A short story
by ABA AMISSAH ASIBON
The three storey house was located in the nation’s former capital, standing tall amongst its modest neighbours. It graced the once elitist Kotokuraba area, and the merchants who came from miles away to trade, made it a point to see the house at least once in their lifetime. Legend has it that the area got its name from the abundance of crabs that locals discovered on the sheltered bay, but no crustaceans could be seen crawling on this sprawling estate. No one really remembers when the house was built or how it was built, and it seemed the looming structure had sprung up overnight.
Back when Ghana was still the Gold Coast, the house accommodated the Governor’s guests and hosted many a glamorous rendezvous. Massive stone pillars effortlessly held the structure in place and the tall white-washed walls resembled those of the nearby former slave castle, where the Governor once resided. The thick walls shielded occupants from the din of the bustling Kotokuraba market where haggling fisherfolk displayed their daily catch. A wide wooden-framed double-door graced the front of the house while a small but sturdy door sat out back for the servants’ use.
The floors were made of glossy marble which the servants constantly polished until they could see their faces in them. The narrow hallways often echoed with the patter of gentlemen’s shoes against the spotless marble and seldom with the careful tread of the servants’ feet. The high ceilinged ballroom was decked in velvet burgundy curtains and crystal chandeliers that sparkled amidst soothing violin and piano music.
The locals often stood outside the mansion, relishing in the sweet melodies and wondering amongst themselves what the Engressifo’s house looked like on the inside. Only the Governor’s servants who served the wine, polished shoes and lit cigars had the utmost privilege of beholding the glitz of the top-hatted, tail-coated English gentlemen and their sophisticated mistresses.
The house’s massive courtyard served as a serene area where the Engressifo took breaks to relax and smoke their rich tobacco. Their women often gossiped in the cozy parlor; tucking their bulky gowns into the antique armchairs on which they sat. The young servant girl who poured their tea often hid behind the beech wood armoires, taking her sweet time to dispense the contents of her ceramic teapot. She indulged in the bourgeois conversations of the mistresses and overheard their scandalous bedroom tales.
The house’s floor length glass windows allowed dazzling sunlight into the rooms in the day time and the mellow glare of the moon at night. Each room had a balcony, from which one could see the infinite shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean and the canoes returning from sea at dawn. Bolder servants often ventured unto the balconies while cleaning the guest rooms, to savour the breath taking view or to bask in the salty sea breeze.
Each guest room had a grand ebony poster bed, a matching bedside table and a satin chaise longue on which the gentlemen were rumoured to sleep on whenever they squabbled with their mistresses. The tastefully furnished guest rooms were nothing like the plain servants’ quarters at the back of the house. After a day’s work, which was whenever the last guest retreated into their room for the night, the servants gathered round an old picnic table to eat whatever the chefs brought home with them. They often discussed the Engressifo and made fun of their bland food, transforming the meals with their own native spices.
The colossal kitchen was out of bounds to all except the skillfully trained chefs, who cured the meats and sautéed the fresh vegetables brought in by the locals. A handful of fair-faced children lived on the topmost floor of the house, partaking in English, history and philosophy lessons with their tutors. They were taught not to mingle too much with the locals for fear that they would lose their finesse and were encouraged to play tennis in the enclosed courtyard, for exercise.
The season changed and the house’s forecourt served as a venue for locals who chanted that they wanted self-government within the shortest possible time, and then later, self-government now. The Fante natives whispered amongst themselves that the Engressifo had gradually been packing their belongings out of the house. Soon, the piano music faded and the thuds of tennis balls became but a mere memory.
On the night of Osagyefo, the redeemer’s speech, the keys of the house were handed over and a soiree was thrown for the natives. The Fante ladies came in dressed in their dazzling kente garments, wearing their gilded tekuas on their head, all eager to catch a glimpse of the paradise they had once only dreamt of. That night, the servants swayed their hips to glorious highlife music in the bustling ballroom, as co-owners and not as menials. White handkerchiefs waved from the balconies to the liberating sounds of ET Mensah’s song, “Ghana, we now have freedom, Ghana land of freedom…”
When the Gold Coast gained its new name, the fifteen rooms in the house were turned into offices for Osagyefo’s people. The once white-washed house now exuded a bright green hue to match the tree-lined driveway through which the locals filed in and out to lodge complaints and be better acquainted with their new governance.
Osagyefo, now the Prime Minister, attended several meetings in the former ball room, always sitting at the head of the solid wood table where the grand piano once stood. Officials could be seen drinking tea and discussing the politics of a united Africa on the open balconies. On the re-painted walls of every office, proudly hung the three bold stripes and the black star that symbolized their efforts. The tiny parlor now served as a library stocked with literary works to inform the governance of the newly emancipated.
When full autonomy was achieved, the Prime Minister now turned President, asked that the house be used to accommodate his hardworking civil servants. The white-collars moved into its rooms, trailed by eager wives and fresh-faced tots. In place of the rich velvet curtains hung practical pieces of cloth and the decadent crystal chandeliers had been replaced with plain fluorescent lights. The kitchen which was once holy ground had now become a haven for wives competitively showing off the English-inspired succulence that Fantes are known for.
The glass windows had been fortified with wooden shutters to enhance privacy and prevent theft. Passersby could often here the bickering of scorned wives or the wailing of underfed babies wafting from the reinforced windows. The marble floors were almost unidentifiably dull, longing for the polish they had become accustomed to. The open balconies now displayed freshly laundered garments left in the sun to dry.
The gigantic ballroom had come to serve as an avenue for beer-guzzling, “Fantenglish” speaking men to discuss the arrests of striking workers and the stringent work conditions. On the morn of the coup that overthrew Osagyefo, a small crowd gathered around a wooden wireless radio in the old ballroom. The men gasped at the news of the coup while the women gloried at the thought of the possible return of their sons and husbands from exile.
The house gradually emptied out with the appointment of several of its residents into politically driven committees. Finally, someone was willing to give them the industrial democracy they had yearned for. Soon, the crowded hallways of the house only bore the dirty handprints of playing children and reeked of abandonment, with its wooden fixtures serving as nourishment for shameless termites. The metal rails of the balconies slowly corroded from the salty sea breeze and the lack of paint.
The house’s new owner had just returned from England after years of schooling, and had bought the house against his better judgment. His friends warned that it was a complete waste of time and money, and that he would have been better off buying a house elsewhere. This mansion now only thrived on its past glory, much of which was based on tales that had been passed along generations, telling of the better days the building had seen. The new landlord had received professional advice to completely tear down the house, which had become weak from years of desertion and was asked to rebuild it with more modern materials. He quickly decided against the demolition for fear that he would lose the house’s priceless heritage.
The house may have been weak from the hole-ridden timber beams and the cracked algae-covered walls but its marble pillars stood in dignity, still gracefully supporting the structure as in the old times. He would have to work around the house’s solid foundation and rid it of the superficial flaws that had multiplied over time, he thought to himself.
As he walked around the desolate compound, picturing the stories he had heard of the house and marvelling at the reverence with which it was spoken of, it all felt strangely familiar. His instincts told him he was doing the right thing, at least for the sake of his unborn children. He owed it to them to give them a chance to return home, to the parlour where his grandmother once poured tea as a girl and the ballroom where she had once danced to the sweet tunes of freedom.