I am in Tarkwa to visit my retired parents for the New Year. A four-day trip has morphed into a one-week stay, and still counting. There is something about this place that makes me spend two days indoors without stepping past the front door. It is food, sleep, TV, chatting with my parents over everything and nothing, and getting stressed out by my little three-year old niece, who demands attention round the clock.
Coming to Tarkwa has always evoked memories and a comfortable sense of identity. I grew up in this town in the seventies and beyond, when my dad was a mining engineer here. Two of my younger brothers were born here, and the other two born in Prestea, another mining town where my dad spent a significant part of his working life. So certain milestones in this busy mining town evoke fond sentiments as I step back into time-my primary school, the various houses we lived in as dad progressed up the career ladder, the senior staff club, where we attended various children’s parties, caught tennis balls for our fathers and swam in the pool, the former UAC building, the market circle, the Apinto Shaft, the railway station.
Ah, the railway station-that iconic building that stood proud and literally reached out to you as you passed the School of Mines and approached the UAC building en route to the post office uphill. You cannot have grown up in Tarkwa up to the late nineties and not have the railway play a major role in your life one way or the other. From a very early age, when we lived at Governor’s Hill, my parents, my younger sister and I would make regular trips to visit my maternal grandmother in Accra by train, and towns on the route like Huni Valley, Oppong Valley, Achiase and many sleepy towns remain burned in my memories. These towns were together defined by the railway industry, and their fortunes as centres of commerce literally rose and fell with those of the industry. In those days, my sister and I loved to spend time in the last carriage, which had glass windows all round and afforded panoramic views as the train chugged along. I loved the sleeper service, which had proper cabin bunkbeds, where one could sleep and dream away as the train ploughed gently through the silent night, its engines huffing and puffing along the way.. Tarkwa Railway Station had an underground passage (or ‘down blow’, as we called it) through which one could pass to the platforms on the other side, and in the mid-seventies, that was a big deal. Train horns were part of the sounds of Tarkwa. Whilst at secondary school at Opoku Ware School in Kumasi, my trip to school and back was by train-so bad was the road.
Today, the railway station stands forlorn and miserable, peeled of its paint and beauty in as much as it is peeled of its former glory. Layers of dust and grime coat this once-beautiful, proud, cream and green symbol of a vibrant mining town which shot to golden fame in 1896 as a mining gem with the aid of the Frenchman Pierre Bonat. Traders have taken over the premises, and the cool, dark ticket hall is now haven to all manner of persons. Creaking signs over the doors, saying ‘Station Manager’, ‘Ticket Office’ etc are the only clues to what this building once was. Metal shells of rusty train carriages also greet the eye, as does a once energetic signaling office. The tracks are overgrown with grass, with the weathered train lines barely visible through the foliage. Luckily, Tarkwa remains vibrant and has actually grown even without its railways, principally because of the mining and associated industries. I shudder to think of what has become of Insu Siding, Huni Valley and Opong Valley, which seemed to thrive solely on the rail industry and the commerce it spawned. The words ‘ghost towns’ are not far from my mind.
It is sad that over the past 55 years, we as a nation have run down, rather than build on, the colonial legacies left behind by the British. It makes one wince to think that Dr. Nkrumah once claimed proudly that the black man was capable of managing his own affairs. Are we? I like to pretend that the jury is still out on that, whilst trying to avoid the reality that stares us in the face.
How have we come to this? It is not as if the railways declined and literally disappeared because of a lack of patronage. It was a favourite of the traders who plied the route between Kumasi and Takoradi, dealing in salt, fish and many items, and I daresay the demand remains high. Timber, manganese and bauxite all depended on the rail system as a cheaper and easier means of transport. Rail travel does take the pressure off our road networks in terms of transporting bulky items. And of course, with the Tarkwa to Kumasi road route being in a terrible shape, passenger patronage can be assured of.
I believe our collective woe with the rail sector, as with many others in the state’s bosom, has been the lack of political will to invest properly, lack of long-term vision and bad planning, terrible management practices and corruption, among many others. In this, both the major parties that have ruled Ghana since the beginning of the fourth republic stand indicted in the lack of commitment.
Of course, I do not pretend to know all the answers in the way forward. What I know is that my beloved Tarkwa deserves its rail glory back. And this is not a romantic, misty-eyed harking to past glories to try to re-live my childhood days. I believe there are commercially viable, strategic reasons for revitalizing this vital sector. All we need is visionary, dedicated leadership willing to look at the long-term, big picture rather than the electoral cycle of four years.
Plus, it would be nice, actually, to enjoy a train ride from Tarkwa to Kumasi. First class travel, naturally. With a buffet car, thank you. I could do with sipping some excellent sauvignon as I watch the countryside roll by.
The Audacity of Hope.