We’re in a taxi heading back into Accra from the University at Legon, our first and only attempt at sightseeing on this very short visit. As we near the coast, the throat-searing fumes spewed from elderly vehicles stuck in stagnant traffic give way to a more organic odour. I worked in sewage (well, the water industry) and I’d know that smell anywhere.
The ocean vista opens up and as the road bends to follow the shore we pass a lagoon dotted with boats. The source of the great stench. And fish, I guess.
Our taxi driver, a big fan of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, erstwhile dictator of this nation, is plainly embarrassed – tells us there are plans to drain it, smarten it up. But he doesn’t have anything good to say about Jamestown or Usshertown – where we are heading – and despite our guide book’s encouraging words we won’t be wandering the streets on foot.
The taxi slows alongside a tatty, pale building that looms over a street lined with small bars, shops and market stalls. It’s one of the historic forts for which this coast is famed, Fort Ussher.
Do we want to go inside? Of course we do.
He drives up onto the pavement, parks and carefully locks all the doors.
It looks like a corner of some strife-torn city that’s been utterly abandoned. Peeling paint, shutters hanging open, courtyard strewn with debris and a loose, lone cannon lying stranded on the ground.
Only after we’ve left do we realise that this was – till the 1990s – a prison, that we were standing where executions took place, that in the rooms above us the first leader of the country after independence, Kwame Nkrumah, was imprisoned.
We start to scale a steep flight of stairs. Archaeo-man sees someone lurking in the courtyard. Taxi driver shrugs, says nothing and carries on. I’m bringing up the rear. Suddenly there’s a man right behind me and someone behind him. My anxious western mind segues straight from tourist to hostage. I put one foot in front of the other – and pray.
The terrorist of my imagination is a youngish man dressed in clean, western-style clothes with a large, ornate crucifix around his neck. It looks like ivory. The man works at the fort, it transpires. He takes the seat vacated by the guide, whom we disturb from his reading – a history of western Europe. We opt to pay for his wisdom.
The historian ushers us through a door marked ‘Beyond here, no return’. The room’s a mock-up of a slave-holding vault, with two life-sized figures. One has been cooperative and sits. The other, an uncooperative soul, is shackled hand and foot and standing. There is almost no light and the heat is suffocating.
The heat in the larger, lighter exhibition room is just as oppressive, but this story’s much too serious to be rushed. When at last we reach the far side of the room the guide opens a window. The sea breeze teases us, it’s cooler, but delivers yet more air-borne punishment to our guilt-laden western lungs. In the picturesque harbour, below, with its bobbing pirogues and its bustling traders, a great heap of rubbish is burning. There’s no escape.
As a special favour we’re allowed to leave by the staff exit, down a shorter flight of stairs. Here we find two more cannon, an empty visitors’ car park behind locked gates, a fishing net and lines of washing drying in the dioxin-laden air.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since then.
What if Fort Ussher were left to decay, to fall down, to cease to be? Could I accept that thought and not be upset? Could I know it was happening and do nothing to stop it?
I know – such a prospect should be anathema to a middle-class, middle-aged history graduate.
Ban plastic windows! Banish garden gnomes! God save the National Trust!
That’s more like it.
But do the people of Accra love this building? I guess not. Does it remind them of a painful past? I guess so. Do they want to be reminded that the man who led them to independence, their first President, was imprisoned here? Well, I’m not sure, what do you think?
This is not South Africa, with its former white overlords still kicking round, where evidence of their misdeeds is conserved, a witness to moral victory, a testimony to their defeat. No, this fort was established by white folks who have packed their bags and are gone. Long gone. It’s not an Ashanti shrine, nor a place of veneration for the Ga or any other tribe. It’s a place of pain. A part of Ghana’s history, yes, but a remnant of a colonial past that is anything but missed.
Standing atop Fort Ussher, looking down the coast, you can see the current presidential residence – a castle. A colonisation of sorts. This year the current President might, at last, move to the new palace, a garish monstrosity that’s cost more than $60 million to build.
In Usshertown, this small, decaying part of the city, my reflex reaction to the crumbling state of the fort and its surroundings is outrage.
Save Fort Ussher! Conserve the town! Your heritage is vanishing before your very eyes! Shock, horror! Think how many more tourists you could attract if only . . .
But it’s not my town. And it’s not my country.
Fort Ussher is part of Ghana’s history. In this nation, where ever more poor people flock to live along the coastline, using the sea, the beach and railway embankments as lavatories and rubbish bins because there’s no alternative, maybe one day the fort will be valued more highly by the powers-that-be. More highly than a monument to a former president’s folly that cost millions. But maybe it won’t. We can’t tell people what to value.
History, a deep history, makes for a stable foundation for a nation, a town, a community. A source of pride, a resource for learning. But what if it is all too painful?
Archaeo-man mentions Auschwitz and I see his point. But I’m confused.
Am I distressed that Unesco has Fort Ussher on its ‘tentative list’ of endangered world heritage? Yes, sort of. But, on the other hand, I feel for those African Americans who come here to find their roots and find instead that they are not Africans, but Americans.
This is Ghana’s story. We have ours. They may be intertwined, but one less building won’t change a thing.
[Plenty to disagree with here, I know. I’m still wondering myself. That’s it for Ghana for me for now. Thanks for reading.]