This is the first time I’ve opened my computer since leaving for Cape Coast. Four days there seemed like four weeks; we packed so much activity into that time. I can’t even imagine where to begin. Perhaps, the beginning.
A three-hour bus ride from Accra brought us to the Oasis Beach Resort, a charming little place situated directly on the shores of the Atlantic. Within moments of arriving, I was making a mad dash into the ocean, whose waters were cool and refreshing and didn’t make me shiver in the slightest. The waves were the perfect height for bobbing up and down upon without need of a board, and although the sand invaded my swimsuit with relentless tenacity, I knew that I’d found my Happy Place. A glance down the beach over my left shoulder revealed the luminous Cape Coast Castle, the primary hub for the international slave trade before slavery was officially abolished by the British in the mid-1800s. Its monstrous shape towered above the crashing waves, a constant reminder that all beauty has an ugly side. It was our next destination.
After a quick beer (“quick” being a relative term; in Cape Coast, the shortest time we waited for food and drink service was forty-five minutes), we walked ten minutes up the beach to the Castle. We were to meet our teacher for the week, master drummer Okyerema and his troupe, and watch their drumming and dancing performance in the traditional Kpanlogo, Sitkye and Agbaja styles. The performance was held in an open courtyard of the castle, and a large part of the audience was comprised of local folks gathered around. The twelve of us sat in chairs directly in front of the dancers, and when they pulled each of us out to dance with them at the end of the performance, it was clear that we were providing just as much entertainment value as they were. The locals laughed and applauded. If I could read their minds, I’d imagine they’d be thinking Silly obrunis, look at how they flap like chickens! The dance steps were not complicated, but they were unfamiliar. I can speak only for myself, but at that point, having just ridden on a cramped bus for three hours, I would have had just as much trouble jumping rope.
For the next four days, our schedule ran more or less thusly: 8:30 a.m. to noon, dancing and drumming classes, then lunch for two to three hours (see above, re: Food, Taking For-damn-ever), followed by an hour or three of quality ocean time, a bit of sightseeing, dinner for umpteen hours, then music on the beach till everyone got tired. I woke up every morning around 6:30 and shuffled seven steps from my room to the beach with my notebook and camera, watching the sun ease its way up into the sky as the waves crashed onto the shore. The harmatan, the seasonal haze that settles in the sky here, ruled out any magnificent sunrise light shows, but each morning an orange sun would appear, almost as an afterthought, above the sea, shimmering on the water before disappearing behind the dust.
Our mornings began with a half-hour tro-tro ride (a tro-tro is a fifteen-passenger van with extra seats that fold down on the ends – the cheapest and most common form of public transportation) through the village of Cape Coast to the home of our teacher, Okyerema. The route took us past dozens of self-contained shops, mostly set up in revamped shipping containers that were painted by companies like Vodafone or Zain, stamped, in exchange, with the companies’ logos, as a way of cheap advertising. A majority of the shops here are named with Christian sayings or slogans (Jesus Christ is a big deal in Ghana, and naming a shop after a biblical excerpt or concept is very common), often with amusing results: “God Provides Electronics,” “Pray Hard Provisions Store” or “By His Grace Hair Cut,” for example. Like the alphabet game on a long road trip, it became a source of endless entertainment to gaze out the window and point out our favorite shops (It’s a Miracle Minimart, Except the Lord [not sure what that one was selling, although perhaps it was a church], Shalom-Shalom Enterprise, etc.).
It was already hot at 9 a.m. when we began our lessons, which were wisely held in a concrete open-front and -sided structure on a hillside, keeping us from melting. Okyerema and his three apprentices, Ruth, Frank and Samuel (whose Fanti names I am unable to spell), led us in warm-ups and dance steps, accompanied by drummers who effortlessly banged out fast, energized rhythms. We learned traditional dances and songs to go with them, the words of which we jumbled even after an hour of practice, moving increasingly gracefully around the cool, concrete floor as the drums pounded behind us. Water breaks were frequent and necessary; sweat dripped continuously down our faces as we focused on right, left, right, jump, turn, sing, right, left, right. After an hour and a half, we separated into three ability groups for our drum lessons.
I was in the beginners’ drumming group (no surprise to anyone who knows me), led by Frank, who at age 25 is the most patient and focused teacher I’ve ever met. There were four or five of us in his group each day, all of us as inexperienced as they come, percussion-wise, and if he ever felt any irritation with us, he never showed it. We repeated each pattern countless times, stopping the instant somebody dropped the rhythm (“Stop! We messed it!” Frank would say, as though he was just as much to blame as we were for the mistake), and by the end of the lesson, every person would be drumming away as though it was second nature. Every time we completed a pattern with no mistakes, we were rewarded with Frank’s huge smile and exchanged jubilant high-fives with our hand-cut drumsticks. After four days of drumming, our group was able to join the intermediate group, pounding multiple rhythms simultaneously with minimal stops. It was invigorating and gratifying, as one who has been told repeatedly that she “does not abide by the laws of tempo,” to challenge myself in this way, as well as rediscover the usefulness of my left hand. At the end of our final lesson yesterday, I resolved to continue my drumming education when we return to Oakland – my arms and mind haven’t felt this strong in years.
After the morning lessons were finished, our group headed to lunch at various establishments in the village of Cape Coast. We quickly discovered that it was best to order our food (usually fried rice or fried plantains, with or without chicken), then do something else for an hour or so while the food was prepared; otherwise we would be drunk on huge 750-milliliter Star beers (“Ghana’s favourite beer!”) by the time our meals arrived. (We later discovered that it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to put food on its menu which it doesn’t actually have, necessitating a visit by the staff to market or another restaurant to acquire the item when a customer orders it.) During one lunch in particular, at a Muslim vegan restaurant on the beach, a few of us went for an hour-long swim after ordering, then returned to our table to eat appetizers and waited for another hour for our entrees, a few of which never arrived, with no explanation by the staff. Fortunately, the appetizers were filling and delicious, but for anyone who is less than extremely flexible about receiving the food one orders, I would recommend you fix your own meals.
The afternoons were free for those musicians who didn’t have to rehearse for the album (which is being recorded locally as I write this), and since I was never needed for rehearsals, being one of the few non-musicians in the group, I used the time primarily for swimming, reading and writing on the beach. On our first open afternoon, Erik and I went with Jessie and Lucas on a guided tour of the Cape Coast Castle.
The Castle, as I mentioned before, is about 350 years old, and was used to house government offices and an Anglican church (after being taken over by the British) on the top floors, and two dungeons below, containing up to 1,500 slaves at one time. The tour guide, a Ghanaian woman who seemed to have recited her lines a million times, led us through each dungeon, one for males and one for females, each containing one or two tiny windows near the high ceilings, narrow trenches on the sloped floors for bodily waste, and nothing else. The slaves, our guide told us, would often be housed in these rooms for up to six weeks whilst awaiting the ships that would carry them across the Atlantic, and close to half of them would die there in that time. They were fed two meals a day, and they were never let out until the time came for them to pass through an underground tunnel to the Door of No Return, which in those days was only wide enough for a single person to exit at once.
“Once they passed through the Door of No Return,” our guide said, “they would leave everything they knew behind – their wives, husbands, children and homes.” She moved us along.
There was a confinement cell as well, which also had a sloped floor, but had no windows. It had about forty square feet of floor space. Our guide informed us that slaves who rebelled or acted out were put in this room as punishment, to be kept there without food, water or ventilation until they died, either of starvation or suffocation. I wondered if, while they were in there, they were able to hear the church services taking place just above their heads.
The Castle was remarkably well-preserved and maintained, and we could vividly imagine the way it must have been during its heyday. Cannons and cannonballs from the 19th century still sat on its outer walls, the whole building made of bricks and stones that hadn’t changed since they were laid. The experience was disconcerting, especially as we silently left the tour and headed back to our incredibly cheap resort. On our walk back, every man, woman and child we met stopped us, begging us to buy whatever small object was balancing in a bowl on his or her head, the obruni tourists who had lots of money. I was bothered, at first because it was impossible to get anywhere without explaining that we really didn’t need or want to buy anything, but ultimately because it was clear that this was what this place had been forced to become, and there was nothing we could do about it. Buy a dried plantain from a child for one cedi? Sure, but what is one cedi going to do for that child – send him to college? Buy a shirt from a young woman for ten cedis? All right, but what will that money buy her, except another five shirts to sell? There are tourists at Cape Coast, yes, but there are not enough of us to support the hawkers of everything from plastic beads to large drums, and so there is a pervading sense desperation in the air, just as there was at the market in Accra: Buy my things, or nobody will. Tours of the Castle now, ironically, provided the largest consistent source of tourist revenue, at nine cedis per tour (plus an extra two if you bring a camera), with shops within its walls.
We walked quietly back to our room and I went down to the beach, the now-dormant Castle looming large in the periphery of my vision. The sand was littered with trash, and the ocean beside it sparkled in the sun.
There was a visit to Karkum National Park one afternoon, where our guide books had told us we would find the amazing canopy walk through the rainforest. The admission price was steep (at 30 cedis, the highest price we had paid for anything thus far), but we all agreed it would be worth it, and piled into a tro-tro for the ninety-minute drive. When we arrived, we were told that the canopy walk was only accessible by way of a guided tour, so we assembled and dutifully followed our guide through the woods up a short, cleared trail. He explained nothing on the walk, so I was unclear as to his purpose on the trip (other than, ostensibly, to keep us in line, and to inform us that we probably wouldn’t see any wildlife, as all the creatures except the constantly chirping birds were primarily nocturnal). Nevertheless, he led us to the canopy walk, assuring us that, despite all the creaking and swaying, it was certainly safe up there.
The five bridges across the trees were narrow, only wide enough for a single-file line, and they were lined on either side by netted rope that reached up to anywhere from waist- to chest-level. It was wobbly enough to confirm that yes, it was possible to fall over the edge to your death, but only if you exerted minimal effort to do so, such as leaning too far over to take a picture. Our guide offered no advice. The trees below and above us were beautiful, as was the landscape in front of us, but there was, as our guide had promised, no wildlife to be seen. The entire walk took less time to complete than it had taken to drive to the park from Cape Coast. During the drive back, the sun was going down, and we took our best pictures of the day of the increasingly silhouetted forest through the dirty glass of the tro-tro window.
In the evenings, as the sun went down and the air became ever-so-slightly cooler, our group would slowly reconvene for dinner, another two- to three-hour affair consisting, as per usual, of a variation on rice, chicken and/or plantains. Afterward, everyone would mosey back to our little room-huts, pick up instruments and gather chairs in front of the ocean for an hour or few of music and Star beer. Everyone swapped their instruments around, leading the group in each other’s songs as resort staff, other guests and random passersby stopped to ogle this group of loud, singing Americans (as well as, I should add, one Canadian). All were invited to stay, and some did, others politely declining before moving down the beach. There were two young Ghanaian men who wanted to sing Bob Marley songs. Bonnie gave one of them her washboard to play, and he and his friend sang for a while, chanting, after their knowledge of lyrics gave out, the refrain, “Ghana is better than America at football.” There were European tourists, all wearing white, who sat quietly tapping their feet for two hours, then thanked us and went off to bed. There was an older Polish man, who watched Ian and Erik trade banjo and dobro tunes for hours, grinning the whole time like a child at a circus. We never had a noise complaint.
We returned to Accra yesterday after our final drum and dance lesson, reviewing all the steps we’d learned and bidding fond goodbyes to our friends in Cape Coast, except Okyerema and Frank, who accompanied us back to play drums on the album. Our bus was packed to the brim with bags, instruments and people, and our driver blasted a nondescript reggae CD on repeat for four hours, the last two of which were spent in dense city traffic. During the final hour, we encountered a construction zone, through which there was no detour – everyone simply drove on the dirt, including our bus driver. It was unlike anything I’ve seen in even the most backward of U.S. states, bouncing along on roads intended for heavy machinery. When we finally arrived at our hotel, the Alade Guest House, and climbed out of the bus, I felt my body still vibrating. After a hearty dinner of fried rice and chicken, which thankfully took well under an hour to arrive, I slept deeply, dreaming of pasta and prosecco – in two days, we’re off to Italy.