We’ve only been in Ghana for two days, but it already feels like weeks worth of experience. Our flight landed Saturday as the sun was rising, and we were immediately on the move, walking through the streets of the city of Accra, tired eyes simply absorbing everything around us. The city is bustling early in the morning, and throughout the day, and late into the evening. And it truly is a conglomeration of everything. Salesmen on the streets preying on our light skin, trying to offer us souvenirs or pieces of fruit or ask us where we are from. Women carrying enormous baskets of foods and goods balanced effortlessly on their heads. Children doing the same. Air conditioned stores selling the latest cell phones and wireless Internet. Hair salons and shops that look as though they were plucked straight from the United States. Hair “salon” shacks, miraculously standing still, vacant. Wild dogs wrestling playfully. Goats and cats roaming. There is poverty housed next door to the elite, a mix of everyone piled onto the crowded streets, smiling into the unforgiving sun.
Every person, no matter their status or wealth, is overwhelmingly friendly. We are consistently welcomed to the country, asked how we are, what our names are, if we are enjoying our stay. Strangers smile. Small children flock and wave, sometimes following us down the block. Cars toot their horns in hello, or to warn you they’re approaching, or that they’re passing, or that traffic is flowing too slowly, or for no apparent reason at all. The least friendly part of the city is the mix of smells: open sewers line the streets, drain into vacant lots and mix with years of dusty litter. Mix that with high traffic exhaust, unfamiliar, unidentifiable cuisine, and the sweat of a hot crowd. Sometimes you can almost smell the oil boiling beneath the dirt. It becomes difficult to tell your own musky scent from everyone — everything — else.
Between the flights and exploring the city we were exhausted, and were lucky enough to be escorted around by Fred’s siblings, Olivia and Oliver. Their family has welcomed us into their home, serving us bag after bag of filtered water as we melted to their sticky leather couches. Our first night in the hostel under the fan and a gentle breeze through the window was the ultimate relief.
Today we awoke with plans to explore the touristy aspects of Ghana, traveling along the coast in a tro-tro, huge, rickety vans that seat about twenty, refreshed with the new day. Our first stop was at Kakum National Park for a canopy walk. As we drove through the gates I noticed the back of the employees’ shirts read I SURVIVED THE CANOPY WALK in bold red, stark against the white. Without knowing what I was getting myself into but hoping to spot a wild elephant or monkey or zebra, I knew that this was somehow a tour I would need to “survive”. My apprehension mounted as Olivia refused to go, her fear of heights too strong to join us.
I wouldn’t say that I fear heights, but I fear bridges, and the feeling of nothingness beneath you, only gravity waiting to suck you downward. And essentially that is what the canopy walk is: one long walking bridge up in the treetops — literally — about one step wide and 40 meters in the air. (I don’t know the translation to feet or miles, but perhaps it’s better that way.) Hundreds of us fell into line single file and began the tightrope walk across the skyline, from tree to tree. Many of the young children were entertained by us at first; maybe it was our apprehension or maybe just the stark contrast of our skin, but we were photographed and video recorded by giggling faces. Balancing high in the trees it was hard to worry about our near-celebrity status. A group in front of us began singing and chanting, and continued this throughout our entire journey, a soothing serenade as the wood boards creaked beneath our weight. We did not see any animals, but beneath us somewhere were roaming panthers, zebras, cobras, dozens of varieties of wildlife. The walk was exhilarating, with the option to turn back removed there was nothing to do but breathe in the sky and march forward. Olivia greeted us at the end with her infamous wide smile, and once our legs touched solid ground they trembled with relief.
Our next visit was to the Cape Coast Castle, a three hundred year old grand building built on the beach that once housed thousands of slaves during the triangular trade. Walking through the castle and experiencing the conditions of the slaves became so utterly real. So much more tangible than reading print from a textbook. It seems like ancient history in America, but being in Africa it still feels so fresh. Some on the tour likely had descendants ripped from their families, their histories irrevocably torn. Standing in the small, stone underground room with one tiny window of light, one hole in the wall for food once housed 200 slaves for 2-3 month periods. Markings on the wall indicate feces were once piled roughly a foot high throughout the room. Where their food was thrown. Where they were forced to live. Where many of them died. And to think this whole time I’ve been worried about crapping in a hole. To think that I’ve known nothing except modern plumbing my entire life. Things I will never be able to take for granted again.
Then there were holes and cells where “unruly” slaves who attempted to escape for freedom were left to die. Pitch black, no food, no water. No escape except death itself. Bodies piled up and then chucked into the sea. And those who did not rebel were led to the slave vessel to be transported to the New World, where if they were “lucky” enough to survive they were sold into slavery. The tour ends with a memorial for the lives lost. A prayer that their souls can rest in peace, and that we, the living, will never let another stain to humanity such as this happen again. A sense of unity fell upon the group.
Now we have made it back to the hostel, and I am basking in the glory of my first shower since leaving from Buffalo on Thursday. We will explore Accra for another couple of days, before heading to Senase, a journey we have all been itching for all along. Soon we will explore rural, traditional Africa, and at last meet the children whose lives we are trying to improve through the value of education. Though the time we have already spent here feels so long, it will be so short for what we need to accomplish, but we can only hope that our presence and continued efforts will bring hope to those who need it most.
- Elizabeth Gorney