"Untill is over": Ghana at last

After more than 40 years of waiting like a hunter in the bush for an opportunity to see West Africa, "Untill is over" -- as a sign painted on a fish-market kiosque in Elmina told me.

Elmina, on Ghana's coast on the Gulf of Guinea, started out as a 17th century Portuguese trading post for gold from the rich mines to the north (the name is a corruption of Sao Jorge da Mina, or "of the Mine"). Later, under Dutch control, it became a major shipping center for slaves bound for the New World. Touring its castle (combination fort and dungeon) is chilling, as is the former British counterpart, Cape Coast Castle, just across the river and almost within cannon-range. But outside, at the base of the castle walls, is a bustling fishing port, full of life, recently dead fish and mysterious slogans, including "Untill is over."

I don't know what it meant to the person who painted it, but to me the "untill" that was over was my long wait to know this part of the world. When I was a college student in the early 60s, West Africa seemed to me the most exciting place on earth. The whole "Third World" was in turmoil then -- Southeast Asia, Latin America, Indonesia. But it was Africa that was making the most direct challenge to the structures and the ideology of global system of spoliation for the enrichment of a few. The continent appeared to be on the verge of a transformation that would liberate us all from our sad history of racism and colonial oppression.

The Gold Coast was the first African colony to become independent, in 1957 shedding its slave-name to take that of a West African empire of centuries earlier, Ghana. I was 16 then. As a college student, a followed developments there and in the neighboring countries as closely as I could from the distance of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was especially enthusiastic about the movements -- intellectual and political -- in the French-speaking areas, and wrote my senior thesis on Sékou Touré's Parti démocratique de Guinée. But I wasn't able at that time to find a way to actually go to the region and work there (I didn't want merely to visit, but to do something).

So instead I went to Latin America, a decision I don't regret, because I was able to do there what I had imagined doing in Africa: to make myself part of a larger struggle. I never ceased day-dreaming of being in Africa, and finally got there for the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence.

Susana, ever alert, learned of a conference titled African Architecture Today to be held in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, June 5-8. Our work (a book she and I are writing together) is a history of architecture and urbanism in Latin America, an ocean away from Africa. But when she read the call for papers, she saw that the conference was to debate the same kinds of issues that have deeply engaged Latin American architects for over 20 years, basically, regional identity (Is there one, for a large and diverse area such as Latin America or Africa?) and how best to express it (or "them," the identities of the various subregions) in architecture. And so we got ourselves invited to Kumasi (where Susana's powerpoint presentation and talk was a big hit -- the African architects were eager to know more about this other "Third World"). And of course we took advantage of this, our first visit to equatorial Africa, to see as much of the country as we could in a few days on a modest budget.

Highlights included the conference itself, at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology; markets, villages and shrines in Ashanti country; the hard, cruel slave castles on the coast; a canopy-walk on suspended bridges through the rainforest at Kakum National Park; the filthy but friendly chaos of Accra; fufu, banku, kenkey and pepper sauce, and especially the gentle grace and courtesy of almost everyone we met.

Map from Lonely Planet & from announcement of the tour Susana & I took with three other conference participants whom I remember fondly. Thanks very much for your company, Felicia, David and Dumisani! Also thanks to Charles, our guide, and Samson, the driver -- excellent tour.