By: Debra Wheat
June 12, 2011: Elmina, Ghana
I have been trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to learn some of the local language. It has been harder than normal for me to pick up. I think it is partly because it is so far from any of the other languages I speak, partly because the majority of my time is spent with my team of fellow English speakers, and partly because Twi is only one of many languages spoken throughout Ghana.
Whenever I feel like I have mastered a few phrases and try to put them to the test outside of our Kumasi bubble my efforts are often met with blank stares—typically followed by smiles and giggles (the universal unspoken version of thank you for trying but my dear white girl we have no idea what you are saying to us.) I guess it comes as no surprise given the myriad of dialects and languages permeating the country, but it still frustrates me that I have been here for almost a month and am hardly able to say hello.
It continues to intrigue me to think about how such a small country (about the size of Oregon—which is about two times the size of Pennsylvania for my fellow East Coasters) has been able to retain so many languages. English is the country’s official language, but Ethnologue lists a total of 79 languages, and once you leave the main cities, the less and less English you find. Native Ghanaian languages are divided into two main linguistic families and depending on how far removed you are from a city, even locals may not be able to understand each other. Many of the people we have met so far speak enough of at least a handful of languages to get by, but definitely not enough to truly communicate if they find themselves alone in a rural region far from home.
In addition to piquing my curiosity as a natural lover of language, learning about Ghana’s linguistic legacies serves to remind me yet again of how complicated this country’s history really is and how little I am capable of understanding (literally and figuratively) about the subtle legacies of colonialism, corruption, and compassion hidden in so many corners of this coastal land.
My attempts to speak the little Twi I have picked up were mostly futile this past weekend when we traveled to Elmina, located on Ghana’s Atlantic coast, where they speak Fanti, not Twi like I have been trying to learn in Kumasi.
As I waded through the small fishing village of Elmina my attempts to converse in the local language were again met with giggles and smiles and the occasional helpful gesture. At one roadside stand where a young boy was selling crabs (that looked suspiciously like Maryland Blue Crabs), I met an American woman struggling to ask a question presumably about the origin of the crabs or price of bananas. We struck up an instant kinship as we laughed about being blue crab snobs and bonded over our inability to communicate with our young salesman. We overpaid for our bananas and went on our way. And, as is often the case among travelers, especially in the more touristy areas of a country, our paths crossed again later that day inside the Elmina Slave Castle.
A stately behemoth that could have easily been just another citadel built for protection or vanity had we been on any other continent. With its enormous white walls, red-tile roof, palm tree lined exterior, and backdrop of crashing waves it could easily be confused for a Mediterranean resort. But, instead Elmina Castle is one of 20 buildings running along the Ghanaian coast that housed African captives before they were shipped off in shackles to the New World. A beautiful building serenely holding the secrets of such an ugly past…
My new friend and I reminisced about the events of that morning and smiled our way through the normal pleasantries, but quickly turned to more substantial topics as we wandered through the castle’s only stand alone building. Built by the Portuguese as a church, used by the Dutch as a storage room, and then by the English as a school, it is only fitting that in its fourth iteration it has become the slave castle’s museum. As we looked at decaying photos of the site’s turbulent and dynamic history our conversation seemed to pace back and forth between the rise and fall of the various empires and the rise and fall of languages. Stopping here and there to ponder how the two histories (of language and power) were so inexplicitly linked.
The conversation grew organically from our initial discussions of the horror and tragedy of slavery and how both the colonists, and former Ghanaian leaders, had stripped so much from this country as they traded in humans, fruit, and gold. We wandered in and out of the dungeons and in and out of these conversations—too disheartening to linger in either for as long as they probably deserved. We listened to our tour guide discuss humans—rather than slaves and spoke about how that simple choice of diction made the tragedy of trading in life hit harder than either of us were prepared for prior to crossing into the white washed walls of the castle.
As we continued on the tour we learned that the Portuguese built Elmina Castle in 1482 as a trading post for goods bartered for local gold and gems. As demand for slaves increased in the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean, the castle began to store a more precious and perishable trade. One of the most disturbing sites stands in the middle of the courtyard: a cast-iron ball and chain used to shackle those slaves who disobeyed—many of whom were left to die in the African sun. Its victims included women who refused to sleep with their captors, or those spending too much time talking, singing, or in other activities that may have been construed as communicating.
At various parts on the tour we were “locked” into an area formally used to house slaves. After spending just a few moments in the various dungeons with the doors closed my eclectic group was noticeably panicked. Unable to dwell on the lack of light and nonexistent ventilation most of the members of the tour turned to nervous laughter. Some used the luxury of language to change the subject into less heavy questions about the town’s current state and the tour guide’s impressions of the fishing industry. I couldn’t help but wonder if those who had been locked in these caves before us had even been able to communicate with one another. Given the vast stretches of the country that slaves were brought from—would they have even spoken the same language? Were they beaten into silence if they could?
The tour ended in a dark cell that housed only a door and the smell of the sea. This small eerie doorway that had once connected the castle to the ships via planks—that even jack Sparrow couldn’t create humor on—was fittingly known as the “door of no return.”
As many of my fellow tour goers took pictures to immortalize this final moment, I found myself completely uninterested in photography (an image that will shock anyone who has traveled with me and my constant picture snapping). Not only did the room personify the history so powerfully, it was stunningly beautiful to see the ocean and its many fisherman (colorful nets in hand) moving so rhythmically with the tides. It was a scene that proved the cycle of life and time and history almost too poetically—yet, I couldn’t bring myself to capture it on film. Instead, I found myself fixated on the small decaying wreaths that had been placed in the corner. As I read and reread the words on the wreaths trying in their fruitless way to lessen the tragedy of so many years ago, I was again consumed with thoughts of language. It was overwhelming to me to think about all of the people who had passed through this small doorway no longer in control of their fate—both those doing the leading and those being led. I wonder who was plagued more by the silence in those final moments?
It was viscerally unnerving to think about how what I see as humanity’s greatest power had failed so many people. The captives were unable to talk their way out of this inhumane fate and were perhaps even unable to commiserate in these final moments for lack of a common language in which to do so. Was it a part of the slave trade leaders’ master plan to perfunctorily strip these captives of humanity’s defining characteristic or was it just a horribly symbolic byproduct of their exploitation?
It was haunting to think about the dichotomy of what had brought me, a white American female with so many freedoms—not the least of which being speech—into that room and what had brought those that had stood there before me. The waves of emotions washing over me in those moments cycled between shame and guilt, helplessness and disgust and then finally landed, thankfully, on appreciation. As I stood there speechless listening to the legacy of both life and loss echoing in the ocean down below, my appreciation was for far more than simply living in a time and a location where my freedoms are not in danger. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but much of my appreciation was for the power, strength, and resilience of language.
For without the words, the stories would be washed away recklessly drowning with them any chance of learning from the lessons left in their wake. Without the power of words and the commonality of language, I would have aimlessly wandered around an old building along the shore alone last weekend unsure of the secrets hidden in its hauntingly beautiful walls and unable to share with you what they have come to represent.