Protecting UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites – ATBs in focus

Unescos World Heritage Sites
Unescos World Heritage Sites

Located at the north-east of Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, the Asante Traditional Buildings (ATBs) are considered as some of the iconic existing cultural edifices globally.

In fact, they represent some of the last material remains of the great Asante civilization, which reached its high point in the 18th Century.

In 1980, the last 10 remaining ATBs were inscribed on the World Heritage List under criteria V as “rare surviving examples of a significant traditional architectural style of the influential, powerful and wealthy Asante Kingdom.”
“The rich colour, skill and diversity of the ATBs’ decorations represent some of the last surviving examples of significant architecture, reflecting the intricate technical, religious and spiritual heritage of the people,” says Mr. Abdourahamane Diallo, Representative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to Ghana.

Currently, most of the historical sites can be found within the Ejisu Municipality, including Besease, Edwenase, Adako-Jachie and Asawase.

The Buildings present a unique spectacle as they are arranged around courtyards – constructed of earth, timber, bamboo, straw, and mud plaster, and originally had thatched roofs.

Common forms include spiral and arabesque details with representations of animals, birds and plants linked to traditional “Adinkra” symbols.

As with other traditional art forms of the Asante, these designs are not merely ornamental, they also have symbolic meanings, associated with the ideas and beliefs of the Asante people and have been handed down from generation to generation.

Between 1960 and 1970, the Buildings were acquired by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) and scheduled as a National Monument under the Law of Ghana, NLC Decree 387 of 1969.

The present appearance of the buildings and their architectural form are authentic in terms of reflecting their traditional form and materials, although many have been reconstructed.

In most of the buildings, the original steeply pitched palm-frond thatched roofs have been replaced by lighter, shallower-pitched, corrugated iron roofs, and in all the buildings there have been the insertion of more durable paved flooring than the traditional rammed earth.

The ATB at Abirem, in the Kwabre-East District of the Ashanti Region is one of the most impressive buildings of the Asantes’ heritage, consisting of four-sections, a half-decked room housing the ‘Tano Subunu’ deity, and three other rectangular buildings assigned for singing, drumming and cooking.

It is worth mentioning that the four buildings enclose a central courtyard containing sky altars (Nyame dua) – to give it a more religious significance.

Opanyin Kwadwo Boahen, Abusuapanyin (Family Head) in-charge of the ‘Tano Subunu’ shrine, tells the Ghana News Agency (GNA) that the deity section of the Abirem ATB is closed by decorated walls or intricate open-work screen walls, which allows for ventilation and lighting, yet providing unusual and mysterious atmosphere.

According to him, the ritual plinth or dais was still restricted for use by the priest or priestess.
“The oracle is still active and attracts regular visits from people who come for consultation and assistance,” he tells the GNA.

Legends surrounding this ATB maintain that a once powerful ‘Okomfo (priest)’ at the shrine then, assisted Nana Osei Tutu I, founder of the Asante Kingdom, when he went to war, and that, Asantes have been historically known to consult the ‘Tano Subunu’ deity.

Significantly, all the 10 remaining ATBs, representing one of Ghana’s only two existing World Heritage sites, are still used for traditional, religious, and cultural activities.

It is, therefore, refreshing to note of the French Government’s commitment to work with key institutions such as the UNESCO, GMMB and Centre for National Culture (CNC), as well as traditional authorities to protect these heritage sites.

Ms. Anne Sophie Avé, the French Ambassador to Ghana, on her recent visit to the historical ATB at Abirem, an occasion coinciding with the revival of the ‘Awukudae’ festival of the people, said the facility was of importance, not only to Ghana but the world in general.

Undeniably, the zeal to protect such sites ought to be a shared responsibility given their multiplicity of advantages to society.

In the face of the global financial difficulties exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine War, most countries are looking within themselves to explore and harness local resources for socio-economic development.
Therefore, ATBs could come as a respite for the people, especially in tourism, if professionally managed and publicised locally and internationally.

A collective effort is needed at the national, regional and district level to safeguard the historical sites, which also serve educational, religious, architectural, and cultural purposes.

“In architecture, these traditional buildings could serve as a model for us as a nation.

“They present to us the opportunity to consider how best we can use available local materials in constructing affordable houses that identify with the culture and aspirations of the people,” Mr. Ekow Sampson, an Architect and Management Member of the Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA), told the GNA, in an interview.

Indeed, all other factors needed to ensure that the nation’s heritage sites are maintained ought to be given consideration – the provision of associated infrastructure such as good roads to the sites, and development of related activities along the value chain.

More importantly, the emerging threats of climate change to the existence of the ATBs cannot be overlooked. Very few of the buildings are complete. In most cases parts of the original structures are missing.

“Their integrity is being threatened by deterioration of the fabric due to the warm humid tropical climate that is destructive of traditional earth and wattle-and-daub buildings,” warns UNESCO.

Additionally, the heavy rainfall and high humidity are also encouraging rapid mould formation on the wall surfaces of these edifices, while the activities of termites and other prolifically breeding destructive insects present their own challenges.

A recent fact-finding mission by the GNA to some of the ATB sites at Ejisu uncovered massive encroachment by private individuals, a development the GTA and GMMB have promised to work collaboratively to address it.

“The Government of Ghana is embarking on a project to put to decent shape all identifiable museums and monuments of cultural and historical importance to the people,” Mr. Kingsley Ofosu Ntiamoah, the Executive-Director, GMMB, told the media, on his recent visit to the Abirem ATB.

Seriously, some people are erecting unauthorised structures, including stalls and houses, close to these historical sites.

According to UNESCO, there are currently 1, 121 sites on the World Heritage List, of which 869 are cultural, 213 are natural and 39 are mixed.

Fifty-three (53) of the sites are on the Danger List, including the historic centre of Vienna and the Old City (and walls) of Jerusalem.

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