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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.