It’s been 200 years since the British outlawed slavery and triggered the demise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
They’re sorry slavery ever happened, and that the United Kingdom participated in the kidnapping, murder and sale of millions of Africans over more than three centuries.
It was a “shameful enterprise,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Sunday in a statement broadcast at a commemorative ceremony in Ghana.
Five hundred locals and visiting dignitaries marked the 200th anniversary of slavery’s abolition at the coastal Elmina Castle, where captives were held in dungeons, the survivors to be shipped overseas.
“It is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret for our nation’s role,” Blair said via video feed.
The event followed on the heels of Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, celebrated March 6, 2007.
Despite these milestones, the British maintain a toehold of influence in Ghana through the offices of the British Council.
The British keep two offices in Ghana, one in the capital, Accra, and one in the second-largest city, Kumasi.
I’m sitting in the Kumasi bureau now, for several reasons.
Foremost is the internet connection. There is no better connection to be found anywhere in this city or likely anywhere in the country.
The British may not run Ghana any longer, but in the information age they hold the key to scarce technology.
Anyone can use it, though — provided they can cough up the council membership fee of 280,000 cedis, or roughly $35, which equates half a month’s wages for low-income Ghanaians.
Even so, the place is full of locals: knowledge-hungry Ghanaians reading newspapers and magazines, typing on top-of-the-line computers, watching BBC news on a huge-screen television.
It’s also blessedly air-conditioned to meat-locker temperature, a welcome respite from the perpetual heat, which probably means less to Africans than it does to visitors from Canadian climes.
But more than anything else, the British Council pushes professional development.
The council library is comprehensive — fiction classics, poetry anthologies and encyclopedias line shelves opposite the high-tech collections of videos and DVDs.
Most of the books are texts about accounting, marketing and business management.
Many Ghanaian students take commerce courses that UK institutions offer through the council, said Ossei Obutu, a customer service officer at the council.
“The courses we offer are professional development seminars,” said Obutu.
“Every month we have an expert come give a talk, and everyone gets involved with the brainstorming.”
The British Council is education-focused but the skills it offers to teach are very specific.
Members can enroll in seven different types of UK accounting and marketing exams, but not a single English language class is offered.
By contrast, the Alliance Francaise, founded in 138 countries around the world, is focused more on culture — specifically, French culture.
France has its own legacy of colonialism in West Africa, far greater than Britain’s.
The three countries that border Ghana — Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire — are former French colonies, which claimed independence later than Ghana did, and 10 of the region’s 17 nations are French-speaking.
But even in English-speaking Ghana the offices of the Alliance Francaise outnumber the British Council five to two.
Their mandate is different.
“The Alliance Francaise is committed to the promotion of French language and culture by various means,” claims the Alliance Francaise website.
Although the French classes cost, there’s no membership fee.
Why would there be? The Alliance Francaise in Ghana is not online.
There’s no TV, no videos and no library.
Nevertheless, the Alliance Francaise is a cultural mecca.
It offers artists a venue to show their paintings, at no charge, to the artist or the viewing public.
And it offers domestic and foreign musicians a venue to play in by organizing and sponsoring concerts, also free of charge.
French harmonica expert J.J. Milliteau recently gave a free concert at the Alliance Francaise in Kumasi, preceded by three Ghanaian classical guitarists who study at the local university.
Without the Alliance Francaise, such artists — Ghanaian and French — would have one less venue.
Without the British Council, Ghanaians entrepreneurs would have fewer resources.
Nothing can atone for the African slave trade that Europeans perpetuated for three centuries.
But the British and the French are still trying to make amends, their own way.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.