‘Chuku, chaka, chuku, chaka!!’
In secondary school at Opoku Ware School in Kumasi, whenever I was asked where I lived and I said ‘Tarkwa’, it elicited wry smiles and comments either about the town’s gold mines or its railway station.
On the railway, I almost always got a ‘chuku chaka, chuku chaka’ chuckle from my seniors or peers in response, a mimic of the sounds the engines made as the trains chugged along, billowing thick smoke into the heavens.
Of course, I have many happy and fond memories of the railway town I grew up in, and like many other Ghanaians, I was sad to witness the decline and decay of such a viable means of transport.
The coming back to life of the railway industry with the excellent work being done under the quiet but hardworking sector Minister, Mr Joe Ghartey, has lifted my spirits to no end, and I have been struggling to find time to jump on the refurbished Accra-Tema train in order to see things for myself ‘fiili-fiili’, impressed with the images I saw on TV the other day.
As the memories of my childhood and teenage years came flooding back, I recalled a short piece I wrote and posted on social media some time in 2016 under the title, ‘A Golden Age Gone By’.
I shared my thoughts on the industry, and today, I wish to share those thoughts as I doff my hat to Mr Ghartey and his team for giving my audacious, almost comatose hope some life and oxygen. Now, where is the celebratory wine?
Coming to Tarkwa has always evoked memories and a comfortable sense of identity.
Ah, and that railway station — that iconic building that stood proud and literally reached out to you as you passed the University of Mines and Technology (UMat) and approached the UAC building en route to the post office uphill.
You cannot have grown up in Tarkwa up to the late 1990s and not have had the railway play a major role in your life in one way or the other.
From a very early age, when we lived at Governor 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 such as 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 curved glass windows all round and afforded panoramic views as the train chugged along.
I loved the sleeper service, which had proper cabin bunk beds, where one could sleep and dream away as the train ploughed gently through the silent night, its engines huffing and puffing along the way and stopping at every town on the route.
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-1970’s, that was a big deal.
Train horns were part of the sounds of Tarkwa that gave the town life and a unique identity. While in 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 signalling 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 Oppong 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 since independence, 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, while 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 means of transport for 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.
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 revitalising 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. Air-conditioned, first class travel, naturally.
With a buffet car offering delicious meals and snacks and exotic cocktails, thank you very much.
Actually, I could do with sipping some excellent sauvignon wine as I watch the countryside roll by.
The Audacity of Hope.
By Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng