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Ghana Studies v.7 (2004) pp. 93-113. ASEN PRASO IN HISTORY AND MEMORY Susan Benson, University of Cambridge T.C. McCaskie, University of Birmingham Introduction: The “Slave Route Project” n 1994, UNESCO launched its Slave Route Programme. The aim was to encourage awareness of the implications of the transatlantic slave trade. There have been conferences, publications, exhibitions, plans for the conservation of sites associated with the “Slave Route”1 and for the development of “cultural tourism” in relation to it. Large claims were made for the importance of this project and the “duties of memory” it entails. The stakes, in the words of the official website, are “ historical truth, peace, development, human rights, memory and intercultural dialogue”; the problem to be overcome, “silence”. In this paper, we are concerned with questions of historical truth and the duties of memory in a southern Ghanaian “slave route” village, Asen Praso. Located today upon the southern bank of the River Pra, its houses strung along the highroad that runs from the Fante coast through Asen and over the Adanse hills to the Asante capital of Kumase, for most Ghanaian travellers Praso is memorable only for the small delay occasioned by the toll bridge that spans the river (and the chance thereby offered to buy water, bread or tiger-nuts). Historically, however, Praso was in some ways a remarkable town, its fate intimately bound up with the strategic significance of the Pra River and the settlement’s precarious and vulnerable place in the border zone between two imperial powers: the Asante kingdom to the north and the British presence on the coast to the south. But as a site which is currently promoted as significant on Ghana’s “slave route”, it today occupies a very different kind of border space: between the demands for what one protagonist called “a simple story” for diasporic consumption and a complex history marked by ambiguity, violence and fluctuating fortune. I SUE BENSON & T.C. MCCASKIE 94 Background: Ghana and the “slave route project” Over the past 20 years, Ghana has played an increasingly significant role in the African diasporic imagination. Since the mid-1980s, the country has received an increasing number of diasporic visitors, mostly African Americans.2 Visitors are drawn by the broad wish to reconnect with “Africa” by experiencing Ghana, but also by a more specific desire: to visit the monumental forts and castles along Ghana’s Atlantic coast, through which a very large number of Africans passed to slavery in the New World. Such visits are understood as commemorative and redemptive acts, pilgrimages to sites of deep historical significance and ancestral suffering. Shaping this understanding is not only the increasing public salience of all things ‘African’ within the practices and identity politics of many African Americans, but also what Huyssen3 has called the “memory boom” of contemporary western culture: our current preoccupation with the duties of memory and the construction of collective social identities through the elaboration of memorial culture.4 Ghanaians have not been slow to see the economic potential of such sensibilities. Links with “our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora” were actively cultivated for both political and economic reasons by ex-President Rawlings throughout his elected tenure in office. Panafest, the biennial arts festival increasingly oriented to the diaspora, received government support. In 1998 Rawlings introduced the Caribbean commemoration of Emancipation Day (the 1833-4 ending of slavery in the British Empire), marking it with the ceremonial re-interment of two enslaved Africans, one from Jamaica, one from New York, at the site of another Asen town, Asen Manso, a former slave market some forty miles inland from Cape Coast along the Kumase road. Emancipation Day has been celebrated every year since with wreath-laying in Accra, a candlelit procession and evening of reverent observance in Cape Coast, and a durbar, libation pouring and purificatory sacrifice at Asen Manso. These ceremonies regularly attract variable numbers of diasporic visitors, drawn to them by the several possibilities of mourning, commemoration, healing and reconciliation.5 The NPP government of J.A. Kufuor, which replaced that of Rawlings in 2000, was at first notably lukewarm towards these projects authorized by the outgoing regime. But with tourism as...


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