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Opinions of Friday, 8 November 2002

Columnist: Dalmazzo, Mario

Akosombo 1962

The Great Dam

The major tourist attraction offered by Ghana to its visitors today, in the 21st century is by all means the “Volta Lake”, the largest artificial lake in the World, boasting 8000 sq. kilometres of surface, in the midst of a hilly landscape covered by tropical vegetation. In 1962, during the construction of the great dam bearing the name of Akosombo, I was on the spot when the works had started since one year and it was for me an extremely interesting experience that I described in an article I wish to re propose as a reminder of a certainly memorable event for the Italian Ingenuity, which is not to be forgotten. Follows another article describing a fluvial itinerary that I undertook, during those same days to visit the villages and the populations along the river that would have disappeared with the birth of the dam and the formation of the Great Lake.

In the section Images of our site, there is a series of photographs that visually describe the story. These are not top quality pictures, and time has worsened them, but they efficiently illustrate what I have written. The ancient silence that wrapped the forests on the hills of Akwipim is now over forever. From the day of the arrival of the first teams of geologist, engineers and survey technicians, the measurements and plotting on the course of the Volta that lazily descends towards the sea, unwinding in slow coils its flow among the intense green of the forest, from that day the secular peace has ended. It was decided that the great dam would be constructed next to Akosombo, where the river bends towards Togo in a curve at about 80 miles from the coast, after a series of rapids and small surfacing islands. The dam can be reached from Accra by the road that goes to Togo and that crosses the river with a great iron bridge. After having covered an arid and burnt region, we penetrate the forest, and, arrived at the bridge, without crossing it we turn left towards Akosombo.

The meaning of this name is not clear, a village or maybe just a hill. Now Akosombo is the dam, and nothing else but the rising dam. Arriving from a distance, the long, low white accommodations disappear when the road winds through the folds of the land. The construction yards of these enormous enterprises, in far away regions appear to the visitor as something of a miracle. They pop up suddenly, in contrast with the rest of the world around, as things born as a whim in an environment foreign to their nature. Thousands of trees cut down, the soil laid bare, the shores of the river upset as if struck by a terrible cataclysm. The forest from the top appears ripped by a great injury on the soil, in contrast with the dark green all around; there is the yard where thousands of men are moving in all directions, in prey of a feverish activity. The dam rises slowly, as an art work under the skilful fingers of a sculptor that moulds matter at his will. The fingers of the builders are the great excavators, the enormous soil carriers, the most modern mechanical vehicles that face nature in order to modify it and bend it according to a precise project, created in its innermost details. The men developing this great enterprise are Italians, the same men that have just finished building the Kariba dam, on the Zambesi River. And he who leads is the same man that directed the Rhodesian plant: engineer Mario Baldassarini. Allow me a personal note: meeting Mario Baldassarini in Akosombo had a very particular meaning for me. With him, at the time, I had shared the room, the problems, the anxieties and the joys of University life, I found him again now, after so much time, in Equatorial Africa. His figure strangely contrasted with the whole environment, his blond hair and fair skin, untamed by the African sun, stood out among the tanned figures of all the men working on the dam. It wasn’t easy to track him on the yard, where he moved continuously as a lightning to see, control, and examine everything in the smallest details. He greeted me very simply, as if we had left each other the night before, naturally he spoke of his creature, the dam.

His story starts in 1953 with the first technical visit to locate the best spot to bar the river’s waters in order to create a source of electric energy to feed a large chemical plant, exploiting the local bauxite and producing aluminium. Several events financed this great project in which where participating, along the English and Ghana Governments, British Aluminium, Canadian Aluminium Ltd and the Soviet Union. The plant should have risen in Tema on the coast. Finally, after the intervention of the President of Ghana and the American President Eisenhower, the project was born. In February 1961 an Italian company, Impregilo , won the tender. It was the same Company that had already constructed the famous Kariba dam in Rhodesia. From the window of his small office on the construction site, that dominates the vast view of the valley, Baldassarini describes his job, its hardships, and his hopes. The Volta flows through a hilly region covered by thick vegetation, with only a few fishermen villages along its shores, which will be submerged by the great basin formed by the dam, a basin 400 Kms long, with a surface of 8000 sq. kilometres and a capacity of 1500 billions of cubic meters. Amazing figures, exposed with absolute simplicity by someone used to these parameters of measurement. The Volta is a typical African river, with significant flow variations between the dry season and the heavy rain season, and forces the job to adapt to these differences. Any unexpected difficulty can produce enormous damages in the enterprise’s economy. This is why all the technical staff is engaged to a complete dedication and a work discipline that cannot be easily imagined. The dam is of “Rockfill” type, an American concept, entirely built in rock with waterproof layers in clay. Its crest is 800 meters long, 120 meters high it will give energy to an electric plant for 6 initial turbines for 128000 Kw. The Rockfill dam costs quite less than that in concrete like the one in Kariba. At the moment of my visit the yard was working constructing lateral tunnels that should have deviated the river’s course and allowed the construction of the dam. I won’t add other technical details but I will say that the personnel employed have reached 200 white workers, and 2000 locals. All this gives an idea of the size of this titanic enterprise developed by Italians in Africa. We have to add to the technical difficulties for its construction, the logistic problems concerning the organisation in the midst of the equatorial forest, of a community of people of the most different origins, level and race. I didn’t live for long in the village, but enough to understand these modern pioneer’s life, a life axed almost exclusively on the events happening in that small deforested area in the dam’s proximity. Many families of the Italian technicians, the women and children easily adapted to the conditions of life and the environment. The great heat is here, but stays out of the cosy air-conditioned living rooms and bedrooms. The apartments are all the same: from the director to the last of carpenters, the women decorate them and differentiate them with furniture brought from the far away motherland, and kept almost as if a relic. At five o clock, when it seems that the torrid sun loosens its grip, the ladies visit each other for a cup of tea. As in all communities, small clans are formed, living rooms where the facts of the day, from the new dress arrived from Milan by airmail, to the servants’ behaviour and other small facts, are object of judgement, critics, and gossip. Like at home the supermarket, the school in the village’s outskirts, the church are all meeting points. On the other side of the river the worker’s village and their colourful market, the women wrapped in their bright costumes, sitting on the edge of the road, and the characteristic feast noise. Behind this fa?ade the usual minor tragedies: engineer Y’s wife lost her servant, the Ashanti head of team’s wife wants to quit him, electricity is not arriving, and so on.

All this is ruled by a man that covers several functions, from head fireman to judge of peace to mayor of this heterogeneous community. I remember his name, Mr. Bicelli that with his Roman accent solves all the problems, even mine during my brief stay. Around this entire small universe the “bush” that is dramatically destroyed piece by piece and that sieges the growing yard in vain. Before my leave, I wanted to learn to know that surrounding world, destined to disappear, and went with a motorboat along the river to discover the villages that will vanish when the dam will be finished. This is what I found.

A village on the Volta

For all of them it’s “giu-giu” the white men’s great dam.

The big motorboat glided on the river’s yellow waters towards the rapids, north of the dam’s plant. The indigenous at the front was inspecting along the shores covered by the thick equatorial vegetation to find a landing. Akosombo was now far and far was the frenetic fervour of life that moved around the base of the great dam in construction.: the forest was again dominating and the overwhelming space above the green hills of Akwipim enhanced the silence beyond the sound of the water hitting the boat and the engine’s buzz. The tangle of the leaves of the trees on the shores hid the monkeys whose presence we could guess by the sudden movements of the vegetation.

The boat was now following the right hand shore touching the curved tree’s branches, which marked small wakes in the slow river flow. None of us would speak. There was like a fear of breaking an astonishing nature’s spell with an extraneous sound or movement; the man at prow suddenly indicated a yellow triangle of bare soil ahead of us. In the water lied a semi-submerged canoe, tied to a pole. We had found a landing point. Slowly we approached the shore, and I was the first one to land , directing myself along a steep path that disappeared through the tangle of branches. I proceeded on the barely marked track, penetrating in an atmosphere of light filtered through tiny screens of all tonalities of green, on the soft carpet of the underbrush. It had been enough to lose contact with the others, to have the sensation of being immerged in a world whose temporal and spatial values had a different measurement unit.

A sense of solitude that yielded fear, but that awoke more in the body than in the soul spontaneous sensations of a defensive condition through an apparent enhancement of the senses. The silent forest would respond only with a slight rustle and quiet and indistinctive noise. I kept on walking and finally reached the destination of our trip: a lost village a village who’s life was now marked and decided by the great enterprise that was preparing the river’s barrage, impeding the water flow. A village with no name that would have left no memory, destined to disappear silently, submerged by the waters of the great basin that the Akosombo dam would have created, interrupting the millenary course of the river. A small clearing opened at the end of the path, almost a rest in the forest of green’s progress: the huts rose all around, creating a small square in the middle. I arrived slowly, so as not to disturb with my sudden appearance the quiet and silent life of the village.

The children, small sensitive creatures, were the first to sense my presence, and while terror could be seen in the eyes of the fleeing smaller ones, the older ones surrounded us and escorted us with circumspection to the huts.The few men and the women, sitting in a circle, were busy at their usual choirs, and did not interrupt their slow work when we arrived. I noticed the men were old or invalid, the youngsters were probably fishing at the river or maybe had gone to Akosombo, to spy on the strange manoeuvres of the yard. All those people had been informed on their destiny, but had greeted the news as a paradoxical prediction absolutely impossible to believe: the old village chief that spent every day sitting under his regal shed, laughed amused at the youngster’s stories that told him how the white men were wasting useless time in trying to empty the river by taking the river’s water from up hill and bringing down hill through a big tube. The same reaction was provoked by the dredging operations of the riverbed, in act at Akosombo. In the infinite wisdom given by age, the chief could reassure his people that the white men’s predictions would never come true. After the first astonished looks, the children gained confidence with the foreign guests and started touching the cameras, watches, accepting amazed, the little presents and some coins.

In the meantime the village life continued to flow all around us with the secular slowness of those who do not expect anything new if not the manifestation of natural events, without any possibility to modify their course The most common acts appeared almost ritual for the slow composure of the movement. The small society was organised according to the “clan” law. The chief is the father of everybody and everyone is his brother, he regulates every day’s life and administers justice, his wisdom given by age puts him above everybody else. He can look at the sky and foresee the arrival of rain and hurricanes, he can read in the bird’s flying. The manifestation of his power is given by his stillness.

A great wise man, a great chief, limits his acts to the essential. He saw our group arrive, but remained still, sitting and waiting for the due sign of respect. We looked at each other and talked, each one in his own language, holding each other’s hands. The children brought the coins we had given them: no one in the village owns property; everything is in common, only the chief can receive and later distribute. While this strange conversation and exchange of compliments was taking place, the village “giu-giu” tried to make us notice his presence and measure its power, he is the only force against which the chief is sometimes powerless, it is the strength of the unconscious, the force of magic that permeates their life. “Giu-giu” is the sorcerer, “giu-giu” is everything that our senses cannot perceive, everything that is beyond their comprehension but is true and real as the river, the forest and the rain. In the indigenous’ soul there is no difference between what is happening, and what one would want to happen. While our visit proceeded, the few locals became fore us characters each with their story to tell.

A story of hardship and fight for survival in a hostile world, in extreme poverty of means and objects. The village was dying, its agony had began a long time before the white men had decided. The valid youngsters had already left long before, one by one they had gone south, attracted by a mysterious world and a new frenzy of life given by the pressing civilization. Those that remained were only the women, the children and the invalids that supported their handicap with serene fatalism, almost substituting resignation to unknown analgesics.

It was already late and the trip back on the river imposed or departure: a young women sitting with her baby on her lap had never moved and had continue to quietly watch the unexpected visitors. On her strangely beautiful face her eyes were sweet and gentle and followed us fearless and without curiosity. A primeval world was staring at us through her, whose roots dig in the most remote human origins. I stared at her for a long time before leaving, as if trying to catch a light of communication that would draw our two distant worlds together, trying to find a continuity of life in the village condemned by my same people. But she carried on looking at me as any other extraneous object, as if a common point of understanding would be absolutely impossible. That far away, detached and intense look has remained the last image of this unusual visit in one of the many villages that would disappear under the waters of the great lake. Down hill the works for the dam’s construction intensely continued and their noise, while our boat was on the way back, recalled me little by little to my modern man reality breaking the spell of a far away world of which I was lucky to catch a glimpse.

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