The mellow sound of a marimba and harp-like kora welcomed us to Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. It was a Friday in this heavily Moslem country. Prayers were finishing at mosques, which despite being in abundance, were insufficient in size so that even gas stations were used for worshippers. Later, streets and walkways were filled with men walking home with rolled up prayer mats under their arms while holding on to their little boys’ hands.
Women wore long dresses often in blue or mauve but even men were brilliant in their canary yellow, magenta, saffron, teal and lime green tunics, contrasting colored pants and pointed backless slippers. The passing scene was typically African with goats, broken pavements, tiny shops, a colorful central market, ambulatory traders and oh so many children, although instead of the red dirt and palm trees found farther south, Sahara sands dusted the scene and greenery was in short supply.
The tiny country lining the lower reaches of the river Gambia is the smallest in Africa and is surrounded by French-speaking Senegal. It is an English-speaking remnant of British colonialism, soon apparent when we drove by the dilapidated-looking and now misnamed Queen Victoria Teaching Hospital. Always intrigued by colorful signage in Africa, the first one to catch my attention was on the hospital; it proclaimed that “Allah is the Greatest.” The next sign, along the wall next to the hospital, brought viewers back down to reality. It said, “avoid urinating here.” The admonition was followed by a man dressed in a blue jacket and white pants sitting at a treadle sewing machine making a woman’s yellow dress.
A barbershop sign recommended the “All Nature Barbing Saloon. Always Nice.”
A small boy dressed in orange and yellow leaned against a green door decorated with an ambiguous painting of a hand, eye and foot. Was it a doctor’s ad or a fortune teller’s message?
By the museum, full of interesting tribal artifacts and costumes, and instruments from the country’s rich musical heritage, we were greeted with “Welcome to the Beautiful City of Banjul.” Boosterism knows no bounds. Although advertised in Europe as a tourist destination for beaches and bird-watching (“The Smiling Coast of Africa” is their motto), our welcome seemed dubious as several groups of scowling men gestured menacingly and, disconcertingly, boys pounded on girls to grab candy that some tourists attempted to share.
Colorful as the signs and many of the people are, on the whole the scene was discouraging with resigned families sitting idle in garbage-strewn yards while plastic bags flew in the desert breeze like kites. Literacy is low (under 20% for girls); AIDS is a plague; poverty is endemic. Illegal sand mining has severely eroded the coastline while workers on Chinese fishing boats unload tons of tuna for shipment home, the wealth of Africa moving to new colonialists. After all theintensity of day at dusk we watched small fishing boats in the estuary marking their presence solely by the faint lights of charcoal cooking fires. Even that idyllic African scene marked a very tough life. It’s hard to imagine what the populace of such a tiny strip of land could do to pull the country out of poverty. I have visited many poor countries but in Banjul, at least, The Gambia seemed to be the most unlikely to escape third-world status.
And yet …back home we wandered into a festival put on by the local Gambian association. A famous kora musician and his band were in town for an AIDS benefit. We ran into people who knew some of our friends and received a warm welcome by everyone. We sat to listen to the music and to watch as women and girls in bright sequined gowns and headdresses glitter and sparkle as they danced across the stage while opening their evening bags to extract what seemed like thousands of dollars into a tub. Perhaps the Gambian diaspora will manage to make enough of a difference and Gambia will have a “Better Life” after all.
This old drawing doesn’t show the the Gold Coast in Australia, Long Island or Florida. It depicts Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast in Ghana. The gold that gave its name to the Ghanaian coastline wasn’t only the shiny metal from the African hinterland. After the establishment of plantations in the New World it was the money earned from the trade in slaves who supplied the labor that made the plantations of coffee and sugar cane so obscenely profitable.
Ghana hosts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites memorializing this horrific past, Cape Coast Castle and St George’s Castle in Elmina. Our visit to Ghana was a chance to see them. The route led us from the dock in Takoradi, piled high with manganese to be shipped to China, along the coastal road lined with a seemingly endless landscape of tiny shops and stands.
The shops were proof that despite evident poverty the spirit of enterprise was alive and well but this time led by locals, not foreign invaders. Set between flame trees and ancient crumbling Portuguese buildings the miles of shipping containers and shacks offered services of every kind. The names painted above the shop doors simply begged us to enter: God is Able Hardware, By the Grace Phone Repairs, Love of Jesus Restaurant, Adam Food Joint, Humble Works Furniture and God First Vulcanizing. Even the battered Surely Goodness and Mercy ambulance awaited business by the roadside – not for us I prayed.
Our first stop was Cape Coast Castle where the emotional impact of what the slave trade really meant to the people involved was overwhelming. The massive two-story whitewashed fortress is one of best preserved of what had been 37 strung along a 300 mile section of the African coast where access to the interior was relatively easy. As a consequence Germans, Dutch, Danes, Portuguese, Swedes and the British battled for control, the latter eventually pushing everyone else out. Swedish traders first built a trading post for the export of timber and gold. The Dutch converted the building into a castle in 1637; after which it changed hands between the European powers five times over 13 years until the Brits grabbed it in 1664, holding on until Ghana’s independence in 1957, the first African colony to succeed in ridding themselves of overlords.
We crossed the parade ground to look at the remaining canons that still overlook the coast and to visit the room used as a chapel where the masters gave thanks on Sunday for their profits, as the source of that wealth – the captives – struggled to survive in the slave pens below. These dungeons held up to a thousand men and five hundred women at a time with no light or sanitation for up to twelve weeks as they awaitedtheir walk through the Gate of No Return and shipment to the New World or, more likely, death on board a slave ship. It was beyond horrifying. I could not, did not want to, imagine how anyone could survive in such conditions.
The slave trade was abolished by Great Britain in 1808 although the Royal Navy was intercepting slavers off the African coast until 1860. I wondered what an Englishman who visited in 1835 really saw when he wrote that the castle presented a “handsome appearance…with its high white walls founded on a ledge of granite extending into the sea; and against which the bright green and white surf dashed incessantly with a heavy roar…”
When we walked through the infamous Gate, the same green and white surf was still evident. But instead of slave ships a brilliant scene of red, blue, yellow or green striped fishing boats drawn up on the beach delighted our eyes. Seemingly heedless of the past, fishermen dried and mended their nets and women gathered the catch to take to market.
Despite this attractive scene we were lost in contemplation of the mindless cruelty always present in human existence.
The visit to equally massive St. George’s Castle in Elmina, menacing since 1482 but now brilliant white and looking innocent until we looked closely, only confirmed that human greed is an all-too-common trait and that we need to look in our own hearts on a regular basis to see what is really inside.
Unfortunately it is much easier to look at the colorful fishing boats in the nearby port and the lovely flame trees than it is to examine one’s soul.
Lest we forget.
Drawings of Cape Coast and St. George’s Castles courtesy of hitchock.itc.virginia.edu. Photos by author.
When we docked in Lomé, Togo at seven in the morning it was already burning hot. The stilt dancers and drummers on the dock were dripping with sweat.
Looking past the exuberant welcome I could see the hospital ship Africa Mercymoored nearby. Lines of sick and injured waited patiently to receive its mercies. The reality of West Africa with its scenes of deprivation mixed with smiles and music were before me.
Our guide and the driver pulled up in an air conditioned van and my husband, Glenn, and I gratefully slid into the delicious coolness. We set off for a day in the countryside with our hospitable twosome who talked about their tiny country and its 40 different ethnic groups. The two men wore the colorful wax printed cotton shirts that make Africans look so elegant. Similar designs were pictured on billboards along the roads near the city advertising a Dutch brand of the patterned wax prints that appear to be almost in motion with their swirling motifs. Outnumbering the attractive signs, dozens of other billboards entreated the populace to be tested for AIDS, to refrain from multiple partners and to be faithful. Some portrayed school-age children as their target audience in an effort to stem the ravages of the disease still scourging Africa.
After we left the city behind the road was lined with rickety stands selling food and pop bottles filled with fuel for motorbikes, the only form of public transport. Children were everywhere. Their mothers and older sisters had the smallest tied to their backs, tiny feet sticking out the sides of cloth bindings. The women and girls carried food or laundry in basins on their heads. We passed a small fish market, really just a roadside table. A vulture sat on an overhanging limb eyeing the scene. Towering palms and enormous mango trees laden with ripening fruit shaded grass shacks. Farmers were bent double as they used short hoes to cultivate cassava, yams, sorghum and corn on plots too small for mechanized agriculture. Life looked hard, but even so adults and children smiled and waved as we passed.
Our first stop was the town of Agbodrafo where the local chief came out to greet us. He was wearing what looked like a woman’s 1950s frilly bathing cap, a long white robe and a heavy chain of office with a pendant representing a traditional chief’s stool. Looking at the photo later it was clear that I was the one in a ridiculous hat. He handed his staff, a relic of Portuguese domination, to a helper before he poured a libation on the ground to welcome us to the dirt-poor collection of hovels built around the ruins of a Portuguese slave trader’s home. The chief’s compound had small cannons and rusted chains piled up against a wall, no doubt more residue from slaving days. The trader’s home, perilously close to collapse, had a plaque outside announcing that the head of UNESCO had visited once. We left a small donation to help in the repair but it seemed doubtful that it was much of a priority. Children and adults followed us as we walked, each side staring at the other, curiosity unassuaged. I tried to imagine their lives as we climbed back into our van, safely divorced from their poverty.
The next stop was to be our introduction to voodoo: a sacred forest near the town of Glidji. Outside the entrance stood a statue stained with some sort of liquids. Some of the drips looked like blood and others looked like – well, I decided I didn’t want to pursue the question.
Again we were welcomed with a libation along with a pot of smoking incense. Nearby an enigmatic painted eye and inscriptions painted blue against brilliant white walls overlooked the scene. We were led to a shelter, the entrance to a sacred forest and there we sat with a few priests lounging in the shade. We lounged too until it was time to head for the main event, nothing having transpired in the heat. Not the voodoo we expected – it appeared to be a languid religion.
But as our van approached Hlande we could hear drums pounding. Some of the villagers crowded onto the dirt road to welcome us; a single drummer was encouraging them as they waved flags and shouted while we were escorted to the side of a dusty field.
A row of drummers were already pounding, whipping up the crowd in preparation for a Zangbeto dance. Although the sun was high, the ceremony was a ritual celebrating Voodoo night guardians. A priest dressed in red carried a sacred iron bar as he chanted and danced around the field. Several musicians holding fetishes of feathers, bone and hair rang bells and hit other iron bars to encourage the crowd who were already in a state of high excitement.
Then what looked like a colored haystack glided into the center of the dusty ground. The villagers in their ever-varied bright prints clapped and sang in encouragement as it began to whirl around and around. Some of the women worked themselves into a trance, writhing and shouting and falling to the ground as the stack spun.
After about ten minutes the music suddenly stopped. In the silence six men rushed to the field to lift up the stack. No one was inside. Instead, as if by black magic, a doll was standing in the red dirt, one arm swinging a bell. Blessing us or invoking a curse? Then the pounding and clanging started again and another raffia covered conical frame spun around and around as if it were a tornado. When the music ceased a different doll waved at us as the haystack was dismantled to show that it had moved without human interference. The procession of haystacks continued and by the time an hour passed I was hypnotized by the boiling head, beating drums, the bells, the iron bars and the ceaseless movement of the women in their dizzying patterned cottons. Disbelief suspended, I could easily believe in Voodoo spells. What happened to the men under the haystacks? No doubt there was a trick but as the sweat poured into my eyes I couldn’t see it.
The noise and action continued but being tourists we had a schedule to meet when we wanted to remain. Beautiful children accompanied us back to the van. We were apparently as interesting as the ceremony. As we drove back down the dirt road we could hear the music continuing without us.
That evening back on the ship gossipers said that we had lost a passenger – he had died in his sleep – and that the widow opted to cremate him while we were in port. A limousine flying American flags pulled up as we were getting ready to cast off. It looked like an urn of ashes was being handed over. Rumor had it that she didn’t want to leave her bridge club to fly home with the remains. This was death number three in only two weeks.
Had a curse been cast on the ship? We wondered if we should have bought potions or talismans in the Fetish Market for protection instead of hand painted greeting cards. We had no one to curse but it would have been interesting to learn if the monkey skull one woman picked up to put a hex on her ex-husband worked as she desired.