was an interesting discussion none the less and more exciting since we leave early tomorrow morning.

I will try to post more over the weekend!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Let Us Get Oriented

Date Written: 24 January 2011

Bright and early, the group trooped onto the IPO bus (International Programs Office) to orientation at K. A. Bursia lecture hall. While each study abroad program runs their own orientation, UG does an orientation as well over two days, taking up most of the morning. It felt like summer camp combined with freshman orientation as the lecture hall reminded me of summer camp at Camp Russell and some of the information was almost spelled for people.

My group already knew about much of what was discussed as our program director and guides have given us a fairly solid foundation and thus far, I probably could have skipped the orientation and would have been okay. However, in talking with kids from some of the other programs (there are about 6 major programs), quite a few had only just arrived and this orientation was their primary one. Those students also seemed to have less support from their director too.

One interesting topic that was brought up is that many lecturers have complained that a certain portion of students seemed to consider themselves tourists first, then students. The orientation speakers spoke ill of this and strongly encouraged us to be students and then tourists. I thought the comparison was a false one as four months is too long to be a tourist, at least in my mind, one should be branded a traveler if one is staying in one place for more than say a month. Not to worry, studying will not fall by the wayside but certainly one should be encouraged to travel too.

According to the Bradt Guide, Ghana is the best place to travel independently due to the plethora of tro tros, state run buses, and the ease of chartering a taxi to take you to longer haul destinations. Plus, many students have never been to Africa and having the ability to travel six hours to Kumasi for 30 cedis ($15) on a nice state bus is rather tempting. Accommodations are easy to find and also cheap so long as one does not expect amenities beyond the reach of the dorms here at ISH (Int’l Student Hostel). Therefore, I will certainly travel so long as my studies are able to be suspended at a less than precarious point. Thus, the point that UG hammered in seemed invalid at a level as I would imagine a vast majority of us would be huddling under the traveler umbrella than cowering under the tourist map.

One thing that was stressed during the orientation was that no special accommodations can be arranged with lecturers (professors) to take the exam at an alternative time even if it conflicts. If you are sick, the examination will be carried out in the UG hospital only which led to an entertaining image of me in critical care for whatever reason with someone pushing a pen into my hand urging me to put something down before the time was up. One broad thing I pulled from the orientation is that because UG is not yet fully digitalized (although we were told this process would be so next semester), deviation from the system is difficult to do and as international students, we were already deviating from the UG structure a rather lot.

One final grip I had with orientation is that students (and it always seemed to be American ones) did not listen and asked questions that were either weird, answerable via Google, or were covered verbatim in the orientation. Listening would be a nice habit to get into over here.

Class Registration

Afterwards, we met up with our guides to go look for classes. It occurred to me that UG uses a system for registering for and scheduling classes that predate the computer similar to what I assume my parents used. All information is posted on notice boards at each department. Thus, one must walk to each department to figure out what classes are being offered, what time, and day of the week. We then register with IPO on Thursday in order to get ourselves into the UG system and to obtain UG identification cards which are the only ID that gets one into an examination. Once completing that step, we then go back to each department to register for the courses we want to take. For the dance class (arts general education requirement), they did not yet post the times, only that the class was being offered and we found this was not uncommon. Thus, it will be an interesting process.

In terms of my own classes, I will take two history classes on African topics, one or two Arabic classes, a dance class to satisfy my art general education requirement, and either a political science course or an international affairs graduate course at LECIAD (The Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy). I have to talk to the dean there before proceeding.

Accra with less traffic

Date Written: January 23 2011

We also took a complete tour of Accra since there was supposed to be less traffic on Sunday afternoons. I suppose there was since our stopping times at traffic lights were pretty minimal. We had a delay getting started because a dorm room door would not lock and the front desk said that it would be fixed tomorrow. I am not sure of the solution they were presented but I was glad that our program director was with them to sort it out.

Once we got on the road, we made a quick drive up to exactly where I had wandered about earlier this morning. This time, I went inside the complex and we were shown our program director’s office as she is a UG administrator in addition to running SUNY Brockport’s program. Hopping back into the buses, we drove into Accra proper, flying by Max Mart, 37 (tro tro station), Circle (tro tro hub) and other landmarks which I have gradually become more familiar with. We drove through downtown, home to a quite a few high rises, mostly office buildings and hotels, as not many Ghanaians live in high rise apartments. We also saw many of the landmarks of a capitol city such as the various Ministries (Ghana is a parliamentary democracy headed by a President, more on this later), monuments such as Independence Arch and Ghana’s first football (soccer) stadium which was right on the ocean.

We also drove around the American embassy. After the 1998 Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, USG (US Government) devoted a large sum of money expanding security for the roughly 265 Embassies, Consulates and Diplomatic Missions worldwide. Many of them were located in intercity areas and were not easily expandable, so they were moved to a different location, sometimes far away for the city center. Embassy Accra looked imposing as it sprawled several city blocks and was surrounded by high, barren walls. In a few weeks, I will have a look inside although no pictures as there were many signs discouraging photographs for security purposes.

We flew back to Legon (the suburb where the UG campus is located) for another wonderful Ghanaian meal.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Not Connected

Date Written: 23 January 2011

Today, we did not do too much as it is Sunday. Since many Ghanaians (at least in the south) are very passionately religious, almost everyone goes to church. I however slept in and took a nice walk exploring the campus. It is rather large as it takes some 20 minutes to walk from one side to another. However, it has so many trees, several large gardens (although they less grand than they should be because of budgets and the time of year), and the buildings are interesting as most have the roof style be described as “faux-Mexico.” They are styled after Japanese building technique as different parts are interconnected with porches and covered walkways.

While it has yet to rain and it is very dusty, the campus does receive a lot of rain during two rainy seasons. Those storms are typically brief downpours instead of the drawn out all day (or sometimes several day) long soak that the Northeast gets. Thus, there are miles and miles (or rather kilometers and kilometers) worth of drainage ditches. Instead of looking like the ones that line the side of most American rural roads, they are concrete and usually a foot across and several feet deep as one is expected to simply waltz across them with ease. Some of them are covered, I would estimate 10-15% as they are in places were a ditch would not be welcomed such as a patio or over a particularly well-traveled route. Several student opinions that I read about before coming here mentioned this and I will try to get some pictures as I have yet to photograph the campus extensively.

Since the campus is on a hill, there is a higher part of the hill where the Vice Chancellor and Chancellor of the University live. There is also what appears to be a bell tower, located on the highest point of the hill and I have determined to find a way to the top, maybe even to watch the sun rise when this dust clears up in a few weeks. I asked the program director about going up there the next day and was surprised to learn that is was possible to go up there at certain times. It was a refreshing walk as I discovered an abandoned three legged chair upon which to observe the valley below and reflect upon why I was here of all places, and contemplated my next move.

Lack of connectivity

One item that has slowly been eating away at me has been the lack of internet access. In Ghana, the cell phone is more pervasive than computers and the idea of free, campus wide wireless internet has yet to take hold. I suppose that is the biggest culture shock I am experiencing thus far as I am very used to being able to log in with ease. It is not even the speed that bothers me as I knew that internet in most of Africa is rather slow. However, Saturday I befriended a student who was able to help (see “Accra Proper”).

The issue with using the “internet cafe” up the hall from me is that there is only one slot to plug in your own laptop, literally an ancient Ethernet cable coming out of a tangle of wires. While one can use the cafĂ© computers, they are rather slow (vintage eight years) and one is discouraged from interconnecting your own gadgets with them. The computer box is hidden below the desk behind a wood screening of sorts. However, half of them are falling off or missing entirely so it was easy for me to reach down and turn on my cell phone’s built in flashlight to see to plug in a USB device such as a microphone. I tried to do this with my flash drive to update this blog but while the computer recognized it as existing, I suspect an evil piece of software running in the background prevented me from accessing it.

It took about 30 minutes to connect my microphone, get it to recognize it as the primary sound device, and download and install Google Talk, all so I could actually talk instead of instant messaging with my girlfriend. She made a funny point in that I had chosen Ghana of all places and that pretty much any other study abroad destination would likely have easily accessible wireless internet. I suppose this is off the beaten path, at least off the beaten path of free, fast, almost always working wireless internet blanketing most of campus.