Saturday 31 March 2012

Horrors at Elmina Castle, Ghana

This is a beautiful little castle built by the Portuguese in 1482 to store gold, but has a history of horrors when it became the point of no return for tens of thousands of slaves, who were traded, bought, sold, captured, and killed. Elmina Castle was an end point for slaves for more than 400 years. Shipped overseas to the Americas and one of the best surviving castles of the region it is a serious tourist site.
The three doors have great symbolic resonance. The door on the far right allows for entrance and exit, but only for the masters, not the slaves. The middle door opens to a cell for soldiers who were punished, usually for being drunk. But they had a window through which air, food and water could pass. The far left door is for slaves who attempted to escape or rebel. There was no window. It quickly becomes stifling hot inside. Slaves were thrown in here to die, and starved to death. Thus the crossbones. Their screams served as a warning to others not to attempt to escape. Their bodies were thrown into the ocean, also as a warning. For over 400 years this was done. Our guide had our group in the two cells for us to feel the difference. There is chapel in the courtyard for the soldiers and officers.

In the room of no return, this is the door of no return. It is estimated that more than 12 million Africans were shipped overseas from the various castles and forts along the west coast of Africa. Wreaths were left in memory of the slaves. This was the last room in Africa that slaves were to see before being loaded on to the slave ships. If they survived the journey, they were slaves for the rest of their lives, unlike in Africa where they were indentured servants, able to marry, start their own businesses, and buy their freedom. With the heat, and some reflection, I had to sit. Our guide through the castle did a great job of conveying the importance of the site.

Friday 30 March 2012

Elmina and Kakum Park, Ghana

I was "underwhelmed" when one of our troupe gave me a bag of salt. It became a running joke. However, after seeing part of the process first hand, I was delighted. The salt flats are where pools of sea water dry in the sun, allowing the salt to crystallize and be swept up and stored in piles in sheds. The dancers above showed up one night for dinner at the Elmina Resort. They were incredibly talented drummers and dancers, mixing traditional dance with breakdancing, and some fire play.

The incredibly tall kapok trees are hardwood trees, but vary in usage. Because the earth is shallow to the rock below, the giant buttresses keep the tall trees stable. The wood is used by the locals for different purposes, including boats. In Kakum park the trees are used for entertainment and education with a very high canopy/bridge walkway. By the way, this is my favourite shirt. It is entirely soaked with sweat, but doesn't show.

High up in the trees, the latticework of rope and paths of ladders creak, bounce, and swing as you walk along. One gets the feeling however, that if you were to fall you would land on a soft canopy of leaves, as the forest is so lush. But, there is a rocky bottom somewhere below.

Elmina, Ghana

Five of us, me and two profs (from UofG) and their wives stayed at the Elmina Resort. We broke the group and headed in opposite directions down the beach. Not far from the resort are people who live very close to the land and sea. It's a dramatic contrast of lifestyles. 

In Elmina, people sell their wares and services roadside. On the beach in front of the infamous Elmina Castle, fishermen carve out the logs of giant kapok or boa boa trees - or wawawa - trees as the locals call them. Slats are added to the base with nails and tar. Then the fishermen carve and paint their insignia, add religious slogans, and paint them. They often have flags of different nations - for fun I presume - and many fishermen wear soccer outfits.

Here people are waiting for a bus ride. The fishermen pack the small inlet of Elmina tightly. Usually each bigger boat waits at the mouth of the inlet and has a smaller boat carry the fish to market, and then return with supplies. Big boats will stay out to sea for a week. Giant blocks of ice are stowed on board to cool the fish. Their lights can be seen at night. No one fishes on Tuesday, and for three months in the summer they completely stop fishing to allow the sea to replenish itself.

Friday 23 March 2012

WALKABOUT: Downtown Accra

The day started meeting with Deborah Ahenkorah (right) and her coworker, Maureen. Deborah created a major prize for children's book stories, given to writers all across Africa. However, these are unpublished stories. Once the authors win prizes, publishers quickly snap them up – a reversal of our process, and far more beneficial in discovering new talent. Deborah heard about my workshop and wanted to learn more about illustration and the process. Deborah is creating a prize to encourage quality visual art in Africa for children's picture books. She is also very excited about new eBook technology as a way of getting loads of books to children who can't afford books.  
After the meeting I headed downtown to the National Museum, then to the busy Makola Market. Here I encountered great hostility to snapping photographs. One man threatened me with his fist. One woman demanded I erase photos from my camera. To stop her from taking the camera out of my hand, I did erase them. People grabbed my arms, yelled, "Hey! White man, come here!" or "Hey Obruni! Obruni!" and in one instance "White man! Get Lost!" However, lots of people smiled and were politely eager to sell and talk. In the back of a trotro, I took the photo of the baby. I saw only four white people in five hours – very few tourists here – so I was struck by the white mannequins (above). Fuseli, the guy on the motorcycle, gave me a ride to the beach and then extended the tour downtown. When I followed him to the peer, he gave coins to a fisherman which allowed me to take photographs. When in Africa, I highly recommend paying for a motorcycle ride. But you have to be brave!

Monday 19 March 2012

Children's Book Workshop for Ghana Association of Writers

Long before I stepped off the plane in Ghana, Manu Herbstein (author of Ama) suggested I do a workshop for the Ghana Association of Writers, on March 17. At first we had four participants, then after half an hour, more than 24. Enough remained for the group photo above. Manu is on the far left. (I'm standing with Kwasi Gyan-Appenteng, president of the GAW, in the photo on the left.) I spoke for more than 4 hours, touching on everything from creating lists and files, to writing, illustrating, publishing and promoting children's books. The Epson projector I purchased in Montreal worked really well for the presentation. I read two of my stories, and presented photos and information to illustrate some of my own work habits. Everyone was fascinated by my huge study drawings called Drop Sheets, and I think I convinced several writers of the importance of treating the visual art with as much consideration as the text. The reaction to the Love Ant was so positive, I'm going to make it my next printed picture book. I was presented with a wonderful Ghanaian shirt in thanks, which is now one of five Ghanaian shirts in my collection. The participants are all active members of Accra society and culture, so I may end up doing radio and television interviews. I'm hoping to do at least a couple more readings for children before I leave.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Ghana's First Cultural Forum/ Reading to Children

In the Kathy Knowles Library in Accra (Osu district) I read a few stories, using my projector for the first time. Text and images are projected together so children can read along. A white marker-board became the screen in the doorway of a giant blue shipping container that is part of the library. Kathy Knowles (Canadian from Winnipeg) has set up six such libraries in Ghana, (amongst other programs) and filled them with thousands of books. Kathy has also published children's books. The profits remain in Ghana to support reading and writing programs. I was happy to contribute, and time willing, I may do a few more readings. 
The same day, Manu Herbstein invited me to the official launch of the Ghana Culture Forum at the National Theatre. After speeches, and interesting statements from a concerned audience about Ghanaian culture, there was drumming and dancing. In the picture below, on the far left behind the tripod (you can just make out his solid gold staff) is a chief (king). Manu Herbstein (author of Ama) is on the right.

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Little Things - Make a Lot

The little details add up, and when most travellers return from a trip they talk about the highlights and often don't have time to describe those little things that create an overall impression. Smell, for example, is not something I can describe easily and expect to have an interested ear. Detail is a prerequisite for creating a believable scene in a work of art, even for a children's book. The audience will take to it better, and engage more deeply in the story, so long as the facts don't get in the way of the mystery, the story and the action. I take dozens of photos every day and spend a good deal of time editing, filing, reducing their size, and picking my favourites. I make notes about what I've missed. I have three digital cameras with me, of which the small red Canon Powershot is the one I use most frequently.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

FIELD OF SCREAMS, U of G, Accra, Ghana
At the Guest House a resident refers to the night chanting, and incantations from the Christian groups as the "Field of Screams." It's a mix of traditional chants with rap and christian ceremony that happens at night, randomly during the week. The above group was one of four. The largest group, and loudest, had over 70 students. There was no light on them to take a picture. They will chant and scream till 2am, however, my residence is far enough away that they don't bother me. 

Saturday 10 March 2012

Beauty in Accra

The view from my doorway is lovely. I began this stroll to find the ant hill I saw two days ago in a field when I was getting a ride to the Institute of African Studies with Irene Odotei. I assumed there was only one mound. On the way, I learned that the U of G was graduating enough students for the Vice President of Ghana to attend. The car jam was huge. Students and their relatives wore beautiful clothes for the occasion, both traditional and current. A group of International Study students from Holland were also enjoying the sights and celebration. Unlike the Ghanaians they were willing to pose. I had great difficulty finding people willing to have their photograph taken. I stopped asking and had to sneak shots, which is why I don't have good photos of the event. At one point about a dozen half naked young men chided me in their language - Twi (pronounced Chwi) - from a balcony. They were yelling and acting tough, mostly smiling. I whipped out my camera and yelled, "You want a photo!?" They yelped and ducked behind the balcony. Their audience - a field full of well-dressed people and myself - burst out laughing.

The ground has a red colour from the rocky soil, called laterite, a clay enriched with iron and aluminum. It gets blown around a lot in the wind. It sets off the white student residences nicely, but is a pain for people to drive on when a road is in disrepair or where the dirt must suffice.

I did some quick reading on how these super colonies are made and what their function is. It seems the terminates either carry the sand to the highest point and drop the sand, or they actually sculpt as they go along.  The ants store food inside. Ones that are broken open reveal a pile of refuse at their base. The queen termite is also protected on the inside. She has been known to live up to 21 years. The males all die very quickly after they've performed their function. Probably why I didn't see any termites. In 2008, a professor here, Kwadwo Osseo-Asare got his students to do a little research on these hills. What they had to say is very interesting. 

Thursday 8 March 2012

Beautiful University of Ghana

On my second day in Accra, Ghana, I have already met a number of wonderful people who have been beneficial to my education and research for the book. I was surprised by the number of very old and crumbling books in the University of Ghana's library, but what I discovered were a number of old books that were very valuable, books I'm sure that we don't have in Canada. So, despite the condition – the red dust and worm-chewed pages, – they were very useful. For the time being I am staying at the Guest House on campus, which is a lovely place surrounded by trees. I look forward to the days ahead in Accra.