Colonial Crime and Tourism: Dream and Nightmare

Colonial Crime and Tourism: Dream and Nightmare

Hollywood stars were there, the Obamas too. The memory of the time of the slave trade is attracting more African Americans to Ghana than ever before.

A secret door is shown in the exhibition.

Document of violence: A secret door leads to an apartment where women were raped Photo: Martin Jahrfeld

CAPE COAST taz | Mildred from New Jersey bought well at Cedi Beads. The necklaces, hair beads, anklets and bracelets from Ghana’s most well-known glass bead factory are an irresistible souvenir when it comes to satisfying the African fantasies of those at home. “For our men. To be on the safe side, we didn’t take them with us in the first place,” laughs Mildred. Her friends grin in agreement.

The four African American women, friends from college, live in different cities on America’s east coast, but have never lost sight of each other. “Travelling to the land of our ancestors has always been a dream of ours. Now that the kids are grown, there was finally time for that,” says Mildred, while the motor coach is waiting for the group.

If you want to follow in the footsteps of your ancestors, you have a lot to do in Ghana: Excursions to the slave trade and shipping sites, religious ceremonies and festivals for those interested in returning home, tours through Accra’s old colonial district, shopping experiences for authentic ethnic shopping. The results of the marketing offensive are impressive. After the government declared 2019 the “Year of Return” – 400 years after the arrival of the first African slaves in America – over 118,000 visitors came from the USA alone – a record that the country wants to beat.

For many African American guests, the stay becomes an experience that leads to emotional limits. Shortly after the group of visitors entered the dungeon of the Cape Coast Fortress, the first tears flowed. “Hundreds of slaves vegetated here in a confined space and in extensive darkness. Months often passed before shipment to America began. The food was thrown down from above. People had to eat it in the midst of their excrement,” says guide Felix Nguah.

memory work of those born later

Cape Coast Castle is a must for every trip to Ghana, not just for African Americans. Hollywood greats like Samuel Jackson were here, Nancy Pelosi stopped by, and a plaque commemorates the visit of the Obama family. The fortress served changing European powers as a transhipment point for their prisoners; a massive, off-white monument to human disinhibition and cruelty. Many of those imprisoned died before they could board the ships. “All sorts of Europeans were here and fought each other, everyone wanted to earn money from the slave trade. The Danes, the Swedes, the Dutch, the Brits…” explains Nguah, looking around at the group of white people. “Today they are all good friends with each other, today everything is different…” he adds smugly. The subtext is unmistakable. Apparently, such friendship alliances from an African perspective are still scarcely trusted today.

Pain and tears for some, shame and embarrassment for others, sorted by origin and skin color. The memory work of those born later requires a robust condition. Along Ghana’s Gold Coast there are dozens of colonial buildings that once served the slave trade and are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In addition to Cape Coast, this includes the fortress in Elmina, 20 kilometers to the west, which was once operated by Dutch occupiers. When you enter the labyrinthine walls, the descent into hell through the past enters the next round.

Because not many photo documents and eyewitness reports exist, it is left to the talent of the guides to illustrate the epoch. Guide Freda Agyei-Obessey tells of the women who had to line up in the courtyard to be examined from the governor’s balcony for the purpose of rape. The way leads via secret stairs specially built for the unfortunate to an apartment whose panoramic view tells of the privileges of the rulers. The rest of the structure tells of submission and control: a skull over a cell for starvation, a cannonball as punishment for disobedient women, finally the infamous “Gate of No Return” – a narrow opening through which the chained stumbled to meet the ships. The props of the Christian Occident fit in. On the wall of the slave auction hall a Dutch psalm, on the main square a house of prayer for the Protestants.

Investing in Ghanaian economy

One visitor would like to know whether, after the Obamas were in Ghana, the Dutch royal couple might have paid a visit to the facility. Ms. Agyei-Obessey tight-lipped: “At least in our files there is nothing about it.”

The memory of the transatlantic slave trade – an era fondly referred to in the West as “dark” – is still something largely left to blacks. In the metropolises of white profiteers, in Amsterdam, London, Bristol or Hamburg, there are at best footnotes. In contrast, Ghana has done much to revitalize the legacy of the era in dialogue between Africa and the “New World”. The government is not only pursuing cultural goals. The “Year of Return” 2019 as well as the follow-up campaign should not only encourage cultural holidays, but also investment in the Ghanaian economy and a return to Ghana. While rising racism in the United States prompts some wealthy African Americans to consider this, the experiences of resettlers are often sobering. Although the newcomers to Ghana escape the racist discrimination of a white majority, they face the adversities of an underdeveloped country and a different culture.

In her memoir I Know a Place Far From Here, US civil rights icon Maya Angelou describes her disappointment when she moved to Ghana in 1962. The impression that no African was even interested in the homecoming of slave descendants, the disgusting stench of open sewers, the social stop signs of a tribal society and four difficult-to-learn national languages ​​gave her the feeling that she might not be in the right place after all .

Get to know your own roots

Angelou’s frustration was outweighed by her hope for the still innocent independence movements and a pan-Africanism that young Ghana and its charismatic president Kwame Nkrumah were seen as central to building. Sixty years later, the high-flying dreams have vanished into thin air. In the difficult environment of West Africa, Ghana is considered politically stable due to parliamentarianism and a secure food situation, but the sewers still stink.

Nobody knows this better than the locals. “Most of us live precariously, everyday life is a struggle. Broken roads, water supply, power cuts, the miserable hospitals, the schools, the lousy authorities… Nothing is reliable, nobody is responsible. It doesn’t matter which party governs, each is just lining its own pocket,” says Evan Eghan. We’re sitting in a fast-food restaurant on Oxford Street, Accra’s flagship mile of bars, hotels and pretentious luxury skyscrapers, where prostitutes line up in the evenings. The thirty-year-old, who used to be an actor and now manages Accra’s short film festival, thinks it’s okay that the descendants of the slaves travel to Ghana to get to know their roots.

West Africa’s film scene, the courageous directors, the taboos they tackle, the fight for funding and the public – the longer Eghan talks about it, the more enthusiastic he becomes. “We’re not making any money from it yet. But it’s much more important at the moment to become better known internationally.” Eghan has contacts with film academies in the USA, knows producers in Burkina Faso and in Cannes, but definitely wants to become even more professional. Eghan no longer has much to do with Africa’s past and the nightmares it entails. The future seems to hold so much more on offer. Eghan knows how to manage social media campaigns, formulate funding applications for international foundations, initiate contacts on other continents. A networker of the 21st century.

But what about the old nightmares?

“It’s time for a new chapter,” says the festival’s founder as he says goodbye. “See if you have a contact for us at the Berlinale at home. We’d like to do something with them…”

The author’s trip to Ghana was supported by the Leipzig Africa tour operator Akwaba.

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