“Having just returned from her first excursion for Archaeological Tours, our very own program manager Mariana Silva Porto shares her thoughts on the transformative experience of traveling through Ghana, Togo, and Benin. From the harrowing history of slavery to the surprisingly cheerful business of coffin-making, Mariana identifies the stories, idiosyncrasies, and wonders of these three countries, and muses on just what it is that makes the tour so special.”
Ghana, Togo, and Benin was my first Archaeological Tours tour. My aim in going was a relatively simple one: finding out what makes these tours special, and I only had five days in which to do it. This is in many ways an unusual destination, not many cultural companies venture to West Africa, I was therefore not sure what to expect. What I got was an insight into the country unlike any other I had encountered in this type of tour.
Normally, on a tour like this, the focus is rooted firmly in the past, on the history and archaeology of an area or country. There was plenty of that here. No one, I think, could help being moved by imposing slave forts, and their dark cells, as the stories of the vying colonial powers, the stakes for which they fought, and their terrible human cost, unfolded before us. As we were presented with the challenges of conservation and ownership that surround these monuments, the complex picture that emerged was one that gave me cause to stop and think.
I began to understand then that the true strength of this tour lay not in its illustrations of Ghana’s past, but in bridging the gap between the past and the present reality. Thus, although we were introduced to the history of the Ashanti kingdoms and their fabulous gold craftsmanship, this became much more than museum displays when we were suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the Akwasidae festival. Here, amongst traditional drums, singing, and the fabulous colours of the cloths made of the very same types of Kente and Adinkra fabrics we had seen woven and stamped just days before, the Ashanti King received homage from various subjects. To us it was a wonderful once in a lifetime opportunity, but we also got a sense that what we were witnessing was not a piece of history but a continuing, living tradition. These ceremonies take place every 42 days in the palace—we had created the tour deliberately around attending one—and we could see that they were important and meaningful to everyone there. Equally, of the many craftsmen we came across, I don’t think any surprised and delighted us more than the coffin makers and their fantastical creations, a recent phenomenon that builds on centuries of woodworking traditions, and which came to life when we saw the importance that funerary rites held here as we drove and walked past several ceremonies on our way.
Surrounded by a friendly and welcoming people, in just the first five days we had already been thrust directly into the heart of Ghana’s culture, and began to get an understanding not just of its past, but also of the many challenges which faced the modern country, be these economic, social, or environmental. I was sad not to have been able to continue this journey with our very congenial group, but as I left them to explore the fabulous mud architecture and other great things in the north of Ghana, Togo, and Benin, I found I had at least one answer to my question: this tour was special because the way it had been created had forced me think, and to alter my perception, and isn’t that, after all, what good travel is meant to do?