Check out the view!

Our final group activity of Saturday was a visit to Cape Coast Castle. Now, before you start picturing the awesome stone castles in Europe and imagining kings and queens walking through tapestry-draped hallways, I have to stop you. This was not that kind of castle. Cape Coast Castle is one of about 40 “castles” (forts) that were built in what is now Ghana by foreign powers to support trade. Originally, people were drawn to Ghana because of gold, but as the slave trade picked up, the castle was modified to imprison slaves rather than to store goods.

Follow the trough from the bottom of the photo up. Where it disappears is the end of the excavation. It should extend through the doorway into the next room.

I want to talk about what I learned during our visit. It’s kind of long and all of it is horrible, but it’s also important. I always remind myself that I can’t ignore things just because they make me feel upset or uncomfortable, and I can’t allow myself to separate my emotions from what I learn. How am I supposed to try to understand people who are different from me if I only want to hear about the happy things and not the ones that have scarred and changed them forever? How can I understand where they’re coming from if I haven’t tried my best to imagine what it would feel like to be in their shoes?

During the slave trade, people were taken from all over Ghana and from as far north as Burkina Faso (the country that borders Ghana to the north). Some of them were prisoners of war that were sold off, some were people whose entire villages had been raided and captured. They were brought to the castle, shackled, and crammed into disgusting chambers in the basement where they could remain for days, weeks, or in some cases, up to three months. They were brought out once each day to eat, unless they were labeled as dangerous, in which case they remained in the dungeons constantly.

The inside of the excavated men’s chamber

The men’s chamber has three rooms in which up to about 1,000 men were kept at once. There wasn’t room to sit or lay down. There were some trenches cut into the floors that were supposed to be used to carry human waste out, but they didn’t function very well and everything eventually just piled up. Our tour guide talked about how only one of the chambers was “excavated”, and it took me a second to understand what he meant. Oh. So in the other two men’s chambers, the floors are covered with fossilized human waste. Without the excavated room, I wouldn’t have even noticed that there was a trench in the floor.

The women’s chamber has two rooms and was used to hold up to 500 women at once. The conditions were similar to the men’s chamber, but the women also had to worry about getting raped by their captors. Rebellious women were placed in a small confinement cell to more quickly break their spirits.

The inside of the suffocation chamber

There’s no way that I can adequately describe how it felt in those rooms. The air was completely stagnant. The only light came from tiny windows maybe 15 feet up, but it wasn’t enough to see anything. I felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I’m not even claustrophobic. All of that was enough to make me a bit nauseous, and I didn’t even have people standing that close to me.

The worst room we visited was the suffocation chamber. It’s exactly what it sounds like – the punishment for the most rebellious. There used to be three doors sealing the room, but only one remains, and it has a grate that lets air in. When our whole group was inside, our guide turned off the light and closed the door to give us a sense of what it would feel like to be trapped in there. Even with just one door, I could feel myself starting to panic. The air was heavy and it smelled like moisture and mold. You literally could not see anything. He opened the door after maybe 20 seconds, but that was more than enough time to get the point across. When someone was placed in the room to be killed, it could take up to 5 days for them to lose consciousness.

The view from the governor’s room

As you might imagine, under these conditions, about 25% of people died before even leaving the castle. The ones that were “lucky” enough to survive were then sorted when a ship came into port. The strong were loaded onto the ship, and the weak were left in the dungeons to die. About 50% of the “strong” remaining people did not survive the trip across the Atlantic.

One of the questions our group asked was – wouldn’t it have been in the best interests of the businesses to take better care of people so that more survived? Between insurance money and the profit made from selling people who did survive the trip, they still came out in the positives. The money made from the sale of one slave would cover the deaths of 20 others. Then, knowing all of that, the captors didn’t want to make conditions any better because part of the purpose of the dungeons was to break people psychologically.

The last part of the tour was walking through the upstairs part of the castle. The governor’s quarters. For one man, there was close to the same amount of square footage that was used to house 1,500 people below. From upstairs, the views of the gulf were beautiful, but it’s hard to enjoy the view when you compare that with the very different scene that is just below your feet.

At the end, I was feeling pretty empty inside. The entire time, I just kept thinking “how??” How could anyone think it’s okay to treat people that way? How did they get others to go along with them? I guess once you manage to convince yourself that some people deserve less or are worth less or are less human than you are, it’s easy to treat them that way.

It’s not exactly pleasant to have all of these thoughts swirling around, but I know that it’s good for me. These things happened, and it doesn’t help anyone if I ignore them or pretend that they didn’t. I still definitely have a lot to think about and reflect on before I can sort things out in my head again.

​The trek back to Frankadua was a long one. We left Cape Coast around 10AM and drove back to Accra. Before getting a tro tro back from there, we stopped in the biggest mall in Ghana to check it out and grab lunch. It was very strange being somewhere that felt so normal and familiar after a week of only experiencing new and different things.

The most exciting thing about the mall was the grocery store because we found marshmallows!! We’ve been looking for some and I was starting to think that they didn’t exist in Ghana. Obviously the next step after finding marshmallows was to piece together some s’mores ingredients, and that ended up being a much bigger challenge. First, we couldn’t find plain milk chocolate, so we got Oreo milk chocolate. Second, I think graham crackers actually don’t exist here, so we attempted to identify crackers that could be acceptable replacements. I think we did pretty well, but we’ll see at the bonfire on Thursday!

The rest of the day wasn’t very exciting. We took the world’s hottest tro ride from Accra to Frankadua and then all felt horrible when we got back. Every single one of the six of us is having some sort of health issue at the moment. Infections, colds, stomachaches… Ghana is kicking our butts right now. Hopefully the antibiotics kick in soon because this is horrible.

Maria, Fernanda, Avy, Nico, me, and Amber

We also got to experience our first power outage. Apparently they’re common, but we’ve been lucky I guess. Aside from the fact that the fans stopped working, it was kind of fun. We ate dinner by candlelight, and being together back in the house felt like home.

I still feel pretty awful, so it’s off to bed for me. Fingers crossed for a less miserable tomorrow!

Me with Amber, Maria, and Nico on one of the canopy platforms

Our day started with breakfast at 8 this morning. Hooray for sleeping in! We still didn’t get a ton of sleep because we were all hanging out last night, but it was nice to be able to turn off my 5AM alarm for the weekend.

Canopy walkway!


We headed out right after breakfast to go to Kakum National Park. The area is a tropical rainforest and contains thousands of species of plants, birds, animals, etc. It also has the most concentrated population of forest elephants in all of Ghana. If you really want to see animals while you’re there, they recommend staying overnight and
doing a night hike. We were there during the day, so we didn’t see many 
animals, but the views were still amazing.

The park has a canopy walkway that consists of seven platforms and rope bridges that stretch from tree to tree. We hiked up through the forest to get to the starting point of the walkway, and it was cool to get to see the everything from both vantage points. I love the feeling of being deep in the forest, with tall trees all around and just little glimpses of the sun through the thick foliage, but getting to also see it from above definitely gives a better sense of the scale of the trees and the expansiveness of the park. Plus the walkways were just fun to walk on! I felt like a kid on a jungle gym… except that we were actually in the jungle and probably hundreds of feet off of the ground. Basically the same.

The group

After the park, we headed back towards Cape Coast and made a quick pit stop at this place where you can see alligators (maybe crocodiles? I can never remember the difference) up close and even touch one if you’re interested. I was not interested. I know that I said I would do things that scare me, but yeah… there isn’t even the tiniest part of me that wants to touch an alligator. I think it was crazy enough that we walked anywhere near them without a fence between us! (I spent a few seconds identifying people in our group that I could probably outrun, if it came to that.) In the end, everyone survived, but even so, I would be more than okay with never doing it again.

Gator… eek!

I was pretty ready to get back to our hotel after that, and as soon as we got back, I passed out for a couple hours. I guess all those late nights finally caught up with me! We had one more group outing today, but I need to take a little time to emotionally recover before I can write about that. Maybe tomorrow.

The weekend was a nice change of pace from our usual schedule. We left our house this morning at about 6:30AM to make the trek out to Cape Coast. Our group took a tro tro from the house to Accra (around two hours), and there we met up with the volunteers serving at the other sites in the program (our site is referred to as the Purple program, and we met up with Pink and Gold). From there, it was a 3 hour drive to Cape Coast. I slept on and off for the entire trip, but as you might imagine, it wasn’t the most restful sleep I’ve ever had. There’s really no denying that I need to get to bed earlier at night.

It’s a looooong way to Cape Coast. We live up between Kpong and Ho.

We made it to Cape Coast around 2PM, and a few of us walked around the town for a bit. That was my first experience walking through a more tourist-y area, and I definitely experienced a bit of culture shock. In our town, everyone is very friendly and happy to just let us be. Here, the shopkeepers are more aggressive, and there is far more begging. I wasn’t completely prepared for it.

I was also thrown off by seeing other foreigners. The hotel where we’re staying is almost entirely occupied by foreign tourists. Being in this context and seeing how different my perspective would be if I was just a tourist makes me really happy that I decided to volunteer. I feel like having the combination of experiences, seeing both the tourist side and the normal life side, will give me a more complete picture of the country, culture, and people, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and spending time with the other volunteers. We know most of them from orientation, and it was fun to catch up and hear about each other’s experiences. The people in Gold have to fetch water from the well for their showers, which they said is about a 30 minute ordeal. Compared to them, we have it easy! There are a couple of Ghanaians who bring water from the well each day and put it in these big tubs we have in the house. They balance the water on their heads in these massive metal bowls and then dump the water into the tubs with the bowls still on their heads. If I tried to do that, assuming I even managed to keep any water in my bowl on the way back from the well, I would dump it all over the floor for sure.

Needless to say, we are all thoroughly enjoying the flush toilets and showers with running water. Talk about a life of luxury! Don’t get carried away though… the water is still not heated, but it comes out of a showerhead instead of a bucket, so that’s enough for me.

Tomorrow we actually have things to do (besides relaxing on the beach), so I should get some rest. Good night!