Photo: Cousin Gideon with Madame Desawu and her daughter, Agnes at the old
Our escorts spoke with one another in Ewe for a moment, and then excused themselves, saying they'd be back in a few minutes. Agnes’ children peered at me from behind their mother’s long skirt and giggled. Madame Desawu spoke animatedly with Gideon in Ewe while I had a look around. I’d been warned that the old family palace built by Gideon and Lawrence’s grandfather George (Haxormene I), was in a complete state of ruin, but I wasn’t prepared for the degree of ruin in which I found it. It looked almost as if it had barely survived wartime damage from bombs or shelling. But it was only time and neglect which had done the damage – time as measured by the relentless pace of ruin in the tropics. The neglect was due to the fact that once George’s son, family patriarch John Kofi Agbemabiese, moved his large family away to Kumasi and Accra in order to be close to his growing business interests, there were no more direct descendants of that line left in Tegbi to occupy either the palace compound or the stool of chieftancy.
photo: Ruins of Haxormene's palace
A building made of unadorned stone might last here, but there was little native stone to be had. A building made after the European style – with materials and a design originally meant for a temperate climate – simply won’t survive a tropical seacoast locale for long without constant up keep. The cycle of dry and wet seasons, each of them hot, conspires every hour of every day, year in and year out, to rot everything beneath the sun away, most especially anything built by human hands. The salt air makes it hard to keep even a coat of paint looking fresh for more than a year or two. Still, the old palace’s advanced state of decay made it hard to believe it was built only a little more than a hundred years ago.
It took a lot of imagining, but I began to see, as I poked around the place, how truly grand it once had been. It had eight bedrooms and two indoor baths at a time when these were rare anywhere on the continent. Its historical significance is that when it was built in about 1902, it was the first “story” building – simply meaning a building more than one story in height – ever built in this whole region of West Africa by a black man for himself. During the entire first half of the twentieth century, any other building of this size would have been built as a colonial administrative office of some sort, or as the headquarters for a European owned business concern. They say that for years after it was built, the sheer audaciousness of the project drew people from a hundred miles around just to see it.
While I explored and took photos, Kwaku, Agnes and a couple of others helped get white plastic chairs set up in the center of the compound courtyard for everyone who was expected. Madame Desawu chatted excitedly with Gideon as they traded family news and passed along greetings from people spread far and wide who’d passed along their regrets that they couldn’t be with us this day, but who wanted to say they were with us in spirit. Many times, she paused in the middle of her rapid fire conversation with Gideon in Ewe, looked over at me and smiled. Every time she did, I heard the same refrain. “She keeps saying, ‘It's like a miracle,’ said Gideon. ‘She says she took one look at you, and she was sure it’s true you are one of us. ‘Oh, it’s like a miracle’, she says.”