Ghana Life: People Of The Slaves’ Village

Ghana Life: People Of The Slaves’ Village

The road from Accra enters the City of Kumasi from the east and the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) lies on the left hand, or southern side of the road, just within the city boundary. Driving on the right, passengers from Accra descend from transport on the northern side of the road at Ayigya Junction where a lorry park has long been established. In the early 1970s, life on the university campus was comfortable and pleasant but across the road in Ayigya was the zongo, the former slaves’ village, where life was still a grim struggle for existence. Living in such close proximity, the two communities had found a way to live in peace and mutual dependence, with the university providing employment and farming opportunities and the former slaves providing round-the-clock security.

Before the colonial period the Ashanti Empire had been dependent on slaves collected mostly from raids on northern tribes. These unfortunates were accommodated in communities attached to Ashanti villages and called zongos; thus across the road from the KNUST campus were both Ayigya village and Ayigya Zongo. Officially, slavery was illegal in modern Ghana but in practice it was a matter of perspective. At a dinner party hosted by the Director of the Building and Road Research Institute (BRRI), Dr Joseph W S de Graft-Johnson, later to become Vice President of Ghana under President Hilla Limann (1979 – 81), told his British and American guests that, ‘The British claim to have abolished slavery but we still have slaves in our houses.’ The Ghana press, too, periodically reported raids by police and army on communities still claimed to be holding slaves.

Whether or not there were pockets of slavery elsewhere, the inhabitants of Ayigya Zongo were not slaves in any formal or legal sense, but their situation could hardly have been worse. A survey conducted by the Department of Social Sciences of KNUST revealed their plight in brutal statistics. It was found that in the whole of Kumasi the average room occupancy was seven persons, but in Ayigya Zongo with its broken mud walls and rusted iron roofs, it was eleven. Such density of accommodation was only possible by arranging sleeping by rota and this was only possible because most people were unemployed. Needless to say, employment across the road on the university campus was eagerly sought.

The work of the university generated many casual labouring jobs and these were quickly filled by zongo residents who exploited their access to the campus by growing corn on every spare plot of land. Although this casual farming was against university regulations in practice it was usually regarded with a blind eye. Those with paid work on the campus were the lucky ones, many others lived close to starvation. The basic carbohydrate input in their diet was cassava but this inexpensive food contained very little protein. The social scientists’ report made it clear that the main source of protein for the zongo residents were chickens, goats and dogs rounded up on the KNUST campus. Those whose nocturnal hunting was unsuccessful were often reduced to eating rats and lizards.

Somewhat surprisingly, the university security force was primarily recruited from the zongo. One might have expected the zongo recruits to experience mixed loyalties; were not the night intruders also coming from their community? In practice, however, these men hailed from the same northern Moslem tribes from which the British formerly recruited army and police personnel. Many still held proudly to their traditional sense of discipline in uniform, with military bearing and respect for their officers. A few older men still wore the medal ribbons they won in World War II, serving with the West African Regiment in Ethiopia and Burma. Any attempt to divert them from the course of duty was likely to be met by their universal slogan, ‘I like my pay.’