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Delusions in the Dark Continent

Postcard from Cape Coast, Ghana

By Travis R. Kavulla

“To establish the truth about the history of Africa” is Goal #1 of Panafest and enticement enough to compel your correspondent, a gadfly of colonial history and sensitive about sweeping, Pan-African pronouncements of historical truth, to hightail it to this one-time capital of Britain’s Gold Coast Colony (Cape Coast, Ghana) where the confab is gathering.

PANAFEST—not an acronym, but unfailingly capitalized by Ghanaian journalists—is a sordid affair that mixes tedious, egotistic African government types with local Rastafarians conniving to profit off of stupid tourists with the mushy, self-righteous black American tourists themselves, coming “back to Africa” to rediscover their roots.

It is, in other words, a place where a honky like me has little, or no, place.

But I have a soft spot for dark ironies, and there are a lot of those at Panafest. Chief among them is that Panafest is possible only because the descendants of slaves now lead far more privileged lives in America—privileged enough to afford the $1,500 roundtrip airfare to Ghana—than those left behind in Africa, including the kin of those Africans who were pressed into slavery.

For the several hundred black Americans who do attend, slavery is the unavoidably central issue. The horrors conjured up by slave dungeons, shackles, the Middle Passage, and all the attendant misery of enslavement has the same resonance with these African-Americans that Auschwitz has for Jews. And so, slavery is the thing that irrevocably binds the festival’s American celebrants to their African brothers and forever alienates them from their “white oppressors,” an oft-heard term at Panafest.

Ghanaians, on the other hand, could hardly care less about slavery. Acquaintances of mine—tough locals who make their living by conning, wooing or robbing foreigners—shuttled en masse to the festivities, sensing a gullible crowd. And they made out well, hocking cheap handicrafts and dubious tour-guide services at wildly inflated prices to these trusting Americans.

The African politicos, meanwhile, gave speeches so uninspired, tedious, and off-topic that they visibly embarrassed many of the expat participants. “The Special Advisor to the Honourable Minister of Tourism and Modernisation of the Capital City,” whose title was announced in full ad nauseum, gave a speech that embodied the tenor. The only time this man lit up was a one-paragraph run (out of what must have been a 50-page speech) where he named some of Ghana’s many problems, hinting that blacks in the diaspora could help out a little more. On slavery, which the blacks from the Americas had come to hear about, he remained stolidly mum, except to ramble something about, what else, “colonial oppression.”

In this climate, I found myself playing a role too: scapegoat. Admittedly, my Africa garb, comprised of white linens and a Panama hat, made me an obvious target, but the gall of my inquisitors! After half an hour spent lingering about an old slave fort, one African-American who’d been eyeing me crept towards me and asked, “Don’t you feel guilty?”

Oh, here it was, the culmination of this man’s Panafest experience, confronting the white man—or perhaps the apogee was the traditional naming rites ceremony he, once Charles, now “Kojo,” subjected himself to later. But a slave fort was no place to argue in this situation, even if my accuser was dead wrong; I answered his interrogative by tipping my fedora in deference.

I should’ve taught him some history: It’s been 170 years since the British Empire began their worldwide campaign to suppress slavery and the slave trade with military force. It was a lengthy effort that stepped on many, mostly African feet—specific to Ghana, they forced the Ashanti empire to stop slavery, live sacrifices, torture of enemy tribesmen, and myriad other barbaric practices. It’s true that everyone who was anyone had a slaving fort. The British, of course, but so too the Dutch, Swedes, Danish, even the Brandenburgers before Bismarck got their act together. But the great perversity, the “truth” that has gone mostly unrecognized, is that, by and large, the initiators of slavery in Africa were Africans.

Notwithstanding historical fact, “Blame the Whitey” is a time-honored tradition of both African and American blacks—not just for slavery, but for AIDS, poverty, environmental degradation, everything—and it will not soon go away.

But I’ve had enough of fake history and accusatory glares, thanks. I missed the centerpiece of Panafest—billed as a “reverential evening” at Cape Coast Castle, one of history’s largest slave depots—and am saving up my reverence for a number of gin and tonics.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Mather House. After a year’s hiatus, he will be making his return to Cambridge in the fall.

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