Searching for the lost treasures of the Gold Coast

TreasuresYesterday some friends and I drove out of Accra and into the fertile, intensely green valley to the north. Our destination was the large town of Nsawam and we were searching for furniture.

In a country full of discarded goods from the developed world, ironically we were searching for the discarded furniture of Ghanaians. Old wooden furniture, some of it dating from the colonial times of British West Africa’s  Gold Coast. While we have no interest in recreating the past, the furniture is beautiful, made of solid hardwood, with the low, elegant lines of the 1940s. I’ve rescued some of this style of furniture before — from being thrown down an old mine shaft.

Street names are a rarity outside of central Accra, and as we drove through the town I tried to remember the directions. Across the bridge, turn left at the first mosque, the one with the green tower, and further along another left, at another mosque. We bounced along dirt roads, sodden to mud after the recent rain, past cows grazing, their rickety pens behind them. A mobile phone tower on a small rise, standing incongruously amid the cement block houses and the cows and the ground strewn with plastic bags.

My friend got out of the car and walked down a lane, she returned, smiling, yes this was the place.

After greeting the owner we were shown into a small courtyard. Some small, old items of furniture had been brought out for us to look at. A small glass fronted cabinet strewn with mouse shit and skeletons contained a black and white photograph of a young woman. It was a studio photograph with artistically blurred edges and the girl, half-smiling, doe eyed and clutching a bouquet, seems on the brink of her adult life. The cabinet also contained a thick book, it’s glue unravelling by the years and the weather. We opened the book, it was clearly a bible with its tissue thin paper, but written in Twi. Next to the bible was a slender book. As I opened it, the pages fell open to ‘Things to do in London’, which seemed too fabulous as my friends with me are about to move to London, and then we saw it was a diary from 1940. For each date, an entry was made, in pencil. But it was as incomprehensible to us as the bible, it was all in Twi. Was this the young woman in the photograph’s diary? Was the studio portrait a memento for her family as she, a young woman from British West Africa, headed off in mid World War 2, to London?

We were lead down a narrow path between two houses, with a muddy, fetid gutter running down the middle to a building on the edge of a small field. Another cow-pen sat in the middle distance, the palm and coconut trees softening the shock of the ground covered in plastic bags. Some children followed us, with the half curiosity of kids keen to break up their day. The owner unlocked the door and we peered into the darkness, a faint light provided by the doorless opening on the other side of the building, through which a cluster of plantain trees was visible.

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The room was piled high with furniture; chairs for the verandah, heavy cupboards and wooden chests, some bearing adinkra carvings. Chairs were pulled out into the sunshine and we proceeded to match pairs of them. The children drifted away as we debated which ones of these broken beauties to bring home.

We took our time, as we thought this was the only room of furniture we would be looking at. Content with our decisions, we were surprised when the owner, whose English was not strong, lead us down another gap between houses, to a small stand-alone house. It was newly built with it’s concrete render unpainted. Inside, this tiny, two-room house was also piled high with old furniture. Some was beyond repair, with broken legs and missing drawers. But high up I spotted a wooden chest, 5 feet long and carved with delicate holes, a pattern of guinea fowls and tribal symbols. It too was dragged into the sunshine to inspect, along with a wooden cupboard. Its heavy 1940s façade hiding a back of rough soap box wood, and inside a delicately faded and torn wallpaper lining of pink roses, and the shelves still bearing their Sunlight soap box origins.

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Across the way was a typical older style Ghanaian house, with many small rooms facing directly onto a central communal courtyard. The biggest of these rooms was opened, and more furniture, dusty and dirty, piled high. As we were leaving I spotted a bentwood chair, its legs incongruously silhouetted by the outside light. How does a finely made bentwood chair make its way into a dusty storage room in rural Ghana?

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More doors were opened, this time into smaller rooms with hot pink and azure blue walls. And outside, tin pressed inlays decorated wooden doors too old to save.

Hot, tired and visually overwhelmed, we headed back to the owners courtyard, ready to finish our purchases and head home. But another door was opened and we entered two tiny rooms strewn with thousands of bead necklaces, pressed tin oil canisters and piles and piles of kente cloth.

In a country without street signs or a comprehensive phone book, knowledge of traders like the one we visited are passed along through word of mouth, often acquiring a certain mysticism along the way. ‘I’ve heard of that place’ expat friends will say, ‘but I don’t know where to find them’. We pass on this knowledge to each other wanting to share these hidden treasures. But at the end of the day I was left with a lingering sense of… perhaps, loss?

Africa is always touted as the continent of opportunities, and there are some fabulous home-grown examples of successful businesses here, but with unemployment, and probably more significantly, under-employment rife here, it seems a terrible shame to let this furniture rot. As now as we hunt around to find someone to help us restore the furniture it seems, again, like a missed opportunity.

I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but it is more than a missed opportunity. This furniture is clearly not desirable for the majority of Ghanaians, perhaps it is a reminder of times past, or maybe it is just deeply unfashionable as this country makes its way in the 21st century.

In all, I felt it was a day of forgotten treasures whose time had passed. Discarded by their owners in favour of newer, more modern, and in all probability, glitzy, cheap Made-in-China gilt furniture which lines the street stalls and markets of Africa. It felt like a loss…the faded silk kente and the wooden dovetail joints, made by artisans many years ago, rotting in the tropical heat.

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2 responses to “Searching for the lost treasures of the Gold Coast

  1. I am so intrigued by you blog about shopping for old furniture and I would love to take the same trip. Can you provide more details about how to find these shops? Do you happen to have a name and phone number of the shop keeper. Thank you!

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