As a white French journalist took pictures at this year’s Panafest festival in Ghana, a black Ghanaian man stood behind him and chirped, “Excuse me, sir, but can you move? This event is for the black people.” I was shocked when I heard this statement. A group of Ghanaians, who pride themselves on Ghana’s reputation for hospitality, immediately chided their fellow countryman for his rude statement. He walked away in embarrassment, and almost every Ghanaian who heard the statement apologized to the French journalist.
I looked around me, noticing that at this event, “Reverential Night at Cape Coast Castle,” many white faces filled the crowd. I thought about the Ghanaian’s insult to the Frenchman and what it must have felt like for the numerous white people who were present at this event geared toward Africans and members of the African Diaspora. Instead of guessing at their thoughts, I began to ask questions.
Panafest is a festival “dedicated to enhancement of the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the development of the African continent.” People are invited from all over the world; however, the events, which celebrate the history and progression of Pan-Africanism and discuss the major issues facing the African continent today, are geared specifically to Africans and members of the African Diaspora. Still, the festival’s various events spanning over the course of a week all had a good number of white participants.
These white participants were welcomed with open arms, many times even given preferential treatment in the form of front-row seats and private pictures with dignitaries to quell any feelings of unease. I realized that many of the white guests at the festival, including the insulted Frenchman, truly understood the meaning of the event and their stake in the history that took place in the slave castle where we stood.
Before I left the Panafest activities, I visited the Cape Coast Castle, a major British fort in the transatlantic slave trade. I immediately felt shaken, sensing the ghosts of death around me in the dungeon. Even thinking about the pain of the thousands of slaves that died where I was standing was an impossible task. One can still see the color line on the wall about two feet up from the ground, to where the human waste collected. Millions of Africans were once held here, caught in the darkest period of human history.
Coincidentally, the same Frenchman from the “Reverential Night” was in my tour group. He greeted me happily. I am sure that for moments he felt out of place, uncomfortable by the fact that he had to play the unfamiliar role of minority. However, he took as many pictures as possible and discussed the tour guide’s statements in detail. Most importantly, he understood that the centuries of injustice that took place in the Castle are his history as much as they are mine.
I visited the slave castles and enjoyed Panafest after a month in Ghana. I traveled through the northern rural towns and the southern urban centers. I lived in the central region of Ghana, where the pride of the Ashanti Empire remains. White people, who may have visited Ghana for a week, perhaps facing an awkward conversation or two, might have left with a misconstrued perception of slavery and Africa. I’m happy however, that many of the white people I met left not feeling blame, but feeling the same ownership I have. Ownership of the fact that historical inequities cannot be separated from present-day circumstances; that all of our histories are intertwined in Ghana—the British, the Ashanti, the Dutch, the Fante; that while they may face some unexpected questions, they will not allow themselves to fall into the exact same vein of ignorance as their inquisitors.
Ofole Mgbako ’08 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House.