Côte d’Ivoire & Ghana: Haunting Histories

Day 77 – Covid-bound in Luderitz, Namibia – Find Insignia on CruiseMapper

Raise your hand if you have seen this comment posted at a touristic site:

Woe to the preliterate society that does not erect buildings.

Its past will be replaced by colonial monuments and lost to time.

No hands? Sorry, that was a trick question. We haven’t seen one either.

But! After visiting eight West African countries (and gazing longingly at a ninth one from covid isolation on our veranda), the epitaph feels like a shoe that might fit many colonized societies in both hemispheres.

With the exception of the Voodou and Amazonian traditions in Benin, the tourist “attractions” we encountered in West Africa are mostly relics of colonialism. Rural societies with no written records and no lasting architecture leave few traces. Invaders from developed countries do. We saw this principle played out with exceptional photogenicity (yes, that’s a word) and hauntingness in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The Once and Never Capital

Our day in Côte d’Ivoire was spent with four shipmates on a serendipitous, Uber-powered scramble out of the country’s modern capital Abidjan to its one-time colonial capital, Grand-Bassam. This is our merry band plus Uber driver who had grown up barely 20 miles away but only seen Grand-Bassam once. He was delighted to join our improvised tour.

For a heartbeat in the 19th century, Grand-Bassam was Côte d’Ivoire’s most important port, economic and judicial center. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012 because of its “outstanding examples of colonial architecture and town-planning.” In other words, Grand-Bassam is worth preserving because it is a recognizable little piece of colonial France in Africa, and it still has buildings to visit that positively radiate photogenicity.

There is the once-impressive main street.

The former Bank of Côte d’Ivoire.

The once-grand Hotel of Grand-Bassam.

And the house where the governor once lived (at least, we think that’s what this one is).

Camera-friendly as these and the entire ancien section of the city is, Grand-Bassam’s history is terrible. Named the capital of the colonie de Côte d’Ivoire (aka “Ivory Coast”) in 1893, the city barely had time for its architectural footprint to set before it was ravaged by a yellow fever epidemic. Three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants died, and the rest fled, rendering the colonial architecture and town-planning a sort of epidemiological Pompeii.

Like a nurse tree in a forest, the decaying colonial buildings now serve as props, backboards and scaffolding for 21st-century life. Some structures are waiting to be restored and a few already have been. The Grand Palace actually looked quite grand.

On the other hand, this one could pass for an oversized planter serving as support for an awning over a local business.

Ghana’s Haunting “Castles”

Pity (or not) the Insignia passenger who chose an excursion to the “Cape Coast & Elmina Castles” thinking they would see Ghana’s take on the Loire Valley. The 44 “castles” of Ghana were slave dungeons where millions of kidnapped Africans were held for weeks to months in unimaginable conditions while awaiting the arrival of the slave ships that would transport them to the Americas.

At least the two castles on Doris’s itinerary were originally built as forts, and they looked it.

Cape Coast’s ramparts bristled with cannons, and cannon balls lay neatly piled nearby.

Well-spoken local guides walked guests through the various castle areas. The “Cell” was where rebellious prisoners were sent to die, slowly, without food or water as a cautionary example to the other captives. The underground dungeon below housed hundreds of men ate, slept and toileted with no more than this opening for light and ventilation.

At Elmina Castle, scraps of cloth had been scattered in a courtyard to represent the clothing stripped from the women to leave them naked in their confinement. Their treatment at the hands of their colonial jailers was too predictable.

Descendants of Africans shipped to the Americans are called the diaspora. When they come, many leave memorial wreaths in the dungeons to the ancestors they can’t name but, thanks to services like Ancestry.com, now know came from specific locations.

They occasionally leave personal notes like this one from the Bradley family.

The diaspora return from all stations of life, passing out a replica of the Door of No Return but able to turn around and re-entry through the Door of Return, a pilgrimage.  

Unlike in Grand-Bassam, where the relics of French colonialism are repurposed in everyday life, the slave castles of Ghana are painstakingly maintained just as they were, the better to evoke their haunting stories.

“It is a way to learn from our mistakes,” our guide told us, “so this never happens again.”

Another Question Answered

Rose asked, “Have any passengers experienced any pickpocketing or thievery at any ports?”

As you can imagine, there are no public announcements made about these episodes, but we know they happen. A woman had a hoop earring torn from her ear in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and needed five stitches to repair the tear. Another woman would have had her cell phone snatched if it hadn’t been secured to her wrist with a tether she bought from Amazon before leaving on the cruise. Two couples walking into San Salvador, Brazil, were mugged for a cell phone but fought off the robbers (dumb!!!!).

Those are just the stories we have heard personally by the people who saw or experienced them. There are surely more.

During each segment of the cruise, the lecture program includes a presentation on how not to have your pocket picked or your purse stolen, but we still see people walk into ports with billfolds bulging in back pockets and purses dangling from shoulders. We suspect the stories we have heard are just the tip of the take local thieves reap from inattentive tourists.

For the record, Louis has never been pickpocketed. Doris has, once, in downtown Los Angeles. Theft is universal.

Coming Soon!

Introducing Milou and Snowy

Fitness Afloat

One thought on “Côte d’Ivoire & Ghana: Haunting Histories

  1. Such great historical context in your posts Doris. You are Heather Cox Richardson “On the Road.”
    Next time i am having a wander with my camera and see a good subject I am going to say to him or her. “May I take your picture? You have such amazing photogenicity .”


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