Slave Route and Remembrance: Travels in Ghana Part 1

On Saturday (July 30) my wife Gwen and I, and our friend Aukram, journeyed from Accra to Assin Praso to attend the 2011 Panafest/Emancipation Day activities at Assin Praso Heritage Village. Assin Praso is located in the Assin North Municipal District (ANMD), which is one of thirteen districts that comprise the Central Region of Ghana.

Central Ghana Districts

The ANMD encompasses about 1,000 settlements including Assin Foso (the District Capital), Assin Nyankumasi, Assin Akonfudi, Assin Bereku, Assin Praso, Assin Kushea and others. The ANMD is part of Suampon-man. The Suampon State is the Assin Atandanso Traditional Area of the Central Region of Ghana, the capital of which is Assin Jakai. “Traditional Areas” are defined by the institution of Chieftaincy in Ghana. Unlike districts constituted by the Ghanaian government for purposes of administration, they are comprised of villages and areas over which traditional rulers exercise authority. Their borders therefore are not coterminous with the borders of government-defined districts and regions. The institution of Chieftaincy in Ghana, although not without its critics, remains an essential part of the nation’s culture and is viewed as especially important in conflict prevention, management, and resolution in the lower levels (regional, district, municipal) of government. In recognition of the relevance of the institution, a Ministry of Chieftaincy & Culture was established in 2006.

Assin Praso is located along one of the main corridors from Northern Ghana used to transport enslaved Africans to the coast for sale to European slave traders. “Assin” is the name of a traditional state/people in Ghana. Pra = the name of a nearby river, and so = on, therefore its name means Assin “on the river Pra.” According to tradition, the area served as the gateway to the Assin slave route leading south to the coast. This final leg of the route was accessed by crossing the Pra River at it shallowest point. This crossing point served as the link in this region between the northern and southern halves of Ghana until the construction of a bridge over the river in 1939.

Our trip to Assin Praso began in Accra at 6 am. Aukram had arranged for our transport (a van and driver) via Michael Williams, an African American ex-pat who has lived in Ghana for over two decades. We scheduled the driver to pick us up at 6 am to provide ample time to deal with the traffic and road conditions we expected to encounter on the way. We knew we would not arrive in time for the 9 am opening ceremonies at the Heritage Village. But we hoped to arrive prior to the 11 am start of the re-enactments of the crossing of the River Pra and the journey along the “slave corridor,” both of which comprised a major part of the events scheduled at the site to commemorate Emancipation Day.

According to Google Maps the route we chose (which followed Cape Coast Road east and Kumasi-Yamaransa Road north) covered a distance of 210 km (130.4 miles) and would take approximately 2 hours and 51 minutes. That estimate would be fine in the U.S. but local circumstances dictated we double the allotted time. As things turned out it still wasn’t enough. Saturday morning traffic in Accra was so bad it took us two hours to get out of the city. Buses, vans, cars, taxis, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and carts drawn by boys and men clogged the main roads, produced a bumper-to-bumper jam of vehicles, and generated a sickening mix of exhaust fumes that covered the city and nearby suburbs in a noxious cloud.

Outside Accra we encountered the many road hazards we expected to slow us down: giant potholes, slow moving trucks, and traffic bottlenecks in towns and villages along the way. We also passed through a number of police checkpoints and roadblocks that seemed to exist primarily to slow drivers down to reduce the daily carnage that took place on the highways. What we didn’t predict were the numerous funeral processions we saw in nearly every town we passed though. Samuel, our driver, informed us it was customary to hold funerals on Saturday.

These delays, however, didn’t set us back as much as an incorrect turn by Samuel that led us away from our destination. He lacked experience along our route north from Cape Coast Road. Aukram called and got directions that required us to reverse course for a number of miles and at the cost of an additional hour’s delay.

Ghana is one giant marketplace. Everywhere you turn in city, town, or village you see roadside stalls and people walking along the streets or strolling through traffic selling everything imaginable. The women and girls—baskets on their heads piled high with their goods—offer bags of raw or roasted groundnuts, plantain chips, bananas, bottled water, candies, pastries, bread. The men and boys hawk cell phone sim cards, watches, dvds, bed sheets, towels, toilet tissue, newspapers, and tables and chairs they adroitly maneuver among the vehicles. The constant beeping of car horns and the radios blaring from nearly every roadside stall provide the background music to this chaotic pageant of everyday life in Ghana. And the putrid odor of human waste and raw sewage wafting up from the gutters, combined with the acrid stench of exhaust fumes coming from every vehicle on the street, provides an unforgettable, eye-watering, nose-assaulting aroma that could be bottled and branded as distinctly and unmistakeably urban African. Yet somehow the visceral nature of this daily struggle for existence—identical scenes of which are repeated with each sunrise all over the African continent and indeed throughout the world—created a sense of wonderment in me.

Let me pause here and make something clear. I’m not some tourist doing a temporary tango of flirtation with the exotic, who, when the music stops, can hop a plane back to “civilization.” On the contrary, I see the past and the future of the entire world on those African streets. Instead of difference, I see sameness everywhere I turn. I am fully aware of the notion popularized in eurocentric culture of a journey to Africa being a journey back in time. I recognize that this “denial of coevalness” (the view that relegates African people to some other time separate from the so-called modern world, a so-called primitive time where life has remained unchanged despite so-called progress elsewhere) is a completely false construct designed to foster and maintain white supremacy/black inferiority.

Without Africans the so-called “modern world” would not exist. Terms like “third world” and “developing countries” are part of the Orwellian tricknology that turns words into political weapons to propagandize, manipulate, and control language and preserve Euro-American hegemony. I didn’t doze off while earning a graduate degree in Pan African Studies. Nor was I asleep before arriving in academia. So my sense of wonderment is not about “difference” but about the amazing “sameness” of human existence everywhere we turn on the planet. That is what astonishes me. Our struggles as a species are the same wherever we look. They may be amplified by poverty in some places versus others, but beneath the veneer we all are confronted by the same problems of environment, food, identity, inhumanity, crime, corruption, religion, and governance. Whatever has happened in the past has happened to all of us. And that past has formed and informed the present in the same way the present will determine the future. The earth is too small and we are too young as a species for it to be otherwise. I see the world in Africa, on those city streets and rural highways in Ghana. And it always looks and feels like home.

Okay … this side trip (digression) is like getting lost yet again on the road to Assin Praso, so let me get back on course.

We passed through small towns and villages on our way northward—Biriwa, Oguna, Korma, Kobina, Ansa, Akoango, Aseibu, Batanyaa—places that not even Google has mapped. Along the way we saw signposts urging drivers to slow down and that enumerated the numbers of lives lost on a particular stretch of road. “Slow down … 35 people lost their lives here” … “13 died here” … “23 dead.” Given the constant need to veer into the opposite lane to avoid huge potholes, it is no wonder so many lose their lives on the highways. Head-on collisions also occur frequently as drivers attempt to pass slow moving trucks on those two-lane roads.

Signage and billboards are as ubiquitous as the goats seen grazing everywhere. It also is common to see street stalls and houses decorated entirely as advertisements. Vodophone and MTN, two major telecom companies in Ghana, dominated the landscape with their respective red and yellow signature colors. But along the Kumasi-Yamoransa Road, as we passed through small villages, we saw billboards commissioned by grieving relatives that memorialized and extolled the lives of the recently deceased. The smiling faces of women and men were depicted and captioned with expressions of love and loss: “Gone too soon” … “Great father and husband” … “Our beloved mother.” Often the ages of the deceased were given along with an indication of their professions and achievements in life. Ironically, those signs loomed above our heads while we continued to encounter funeral processions on the road in nearly every village along our route. In our haste we never stopped to photograph those billboards. On my next visit I plan to document those extraordinary personal tributes.

I am fascinated by barbershop signs (look for an earlier post I did on South African barbershops), and I saw dozens of them in Ghana. Below is one seen along the Kumasi-Yamoransa Road. And yes, that is Ludicris depicted above the entrance.

After an arduous journey of nearly 200 miles that took approximately 6 1/2 hours we arrived at the Assin Praso Heritage Village. Eric Manu, the organizer of the program, had been expecting us and had delayed the start of the re-enactments in anticipation of our late arrival. But as it became clear to us we still had a good distance to travel to get there, Aukram phoned him and told him of our misfortune of taking the wrong turn. Eric started the program sometime after 11 am. We arrived around noon. We missed the first re-enactment—the crossing of the River Pra—and rushed down the “slaves corridor” just in time to catch the dramatic second re-enactment.

To be continued …


12 thoughts on “Slave Route and Remembrance: Travels in Ghana Part 1

    • Thanks, I appreciate the correction. I asked the person who drove us to Assin Praso what “Assin” meant, as there were dozens of villages along the way that used it as part of their name. I was told it meant “village.” I should have checked further. Your website looks like the definitive resource to do so. Great job!

  1. Thank you! I’m interested in your ‘lion & hunter’ saying. The first time I saw this proverb was written on the wall inside one of the rooms in Fort Prinzenstein, Keta, Volta Region, one of the slave-trade forts, where it is rendered as: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero”. I have a photo of it. It seems that it is known in various African cuiltures, but I have yet to find an original source.

    • Like you, I’ve seen several variations on the theme but I’ve never found the original source.

      I was speaking to a friend earlier today about documenting the “slave forts” (dungeons) along the West African coast. I have not visited Fort Prinzenstein and will have to do so next year when I return to Ghana.

    • John, I tried to post a comment over at GPN to let you know I am posting a link to your site on Ourstorian so my visitors can be aware of your great resources about Ghana. I don’t think the comment went through.

    • Thanks. I plan to explore your site in-depth. I too am fascinated by toponyms. But I also will be traveling to Ghana to work on a project at least twice a year, so the information you provide will be very useful.

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