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World Heritage Sites of Ghana: Castles, Ashanti Houses and a Troubled Lake

  • Godwin Yirenkyi
  • 5 December 2011

Counted individually, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ghana are more plentiful than in any other country in Africa. They consist of 32 historic forts and castles (the remainder of about 70 such buildings) and 13 traditional Ashanti buildings.

Historically Fraught Forts and Castles

The World Heritage forts and castles of Ghana were built along the entire coastline of the country between the 15th and 18th centuries by various European nations competing bitterly with one another for a slice of the lucrative but abominable trade in chattel slavery. This dark commerce forcefully trafficked millions of Africans to the New World and beyond in what became known as triangular slave trade.

Ghana World Heritage - Elmina castle

The Elmina Castle is one of the best-known and most touristed of around 70 castles and forts in Ghana that have collectively earned UNESCO World Heritage status. Its relevance to the 15th-century slave trade is what gives it high historical value. Photo courtesy of flickr/erikkristensen

With time, this coming together of people of different racial and cultural backgrounds brought about an unprecedented cultural shift of a global dimension. Hence the importance of the forts and castles as points of pilgrimage for thousands of Africans in the diaspora who return each year to Africa to discover where the journeys of their ancestors began. The 1979 decision by UNESCO to place the forts and castles under its wing was primarily to conserve them as World Heritage Sites of universal value.

In addition to that, UNESCO wants the forts and castles to be seen not only as symbols of a historical reality that has been ignored for far too long, but also as a cue for today’s world. By helping us reexamine history, the monuments represent issues of today such as Africa’s struggle with racial and human rights. They pave the way for reconciliation, development and peace.

Ghana World Heritage - Cape Coast Castle

Each year, people of African origin from all over the world sojourn to castles like Cape Coast in Ghana to commemorate the starting point of the slave trade diaspora. Photo courtesy of flickr/Adam Jones, Ph.D

Though only two of the best preserved structures – the Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482, and the Cape Coast Castle, initiated by the Swedes in 1669 – are popular with tourists and well known since their elevation as World Heritage Sites, the 30 other surviving structures, including those in abject ruin like Koromantse and Keta, are no less important in the roles they played. They memorialise some of the most important events to shape human history in the past 500 years. For that reason, UNESCO has commemorated all the forts and castles as common heritage sites for Ghana and the European nations that built them.

Before the UNESCO initiative, most of the existing forts and castles were open to public viewing and even used as guesthouses. The UNESCO stamp of approval in 1979 has brought them even more prestige, enhancing their tourism appeal. It has also sharpened the commitment to save them from total obliteration and has aided the cause to release those now serving as prisons or offices. For example, in Accra, Fort Christiansborg, also known as Osu Castle, is the central office of the Ghana Museum and Monuments Board (GMMB).

Ghana World Heritage - Ashanti Architecture

Original Ashanti architecture, with its intricate and complicated 'adinkra' symbols, is so rare that the best examples are found in drawings from the 19th century. Photo courtesy of wikimedia/Thomas Edward Bowdich

Ashanti Traditional Houses: Dying Architecture

The Ashanti Traditional Houses of Ghana won the approval of UNESCO in 1980 as testimony to the complex architectural and artistic expression of native Africans. Sadly, only a few of the structures remain today.

Found in the Eastern and Ashanti regions of Ghana, these mud-walled Shrine Houses with woven palm-branch roofs are most remarkable for the fine geometrical designs and stylised animal emblems found on them. Each of the symbols, known as adinkra, are also used in the design of a popular local cloth of the same name and as carvings in traditional regalia like linguistic staffs. Each adinkra has a special meaning, representing specific cultural concepts or aphorisms.

Despite the lofty reputation of Ashanti Traditional Houses as UNESCO monuments, the GMMB and Ghana’s tourism authorities have more work to do with regard to education concerning the spectacular traditional architecture of Ghana.

Ghana World Heritage - Ashanti house

This house in Ghana is a replica of a traditional Ashanti house. Very few genuine examples still remain. Photo courtesy of flickr/Berry FIne

UNESCO Status Needed: Lake Bosomtwe

There remains one Ghanaian asset of immense cultural and scientific value that needs inclusion on the UNESCO list to save it from destruction. This is Lake Bosomtwe, the sacred lake of Ashanti famed for its scenic splendour and as a puzzling geological landmark for scientists around the world.

The problem with this intriguing lake is that many of its unique qualities, such as fossil records of scientific importance, remain largely unknown. Created by a falling meteorite, 1.07 million years ago, Lake Bosomtwe can be compared with another body of water of similar origin in Africa called Lake Tswaing, near Pretoria, South Africa, which, even though it possesses fewer attributes, has been adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Ghana World Heritage - Lake Bosomtwe

Ghana's fragile and scenic Lake Bosomtwe has much to lose if drastic measures such as UNESCO protection aren't undertaken soon. Photo courtesy of flickr/jntolva

The dangers facing Lake Bosomtwe include the abandonment of time-tested traditional methods of navigation and fishing; and the setting aside of customary ceremonies that once protected the lake from excessive exploitation and threats to an endemic species of fish, Chromis bosomanus, which is named after the lake. The lake’s environs have been stripped of original forest vegetation and there is risk of stoppage of a peculiar phenomenon that released accumulated gases and avoided stagnating. It would take nothing less than the intervention of UNESCO to save the lake from drying up and to protect the ancient cultures of those living near this geological wonder.

Following media promptings, the GMMB appealed to the World Heritage Council in September 1998 at its meeting in Porto Novo, Benin Republic, to recognise Lake Bosomtwe as a World Heritage Site. The request was acknowledged, but Ghana must now pursue the matter more vigorously to win the UNESCO endorsement.

Ghana World Heritage - Bosomtwe fisherman

An angler on Lake Bosomtwe still uses the traditional single-plank fishing method. The degradation of the lake has put at risk the guarantee of his catch. Photo courtesy of flickr/jntolva

Such a move will enhance the prestige of this miniature inland sea, helping to save it from destruction and opening the door to more research and greater ecotourism opportunities.

To encounter the history and culture of Ghana’s treasured world heritage, visit Lake Bosomtwe or take an Ashanti culture and history tour with M & J Travel and Tours, the whl.travel local connection in Ghana.

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Godwin Yirenkyi

Godwin Yirenkyi is an award-winning travel writer and freelance journalist. His forthcoming publications include 'Resistance to the Slave Trade in Ghana', 'West Africa and Other Less-known Stories' and 'Tetteh Quarshie and the Pioneers of Ghana's Cocoa Industry - The Story of How Ghana Became the World's Leading Producer of Cocoa in 1911'. His current initiatives include the establishment of a Tourism Information and Research Centre (TIRC).
Godwin Yirenkyi
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Africa, architecture & landmarks, fine arts, Ghana, local knowledge, opinion, personal experience, Western Africa, whl.travel, world heritage,

3 Responses to “World Heritage Sites of Ghana: Castles, Ashanti Houses and a Troubled Lake”

  1. godwin yirenkyi says:

    fishing in the lake with nets as seen in the photograph, is traditionally banned; but the locals don’t seem to care these days and no one is enforcing this practice … one of the reasons which is fast destroying the water body.

  2. Kamran says:

    Thank you for sharing this article, I just learned a whole lot about Ghana. I sure hope the lake will acquire the status. You said the trees around were stripped, was this done by the logging groups? It’s quite depressing to see that only through Unesco’s intervention can this place be saved…

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