Door of Return
Visiting Cape Coast Castle Dungeons
By Olivia Burton
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n every tour of the Cape Coast Castle Dungeons in Ghana, visitors pass through the “Door of No Return.”
During the transatlantic slave trade, thousands of enslaved Africans walked through this portal after being held for months in crowded dungeons without light, food, or water. A tour guide explains this as you pass from a quiet courtyard surrounded by white walls into a bustling fishing village where fishermen repair their wiry green nets next to long wooden boats. Today, a sign hangs above the other side of the door facing the ocean, with small white painted letters saying “Door of Return.”
In 1998, Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings declared the first of August Emancipation Day, joining an international celebration that first began in the Caribbean to memorialize the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Ghana was a major exit point for many of the enslaved Africans who were taken to the Americas. Today, visitors come to see the many forts, market sites, and burial grounds related to the slave trade in the country.
That same year, IMAHKÜS Okofu and her husband were working on a committee to bring the ancestral remains of two enslaved Africans—Crystal from Jamaica and Samuel Carson from New York City—back to Ghana. Their remains were laid in state in Accra at the W.E.B. DuBois Centre before traveling by boat to Cape Coast Castle Dungeons and taken back through the “Door of No Return,” after which the other side of the door facing the ocean was renamed “Door of Return.”
IMAHKÜS used to live in the Bronx, where she worked as a human resources administrator for a major teaching hospital until she and her husband, Nana Okofo, opened a travel agency and car service. She was always interested in her African heritage and ideas of Pan-Africanism; as a side job, she was “P’Nut Butter the African American Clown,” who played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” on a boom box wearing a kente cloth jumpsuit adorned with buttons of famous African Americans.
She visited Africa for the first time in 1987, starting in Ghana. After feeling a spiritual presence in the women’s dungeon of Cape Coast Castle, she knew that when she walked out, she would never be the same again. Years later, she would move to Ghana and change her name to IMAHKÜS, meaning “I Mother Africa, Queen of the earth.” The H is for the eighth letter of the alphabet, representing infinity. KUS is short for Kush, an ancient kingdom in Nubia, now northeast Africa. The two dots above the U make a smiley face, she explained, because she was happy to leave the United States.
Later, visiting a village in nearby Elmina, she stood on the shore of the Gulf of Guinea and yet again felt a spiritual calling. “I wanted to be able to walk out my door every day for the rest of my life and see the Elmina Castle Dungeons in the distance,” she said, referring to the area’s second largest colonial castle and dungeon after Cape Coast.
When she returned to New York, she told her husband about her spiritual experience. Although he believed her, she wanted him to see for himself. So three months later, alone, he visited Ghana.
Over the next few years, they visited the country together to prepare to move. During one of their visits, IMAHKÜS’s husband told her he met some people who wanted to make him a chief. “What do you know about being a chief, you were a fireman!” she remembers saying. It was a long story. One day, he saw a group of people in a village and thought they were celebrating the Sabbath, so he asked to join them. Actually, they were having a fundraiser to put electricity in their village. In return for his help, the villagers gave him the honorary title of Asophene (warrior chief).
When they moved, IMAHKÜS realized that her husband’s village, Iture in Elmina, was the same one she visited on her first trip to Ghana. But he had also acquired some land. “It was the same land that I stood on in 1987 and asked the Universe, the Creator, or whoever had the power, to give me,” IMAHKÜS explained.
On her patch of land on the ocean, IMAHKÜS built One Africa Health Resort, Restaurant, and Wellness Center. She offers a plethora of services, including pre-patriation and repatriation consulting, a “Thru the door of no return—the return” commemorative ceremony, traditional healing, wedding and naming ceremonies, massage, and reflexology. The restaurant boasts of the “best food you will eat while in Ghana.” Famous visitors have included Angela Davis, Lauryn Hill, and Rita Marley. For IMAHKÜS, tourism is not just a business; it’s heritage.
When IMAHKÜS moved in, she and her husband were the only Africans from America living in the community. Today, she estimates that there are more than 300 diasporan Africans living nearby, coming from places like America, England, and the Caribbean. She serves as a surrogate mother to many of them, who, like her, moved to Ghana without their extended families.
“So my job has been to help facilitate that,” she said. “To bring people through what was previously called the Door of No Return, which has now been named the Door of Return.”
Today, Cape Coast and Elmina Castle Dungeons, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are two of the most visited tourist attractions in Ghana and West Africa. Like other sites that could be labeled as “dark tourism,” including Auschwitz and Chernobyl, tour operators here can face the challenge of welcoming visitors while maintaining solemnity and historical accuracy.
Cape Coast Castle is the official name of the site, but IMAHKÜS has repeatedly sent letters to the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board asking that they change the name to Cape Coast Castle Dungeons. “My ancestors were not staying in the castle,” she said.
IMAHKÜS has worked with many tour guides at Cape Coast and Elmina Castle Dungeons over the years. Some guides, she said, are incorrect or apologetic, especially with Europeans. In the museum portion of one Cape Coast Castle Dungeon tour, she overheard a tour guide explaining to a group of European tourists that the marks on the back of a runaway slave in a photo were tattoos. “I knew if I said nothing, my ancestors would give me a swift kick in my behind,” she recalled.
More than tourist sites, Cape Coast and Elmina Castle Dungeons are places of active pilgrimage for diasporan Africans who trace their ancestry back to the enslaved Africans who were held there and in other fortresses along the West African coast.
Our guide for Cape Coast was Francis Kofi Essel, a graduate of Cape Coast University, where he studied tourism. College graduates are expected to spend time working for Ghana’s National Service after graduation, and Francis was assigned to Cape Coast Castle.
We met in the library of Cape Coast Castle after our tour, a small concrete room with stacks of history books and magazines on wooden shelves, wrinkly from the humid sea breeze. Francis shadowed and copied other tour guides before he began using books and the Internet to develop his own tour. He wants to avoid inaccuracies whenever possible, and has adapted to the needs of his visitors. For example, he began saying “enslaved Africans” or “captives” instead of “slaves.”
When asked how he dealt with irreverent visitors, he said, “You have to focus on those who are paying attention and just allow the others to do their own thing.
“I don’t see this as a place for laughter,” he continued. “There was a time I did a tour with some African Americans, and they didn’t want to do a tour from the main entrance,” he said. “They came in through the Door of No Return. They were quiet. They see this place like a pilgrimage.”
Carlene Ervin, MC ’18, spent spring 2017 studying abroad at the University of Ghana in Legon. “I wanted to go to a country where I wouldn’t be in the minority when it came to my skin color,” she explained.
But after a few days, she realized that she was in another minority as a Black American in Ghana. “It was hard to accept that even though we were all Black, there was still an othering of me because of my American [citizenship],” she said. “But I was able to navigate it because I knew that I was coming to Ghana to learn about a West African culture that I don’t have access to because of the slave trade.”
When IMAHKÜS helps newcomers adjust to life in Ghana, this feeling of otherness is one of the major issues her clients face. Tensions arise between diasporan visitors and Ghanaians regarding sites like Cape Coast Castle due to different understandings of the site’s significance.
Carlene expected her visit to the slave castles to be emotional. “For all I knew, my family line in the Americas could have started in that very castle. Being African American, I don’t have access to the historical record the way that some people can trace their family roots.”
Her tour guide, she said, was insensitive in the way he described the women’s dungeon, asking for volunteers to play the role of “captives” and joking about them “wanting to stay there forever.” Furthermore, she found some historical sites to be poorly maintained, although she did not fault the Ghanaian people.
“There were moments of extreme panic, anxiety, happiness, and sadness that washed over me. And never for a particular reason,” she said of her tour. And the fact that not everyone on her tour was Black made her uncomfortable. “Not because they were insensitive, but just because the whole tour felt so personal,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a part of the same trauma fetish that makes white people love slave or maid movies like 12 Years a Slave or The Help.”
On the bus back to Accra, Carlene wrote a poem about her initial feelings, which is published in DOWN. “I am here / For all those in my bloodline / Who couldn’t even dream for themselves / But dreamed for me,” she wrote.
IMAHKÜS became a Ghanaian citizen in December 2016. Her home, in the middle of the One Africa compound, faces the ocean. Inside, she maintains a museum dedicated to the history of the Diaspora, Africa, and Pan-Africanism, including traditional art from across the continent, photographs of Civil Rights leaders, political posters, and shrines. Over the years, as memorabilia was taking up more and more space, visitors commented that it was a museum, to which she would reply, “No, this is my house!”
But one day, she had to agree—she lives in a museum, with a small sleeping area in the back.
“Ghana’s a very historical place, a very friendly place, a very challenging place,” she said. “We have an expression that says, ‘Visit me, come live with me. Two different things.’”
Olivia Burton ’18 is a senior English major in Morse College. You can contact her at email@example.com.