In the following blog posts, I will be reflecting on what I’d call “Situated Reading,” or the experience of engaging actively with the places described in the books I’m reading. I was fortunate to receive funding from the Office of Equity and Diversity at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga to carry out a research trip to Ghana and Togo in August, 2016, and this was one of the primary facets of my trip.
Yaa Gyasi’s impressive first novel charts the long-term unfolding of two family lines from the African heart of Ghana to the African-American metropolises of the Great Migration and after. It’s a wonderfully affecting, divinely paced, and gutting book. I highly recommend it. In the posts, as you’ll see, there are several columns of writing; the left-hand side provides the essay’s narrative; the center column features personal tangents, stray thoughts, and relevant data; and the righthand column unpacks short passages from Gyasi’s novel.
Cape Coast is a relatively smallish town on the coast of Ghana, west of Accra. How long it takes to get there depends on how you go: the highway between Accra, the bustling capital, and Cape Coast, a major tourist destination, is dominated by multipassenger vehicles: (dropping – ie, direct) taxis, shared taxis, “Fords” and “Stanbics” (the eponymously named passenger vans with a/c), repurposed city and school buses, and, everywhere, trotros.
“It is reported that over 70% of Accra’s population use the trotro yet it is much maligned. This may be due to the poor condition of many of the trotros and the perception that only poor people ride in trotros.”
As the Ghanaian cultural critic Ato Quayson remarks of these names, this tradition,
[block quote]. [Check out a teaser interview of his Oxford Street, Accra here]
Pictured, left: the Kaneshie Market Station, for tro-tos, Stanbics, Fords, and buses to points west. Photo taken by author, August 2016.
To take a trotro or not to take a trotro? In my younger days, I had no problem hoisting myself into a packed passenger van, sweating it out with the local passengers, enjoying the unpredictability and the camaraderie. I’ve done this in Lebanon, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Panama, India. But I’m getting old. And, as Phillip Briggs remarks in his Bradt Travel Guide to Ghana, the trotros are often dangerously packed; passing by one on my return from Cape Coast, I saw five passengers in each van row, and at least two additional children perched in laps – totaling 25 people, easy. These conditions are incredibly dangerous, it goes without saying. And in case I needed a reminder, the Ghanaian highway department has helpfully posted death tolls along the way: “DO NOT OVERSPEED: 38 PEOPLE KILLED,” a sobering reminder like the blackened lungs on European cigarette packs, that a dash of caution is probably best. [n.b.: I had the good fortune of meeting Kathryn Rhine this summer at the NEH Summer Institute: Arts of Survival: Recasting Lives in African Cities. I’m fascinated by her current research, which is on the culture and structures associated with car wrecks.]
A further aside – I enjoyed a conversation with a taxi driver today about the increasingly interesting and potentially crucial distinction between referring to car collisions as crashes or wrecks as opposed to ‘accidents,’ inasmuch as ‘accidents’ suggests that there was absolutely no human error, misjudgment, or failure involved. This conversation was occasioned by my remark that driving in Accra should be an Olympic sport.
Yaa Gyasi’s final protagonist, Marjorie, recalls her own first trotro journey as a teenager, returning to visit her beloved grandmother – as she steps off, she is besieged by the local boys: “The boy was probably around ten years old, only a few years younger than Marjorie herself was…Marjorie tried to ignore him, but she was hot and tired, still feeling the sweat of the other people who had been pressed against her back and chest and sides on the nearly eight-hour tro-tro ride from Accra” (264). Eight hours seems a lot, but then again, the fairly direct sea road from Accra to Cape Coast, in my own travels, was broken up with several army and police stops, a circuitous and unpaved thirty-minute detour, and then, yeah, suddenly eight hours seems really plausible.
My ride out to Cape Coast took almost five hours on a crowded ex-school bus that had five narrow seats across, 3+2, with a tiny aisle in between. I sat in a row with a sweet older woman, and her daughter, and her granddaughter – three generations together. This family speaks to the dense ancestry present in Homegoing, which works, in both traditional African and African-American fictional conventions, to depict the long stretch and breadth of history – traumatic and otherwise – that marks the lives of Africans during and after colonialism, including the unfathomable violence of the Middle Passage (see Arthur Hailey’s Roots, among many others).
As kind as they were, the 90-degree seats, the sticky naugahyde, the exhaust filtering in through the windows, and the relentless jarring from potholes small and giant, made the trip a bit of a trial; I looked on wistfully as the air-conditioned bus lapped us on a bypass road. The distinction between even my sweaty ride and those on trotros is pronounced; when a passenger hollered to be let off at Menkassim, a town between, the driver shouted back, “What do you think this is? A TROTRO?” To put it in perspective, the distance between Accra and Cape Coast is about 200 km – or, for Americans, 120 miles.
Cape Coast is a particularly historically significant place in African, and African-American history. Along with Ouidah (in modern-day Benin) and Goreé Island (in Senegal), it was an epicenter of the West African slave trade. Records from the slave trade were often inconsistent, but it is estimated that 10-40 million slaves passed through Ghana and Cape Coast. The Fante and Asante people roughly share this region, from the inland capital of the Asante (perhaps more familiarly to American readers, Ashanti) people in Kumasi to Menkassim, the rough center of the Fante people. Both the Fante and Asante were Akan peoples, a kinship that rendered their tense relationship during much of the 18th and 19th centuries all the more painful; their differences were eagerly exploited in the endless struggle for trade dominance by the European powers until the Berlin Conference of 1884 (otherwise known as the Scramble for Africa) actively partitioned all non-independent Africa (Liberia and Ethiopia) amongst the European powers.
These two tribes, however, had vexing relations, all complicated by the endless power struggle amongst European powers for, at least initially, the sought-after mineral that gave it its first European name, Gold Coast.
Pictured above, Elmina Castle, Elmina, Ghana. [n.b. check out the names of the boats.] Photo taken by author, August, 2016.
Elmina is a smaller town not ten kilometers up the coast from Cape Coast, and derives its name, Briggs speculates from the gold mining industry. Portugal, although a small country, and now somewhat down at the heel these days, especially after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, had an outsized impact on the development of what we call “western civilization,” and by which we mean European “culture,” which, it bears noting always, is built on the backs of the enslaved and funded through the plunder and extraction of natural resources, fed by the utter imbalance of “triangular trade,” etc…. The Portuguese were the first European power to exploit the trade in human beings for its economic and imperial benefit, and established trading posts up and down the West and East coasts of Africa. Indeed, Elmina in Ghana claims to be the oldest extant European structure in Africa (1482).
Lest we imagine that modern-day slavery, trafficking in human beings, or damning mining practices, are a thing of the past, these practices are still very much afoot, and regardless of our self-congratulations about modernity and progress, we turn a blind eye to the tremendous movement of people and resources across borders.
Slavery thus has had an outsized and determining influence on a host of Western institutions, and has utterly marred the Western civilizational project, underpinned as it is on a host of abject and utterly erroneous ideologies and beliefs. It might help to think of much of the culture of the West as slowly emerging from its own damnable cocoon of racist insularity and white supremacy, work that has certainly not ended yet.
It is incredibly meaningful that President Obama visited subSaharan Africa, and Ghana in particular, early in his first term in office. That a sitting president – and the first African-American president – would go to such lengths to acknowledge the long and ongoing trauma of the relationship between (the) America(s) and Africa cannot be overstated. The Ghanaian people, it is evident, have great, great respect for the man: there are Obama Hotels and Obama Mechanics (I saw one disturbing advertisement in Elmina for a passport-photo stall that merged Barack and Michelle’s faces together into one eerie composite). You can see a brief interview with Anderson Cooper during that very trip here, and I would also encourage you to read or watch the speech he delivered in Accra.
But to see the plaque commemorating the visit of the Obamas to the Castle; it becomes a potent reminder of the traumas inherent in one paradigmatic American family.
Cape Coast Castle, then, is a haunted place. It is a giant white diamond-shaped fort, multi-level, protruding out of rocky shoals continuously battered by heavy surf.
“…we need to analyze the manipulation of the Africanist narrative (that is, the story of a black person, the experience of being bound and/or rejected) as a means of mediation—both safe and risky—on one’s own humanity.” (Morrison, Playing in the Dark 53)
In this election cycle, where the awful, poignant name of the game is the dehumanization of The Other, in whatever form that other takes – along axes of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, religion, ability, -- and in an America that until recently, foolishly, prided itself on being “post-racial,” we should not forget that Obama’s body is African, American; it is African-American; it is black; it is mixed race. It is not a token even as it might also be a symbol; it is a repository of some of the worst violence – linguistic, cultural, conceptual -- America has leveled against its own. We cannot escape the very fact that, to adapt Morrison (and so many others) race/matters. It is an immaterial construction deeply, materially felt and experienced.
If Cape Coast Castle is one origin point for the slave trade, I had earlier in the summer participated in a blistering walking tour of the Whitney Plantation in southern Louisiana. Touring an outdoor space in south Louisiana in July is an exercise in objective masochism – something the superlative docent of the plantation stressed at the beginning of his tour, reminding us that our tiny fraction of sweat and exhaustion and prickly discomfort was nothing compared to the pain and numbness inherent in a life without the promise of remittance. (That said, the plantation does offer shade-giving umbrellas at the beginning of the tour, acknowledging that there are any number of reasons one might need to avoid such discomfort.)
In a section of Homegoing, the character Marcus reflects on the experience of approaching the Castle: “If ever there was a place believed to be haunted, this was it. From the outside, the Castle was glowing white. Powder white, like the entire thing had been scrubbed down to gleaming, cleansed of any stains. Marcus wondered who made it shine like that, and why. When they entered, things started to look dingier. The dirty skeleton of a long-past shame that held the place together began to show itself in blackening concrete, rusty-hinged doors.” (298)
The Cape Coast Castle tour begins, indeed, with a series of placards explaining the architecture of the place, the materials with which it was built, and how those materials were augmented or decayed over time. Restoration of the castle over time has led to its enshrinement as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the Castle’s guides are quick to acknowledge that there’s much, much more archaeology and restoration to be done.
But the waves of independence came, and the irrepressible drive to autonomy and self-determination, to cast off the shackles of colonial bondage, reverberated across the African continent after World War II, fueled in no small part by the experiences of African soldiers who had fought and died for European powers, only to return home where they still had no self-determination, economic benefit, or political power. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah is the father of Ghanaian independence, and led the country as the first subSaharan British colony to receive independence.
“You know, 52 years ago, the eyes of the world were on Ghana. And a young preacher named Martin Luther King traveled here, to Accra, to watch the Union Jack come down and the Ghanaian flag go up. This was before the march on Washington or the success of the civil rights movement in my country. Dr. King was asked how he felt while watching the birth of a nation. And he said: "It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice." (Obama, 7/11/09)
One of the first things that Nkrumah did in the enthusiasm of his pan-Africanist ideology was to begin building monuments in Ghana that reflected the history of the Africans who had always lived and ruled there; this was a tonic, in part, to the trauma and violence inherent in a space like the Cape Coast Castle, where that “long-past shame” loomed large over the place and its people. Fine examples of this impulse – not unproblematic, aesthetically and philosophically speaking, in its jingoist nationalism – are evident in the Black Star Arch and Square in central Accra, built as a riposte to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, or Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
As the historical narrative in Homegoing nears the middle of the 20th century, the schoolteacher Yaw is at work on his magnum opus: “Yaw shuffled his papers…He stared at the title of his book, Let the Africans Own Africa. He had written two hundred pages and thrown out nearly as many.” (222)
All of this is to say that the long history of Ghana is crossed and re-crossed, woven and unwoven, leafed and unleafed, just as the two trunks of the family tree in Gyasi’s novel spring from the same source – they lean away from each other and arc back, bend and braid.
Stay tuned for more...!