22 August 2008

Belated benefit from slave castles

Last year a trip to Senegal opened my eyes to the evils of the slave trade in West Africa. More recently, I went to visit two of the 'slave castles' on the coast of Ghana. Both are carefully preserved and profoundly moving. I was impressed, as I have been throughout Ghana, with the knowledge and professionalism of the guides. They provided telling details of the greed and hypocrisy of the mostly British and Dutch traders. At Elmina (below), the governors used to have women they had captured parade in the courtyard and select one by leaning over their balcony. She was then dressed, washed and brought to the governor's quarters. If, at close quarters, she was found wanting, she was sent straight back to the dungeons.

The guides reminded us that these people operated with the connivance and support of European governments and many African rulers as well. Very few people are blameless in this sorry saga. So credit goes to the government, local authorities and Africans from the diaspora for helping to keep the memories alive.

In one respect, though, I felt that the slave castles were sadly unable to break from the past. Both the towns of Elmina and Cape Coast seemed extremely poor and unable to profit from their main attractions. I had expected to find legions of small hotels, restaurants and souvenir stalls, which might bring the people of these towns some belated benefit from their sorry history.

Instead, the dominant mode seemed to be "bus in, bus out". There are tourist hotels along the beaches, but virtually none in the towns. At Elmina, I only found one hotel catering to visitors; at Cape Coast, just a few budget backpacker places. Where there should be a bustling restaurant-and-souvenir complex, there is a ruin with a faded sign promising a 'visitor centre'. What went wrong? Where did the money go? Even the postcard and wood carving sellers, who are ubiquitous on Accra's beaches, were absent.

I would never suggest turning these lively fishing towns into slave coast Disneyworld. But fishing is a risky business and in decline, thanks to the European fishing fleets offshore. If big projects have failed, how about promoting small businesses? There are lots of little chop bars that no visitors go to: you could find a few ambitious ones and help them print English menus, maybe hire a kitchen help, put up some coloured umbrellas, then double prices. Or maybe set a fruit seller up with microloans to buy a juicer - I'd rather pay $1 for a glass of orange juice than try to peel my own for 10 cents. Or organize a fisherman's cooperative to offer canoe rides in the afternoon, for $5 per person? Set a fixed price, post it on a few notice boards and anyone shy of bargaining will jump at the opportunity.

Of course, if it were so easy, someone would have done it already. Would they?

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