Harris Touches on Africa’s Painful Past – and Youthful Future

REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko
Guide Kwesi Blankson leads U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff as they tour the Cape Coast slave castle during her week-long trip to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, in Cape Coast, Ghana March 28, 2023.

ACCRA, Ghana – Moments after visibly tearing up during a tour of Cape Coast Castle, a fort where enslaved people were imprisoned before being shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean, Vice President Kamala Harris declared that the stories of those who came through there “must be told.”

It was the most symbolic and emotionally resonant moment so far of Harris’s visit to Africa. A day earlier, she had delved into matters of economics and security, but on Tuesday, she highlighted Ghana’s unique and dark connection to the African diaspora – and to herself.

Cape Coast Castle was one of dozens of forts built as way stations for enslaved people, the place where they would last set foot on their native soil before being hauled across the Atlantic to be sold. Roughly 75 percent of the forts were built on land that would become part of Ghana.

Although many national leaders have visited Cape Coast Castle, Harris’s visit was especially symbolic: She is of Jamaican and Indian descent, part of the diaspora herself. She noted several times during her trip that she was the first Black woman to be elected vice president of the United States. During the tour, she passed a plaque commemorating the 2013 visit of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, and former first lady Michelle Obama.

Harris descended into the dungeons of the facility, toured the cells where enslaved people were kept and walked through the so-called door of no return, choking back tears, her hand over her mouth. She placed flowers at the entrance to the women’s dungeon.

“There are dungeons here where human beings were kept – men, women and children,” she said. “They were kidnapped from their homes. They were transported hundreds of miles from their home, not really sure where they were headed. And they came to this place of horror, some to die, many to starve and be tortured, women to be raped before they were then forcibly taken on a journey thousands of miles from their home.”

Later in the speech, Harris nodded to an ongoing debate in the United States, where some Republican governors have argued that lessons on Black history are ideological or “woke” and should be kept out of public schools.

Harris voiced a different opinion. “The horror of what happened here must always be remembered,” she said. “It cannot be denied. It must be taught. History must be learned.”

But while Harris’s final full day in Ghana was about delving into the country’s painful past, it was also about envisioning a positive African future.

Before touring the fort, the vice president spoke of African innovation at the Black Star Gate, a symbol of Ghana’s independence and a frequent site of parades. The arch is inscribed with “1957,” the year of Ghana’s independence, and the words “Freedom and Justice.”

Ghanaian police estimated the crowd at 8,000, according to the White House. Many attendees waved American and Ghanaian flags or held fans in the stifling heat.

Harris has mentioned several times on this trip that the median age in Africa is 19 and that the United States estimates that by 2050, one of every four people on Earth will live on the continent.

“It is your spark, your creativity and your determination that will drive the future,” she told the Ghanaian crowd. “And with that, African ideas and innovations will shape the future of the world. And so we must invest in the African ingenuity and creativity that will unlock incredible economic growth and opportunities.”

She pledged her support in that effort, saying the United States and the Biden-Harris administration “stand ready to partner with you to help accelerate the innovation and entrepreneurship that is already underway.”

Along those lines, Harris visited a recording studio and skateboard park on Monday that was created by a young entrepreneur, and she plans to host a roundtable with women entrepreneurs on Wednesday.

But the trip has not been all optimism and positive thinking. Harris has also touched on Ghana’s economic turmoil, security threats inching closer to its borders, and efforts in the nation to outlaw homosexuality. She has called on foreign lenders to restructure Ghana’s debt, a widespread problem in African nations exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Tuesday’s speech, Harris stressed that moving forward would require digital inclusion, good governance and women’s empowerment.

“Women around the world must be able to fully participate in economic, political and social life,” she said. “And they must be able to participate equally, including in leadership roles.”

Harris is midway through her tour of the continent, heading to Tanzania on Wednesday and Zambia later in the week. The visit is part of an urgent courtship of the continent by the Biden administration, including visits by five Cabinet officials in recent months. First lady Jill Biden came to Africa last month, and President Biden is planning a trip later this year.

On Monday, Harris announced hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for the continent and for Ghana, and more deliverables are expected in Tanzania and Zambia. But she has had to push back against widespread skepticism here that America’s interest in Africa is more about jockeying for position against China than about sincere concern for the continent.

Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo told reporters this week that China’s involvement on the continent is an “obsession” for some Americans, and that he believes Harris is sincere in her efforts to work with Ghana and neighboring countries.

Still, he struck a cautionary tone about global behemoths jockeying for position in Africa. “Great powers of whatever ilk, even friendly ones, trampling on small nations is not something we welcome,” he said at a state banquet in Harris’s honor on Monday night. “And in our modest methods, we will register our disapproval of it.”

In a toast at the banquet, Harris lauded Akufo-Addo’s efforts to change how the world sees Africa. She also thanked him for his role in “welcoming and encouraging the connection of the diaspora to this continent.”

A day later, she was at Cape Coast Castle, hearing the songs of enslaved people.

Tour guide Kwesi Blankson told reporters that the captives would sing songs and pray to the gods as they looked through the holes in the dungeon’s ceiling. He sang one to Harris, a mournful tune about wishing for death, “because death means freedom.”