Atonement In Ghana

Cristal Thomas

© Copyright 2004 by Cristal Thomas


Photo of rusted chains.  (c) 2003 by Richard Loller.

This is a true account of my cousin Stephanie's first trip to Ghana.  While I didn't have the privilege of being
there, I was inspired by her story and think others will enjoy sharing the experience.

The courtyard was filled with color.  There were hundreds of people dancing, singing, laughing, crying; rejoicing in the occasion.  Ashanti chiefs, dressed in traditional costume, were adorned with an impressive display of gold and jewels.  They were surrounded by subjects from their respective tribes, all in festive attire.  Clusters of white-clad figures moved purposefully through the crowd; a stark contrast to the stunning combinations of reds, yellows, greens and blues around them.  Musicians wove competing yet strangely complementary rhythms.  The beat reverberated through the people, making them long to join the dancers jumping and gyrating, skillfully flinging their heads, arms and legs in time with the music.  This was the Ceremony of Atonement.  The American looked around for her friends and their guide.  Kalabu and Nia were standing behind her.  The guide was gone, but she was too overcome to care.

They hadn’t planned on attending the ceremony.  It was one of the unexpected things that can happen when you travel, if you stay open to new experiences.   It was their first trip to Ghana, and the country was living up to its reputation.  The Ghanaian people display a warmth and hospitality not generally found in other West African countries. Many of the people in Accra speak English, so it is easy for Westerners to get around; yet it's retained its traditional culture and charm.

After 15 hours on a plane, and the chaos of Accra’s international airport, the evening air of Ghana’s coastal capital city was welcome.  There was a slight breeze off the Gulf of Guinea, although it did little to stir the thick humidity.  The friends checked into their rooms and decided to meet in the hotel restaurant for dinner.  The food in Ghana is simple; combining staple crops with seafood available along the west coast.  They shared Jollof rice (a paella-like dish with fish and shrimp), fufu (pureed cassava mashed and shaped into balls), Gari foto (casserole of eggs, onion, shrimp and tomatoes), and fried plantains.  The restaurant was busy, but not crowded.  The table next to them held several distinguished-looking African men, dressed entirely in white, who glanced to their table occasionally during the meal.  When the men were finished eating, one of them approached their table.

“You are Americans.”  He said in a deep, friendly voice.   It was a statement rather than a question.  The friends confirmed that yes, they were indeed Americans.

He rewarded them with a brilliant smile.  “You should come to our ceremony.” He said, spreading his arms in a gesture of invitation.

They were immediately intrigued.  As artists, they loved to explore different cultures and welcomed opportunities to experience unique aspects of indigenous life.

“We are having a Grand Durbar at the castle in Old Accra tomorrow night, midnight.”

“A Grand Durbar?”

“It’s a rare ceremony hosted by his Majesty, King of the Ashanti.”

“What kind of ceremony?” Nia asked, feeling uneasy about a midnight ceremony in a foreign country.

The man thought for a moment, looking for words.  “I don’t know how to explain it in English.  But you should come.  We would love it if you’d come.”

Stephanie, Kalabu, and Nia spent the next day shopping; enjoying the city and its people.  A trip to Accra is not complete until you’ve visited the Makola Market, located in the center of Accra.  The Ashanti people are renowned for their arts and crafts, including the woven Kente cloth, and the market is where the local artists sell their wares.  Accra is not a beautiful city, but what it lacks in architecture is more than made up for by the happy, peaceful atmosphere. While talking with vendors they received several invitations to join a person and his or her family at their home for dinner, which they politely declined.  As the sun began to disappear, casting an orange glow over the muted tones of Accra’s low buildings, they hailed a cab to take them back to the hotel.  “How far is it to Old Accra?” Kalabu asked as he paid the fare.

The driver looked surprised at the question.  “Why would you want to go to Old Accra?”

“We were invited to a ceremony.”

“I don’t think you want to go to the ceremony.” The driver responded, shaking his head. He seemed more skeptical than concerned.

“Why not?”  Nia asked.

“I just don’t think it’s for you.” He answered cryptically.

At 11:30pm, as planned, the three emerged from the hotel and hailed a cab.  “We need to go to Old Accra.” Kalabu told the cab driver.

The driver gave them a suspicious look. “Why are you going to Old Accra?”

“We’re going to a ceremony.”

This driver also shook his head. “I’m not going to Old Accra.”

“Why not?”  It seemed unusual for a cab driver to refuse a fare.

“I don’t think you want to go to the ceremony.”  The driver said.

Undeterred, they went inside to ask the attendant at the front desk to call them a cab that would take them to Old Accra.  The woman behind the desk was speaking with another woman, but looked up as they approached.

“We need to get to Old Accra.”

“Why are you going to Old Accra?” The woman gave them the same suspicious look as the cab driver.

“We were invited to a ceremony.”

“I don’t know if you want to go to the ceremony.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes in frustration. “Why not?” She demanded. “What is this ceremony?”

The other woman standing at the desk spoke up.  “I don’t know the right word in English, but the closest might be ‘atonement’.”

“You know about the ceremony?”

“Everyone knows about the ceremony.”

“Atonement?” Nia repeated, thinking she misunderstood. “You mean a penance for a wrong?”

“Yes.” The woman answered with a smile.  “I am Gale. I will take you there, if you like.”

“What is the castle we’re going to?” They asked, as Gale navigated her late-model Mercedes west through Accra.

“Of all the West African countries, Ghana spent the least amount of time under colonial rule.”  Gale began by way of explanation.  She was a native of Northern Ghana and shared the pride that most Ghanaians have in their country.  She was more than happy to answer their questions as they drove through Accra. “The Europeans traded with the Ashanti King and chiefs and in the 17th century built several castles and forts along the coast as trading posts.  The ceremony is in one of these castles.”

The castle was smaller than they expected but still impressive, and well preserved considering that it was built in the 16th century.  They could hear the beat of drums as they approached the entrance.

“Is this an annual ceremony?” Stephanie asked.

“No” Gale laughed.  “We have several ceremonies and festivals throughout the year, but this is special.”

That’s how they found themselves in a castle in Old Accra, witness to a fantastic display of wealth and beauty; mesmerized by movement, color, and sound.  The air was charged with excitement.  They had never experienced anything like it.  The men and women in white, Ashanti Priests, had come together at the center of the courtyard.  The music and dancing stopped suddenly.  Stephanie was dizzy from the abrupt stillness.  All eyes were on the priests.  The Ashanti King came forward, followed by the queen mother--in the place of honor in the Ashanti’s matrilineal society.  Then animals were brought to the priests.  Oxen and goats were lead or in some cases wheeled in on carts.  The priests slaughtered the animals and drained their blood into a large, decorative basin.  The Americans couldn’t understand the words, but it was obvious the animals were being sacrificed.  Stephanie experienced a sense of shock; the smell of the blood, the sound of the animals bleating, the moans and chanting of the people were momentarily overwhelming.  She couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Gale tried to explain what was happening.  “The Ashanti chiefs are both Christian and animists. They are performing a powerful, ancient ritual of sacrifice to the gods as atonement for their ancestors’ role in the European slave trade.”

The Portuguese, Dutch, and British all obtained slaves from Ghana; at its peak in the 19th century over 10,000 slaves were taken annually from Ghana’s ports.  In most cases, the Europeans did not capture these slaves.  They were captured by Africans and traded to the Europeans.  The castles and forts dotting Ghana’s coastline are not only a legacy of European influence, but serve as a poignant reminder of the crimes Africans committed against one another.

The drummer, dancers and chanters began again with a renewed frenzy as the animal carcasses were wheeled out of the courtyard.  The priests moved slowly through the gathering carrying the basin of blood, their path visible by the parting of the crowd in their wake.  They carried ceremonial staffs of gold, with animal tails attached to the ends.  Periodically they dipped the tails into the basin and used them to fling the blood onto people they passed.  Stephanie, Kalabu, and Nia were again transfixed by the sum of the spectacle.  They didn’t realize the priests were approaching them.  The men dipped brushes into the basin and threw it onto the Americans.  They flinched as blood splattered their faces, hair, and clothes.  They again smelled the copper, and tasted iron.  They were encircled in white; enveloped in music, the center of all.

That night marked the first time the Ashanti King and chiefs had officially accepted responsibility and asked forgiveness for the role they played in the transatlantic slave trade.  Stephanie, Kalabu, and Nia had the fortune and honor of representing the African-Americans whose ancestors were captured and sold.  They realized that they hadn’t been invited to an African ceremony, but a ceremony honoring the commonality of Africans and African-Americans.  That’s the magic of Ghana; through its exotic history, geography and culture, the people always manage to remind you of the similarities and make you feel at home.

Ghana is an ideal travel destination, particularly for your first time to Africa.  With beaches along the coast, thick tropical rainforests, game reserves and castle ruins to explore, there is something for everyone.  The country has a wonderful balance; it’s friendly to western tourists without being overrun with them; it’s found a way to become modern while preserving its culture; it has a democratically elected President, yet still honors the Ashanti King and chiefs; it’s mostly Christian, yet respects the ancient religions. In Ghana, you get the best of both worlds.

Cristal Thomas was born in Ohio and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.  She loves reading, writing, and travel and dreams of one day combining her loves into a full-time career. In the meantime, she continue as a dedicated public servant to the people of Illinois.

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