Historical Lens on Ghana

Although I have never been overseas, I have no fear of traveling to new or exotic places, so when I saw an announcement encouraging Washington University employees to apply for a program that would send us to Africa, I didn’t hesitate.  A few months later I got the news that I would be part of my first real global experience, and it was amazing.

Ghana is a place that I knew very little about, making it the perfect place to expand my knowledge of global diversity. When traveling someplace new, history has always been something I use to help understand the people and culture. The evidence of Ghana’s unique and fascinating history can be seen everywhere, from the castles that were used during the slave trade, to the vibrant colors that define African culture.

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Although I kept a shoddy journal, photography and video were the main tools that I used to capture not only my experience, but also the entire group’s experience. Having this large, professional-looking camera with me on this trip had an effect on the way that I interacted with the places and people. Not only was I trying to personally soak up all the sights ands sounds of this new and exciting place, I also was trying to collect it all with photos, video and audio.

Looking back, I know that my experience was altered by the fact that I was looking through the lens of the camera. I wasn’t able to totally immerse myself in the situation as things like composition, lighting and audio levels distracted me. In the end, it was all worth it, I have spent many hours reviewing the video and photographs from the trip, and I am constantly learning new things from what I captured on camera.

The camera also had an effect on how local people interacted with me. Ghana is a place that does not see a large numbers of tourists, and so a tall, white man with a camera really cannot blend into the surroundings. I became aware of this very early in the trip and I hope that the interactions I had with the local people were positive, and also will expand their understanding of global diversity.

On our first day exploring Accra, Ghana’s capital city, we visited a symbolic place, the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. This was a perfect place to start my investigation into the history of this country, because Kwame Nkrumah was an important factor in Ghana’s gaining independence from the British in 1957.

Nkrumah also became the first president of this new country, and, as we walked the grounds of his memorial park, it became clear just how relatively young the country of Ghana is. I have always thought of the globe becoming a modern place after Word War II, but this idea only proves how little I knew about African history. European countries began dividing Africa up into colonies hundreds of years ago, and although many British colonies such as the United States gained independence in the 18th century, this was not the case in other areas of the globe. Ghana was the first country in West Africa to become independent, but for Nkruma, this was just the start of something bigger: a free and unified continent that included all Africa countries.

Our guide explained that many parts of the memorial symbolized the efforts of Nkrumah. The impressive mausoleum that was the center of the memorial park resembled the trunk of a tree, which symbolized the foundation of not only Ghana but also of the unified Africa that Nkrumah envisioned. The guide went on to explain that the unique architecture intentionally looks unfinished because Nkrumah was not able to complete what he started, leaving this responsibility to what the guide called the “branches,” referring to all Africans.

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It was obvious that Nkruma was a man who believed that culture, traditions and history play a major role in this vision of a unified Africa. His mausoleum featured Egyptian-style art, something that I was not expecting to see in Ghana. Our guide explained that he married an Egyptian, and that it had been an arranged marriage in the attempt to unify the two countries. This idea of cultures coming together was visualized in a large, Egyptian-style relief that features a symbol known as Sankofa. This image of a bird looking back symbolizes the idea that history is important, it should not be forgotten, and it should be a reminder that we do not repeat the same mistakes of the past.

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Nkrumas memorial was an excellent introduction to the modern country of Ghana, but it also raised many questions about what it was like prior to independence, when the region was a colony known as the Gold Coast. We traveled two hours west to visit Cape Coast, and the centerpiece of the coastal city was a castle by the same name. Cape Coast Castle is an impressive complex of walls, courtyards and dungeons built on the rocky coastline. The only items that remain from colonial times are cannons pointed out into the Gulf of Guinea and piles of rusty cannon balls. The European countries that colonized Africa also had to fight for and defend the valuable resources that brought them there in the first place. In the case of this castle, the primary resource was the African people and the profit that could be made from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Men and women were held in the castle for up to three months before being loaded onto ships headed to the New World.

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Our tour of the castle began with a walk down a steep tunnel that lead to dungeons the held male slaves. This was a powerful experience as it was dark, hot, uncomfortable and revealed a lot more truths about the brutality of the slave trade then I had been aware of. As we walked though the dungeons, our tour guide informed us that the floor we were standing on was actually layers of fossilized human excrement inches deep.

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The dungeons underneath Cape Coast Castle was a place that I could not wait to leave, but will never forget. We also learned that during the time this castle was used to hold slaves, the British men never allowed any women inside. That fact that they had to hide these horrible occurrences from their own families is evidence to me of how conflicted they truly were about the slave trade. Greed is more powerful than I want to acknowledge.

The tour of the castle also led us through what is known as the “Gate of No Return.” What once lead slaves to ships that would eventually take them to a foreign land today leads tourist to a vibrant fishing community. I was completely overwhelmed by the contrast from the dark and haunted castle to the coastline filled with so much activity and life. As I pointed my camera at the colorful boats that lined every inch of the beach, a young boy poked his head into my frame. After I took a few photos, I could tell he wanted something. I thought he just wanted to see the photo I had taken, but once he started pointing to his mouth I realized that he wanted food. This was my first, but certainly not my last, face-to-face interaction with poverty in Ghana. Was I looking at the effects decades of colonialism has had on this country?

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Before we left the castle, our guide shared with us the idea that this castle should be a reminder “that man never again be given that opportunity to committee such offense against his fellow human beings.”

Although the history of the slave trade is very intense, and the evidence of colonialism can be found everywhere, this does not define the people or the culture of Ghana. After spending a week exploring the country, I felt as If I was still missing something. I was still questioning what relationship the local people had to their history, and, more importantly, their early history before it was dramatically influenced by colonialism. On one of my last days in the country, I decided to visit the National Museum of Ghana in hopes to learn more about ancient West Africa. I was first surprised that my cab driver had no idea where the museum was — although he told me he did with confidence. Once we found the museum, I noticed I was the first person to arrive. After two hours wandering around, I was again surprised that I was the only person in the building, other than the employees.

Of all the incredible treasures I found in the museum, one sculpture really stood out. It was a beautiful Nigerian portrait, sculpted from bronze in the 15th century, and as I looked into the eyes of the statue, I was overwhelmed with the idea that the same people that created this incredible piece of art would eventually be captured and sold as slaves. I understand that history is complicated. I have learned that many factors contributed to the situation that lead to slavery, including help from other African people, but it’s still hard for me to accept that such a large group of people from across the globe where part of something so inhuman.

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While visiting the museum, I was disappointed with what I presumed as a lack of interest in the local history. Not only was I the only person in the museum, the roof was leaking and the collections seemed unorganized. I quickly realized, once I walked back onto the streets of Ghana, that this is a very different place than I where I come from. The sort of history that I know, the collection of facts and artifacts, is almost a luxury that a developing country like Ghana doesn’t have the time or resources for.
As I reflect on the experiences our group had on this trip, I have come to the conclusion that its history was everywhere. It was in the local music and dance we learned in Cap Coast; it was in the colors and patterns of the clothing; it was in the local Twi language we heard; and it was in the spices and foods we ate.

4photos for reflection paper

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-Thomas Malkowicz

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