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Our spirits were already dampened on the foggy bus ride along Ghana’s coast. The air hung like gray flannel, so dense it seemed to physically press down upon us. The sun fought and failed to seep through the gray murk, and we knew our destination was not likely to perk us up. Our formerly lively group had gotten strangely quiet, all lost in our thoughts as we stared out the blotchy windows at the forlorn foliage on the side of the road.

Several years ago, I was very involved with a microfinance organization; I served on a board, did some volunteer work with them, and also took a number of trips designed to show donors what microcredit looked like in action. One summer I wanted to introduce the concept to my oldest son, so we set off for Ghana, a country where entrepreneurship and microfinance were thriving. We spent most of our time in Accra and Kumasi, meeting clients who made concrete blocks, raised chickens, opened rural schools, and processed palm oil, among other small businesses. It was a vibrant line-up of days with the ebullient and brightly dressed Ghanaian people, a week filled with color and laughter and success.

Our hosts had also arranged for some cultural sightseeing – an adventuresome hike though Kakum National Park, a few relaxed days on the beach in Elmina and, finally, a visit to Cape Coast Castle. But Cape Coast Castle was no fairy tale edifice, and our cheerful, positive trip was about to turn much bleaker than the weather.

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From the late 1400s to the end of the 18th century, many similar strongholds were built on the then-named Gold Coast of Ghana to serve as forts and trading posts along merchant trade routes. Portuguese and other settlers fought for control of this coast for centuries, but over time the commodities housed and hidden in these “castles” slowly transitioned from gold, ivory, and other precious goods to human beings.

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In the fortresses, thousands of male and female slaves lived in dank, dimly lit stone chambers with little ventilation, light, and space to move about or even sit or lie down. Human waste filled these dungeons, and female slaves were regularly raped by their jailors. Water was scant, and disease, perhaps mercifully, killed off many of the captives.

Most of the light in this room is coming from camera flashes, not the pitifully small window openings

Most of the light in this room is coming from camera flashes, not the pitifully small window openings

Cape Coast Castle and its ilk soon became the last stop for most slaves before they were shipped off to the Americas and other places. Horrible signs make clear the fate of the fortress occupants; “Female Slave Dungeon” announced the entrance to one of the cavernous vaults filled with sorrow, desolation and despair, and the “Door of No Return” on the sea-facing side of the castle was a terrible small opening where slaves exited into the boats that carried them to the cargo ships heading west across the ocean. Millions and millions of slaves from West Africa alone were shipped off from such castles along the harsh Atlantic coast.

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Seeing these sights and hearing the history made the gloom of the day seem trifling in comparison. Just as I would experience at Auschwitz years later, I felt bludgeoned into silence; there were no words or cogent thoughts as I tried, and failed, to properly process the horror.

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Coming out of the castle and onto its ramparts and courtyard, we gulped in the thick air and tried to cleanse ourselves of the revulsion and shame we felt as human beings.

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There, we saw life going on as fishermen cleaned their nets and unloaded their catch from a day at work. The colored sails and hulls could not completely pierce the mist, and their muted, blurry hues had a confused, melancholy air that matched our moods.

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Like the tangled nets and tattered flags, my thoughts were a jumble, and to this day, the boat scene feels as grim to me as the castle. I wanted and needed those boats to snap me out of my heartache, and they didn’t. At least their owners are free.