Slave tourism: African-Americans travel to Ghana to see an ugly past

But Ghanaians try to focus on the future

Julia Vitullo-Martin By Julia Vitullo-Martin

Cape Coast Castle (Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle shimmers serenely in its whitewashed beauty. It is hard to exaggerate the castle’s breathtaking architectural majesty. Yet it, like Ghana’s 30-odd medieval slave forts, once housed almost unimaginable evil: thousands of captured Africans were packed, with little food or water, into grossly overcrowded dungeons, awaiting the terrible voyage to the New World—the notorious Middle Passage.

Yet the Slave Coast, starting point for almost 6.5 million (16 percent) of American slaves between 1690 and 1807, is becoming an unusual tourist destination. The Obama family went to Cape Coast Castle in 2009, in part because First Lady Michelle Obama’s family lore holds that it was the last point in Africa seen by her great-great-great-grandfather before he was sent to the Virginia slave market. Frommer’s named Ghana one of the top tourist destinations for 2012.

Can Americans come home to Ghana?

African-American travelers, who as a group spend over $40 billion on domestic and international travel annually, have increasingly been traveling to Africa.  While Ghana does not hold sole claim to the landmarks of the slave trade and the African-American diaspora, its historic role was significant, says Professor Ishmael Mensah, Lecturer at the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, University of Cape Coast. Of the roughly 65,000 Americans who visit Ghana annually, says Mensah, about one-third, or 22,000, are African Americans.

Many of them come to absorb Ghanaian culture at the Pan African Historical Theatre Festival, or Panafest, a biannual cultural event intending to bring together Diaspora Africans with those on the continent in order to explore issues raised by slavery. Held this year from July 21st through August 20th, Panafest scheduled lectures, concerts, dance performances and cultural visits, adhering to the theme “Rebirth of the Motherland: The Role of People of African Descent.”

Mensah says Ghana can and should position itself with African Americans as a welcoming place that will allow Americans to reconnect with their ancestors, helping them discover their true identity.

“Nothing to do with us”

But many Ghanaians don’t have much interest in helping Americans explore their heritage.

Our driver, for example, did not want to enter the Cape Coast Castle. Ghanaians don’t go there, he said, adding: “It has nothing to do with us.”

He said he had never studied slavery in school. He thought this ignore-the-past approach worked: “In Ghana we look forward, not back.”

Local fishermen mend their nets in front of Cape Coast Castle, a former slave holding facility, in the Ghanaian town of Cape Coast, July 9, 2009. (Reuters/Finbarr O’Reilly)

Ghanaians who live on the coast—in the shadow of the castles—are deeply ambivalent about the castles themselves, says Emmanuel K. Akyeampong, a native Ghanaian who is now Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard. “Many people living in the coastal communities are dependent on tourism for their livelihood, but it is a tourism that emphasizes a profoundly disturbing history,” he says.

The Akan people make up the ethnic majority in both Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Akyeampong says, “Especially among the Akan—and I’m Akan—there’s always been a reluctance to talk about slavery or make reference to people’s ancestry, at least partly because of Akan history and the Akan absorption of large numbers of people of unfree origin.”

One practical problem, our driver told us, is that African Americans arrive in Ghana happy and expectant—but often leave the Cape Coast forts angry and even hostile. “Before they hit the forts,” he said, “they’re generous tippers. Afterwards, not so much.”

Indeed, it’s hard to stay cheerful after a tour of the dungeons—accurately called “slave holes” by the Europeans. The stench of the women’s dungeon at Elmina Castle is so overpowering, even 150 years after it was last used, that I had to excuse myself and walk up into the sunshine.

What to make of African participation?

Paula D. Royster didn’t tip her guide after her tour of Cape Coast Castle. The guide asked her why.

“You didn’t tell the rest of the story,” she recalls saying. “You didn’t tell how they got here. You didn’t say what happened once they got on those ships.”

Royster is President and CEO of the Centre for African American Genealogical Research (CAAGRI), a Virginia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reuniting as many African and African-descended families as possible through genealogical research. It maintains an office in Princes Town, on Ghana’s coast.

“How could a small number of Europeans come here and transport millions of people abroad?” Royster asks. “We know the answer. The whole well-orchestrated effort was done with Africans. The Ashanti Kingdom alone became wealthy and powerful built on its participation in the slave trade. And African kings continued to sell Africans into slavery long after slave trading had been abolished by all countries.”

Visitors like Royster are one reason why Aykeampong believes Diaspora tourism has been good for Ghana. “Since the early 1990s, when many African Americans started coming on slave-route tourism, we’ve been changed by their eagerness to engage Ghanaians about this history of humanity, greed and capitalism,” he says. “The castles force you to think about something Henry Louis Gates addresses—African participation. Africans sold Africans.”

Indeed, the castles force you to ponder how the slave trade worked. African-Americans who come to Ghana to commemorate and honor their heritage may instead ask, as did a middle-aged black man on our tour: “Who brought the slaves to this fort from the interior?” The guide said he would talk about that later—for the moment he was talking about the Europeans.

Similar questions plagued the renowned African-American writer Richard Wright on his 1954 trip to Ghana. In his book, Black Power, he wrote, “But am I African? Had some of my ancestors sold their relatives to white men? What would my feelings be when I looked into the black face of an African, feeling that maybe his great-great-great-great grandfather had sold my great-great-great grandfather into slavery?” He was never able to resolve these conflicts, writing later, “I am the progeny of the captives, I am the vestige of the dead.”

Is there a road forward?

Ghanaians call many Americans, including African-Americans, obruni, meaning stranger.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media following his tour of the Cape Coast Castle, a former slave holding facility, in the town of Cape Coast, Ghana, July 11, 2009. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

“Ghanaians are just locating [African-Americans] in the geographic landscape of their experience,” says Renée C. Neblett, an African-American educator and artist who founded the Kokrobitey Institute, outside of Accra, in 1992.

Another scholar, Kevin Gaines, director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, puts it this way: “If you go to Ghana with the naïve attitude that as a black person you’re going to be welcomed with open arms, inevitably you’ll be disappointed. There’s the pan-African ideal that assumes a common destiny, but when you get into the messy realities on the ground, you see something altogether different.”

Still, he’s optimistic because of Ghana’s underlying welcoming culture. The Akan word for welcome—akwaaba—is spoken as a greeting in place of hello. Ghanaians are extraordinarily polite and gracious, and their manners evoke old-fashioned courtesy, such as men standing when women or older people enter a room or approach a table. Food is always offered to the guest first. Such hospitality is one reason why some call Ghana “Africa for beginners.”

Gaines urges Americans to go to see for themselves.