The dam and the beads

Today I walked to Akosombo and visited the documentation centre where interesting photos are displayed concerning the building of the dam in the 1960’s. The project was doubtless cyclopean, so much so that the resulting lake is the biggest artificial reservoir in the world, but you could never imagine its proportions just by looking at the dam. Still, this massive Italian-built barrage gave rise to a lake that extends for more than 500 km to the north, changed the lives of thousands of people for the better or for the worse, and shaped a different landscape forever.

Lake Volta cut communication routes between the two shores, but created new ones over its surface. Now ferries ply its waters, fishermen harvest fish from its depths, and there is even a plan to harvest precious tropical timber submerged, and therefore preserved by the water, in flooded areas.

I walked up the slope to a point where the dam could be seen in all its size in spite of being shrouded in the mist. If I’d been allowed to get near and see it from the bottom or the top, I’d certainly have been very impressed, but only authorised vehicles can enter the grounds and pedestrians are not admitted.

The power plant initially provided enough electricity not only for domestic needs, but also for export. The foreign-owned mining company that funded the project cut itself the lion’s share, initially reserving itself as high as 80% of the electric output to power its aluminium processing plant. 40 years on, the smelter energy requirement have gone down, but the dam hardly suffices anymore to meet household demand, as the frequent power cuts in Ghana show only too often.


In the afternoon I visited a bead factory. Glass beads were introduced to Africa by European traders as a highly valued item in exchange for raw materials, ivory, and, sadly, slaves. Their design was elaborate and refined, enlivened by gold shines and colourful patterns. They really caught the eye. Mostly they were made in Venice, which thus managed to partake in the Atlantic trade but with a very secondary role, well below the standard of prima donna it had played for centuries in its privileged relationship with the Orient.

Beautiful as they might be, they were still very cheap currency for the riches they bought. Still, they were highly appreciated for their decorative uses, and came to function virtually as currency in the exchanges between Europeans and Africans around the Gulf of Guinea over the 4 centuries that this system lasted. Glassmaking was rare in Africa at the time, and the colourful shiny beads were therefore much valued for the creation of status symbols art objects to be worn by chiefs and personalities.

They live on in the Ghanian culture of today, but they do not come from Venice anymore, rather China. However some are produced locally and in that factory you can see how they are made today from glass detritus. They do not stand on a par with their noble precursors, but they are still original and beautiful.