Month: July 2017

Rhapsody of Realities: A Walk through Osu Castle

We set off to walk down Oxford Street in Accra to Osu Castle, formerly known as Christianborg Castle, a European trading fortress on the West African coast. Oxford Street is a crowded, noisy African cityscape of booming bars and beeps as cars navigate the narrow street amongst the crowds, the hawkers, the toddlers and the market women. It is a city of teenagers and twentysomethings, and as you filter out all the disorderly distractions, you are simply overwhelmed by the beauty of youth.

At the heart of the old colonial city, walking towards the sea, you would expect this to be a high-rent district but it’s not. There are signs of a 21st century gentrification, some nice hotels and restaurants, but as with the rest of the city, poverty and wealth jostle and embrace much like the youth that fill its empty spaces. The boulevard only gets narrower and ill-kempt as it spills out towards the sea. Finally we come to the end of the road. To our right, a soccer game on a pitch of dirt that is as old as mankind. Their field is marked by a shantytown of corrugated iron and cardboard on one side and a drainage ditch on the other flowing in fearsome green. Bright yellow and blue and purple uniforms flash against grayish brown on a cloudy day.

In front of us is a whitewashed wall stretching endlessly in both directions, spools of barbed wire flowing over its edges like dead vines with their thorns. A black gate beckons with one door half open. With an air of tourist idiocy we pass through without touching the iron. A soldier sits in a chair a few yards away reading something on his phone, an AK-47 sits idly in his lap. He’s clearly not expecting anything of interest, let alone danger. But despite his informality, it doesn’t seem like we’re supposed to be here. My friend announces that he is walking behind me, following a wisdom akin to that contained in the saying “I don’t have to be faster than a grizzly bear, just faster than you!” It is the humor of men in the company of men.

Something has changed since the 1970s stereotype of African soldiers barking out intimidating orders to uncomprehending civilians and tourists, the period signaled by Achebe’s novel “No Longer at Ease.” Soldiers in democracies are at ease. The civil order rests upon deeper foundations. The state retains all its capacities, broken and befuddled as it is, because the soccer players and the hawkers are proud citizens and engage in endless debates about corrupt ministers and presidents and pot smoking rastas who get thrown in jail. Rawlings just killed them, our taxi driver told us. He killed so many. Then he held elections, launched a democracy, and stepped into the background. He just had his 70th birthday, in a full-color spread in the newspaper. The friendly soldier pointed us towards the narrow street to the palace as if he were nothing more than a doorman.

We began to walk up a long drive. We passed a locked up shrine, with Ashanti swords on the gate and cow jaws hanging from the door of the circular hut within. Another friendly soldier walked by. We come up over a rise and see a barracks off to our right and a carpark filled with military vehicles and another soldier sitting casually in an empty space, also busy with his phone. We joked morbidly about walking into a sensitive installation, and being shot or killed or jailed or worse. The soldier waved at us to walk his way. He also sat with a machine gun in his lap. We walked over and asked him where we were, and where was the slave trading castle. He pointed to a glass-enclosed entry-room. We walked over and found a few youngish men sitting around a desk behind a non-functional metal detector. They told us that we were indeed at the castle and that there is a small museum and tour, that is at no cost except what we might, out of the goodness of our hearts, share with our guide. No particular plan, no real management of this site, just a gentle compromise to give the tourists something to do when they come knocking on the doors. One of the men led us out, explaining that between this gate and the next we should take no pictures as we were passing a still-active governmental installation. A building of poured concrete, the tropical variation of the architectural movement aptly called brutalism, to our right with a drive and a Ghanaian seal, he explained that this used to be the president’s residence under Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of independent Ghana and one of the great leaders of independent Africa. A few ministers retain offices there, thus the security concern, but it’s not like they actually frisked us or anything. The presumption is only that our guide is yet another extraordinarily relaxed soldier, perhaps a former palace guard or an excess member of the secret service.

You Are Now Entering into the Osu Castle Regulated Vicinity: Proceed with Caution, Peace be Upon You

And here the Rhapsody of Realities began. This was the title of a religious pamphlet that we were handed as we began our walk. Three young women in matching dresses as is so common here. In the United States we each dress in different colors to proclaim a sense of individuality, and yet with few exceptions, we all dress the same. We want to be among the crowd, but never on the team. Clothing everywhere expresses membership, here that idea is simply explicit. The religious handout was perfectly reasonable Protestant doctrine, no Gospel of Prosperity or any of the other obsessive heresies that circulate among those seeking to align their sense of purity with their lusts. The title contained a poetry that, as poetry does, generated meanings beyond the clutches of its author. Elsewhere a singer boomed out pop music, when we asked about the nature of the show, a woman said simply, “they are claiming souls for Christ.” 

Why mince words? On the way to Osu Castle

From the ghostly office building, we passed another gate into a castle of almost magical architecture. Somewhere underneath its angled surface of modernist geometry is, apparently, a castle of medieval proportions. But with so many lumpy Victorian rooms and right-angled window frames, the whole place had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality of existing somewhere out of time. We were led into a courtyard. A well to our left is introduced as a portal into a dungeon where African slaves were once kept. And before us was a grand staircase with a red carpet up the middle and a bunch of rags tied together blocking that middle aisle from access. We are commanded not to go up the center aisle, as that is reserved only for the President, and perhaps the Vice President.

It is entirely within the range of reason that slaves were once kept in fetid chambers below this castle, as they were elsewhere along the West African coast. I doubt that was the purpose of this particular chamber, however. The arched enclosure above it seems to speak to its actual purpose: a point of access to a cistern where rainwater was collected, similar to such installations on other coastal castles. Nevertheless, the ghosts of slaves and ex-presidents populated this haunted house, but it is entirely possible no slaves were ever brought there and no ex-presidents executed here, except for a perhaps a couple dozen unpaid house servants replaced as necessary as governors came and went. Who knows, who really does? Certainly the Dutch once filled the dungeons with slaves when they called the castle Christianboerg, just as the Portuguese and the Swedes, and the British at their own well-designed castle at Cape Coast, before they sealed off their tunnel to the sea to mark the end of slavery. Their ghosts haunt the entire coast. Even now, it is said, a midnight ritual is held once a year outside the castles, where a priest of ancient religions binds a sacrificial victim with a rod of iron under his tongue and rumors of a beheading. We ascended the stairway.

Another reception room, with a fountain and a curved staircase and the smell of musty curtains forever damp by the sea. We ascended the stairway. A dining hall with marble floors, now empty except for a hastily assembled display of large blow-ups of black-and-white photographs. The first were the baleful gazes of four uniformed officers. These men had approached the castle in 1947 to demand their backpay from their service in the British army during World War II. Whether or not they were ever told to turn back, they were shot, and thereafter independence became inevitable. The rest were prominent citizens of independent Ghana: boxers and fashion designers, the author of its national anthem and the designer of its coat of arms. Some authors and some singers. Perhaps a photo of Muhammad Ali or Angela Davis? And I did see a picture of Kwesi Armah, and asked isn’t he the author of “The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born”? I was assured that he was a famous novelist, but that this was not the author of this most famous of all his novels, his scabrous and scatological lashing of the independence generation, their rotten postcolonial inheritance, and the fat farting ministers who occupied the grand offices, and who found themselves hiding in an outhouse when their government is overthrown as happened every few years for a while. I doubted myself the rest of the afternoon.

Scattered among these luminaries were perhaps four or five members of the “big six”, which is a term I had heard mentioned once or twice on the journey. Our officious guide pulled a bill from his wallet to show us their faces on a 20 cedi note. These were the men who provided the ideas and leadership to the independence movement and the construction of the independent government so many years ago, who took ownership of this castle from the British, who had pushed out the Dutch before them, and somewhere below it all, the slaves and their chiefs and their kings. These founding fathers, the Big Six, not all of them were here. Among them, somewhere amidst the boxers and the novelists was a respectable portrait of Kwame Nkrumah, the only name amongst them all that anyone from outside Ghana would know, and for many youth, perhaps the only of the Big Six that they could recognize, the charismatic and autocratic prophet of African independence and unity. The Ogasefyo, the Savior, as he came to be called. He proclaimed, “Seek ye first the political kingdom,” with the implication that then all things would be added unto them. Here the proud man was noted only as the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, whose administration ended in 1966, who died in 1973.

Another member of the Big Six died in 1963, another in 1964. I only recognized the name of the one who died in 1965, Danquah, a British-educated lawyer and member of the London bar, who had formed the United Ghana Convention Congress in the 1940s, and proposed an agreeable transition to independence and vouchsafed a magnanimous colonizer assuring no break in the administrative order they had installed upon this slice of the slave coast that they so romantically called Gold. Nkrumah broke from the UGCC and formed his own Congress People’s Party and carried the day towards an inevitably rapid denouement for colonialism. He then proclaimed his intention to proceed towards a pan-African government. He has his own mausoleum, with a much clearer but no less incomplete narrative than Osu Castle. 

Most definitely not Osu Castle: Kwame Nkrumah’s Mausoleum

Nkrumah imprisoned Danquah on at least two occasions, and upon his last stay the old man died there, and it would appear the same had happened to other members of the Big Six, while the others took positions in subsequent governments. The Big Six had never really been in sync. So, in 1966, while President Ogasefyo Kwame Nkrumah was abroad, the military took over. Nkrumah never returned to his homeland. He said it was the CIA, but most certainly it was seen by many as nothing more than the duty of a military who respected their elders. A civilian leader was installed, a Mr. Busia, whose face I do not recall among the portraits, but I remember his name and somewhere perhaps a face. Busia did not last long, another military government took over, and another nameless civilian, and then colonel after colonel, all named Akyeampong. These all existed out of time and out of mind, even more nameless and faceless than the one woman among them all, a fashion maven, a designer of 1970s Afro-disco bell-bottoms, she gazed confidently under her natural hair into the camera. She had no name, no birth or death, and no biography.

Realities settled into ghostly rhapsody of erasures and traces, pencil marks and scratches, and places where the paper has worn thin from the rubber. There is no narrative here, no continuity, no sense of trajectory. My experience of Tanzania is one where the state proclaims its official history as an orthodoxy that its museum guides and soldiers cannot but repeat, not so much out of fear but by a habit ingrained so deeply in its institutions that to tell it differently would be to deconstruct the edifice. Here, in Osu Castle, I found myself in an entirely deconstructed edifice, all cubist angles and half-sketches, hints of eyes and mouths and furniture all jumbled into a side room. Yes, behind the photo exhibit was another, smaller dining hall piled with Victorian chairs and chandeliers and a long mahogany table. This is where Lieutenant Rawlings ate his dinners.

Our guide excused himself to attend to another tourist and his private guide, saying he would catch up with us upon finishing the tour with them. And so, as he had done with us, he proceeded to read, verbatim, the label affixed to every photo, and evade all questions put to him about the details of these silent personages. In the meantime, we wandered toward the sea. The reception hall gave way to another dining hall, was there another long table here? I do not recall, just the soft air and energetic breeze from the grey sea on this overcast day. We stood out upon the balcony and regarded that malevolent view of waves crashing ashore and in the distance fading into featureless grey, like a mid-century painting hanging in a gallery in New York or London, where paradox of nothingness takes on an intensity of somethingness because of an imperceptible sense of movement across its monotone canvas. The sea beckoned as an emergency exit in the case of a coup or a riot, but its implacable surf only growled, there is no escape.

I surreptitiously take pictures of my friend, but he is not my subject, but the battlements behind him. The ministerial building that looked so well-kept from the front look like an industrial accident from behind. A large, unfiltered swimming pool, empty fills the yard. Two towers, one something like an air control tower, the other an asymmetrical monolith, another object from a modern art museum, but the miniature on display. This is the real thing, with its blind gazeless stare: does it look over the sea or does it guard the ministers in their concrete cells? One supposes, that if one were in Tanzania, with its totalitarian hangover, that such illegal picture taking would garner a harsh scolding response from a helmeted security guard or plainclothesman. But here no one is paying much attention. Even the ministers seem like ghosts, there is no sign of them. The presidential palace, the seat of government, and most of their soldiers have all moved elsewhere. The living here only guard the dead.

The architecture of faded power

Our guide, the other tourist and his guide joined us on the balcony, and soon the tour continued. We descended to another level of balcony, where, we were told, the English used to enjoy their gin-and-tonics in the ocean breeze, and perhaps dip into their massive and shallow pool with its blue tiles. We descend down through a jumble of staircases and halls and causeways. Here another patio where Lieutenant Rawlings would relax in the evenings with his thoughts, and here is where he sat upon a platform for a discourse with his private guard. And here is the room that President Atta, the last president to occupy this castle, who came after Rawlings, used as a church. There were pews and a cross, as there were in such makeshift rooms all the other castles. All of it whitewashed, all the same color of the other castles, the same color as the Elmina Castle that the Portuguese built upon these shores in 1482.

We made our way thusly back down to the ground, and there a spiral staircase greeted us. Perfectly round, geometrical, concrete, modernist, it descended again below. Down here are the tunnels, our guide intoned, where the slaves were led to the sea as they were in the British fort at Cape Coast. But this poured concrete tunnel, rectilinear, looked like an enlarged electrical duct, its narrow confines unsuited to masses of bodies. It pointed north, away from the sea. This tunnel, our guide explained without irony, led to the airport, and another branch led to Independence Square. Here, the president could escape, and thereby avoid the forbidding sea and the unlikely prospect of rescue there. Realities piled upon realities, harmonizing on the spur of the moment. The danceable tune made little sense, but it didn’t need to. It was bloodless, rhapsodic and, thereby, on occasion, full of humor.

We walked then through the vast garden, sculpted hedges and pruned trees, peacocks roamed unhurriedly. Colonnaded walks hosted weddings and receptions. The Afro-American Association of Accra had hosted a huge reception here the day before, of which today, there was no trace. So well kept. Here is where Lieutenant Rawlings liked to sit during occasions of state, in front of the fountain with its cherubs, facing the castle, his back to the city somewhere behind white walls far in the distance. Here are the cars used by our past presidents, sitting untouched, still the property of past occupants. Flat tires and weeds and fading paint jobs on four-wheel drive SUVs built by Ford, Toyota, and Mercedes. These wrecked landcruisers were President Kufuor’s. His convoy, sadly, was involved in an accident, on the way to the airport. The most commonplace tragedy is the only one mentioned here. The site of the accident was soon and forever after to be known as Kufuor Junction.

Lieutenant Rawlings’ Mercedes, and his Ford, and his Toyota

We then walked back across the forbidden driveway, where the presidential seal still hung silently on a massive white awning over a wooden door deep in shadow, all, in only this one place, retaining the full impact of its modernist style, the aforementioned brutalist architecture, named such with full awareness of its irony, and the playfulness of massive impossibly weighty shapes hanging menacingly over human-sized windows and doors, an architecture that mocks and betters Soviet-style blocks, gleeful statements of our place amidst technologies that overwhelm us, amidst ossified institutions that bind us, the architecture of police stations and university halls and ministerial headquarters. We come back to the small glass guard room, as if exiting Alice’s looking glass. We dutifully offered a tip to our guide, and wandered back out towards the gate whence we had entered. Inevitably that narrow walled road, with its jawboned shrine no longer existed. We exited along a much wider boulevard bounded on one side by a sort of grassy knoll beyond which was the whispering sea, and on the other side by another shantytown pouring out over a white wall. A dreamlike geography where things just change and cannot be questioned.

The secret tunnel comes out here, maybe a half a mile away, ready for a dramatic appearance in an emergency

And as the evening darkness drew nigh, we wandered down this unfamiliar boulevard so far from the narrow road we had entered hours, maybe days before, ten motorcycles with helmeted drivers zoomed by in expert formation, and disappeared into the lights of the city. The official escort for some unseen dignitary who most certainly had dined upon a sumptuous state dinner on that long gilded table while sitting upon embroidered Victorian chairs, all while we wandered among the silent black-and-white photos in that same hall while the sea washed away their voices. I only wonder if perhaps our guide saw them, and heard their conversation, and guided us so officiously around them so as to never cross their paths, or feel the brush of a presidential coattail against my hand, so softly. I can only think that it was not his at all, nor the lieutenant’s, but the silken sleeve of his mistress’s gorgeous gown.