On two separate days, we visited the coast of Ghana. The first day was to a beach in the late afternoon and into the evening. We had arrived after spending some time in a market, a place that resembled an aggressive version of a flea market or swap meet. I did not have much hope for a beautiful beach on the Atlantic Coast. My pessimism came from too many horrifying and sickening witnessing of humanities desecration of the oceans in the Asian Pacific. A clean and beautiful beach is becoming increasingly a rarity in many parts of the world. The beach in Ghana was no exception.
Already as we drove on a road with views of the Atlantic, I could see that the water was not greenish blue of healthier waters. It had a browner tint to it. Just like the small rivers and flooded areas I had already seen in Ghana, the coast was contaminated with pollution. Walking barefoot in the sand was out of the question for one risked cutting their foot on broken glass. The waves were full of garbage. No matter how many times I have seen such sights, I still felt a twisting guilt in my stomach at what we have turned our oceans into; portable garbage dumps.
Just as in the market we came from, small shops and booths were at the edges of the beach. There were also a few restaurants and blue, wooden beach chairs whose paint rubbed off easily. The beach was clearly a tourist area, but one could not safely swim. There were also men on small horses, trying to entice visitors on a ride. Other visitors to Ghana were seen on the beach and at the restaurants. Sadly, I easily spotted some adolescent and teenage boys being managed by two men in what was a case of human trafficking. They were expected to perform dancing and acrobatics, and to then ask for money. I assumed they were also sex trafficked as they were young and attractive, and arrived around the time we did, but remained when we left at night after a long dinner. An aggressive market, polluted beach, and a witnessing of human trafficking all in one day. This was a depressing day of the darker side of humanity in a country whose people I enjoyed and wished better for in the future. In case you only think that such sights can be found exclusively in poorer countries, let me relieve you of such naiveté. Poverty, pollution, and human trafficking is found in every country, and they are equally devastating everywhere.
Our second excursion to the Atlantic coast was to visit the historic site of Elmina Castle. Though I have visited many historic, military defensive fortresses on the Pacific Ocean, I had never been to a historic slave-trading post. The history of Elmina Castle is as fascinating as it is dark and haunting. Our tour guide went over the long history of its changing construction and the different countries who controlled. If I recall correctly, it was first built by the Portuguese for trading goods, and then later they transformed it into one of the most important departure locations for the slave trades. African natives were enslaved and brought to the castle before they left the continent of Africa in the Atlantic slave trade. Later, it was taken over by the Dutch who had gained control of the Gold Coast and continued using it as a slave castle. Next, the castle was turned over to the British Empire and used as a fort as they governed Ghana. Finally, Elmina Castle was turned over to what became the independent nation of Ghana.
When we arrived at Elmina Castle with our OTC Ghanaian friends, I wasn’t sure about how I would feel. Already the sight of familiar shopping stalls and a warning about safety in the area from our professors left a feeling of dread before I even set foot within the castle’s walls. After entering its walls and being led into the old stench of built up human waste and suffering inside the dungeons that once held captives, doomed to the injustice of slavery, my spirit sank lower. I imagined the people who once passed through here, visualized their fear, their pain, and possibly their hate, as their captors looked down at them from the levels above. As I traced their steps from the dungeons that held them to the narrow doorway that opened to the water and awaiting boats, I thought of how tragic it was that this form of slavery transformed into the slavery the world struggles against today. Slavery never disappeared and never will. Now it is called black market human trafficking and government run internment camps.
Despite these two trips to the coast having ended with such negative feelings on my part, I am still glad that I went, and my visit to Ghana as a whole was positive. No matter where you are in the world, you will come across sights that tear at your heart and twist your guts. It is important to not ignore them and acknowledge that they exist. Otherwise, change would be impossible. They also have the effect of making you truly appreciate the kindness and beauty that you encounter also. These negative experiences did not overshadow the generosity, sense of community, and good will of my Ghanaian friends, but made them a bright beacon of hope for a better future for all of us.