We check out the fish market first thing in the morning, the same place where the fish was landed yesterday evening. This is a great place, absolutely full of people, and of many different types of fish. On one side are the big fishes, many Yellow-fin tuna – I think, judging from the yellow fins. And some enormous flat fishes, the occasional small shark, and more fish I don’t know the name of. And I cannot take pictures of to look it up later, of course, because everybody is the usual paranoid about photos. One man explains to me why, he says that we take pictures of Africans so that we later can laugh about them. Yeah, well, that is difficult to argue with, perception is reality. Further along the market are the many metal bowls full of red snappers, and other kinds of fish, some prawns, some crabs, a fabulous mixture of great food, amidst great activity.
But the real reason to come to Elmina is the castle at the coast. There are some 40 castles along the West Africa coast, I think, many part of a collective UNESCO World Heritage site, but Elmina is the most famous one, the first one of its kind, established by the Portuguese in 1482. They had just discovered the local gold trade, a new phenomenon along this hitherto not very profitable region. The castle was called Sao Jorge da Mina, Saint George of the Mine, referring to the gold mines, from which at the beginning of the 16th Century no less than about 1/10th of the world’s gold was exported!
The original castle was largely prefabricated, with all materials bought from Portugal. What is left today is the result of frequent remodelling and adjusting, by subsequent owners, as slave trade soon overtook the gold trade as most important economic activity. The Dutch captured it from the Portuguese, in 1637, and made it their West African headquarters. They even built a second fort, Fort Coenraadsburg, on a nearby hill to provide protection from inland attacks. In 1872 the British took over the castle, and called it Saint George; upon Ghanian independence it became a national monument and a pilgrimage site for slave-descendants.
It is an impressive building, extensively, but not intrusively, restored in the 1990. It is a multi-storey fort, with defence towers on the corners, but not so insistently decorated with canons and cannon balls as the Cape Coast castle was. There is lots of office space for the administrative section upstairs – this was after all for a long time the headquarters of the Dutch West Indies Company. And in the lower parts of the castle are the now familiar dungeons for male and female slaves, damp and dark. As earlier slave trade forts, a depressing and confronting sight.
A little further up the hill is the second castle, Fort Coenraadsburg, built by the Dutch in the 1660s on the site of a Portuguese chapel. It is much smaller, clearly built for military purposes; from its position it is dominating the surrounding. We are lucky, we arrive together with the woman caretaker, who opens the castle for us. There are no other tourists yet, we have the castle for our own. Apparently, the fort has been used as a prison, a hospital, a guest house and a restaurant, but now there is no other economic activity than charging entrance fees.
On the other side of the castle we arrive on Dutch Cemetery Road, and sure enough, a few hundred meters further is a small Dutch cemetery, with Dutch graves going back to the middle of the 19th Century. Some of the graves, most actually, don’t look their age, I suspect that they have been either redone, or repainted recently. The cemetery is closed, but in a nearby shop we find the key – for which, of course, a small donation is called for. I have to admit that it starts to irritate me more and more, everybody asking for money. Not only with the photo taking, it is with everything. Yesterday a guy walks with me to the beach and then back again, and expects to get some change from me. If I stop in front of an old house, to take a photo, somebody comes up to me to tell me that this is an old house. And then expects some money. People along the street, either associated with a small kiosk or stall, or not, who knows, just bluntly ask for money because they are hungry. They are not begging, they don’t look particularly poor, they are just opportunists – you never know, with a ‘Blan’, a white person. And this is Ghana, one of the most affluent countries in West Africa. It was not different in Benin and Togo.
It is the same with a small temple I notice, in between some houses. Looks interesting, with what I interpret as the life guard, boat and people, on top of the roof. When I ask whether I can go there, in between the houses, three different people ask for money. And the whole thing is none of their business – they don’t even know what the temple is for, probably have actually never seen it! It turns out to be on a small street we hadn’t noticed yet, so not even on their turf. Everything becomes an issue, a negotiation that already on forehand leads to nothing anyhow.
In the late afternoon I discover the local golf course, the Coconut Grove Golf Course. It is still much too hot to play a round, and too late anyhow, but with one of the other group members – my usual golf companion had decided to stay back in the hotel – we borrow a few clubs, and play two holes. Hole 1 is actually also the driving range – but there is nobody. Yet, practicing golfers is not the biggest danger, halfway the fairway is a pool, walled in, with crocodiles. Really! No signs of out of bounds, but if my ball lands in there, I don’t think I would play it anymore! The fairways are pretty bad, the greens even worse. On the way back, the green of hole 2 has a mango tree in the middle, just to make things even more complicated. But, I have now played golf in Ghana, and given the challenges, I even didn’t do so badly. Pity we are leaving tomorrow very early.
Next: a bit on Cote d’Ivoire