St. George’s Castle at Elmina

St. George's Castle at Elmina
As I have mentioned in prior posts (click on the “Ghana Experience” link on the sidebar for the rest of the Ghana series), we didn’t have much time for touristy stuff during our visit to Ghana. However, our 2-day trip to the Central Region allowed for a small bit of sight-seeing, allowing us to spend a bit of time on the beach, and to tour the famous Elmina Castle, also known as St. George’s Castle, in the port city of Elmina. Me at the entrance to the Castle

The Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1472 (that’s 20 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue…) to protect their gold mining activities, back when the Gold Coast got its nickname. Elmina means “the mine.” Besides gold, the castle became a major trading post for ivory, salt and other items. In 1637 the Dutch captured the fort, and eventually it became the African headquarters of the Dutch West Indies Company.

One of the Slave cellsSt. George’s Castle is known as a “slaving” castle because the slave trade eventually replaced that of gold and other items as the primary export, and the store rooms were converted to holding cells, where humans were crowded in like cattle. It was quite interesting to learn that it was some of the African tribes themselves who first introduced the Europeans to the slave trade, which apparently went back to the time of the Romans. It was apparently not uncommon for warring tribes to sell their captives as slaves, and as I understand it, began trading their slaves, as well as criminals that they wanted to get rid of, to the Europeans in exchange for items brought in from Europe. Elmina was not the largest slave-trading location, but is the oldest such castle in Ghana.

cell barsThe castle – as a structure – is amazing, and the view is breathtaking. However, seeing the small holding cells where humans were kept in terrible conditions before being shipped out in even worse conditions was sobering, to say the least. It is always horrifying to consider the cruelties that men can inflict on other human beings. In many rooms the original iron bars are still in place, and you can see the supports for the loading dock still standing in the water.

Castle courtyard & churchIn the center of the castle, in plain sight of the cells, stands a church, constructed by the Dutch. Our tour guide – who was obviously not a Christian – pointed out on a number of occasions this hypocrisy. It is indeed hard to imagine how someone could consider themselves a Christian and participate in that kind of abuse. We were taken into the cells and through the passageways to the “door of no return” that the slaves would have gone through on their way to the loading docks – those that survived, that is.

What really impressed me, both here and wherever we went in Ghana, was the lack of racial tension. Here we had a black tour guide speaking to a group that included a handful of whites, including at us 3 Americans and a Dutch couple (recall the Dutch did most of the slave trading from this castle). However, I never felt the same kind of racial tension that I think I would have felt on a similar tour in the States. It was truly remarkable. I had wondered what it would be like, being the obvious minority. In Ghana, I never really felt that I was a minority.

two of the original cannons The architecture and textures of the castle itself is wonderful – and just to touch anything that old is pretty amazing, especially for someone from the relatively young American western coast. If you can separate the magnificence of the castle itself apart from its history with the slave trade, it is a very impressive and beautiful place. As I said earlier, some of the iron bars are original, as are the cannons. The castle has been restored as a tourist site within the last 20 years or so, and as with all tourist attractions, even has a small gift shop.

I would have loved to have spent more time at Elmina, as there is more to see. Maybe next time.

I have put a few more pictures from the Castle in the Ghana photo album, including one of a large compass in the courtyard in front of the castle which I understand is as old as the Castle itself.

African Rhythms

One of the first things I think about when I think of Africa is the rhythms – the drums, the dancing, and all that other National Geographic stuff. I was not disappointed by my visit to Ghana – although what I heard, as far as worship music goes, was not necessarily what I expected, not that I had any specific expectations. I am sure there are more varied styles than what I heard, but my visit was limited to a few places in Tema, and one church in the Central (coastal) Region.

Gospel SingersOne of the first things that struck me was the obvious impact of Western Gospel music. The first church we visited had a gospel choir, backed up by what was – from my brief experience – a pretty standard worship band setup, consisting of a drum kit, congas, a portable electric keyboard and bass guitar, all playing at a pretty high volume. The music was a melding of Gospel, jazz & funk, played over African rhythms, and was all pretty up-tempo. In fact, even their slow songs were up-tempo, and they often wouldn’t stop to change songs, they’d just go from one to the other. They wouldn’t even stop to change drummers – something I had not seen before, but saw a couple of times in Ghana. I don’t know who would initiate the change, but on 2 or 3 occasions I would see a guy walk up to the drummer in mid-song. Without losing a beat, the drummer would stand and pass off the sticks to the new guy.

The Shuffle - photo by Fred AllenAnother feature of their worship was the dancing; the women all did the same little shuffle – very low key, but still very much into the beat. They’d do their little shuffle back and forth, then occasionally start doing a “conga line,” weaving up and down the aisles. The men, at least in a church setting, tended to be less demonstrative.

At the YWAM base, worship was a tad more Western. I recognized several Vineyard and other songs I knew, and was surprised to even hear a couple of songs that had been written by people I knew. Now, that makes it seem like a small world. However, even though they were songs that I knew, they were all done with an African rhythm, which was really great to hear. I wished that I could have brought some of the rhythms home with me (I do have some video clips) but they’re a bit more complicated than a standard 4/4 Vineyard beat, and beyond my djembe abilities. One of the YWAM students was one of the best bass players I think I’ve heard – he would do some funk riffs that were just amazing.

At the YWAM base, the guys were not at all hesitant to join in the dancing, and also showed far less restraint than the women. Actually, it didn’t take much for the guys to break into a dance – just a simple rhythm on a djembe, and they’d be in a circle having a blast. Now, I’ve seen guys dance over here, but nothing like this.

Often, worship at YWAM would be led by Diana Akiwumi, who it turns out, is one of Ghana’s more well-known Gospel singers. I recently found an article about her in one of the on-line Ghana newspapers.

As I mentioned in a prior post, we spent 4 nights in an inner-city mission church, where English was more of a second language. Worship here was also a bit less Western, although they had the same basic worship band setup. The music, however, had a different feel – it’s hard to explain, but it had kind of a ska feel, only at a much faster tempo than I’m used to. The women here did the same little shuffle dance that we saw in the first church.

Mission church worship bandOh, it was also all very loud. Apparently it’s better if it’s loud – even if it distorts. And, as it turns out, the guests are usually placed right in front of one of the speakers, I suppose to make sure we can really get the full effect. It was sometimes a bit hard to take. Another surprising thing was that everyone seemed to have an ample supply of wireless microphones. Having batteries die and swapping mics was not an unusual occurrence.

We also spent a couple of days in the Central Region, at a little leadership conference. The conference was being held at a borrowed church, without the benefit of a sound system, or worship band. Worship here was done in what appeared to be a common style to those in attendance, representating several different churches. Worship was sung in something other than English, in kind of a singing chant, with no real rhythm that I could discern. While I didn’t understand what they were singing, I did appreciate the spirit of worship that existed, as well as just being able to experience some other form of worship than that which we saw in Tema.

As you might expect, returning to the States and my home church was a kind of reverse culture-shock. It struck me how self-conscious the worship band was, working so hard to achieve some kind of “smooth” presentation. At the same time, the whole worship experience seemed, for lack of a better word, constipated. This is not to say that worship in Ghana does not have an element of self-consciousness, because it does – it’s just in a completely different way, that I could deal with because it was new. However, I am still having a very hard time with our church’s self-conscious worship, to the point where I have a hard time sitting through it – I just can’t seem to get past the worship band. Maybe I’ll just have to spend more time watching my videos of Ghana.

Road Conditions (where are we going?)

After we arrived in Ghana, we were delighted to find out that on top of everything else we were scheduled on Tuesday through Friday evenings to preach at “revival” services at a mission church (church plant, in my vernacular). We had anticipated one evening at a local church, but certainly had not expected four!

All we knew about the church we were going to was that it was part of the same denomination as the church we had first visited. We were told that the pastor was a fairly young man, a former DTS student, and the current Vice President of that denomination.

ghana taxiAbout 6:30 our taxi arrived. Being very close to the equator, it was fairly dark by that time so to us it already felt quite late. The taxi was driven by a young man named Stephen, who attended the church where we were going. So, we hopped in (having the longest legs, I got to sit in the front) for what we expected was a 20-30 minute drive.

RoundaboutAbout five minutes into our journey, we came to the famous Tema roundabout. I had never heard of it before, but I assume that it must be famous, because it seems like you can’t get anywhere without going through it. As a result, it seemed like everyone in Tema was trying to go through the roundabout at once. There were traffic police stationed at various points to try to keep things flowing. We saw almost no police at all in Ghana, except for the serious-looking guys at the airport, and the traffic cops. Traffic cops in Ghana are apparently all-powerful. No one messes with them, and you do as they say. Finally – it seemed like an hour had passed already – and we made it onto the roundabout, and subsequently we were through, and on our way.

Traffic, however, had not improved much. You recall my earlier post about honking – well, there was lots of it. Cars were everywhere, as well as bicycles and pedestrians, including the ever-present peddlers with baskets of whatever on their heads (or, occasionally a cage containing chickens).

We trudged (can you trudge in a car?) along for a while, when all of a sudden our driver left the road and took off across a vacant lot. I think we all were expecting him to find another street at some point, but that never happened. The rest of our journey was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

A Shanty Strip-MallKeep in mind that it was quite dark. As we left the familiarity of the paved street, we also left any regular street lighting, and entered the Third World. For the next 20 minutes or so we drove through shanty villages, turning this way and that way down aisles lined with shanty strip malls. It reminded me, actually, of a carnival midway, with throngs of people milling about, vendors with fires selling roasted something, more peddlers wearing their wares as hats. It was cooler, of course (still very warm, mind you), so people were out and about.

Sometimes we would make a quick turn between a couple of shanty-kiosks and head down a different path. I still have no idea how Stephen knew where he was going. Everything looked the same to me – there were no streets, to speak of, so there were no street signs. Just colors and sounds and smells – mainly partially burned exhaust fumes.

Then, before us, in the middle of the path we were on, appeared a large pile of gravel, preventing any further travel. I expected our driver to turn around and pick a different route, but instead he had a quick exchange with someone off to our left, then proceeded to park the car. “From here, we walk” he said, “it’s close now.”

The Shop Around the CornerSo, we gathered our stuff and set off on foot. He pointed to a plywood ramp, which we quickly realized was a bridge over the open sewer. He led us past the shanty market stands into an alley, which was nearly pitch black. We could see enough to follow the person ahead of us, but not well enough to know what we were walking on. It was probably better that way.

The Mission ChurchWithin a few minutes, we entered an opening, and there stood the small, concrete-block church, complete with electric lights, about a hundred plastic patio chairs, and a full-on sound system complete with wireless microphones. It had been an amazing journey, but we had arrived, and were very warmly welcomed.

The next night, we brought flashlights.

Driving in Ghana

Driving in Ghana is an interesting experience. Or, perhaps I should say riding in Ghana, as I never actually sat behind the wheel.

On the road to somewhere...The first thing that struck me is that they drive on the right side of the road. Ghana used to be a British colony, but they drive on the right side of the road. I never asked why that was, but I wish I had, because I’d still like to know.

Shell is everywhereThe next thing I noticed was that either every car in Ghana needs a tune-up, or the gas is lower grade than anything I’ve ever seen. I’m guessing both are true, plus the lack of any air quality standards. Even fairly new, expensive vehicles blew smoke and chugged along like they were on their last legs. (Shell, by the way, seems to be the most common provider of gas; I did see one or two 76 stations.) Another problem with the vehicles – as with nearly everything else, as far as I could tell – is that “repair” is a concept that really hasn’t caught on. If it runs – at all – it doesn’t need fixing.

I quickly realized that the most important feature of any car is its horn (occasionally accompanied by yelling out the window). It seems that the horn has something to do with establishing right-of-way. It doesn’t really matter what else is going on, if you honk, you establish the right to go wherever you want. You can enter a major roadway, change lanes and make turns across lanes as long as you honk.

The Ghana honk is different than the American honk. Here, when people resort to the horn, they lay on it – the longer the honk, the madder you are at someone. In Ghana, the honk has a cadence similar to the Roadrunner’s “beep-beep.” Sometimes it takes on other, more common tones, but usually the Roadrunner beep-beep does the trick.

Driving through the marketsIt’s also interesting that pedestrians don’t have any right-of-way whatsoever. It seems that if you get hit, it’s your own fault, as long as the car honked first. It didn’t matter who they were, children, women with baskets of fruit on their head, or the elderly – cars stop for no one. This is not just the taxi drivers, either, this includes the most gentle and well-mannered of pastors – a couple of quick honks, people would scatter like roaches in the light, and they would drive right on through at break-neck speeds.

On rare occasions tempers would flare, and a bit of yelling would ensue. However, this also seemed to be part of the game. And, to our amazement, we only saw one or two small fender-benders, indicating that these were actually very good drivers, with quick reflexes and good brakes.

We witnessed one fairly telling incident, where one driver had the nerve to bump another; within seconds the drivers were out of their cars, gesturing and arguing loudly. Just as quickly, a couple of other drivers were also out of their vehicles and we overheard one person saying something to the effect of, “calm down, this is no way to act.” In less than a minute, everyone was back in their vehicles and on their way – with no exchange of ID or insurance information.

Next: Road Conditions – or, “Where are we going?”