In search of a time gone by

Sat, 31 Oct 2009 Source: Amenyo, Kofi

I had not visited for nearly thirty years. It is the place of my birth where I took my first tottering steps in life. I had only a rough idea of what I was going to meet there and as the rickety bus approached the town I was filled with a heightened sense of anxiety. There is now a new road which doesn’t pass through town. It is tarred but like those kind of roads in Ghana, chunks of it have already broken off after only a few years of usage leaving parts of the road even worse than it was before it was tarred. You will have to branch off the new road to join the old one, the one that passed by the cemetery, in order to get to town.

There are now dwellings before the zongo. But that is just as it is in the rest of the country. The zongos used to be at the edge of town but the population explosion that our country is seeing has meant that zongos have long become subsumed into the towns. Mosques are no longer confined to the zongo areas and members of ethnic groups, who were normally not associated with Islam, are now joining that faith.

I got down at the lorry park in the middle of the town. Looking at the lush verdant mountainside that surrounds the town I suddenly realised how beautiful it is. Why have I not known that before? Is it my travels that have taught me to look anew at something I grew up with but can only now see in its true natural beauty? And what a beauty! It was on these hillsides that we used to set forth at dawn during the mango season to pick the ripe mangoes that had fallen from their trees overnight. They were huge well ripened mangoes, unspoiled by any truants throwing stones at them. Today, all those trees are gone as the bush has been turned into farmsteads. The time of the beautiful mangoes too is gone. Mangoes no longer look the way they did in my youth. I would see more signs of the changing times.

My grandparents had moved there in the 30s from the Ewe heartland, attracted by the fertile land that was readily available then. Farming land was got for almost nothing. For a few bottles of schnapps, you got a piece of land to put up your house. You had as much land as you could work on. And so, the Ewe man in these parts became very good cocoa farmers owning the farms they had started once these came of age and were shared with the land owners. Some attempted growing coffee but this was always a more difficult endeavour than cocoa farming. The area became the hub of the cocoa trade in the Volta Region. It was here that the cocoa was finally loaded onto huge trucks for transportation to Tema or wherever. Trucks laden with yam from the northern parts of the region also made stopovers here for the night before continuing their Accra bound journeys. The town attracted others too – Anlos who were not farmers but were good at other jobs, Lagosian traders, Togolese Ewes good at carpentry, masonry, laundry (their wives often sold yor ke garri) and a mixture of northern Togolese (Kotokoli, Tchamba or Kabre) doing everything else in between. All these foreigners outnumbered by far the native Twi speakers and the town thrived on its cosmopolitan mixture. It lost this lustre when the Aliens Compliance Order of 1969 forced all the non-Ghanaians to leave. Before then, no one bothered about which country anyone came from. The compliance order taught us to tell one African from the other. I still remember coming back on holidays from secondary school and seeing all the Nigerians with whom I had grown up preparing to leave a country they had known all their lives. That forceful repatriation of fellow Africans from our country was far worse than the “munko munko” the Nigerians would impose on us in the early 80s. Today, some of the foreigners have come back to this town and the place is very gradually regaining its grandeur.

As I walked down the main street, I tried to reflect on the memories that were evoked by the sight of every old structure I recognised. I looked at the building that once housed the Barclays Bank. The bank left the town long ago and I cannot even remember when it was open for business. But the “Barclays Bank DCO” sign is still etched onto my memory. Indeed, the bank would leave much of the Volta Region. It has now come back even though not to this particular town. Is the return a sign of better times for our country? The Ghana Commercial Bank now occupies the old cinema house where, for a shilling, we used to follow the exploits of John Wayne or Garry Cooper in the B-movies that made it to our screen in those days. On market days, especially during the cocoa season, the daily film shows were suspended for the itinerant concert parties to entertain the townsfolk with “educative” plays having titles like “Ne ya enti a okoto enni tire”, or “Ebusua do fun”. They were always in Twi but the Ewes also attended these shows and thoroughly enjoyed them. All the big concert parties came – Kakaikus, EKs, F. Micas, Okukusekus, Yamoahs and even Ogunde’s concert party from Nigeria. Today, the concert group has virtually disappeared from Ghana’s entertainment scene and everybody is now watching Nigerian movies or their even cheaper Ghanaian versions with their multi-part titles.

John Holt, G.B. Ollivant, UAC, CFAO (all shops that predated our independence) had lined the main street in my youth. These were the stores where you could buy Tate & Lyle sugar in small green packets. The cubes were so hard you could not break them with your teeth and they took a long time to dissolve in your koko if you didn’t first put them in water. St Louis sugar, the one in the blue packet with the lion on it, was more popular, as it still is today after making a return to the abundance that is now Ghana. In the difficult days of the “essential commodities”, you got St Louis sugar only in nearby Togo. But that was in the 70s. My mind goes back even further than that.

It has been said by some that the Volta Region is a microcosm of Ghana. It stretches from the coast to the northern parts of the country. It has a little of everything the rest of the country can offer in terms of vegetation, climate, crops, and a people speaking a hundred languages. This town, situated right in the middle of the region is, itself, a microcosm of the VR. I cannot find a better metaphor than this for the entire country. Take, for instance, the politics of the town.

The Ewe-Twi political differences in the town reflect the national one. Most of the Ewes support the NDC and most of the native Twis go for NPP. When the NPP was in power, it was a Twi speaking native who became the DCE. When the NDC resumed power, I am told the Twi speakers had a whole lot against the leading NDC candidate for the job who was Ewe. They even protested that the guy did not speak Twi. It didn’t matter to them that he, too, like them, was born and bred there, spending almost all of his life there and having as strong a stake in the fortunes of the area as the so-called natives. And there is really no one who was born there who did not have, at least, a smattering of the other language – Ewe or Twi. This has become even more pronounced with the nationwide ascendancy of Twi as our foremost local language. Today, many Ewes are speaking Twi freely without feeling any remorse, as, indeed, they shouldn’t.

I wished to see this guy who eventually made it as the DC despite the protests of his political adversaries. I wanted to see if he has become a DC in the mould of the CPP DC he and I knew back in the early 60s when we attended primary school together. That DC was then a young handsome man who lived in a nice house on a hilltop built for his office. He was driven around at top speed in the only Mercedes Benz car then in town with the Ghana flag fluttering on its mast. How we looked at him with admiration! When the coup happened, he would disappear and we wouldn’t see him for a very long time. But my companion (one of only two or three former classmates still left in the town) did not want to take me to see the present DC. He explained that the guy has become a big man and he didn’t want him to think we were coming to ask favours of him. I understood him but I really longed to see him.

On the bus I took from Accra was a young British woman heading to an orphanage in a place in the northern parts of the region. She was really looking forward to her two months of voluntary work helping to clean, feed and teach English to the parentless kids. Parentless kids, I wondered! Oh yes. In Ghana, orphanages are not made up of children whose parents are dead but of children whose living parents are so poor to feed and clothe them that they (the parents) could as well be dead. But the term “orphanage” makes for good copy to sell to foreigners. Forming NGOs and procuring funding from abroad has become a very Ghanaian speciality. For many, it is a good source of acquiring personal wealth.

The town now has a beautiful library built with Dutch money. Everywhere you go in Ghana, you will see some structure built with the help of some foreign government or organisation. It has become a requirement to put a sign board or a painting on the structure to show from where the funding is coming. The foreign donors might want to see proof of the effects of their goodwill. But when I saw a common urinal for the primary school in my own village proudly advertising the fact that it was built by volunteers from Holland, with funding from Japan (?), I was at a loss at the extent to which our begging can go. Do we really need the help of foreigners to build a urinal for kids?

The secondary school in town was preparing to celebrate its golden jubilee. It was one of those schools built by Nkrumah and completed with library, science blocks and masters’ bungalows even before the first students took their seats. I remember the royal palm trees that lined the driveway into the school. As children, we knew no other landscape that was more beautiful than that. Those royal palm trees are all gone now and the buildings in need of repairs. Even secondary schools don’t look the way they did. The syllabus, I learnt later on, has changed beyond recognition. Shakespeare, for instance, retains his prime place as a compulsory text in the final literature exams but candidates are no longer required to answer essay questions on the Bard. Instead, they tick off fifty multiple choice questions. Perhaps that is a good idea. Which high school student in Ghana can say anything new about Shakespeare that has not already been said in the last 400 years?

On my way to the house where I was born (no log cabin, actually) I heard a voice calling from behind: Efo Kofi! I turned and it was one of the girls I grew up with several decades ago. She is now a big mama. Her brother was the local bully of my youth who turned out to become the neighbourhood thief (oh, just fowls and the odd cassava uprooted from someone else’s farm). He now works with Zoomlion, one of the creations of NPP that have survived them. This is a more refined version of the “tankaase” of old that is determined to keep all of Ghana clean – a task of herculean proportions they seem to be doing with so much zeal.

My old classmate accompanied me to the old school compound so I can recall those days, very long ago when we walked, bare-footed, to school. A new building for the JSS has been put up opposite the old middle school block. A huge Vodafone communications pole has been erected just beyond the football pitch. These poles, eyesores on the skylines of towns and villages all over Ghana, have become veritable symbols of our country’s march into the information age.

Like the owners of the corn mill near the market who had boarded up and left town, my people don’t live here anymore and I would soon take the bus back to where I came from. But before that, I would try, again, to recollect the past – that bit that has receded beyond my memory. This visit is also a spiritual journey for me. Walking away from my friend, I stood there, alone, on the edge of the old school block looking at the space that used to be the assembly and playground, trying very hard but failing in my Proustian determination to force the past to appear as it once was in my childhood, unfettered by the trappings of memory. The failure is, perhaps, memory sending me a message asking me to come back and pick it up from where I failed. I intend to obey that call. Another day.

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi