William is sitting next to me on the backseat of a taxi we hired to take us from Krobo to Sesemi. Leaving the NGO group behind I’m traveling with. It’s hot, it’s probably always hot, what would I know. We have our windows rolled down to let in a little fresh air, although the wheels of the car keep whirling dust up from the dirt road which join the dusty clouds from above brought on us by the seasonal Harmattan trade wind from the Sahara. So named because ships have historically taken advantage of them to aid their journeys between Europe and the Americas.
The car is noisy, and we are thrown around in our seats. No shock absorbers in the world could provide for a smooth ride through this landscape. And if they could, it wouldn’t be of any help in this old worn-down model probably shipped to Ghana from Europe to live a second life in Africa. I’m recording our informal conversation on my digi recorder which I bring with me everywhere, even though I know the quality of the sound will probably end up being too poor to be of any use. William is telling me that he has been to Frederiksgave many times before, but he would not be able to find his way on his own. Look, there are no road signs, and the GPS is way off. So, he has made arrangements for Anita, the local community officer in charge of Frederiksgave, to join us and show us around the site. We pick her up outside the district office.
Getting out of the car at Frederikgave Anita asks me how well I know the taxi driver. I’ve only known him for a couple of hours or so, I say. Then, bring your bags! I’m naïve or distraught in that way. Have always been. How could I leave my laptop prothesis through which I access life itself, with no backup, on the backseat of the car? The effect of my carelessness, most often, is that I’m actually being taken care of. Guarded and held by complete strangers. As I keep saying to myself, I easily surrender to new circumstances, too easily perhaps.
Immediately when we step out of the car, I recognize one of a series of bronze Freedom sculptures similar to the ones which had recently been donated to Denmark as part of the centennial commemoration of the sale of the Virgin Islands to the US as an official gift with a hint to remind the former ruler of the islands of its colonial past. Apparently, the donations were commissioned copies of original Freedom sculptures made in 1998 by the Ghanaian-American sculptor Bright Bimpong in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves on the islands. One of the sculptures – or was it an original? – had also made its way to Frederiksgave, surprisingly. I didn’t expect to be greeted by anything so familiar. Linking all the sites of my research. I take it as a sign of being on the right track.
There is no time to gather myself and prepare for the tour with William and Anita, I’m being shown directly into a modest and recently built brick wall building to the left of the path leading up to the rebuilt plantation, further uphill, which I’m not able to see in its entirety from where we are parked. I don’t know what is going on, but I sense that something important, ceremonial is about to take place. It catches me by surprise. Do you want to meet the chief of Sesemi? William asks. I honestly don’t know why we are going to meet the chief at this point in time; is this something William has prepared, just like he invited Anita to join us? You can ask him questions of the place, William says, and from his demeanour I gather that it is a privilege and would be the proper thing to do. It sounds like a great idea, I answer somewhat bewildered.
We enter the first room of the building and are seated on a wooden bench. In front of us a chair for the chief. Behind him a map of Ghana and an image of the Danish queen and prince consort. Why? Again, I speculate whether this is a spectacle arranged just for me? What is going on? Is this a formal reception granted everybody who visits Frederiksgave – and who would they be, if even William can’t find the place? Or a rare occasion, carefully curated.
Does he live here or what is the deal? This is the chief’s seat. He is always here, he explains and laughs. He is “the big crack of the community,” he adds jokingly. I’m allowed to interview him for my work, but although he speaks and understands English well, he will only reply in his own language I’m told, and Anita will translate for me. This is part of the spectacle, undoubtedly. Though, unfortunately, I get a sense of a reduction taking place in the translation process. In combination with a feeling of avoidance when it comes to straightforward answers to my questions.
Well, trust is something you build, you cannot expect it to be given spontaneously during a first visit. I will only be able to scratch the surface, I know. So, I direct my attention to the instantiation of a ceremonial first meeting. Obviously, there are things they would never tell me, too. Perhaps even questions I shouldn’t ask. I don’t know the code of conduct here. I try to tap into the semi-officiality of the event. The chief acknowledges my line of questioning but keeps insisting on other explanations than I come suspecting.
I ask: In what way do the locals relate to the former plantation today? Who visits this place? What are their plans for the cultural heritage sites? Are they familiar with stories being told and oral history passed down through generations about the plantation and its surroundings? Songs or ghost-stories, perhaps?