Journey to Keta ll
Slave Fort in Keta, Ghana
5.12. A.E. Woods Valdés, Ghana
Keta, the present day ruins of an 18th Century “prison” according to my guidebook. The bus slows down to make several tight turns through the well populated main street that still hosts large pools of water from the previous day of heavy rain. As it waddles along I notice that when the soil is wet it really looks like red clay. I want to get out and touch it, maybe even taste it. The humility of the forte takes me by surprise. I had read about this, but as we arrive my first response is, “Why are we stopping here?” There is no announcement or welcome, we just get out of the bus and start asking, “Where is the ladies room?” I meander over to a noticeable overhead, hand paint sign that reads (in neat blue, black, red and green block letters):
GHANA MUSUEM & MONUMENTS
BOARD KETA BRANCH
VISITING HOURS: 8AM – 5PM
-17TH& 18TH CENTURY RECORDS
-CHAINS, SHACKLES, STOOLS &
OTHER RELICS OF THE PAST
I snap a picture but I do not really read the sign. So, this is Keta. It feels good to be outdoors and so close to the ocean. It is easy to avoid the unadorned entryway and follow the sandy path around the structure of the fort and directly to mother Yemaya, the sea. I go to her and pay tribute first. She watches us and rushes forward with her marine embrace then retreats…from her our journey begins.
Inside the fort, some moss and weeds persist through the mostly cement walls and paths. Our guide waits formally and patiently for us to gather into a circle around him. Together we are 17. He is one. Discretely, Clara lets me know the admission price for the group and that I can add one cedi (.50¢) per person for picture taking. I nod yes to everything and try to be as still and attentive as my students. I feel restless, feel like pacing. I have been to Goreé Island, the slave castle in Senegal; I remember the tension in my body well. This is what, in dance, we call a kinesthetic reaction. I subdue my instincts to move and focus intently on the male guide. I try to decode the design on his Kente cloth shirt. I don’t seem to have the key. I feel disoriented, out of time. The guide speaks softly like our lecturers at the University of Ghana. We shuffle in a little closer. There is heat within our circle. I look around at everyone’s faces. There seems to be an unspoken consensus that listening to words is important to us and that they hold the key.
We get quieter and quieter. Finally, our guide narrates dates and facts about the Danes and British and people take notes. This is a busy and safe activity. We are then informed that we are standing in the women’s half of the forte. People look around for some sign of distinction of femininity. As our guide walks us about 10 yards away to the women’s bath, I respectfully insert that the students need to take field notes, white heat note, directly after the tour.
In a narrow, open-air corridor barricaded on three sides by tall cement walls, we see the baths. They are really three rough-hewn hollowed out cement blocks about three feet deep and wide. They offer no incentive to get in and bathe your naked body. We are told that female Africans were taken here to bathe while the Governor looked on from high. He would watch then choose which women to have sent up to him for forced sex and impregnation. From his vantage point, it was possible to see the development of a child inside the woman’s womb each time she bathed. Eventually a child would be born. Without fan fair the guide continued to explain that the women were sold but the children were raised and remained in the fort to eventually assist with the business of trading human beings. At this point I saw pens and pads begin to dangle uselessly at people’s sides. How does make note of this?
The walls looks smooth and cool but we feel heat and humidity. We are not suffering because it is an overcast day and we know there is a breeze out there somewhere. With little pause, are headed into a small women’s cell. I enter last and chose a spot to stand near the narrow doorway. The 17 of us look crowded and uncomfortable. More history and a few more notes taken: unruly women were chained to a thick hook embedded into the center of the cement floor, over 100 women occupied this cell, it did not have ventilation until the British bought it from the Danes, the women would fight if the door was opened so water was thrown on the floor to be licked up. I begin to block out the lecture with white noise. It is a defense mechanism. I pull out a hand fan from my shoulder bag. I cannot get enough air to breath but I do not think it shows. The quick flutter of my fan testifies to my restlessness and to the heat. I am the first one out. Yes, I need to take picture too. I return quickly to do my documentation chore. I do not want to regret it later.
We move through a few other cells. This was one of the smaller forts that was not included in any renovation project. I am glad. We need to see it damaged by time and the sea. I noticed students become solemn. What can be experienced here reaches across constructs of nationality, heritage, religion or language. I am glad we have come here first. Someone says, seeming to himself, “this is disturbingly atrocious.”
Finally we are out on the seaward side of the building. One by one, we have to climb up chunks of stone that we were told used to be a wall built to muffle the sounds of screams. We climb. How powerful we begin to feel. It looks like we are each crushing something that needs to be crushed. I take big hard steps. At the summit, each person as to reach back and help up the next person. We seem unified and concerned for one another. I like that. We huddle on a platform on the second story of the fort then spread out and begin snapping pictures of the sea. From up here the sea breeze cools and sooths me. Something shifts and I can now breathe easy. The color of the ocean is aqua marine, light blue-green, almost surreal. We are now completely detached from the darkness below. The relief is short lived as we recognize we are on the balcony of the Governor’s quarters. So this is what is feels like to be above it all. The guide still has a few more notes for us but people begin milling about. He seems at ease with us and allows us to gaze out at the see or to just keep milling.
I make a point of listening to and watching the students. I know this is not easy. Some want to be alone, others want to be with someone. I trust their resiliency and their ability to be profound but we will have to process this later…together. Contemplation, prayer, anger, numbness, confusion, incomprehension, fear and other things are expressed in field notes that they would write over the next 20 minutes. For now, I see faces that want to know. Like me, they want the key to how, why and why wasn’t I told. In a sophisticated, information/media saturated society, we still have some ancient excavating to do. What we are looking for cannot be touched or displayed, it will be witnessed in our behavior as human beings together. We cannot be distracted or removed. As we disperse and eventually go back to safe places where we can sequester this awakening, should we chose, I hope we see that we too are part of the renovation of the human spirit. From here our journey begins.
So, it is time to leave Fort Prinzenstein. I feel assured that writing field notes directly after the tour helped people express themselves and bring closure to the moment. For now, we need to pile back into the bus and look forward to lunch, a boat ride, the beach and the hard, crashing waves of the Atlantic, and a surprise birthday cake for Andrew. “Wo tirinkwa” to you!