slavery and egg sandwiches

Nightmare morning – a couple of appointments cancelled, so I decided to go to Wa to continue the survey in the Upper West region. Got up at 3.30, with Hannah, who was on her way to Salaga (south of Tamale) for work.

The bus company stipulates that you have to come and wait at 3, but there is no queueing system and nothing happens till 4.45, when the conductor turns up and everyone who just arrived mobs him for the few available seats. These were the official responses to my question, “may I please buy a ticket for the Wa bus?”

1. You wait small, he will come and you buy ticket.

2. No tickets, all gone.

3. Oh! disaster! you will have to fight and push very hard.

4. You come back 4am tomorrow, you can buy ticket for next day’s bus.

The range was sufficiently confusing that I waited an hour and a half, then the conductor finally came along and announced that there were no seats left. Which seemed to resolve the issue, until a dodgy young guy who keeps finding me since I’ve been in Tamale came up to me and asked where I was going, and whether I needed a ticket. I told him Wa, and there were no tickets. Then he said he had some tourists waiting round the corner, and he was going to get them on the bus, and did I want him to get me on the bus too? He sidled up to the conductor and started calling him brother and mumbling about tickets to Wa. At which point I lost my rag, and started having a go at the dodgy guy about how he was bribing the conductor to give him seats for which the rest of us had been waiting patiently since 3.45 am, and what did he think he was doing? Fortunately, I saw the tourists trying to get tickets for another bus at noon, so this time corruption didn’t work either.

So I called Hannah, who had just reached the head of the queue for her bus, and she got me a ticket for Salaga instead, where there was rumoured to be an internet cafe.

Two hours on dusty roads later, we got to Salaga, and I found that the internet cafe had been closed for six months. Still, worth the trip to be able to confirm that. So I went to get the bus back to Tamale. The main trotro station in Salaga, however, is a weird place. It used to be one of the main slave markets in Ghana, where they’d bring the slaves from Mali, Burkina and northern Ghana to clean them up and buff them with shea butter before selling them to the traders who took them down to the coast and sold them on to international slavers.

welcome to salaga slave market

welcome to salaga slave market

So it’s a historic place, with a lot of ghosts. However, the Ghana tourist board hasn’t quite responded to this yet. The market square is still the market square, meaning that it’s full of trotros, people selling food, and random new construction. There is a baobab tree that was planted to mark the place of an old one, where they used to chain the slaves waiting for auction. People sit under it selling eggs and bread, mangoes, and tea. Around them the market continues much as it has for centuries, except for the absence of human goods.

None of this is bad, I suppose. Constructing a tourist trade around the remains of slavery is a strange venture, although probably a profitable one. I’ve been feeling ambivalent about visiting Cape Coast and Elmina, where the slave castles are, and am just as ambivalent about Salaga. But it’s good to know what happened there, and also good to see people going about their business, unenslaved. Although there is still a lack of freedom here – many (or most) don’t get to make any choices about their lives, they can’t get an education, many can’t afford food, and more than one in five in this area can expect to die in childhood. But the lack of chains is definitely an advance.

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