As the plane begins its descent, I brace myself for the chaos that awaits me. This is West Africa, after all, and airports in this part of the world are invariably messy. To my surprise, however, Kotoka International Airport in Ghana's capital, Accra, is clean and quiet. Without delay I pick up my suitcase. Passport control is done in no time. Even outside the airport I encounter nothing but tranquility. "Would you like a taxi, sir?" a taxi driver asks politely. He doesn't insist when I decline.
I'm picked up by dreadlocked hotel staff. On the road I listen to the crickets outside. Humid heat lies like a blanket over the evening. A bewildering mixture of scents - wood fires, rotting rubbish, roasting meat, fruit - blows through the car. Along the roadsides languid reggae drifts from bars bathed in neon. Women wearing colourful clothing hunch behind pans of sizzling food. Children huddle together before television sets mounted on beer crates in the open air. Each time the traffic slows, scores of street sellers appear. Their wares tower on their heads: drinks, slices of bright orange pawpaw, fried bananas, compact discs, books, paintings. One man balances a chair on his shaved skull.
Accra itself is best known for its beaches. Heading towards hip and happening Labadi Beach, my taxi suddenly breaks. The street is blocked by people dancing to the horns and guitars of highlife, a musical genre popular throughout Anglophone West Africa. "A funeral," my taxi driver, Fred Nii Sai, says. "Today the deceased one is buried. Tomorrow there will be an even bigger party. That's how we say goodbye." As if to emphasise Nii Sai's words, a woman appears from the crowd and starts drumming on the taxi's roof with her hands.
Arriving at Labadi Beach, I almost stumble over a contortionist. Encouraged by a band of drummers, their sweating bodies gleaming in the sun, he is busy folding his feet behind his head. A little further along the beach, dotted with palm trees, beach bars and parasols, muscular boys are playing a football match. In the surf, teenage girls meet the waves with shrieks of excitement. Behind them, kitesurfers skim through the blue water.
Accra's beaches, however, are not the principal reason for my visit to Ghana. What has drawn me here are the slave castles that dot the country's 500km long coastline. Reminders of Ghana's grim past, the stone structures - 37 in total, or one every 15km - have been turned into the country's most important tourist attractions.
The two largest and best preserved castles, both Unesco World Heritage Sites, are found in the twin towns of Cape Coast and Elmina, about three hours' drive west of Accra. A private taxi is easily arranged for the trip, but a more interesting - albeit less comfortable - way of travelling is by minibus. Locally called tro-tros, the vehicles leave in a steady stream from the bustling Kaneshie motor park in downtown Accra. Pressed against your fellow passengers, you're bound to make some new friends. Ghanaians love to talk, especially when it comes to the history of their country.
Cape Coast Castle sits on a cliff at the edge of town. At the entrance, a greying old man sleeps in his chair; when awake he sells entrance tickets. Entering the castle feels like arriving in a southern European village: a cobblestoned alley is flanked by white washed walls adorned with wooden window frames. The alley opens up into the castle's central courtyard, a triangular square the size of half a football pitch. Opposite the entrance, at the long end of the asymmetric triangle, a gallery facing the ocean supports more than a dozen rusting cannons. Behind the antique guns lie piles of ammunition, ready for a battle that will never come.
From the two other sides of the plaza, the castle's massive, three-storey main building rises up. A good part of it is taken up by a museum that offers excellent background information. In the late 15th century, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive in the region, began building trading posts along West Africa's coasts. Ghana proved particularly suitable because of its rocky shores, providing building materials and stable underground. Originally the Portuguese posts were meant for trading gold - hence Ghana's former name of the Gold Coast. The Portuguese wanted to break the Arab monopoly on gold, which merchants had been taking out of West Africa on camels through the Sahara for hundreds of years.
For more than a century, the Portuguese were the only Europeans in West Africa. But when the plantations in the Americas started demanding larger and larger amounts of forced labour, other European nations also got interested. The Gold Coast soon had trading posts set up by the Swedes, Danes, Dutch, British and French, each reinforced against frequent attacks by others. The reason for this violent competition was a resource more valuable than gold: between 1600 and 1850, some 12 million to 24 million Africans were shipped overseas as slaves, constituting one of history's biggest migrations. In the museum, these unimaginable numbers regain their humanity through a collection of striking black and white pictures, such as the portrait, dated 1863, of a slave called Peter, in which he shows a back full of scars left behind by a slave owner's whip.
"The Portuguese trading post here at Cape Coast was converted into a castle only after its conquest by the Dutch," says Oscar Kwarteng, a local youth who leads a guided tour. "It changed hands several times before it was captured by the British, who used it as their colonial headquarters." The castle also became West Africa's largest slave-trading station. Kwarteng leads us down a flight of stairs into a pitch dark space: the men's dungeon. "Up to 1,000 slaves were kept here, often for months on end," he says, walking us through three classroom-size rooms with the help of his flash light. His voice is muffled by the heavy, damp air. A oppressive smell of decay makes breathing uneasy. The walls and floors are covered in moss and filth. As a sense of claustrophobia starts creeping up my spine, Kwarteng proudly shows a flower garland left by US President Barack Obama and his family during a visit in 2009.
In neighbouring Elmina's castle, a day or two later, a colleague of Kwarteng unfolds another aspect of the slave trade. "From this balcony, the governor selected a female slave for the night," says guide Nkwamenah Emissah, as he looks down on a courtyard flanked by two dungeons reminiscent of the ones in Cape Coast. "And not only the governor took local girls, lower castle staff did, too." To this day, you can find Dutch family names such as Van Dijk, Cornelissen and De Vries in and around Elmina.
Emissah climbs the stairs to a gallery surrounding Elmina Castle rectangular central courtyard. Above, a panorama unfolds. On the one side the turquoise ocean, on the other Elmina's natural fishing harbour, a creek packed with colourful boats. In the depths right below us two moats are visible, now empty but once infested with crocodiles to prevent slaves from escaping. A hill nearby reveals a second, somewhat smaller, castle. "That is Fort Saint Jago," explains Emissah. "From there, the Dutch bombarded the Portuguese out of Elmina Castle with cannons." The Portuguese had built Elmina Castle in 1482, making it the oldest European stone structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Christopher Columbus visited it years before his famous "discovery" of North America.
Strolling through Elmina's fishing harbour after my visit to the castle, Emissah's stories still ringing in my ears, it feels nice to be back in modern-day Ghana. Hard to believe, really, that this cheerful place was once the scene of so much brutality.
If you go
Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Accra cost from Dh5,495, including taxes.
Ko Sa Beach Resort (www.ko-sa.com; 00 233 244 375432) offers clean rooms in traditional cottages from $50 (Dh191) per night, including taxes.