A long time ago, Heraclitus stated that it is impossible to step in the same river twice, noting that both the river and the person who steps in it are continuously changing. But Cratylus, a Heraclitus acolyte, though in agreement went a step further and took issue with his master’s premise, quipping: “You can’t even step in the same water once.” Whether once or twice, as one steps in, the water particles are in continual swirling motion, refusing to be pinned down in time. The general idea these thinkers were conveying is unmistakable: change is inescapable and is in fact the only constant we can count on.
Thomas Wolfe captures the same idea in You Can’t Go Home Again. The reason is that the home of our memories is always changing. And if we make it back, what we return to is often quite different from what we remember. Something like this happened when I went back to my native Ghana in April this year. Unlike on previous occasions, I decided to visit European Town, a small community in the Sekondi of my youth, to measure this place against the dominant images of my earliest childhood recollections.
Sekondi is the Esau whose birthright has now been usurped by her sister-city, Takoradi. But before the usurpation the town had an enviable reputation as the seat of both government and commerce for Ghana’s Western Region. Tucked into an isolated incline on the westernmost corner of the city was European Town, a relatively small area, less than one square mile of real estate. But it was important real estate, and, as the name suggests, this was once the “playground” of different Europeans who took turns appropriating Sekondi and its environs for their homelands. First were the Dutch, then the British, who would eventually consolidate the entire country under colonial rule.
In the Sekondi of my upbringing, the place to see but not to live—because locals were unwelcome—was European Town. As I remember, everything in European Town was “big.” We children from Baka Ano, a poorer section of Sekondi, routinely walked the two miles to European Town just to gawk at what the place had to offer. And we were never disappointed because even though it was a small area the local attractions served an inspirational purpose and a welcome escape from our mundane life on the other side of town.
On a hilly prominence, hugging the Atlantic Ocean on the southwest tip of European Town sits the oldest and most prominent building in the city: Fort Orange. The Dutch built it in 1642 as a modest trading post, and over time it was expanded to its current form. Unlike its more famous (or infamous) Cape Coast Castle cousin just 51 miles farther along the eastern Atlantic coast, there is no hard evidence that Fort Orange veered from its original commerce interest into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. On the contrary, there is clear confirmation that the six-block area adjacent to the fort remained true to its business hub conception. The proof includes many trading company stores and warehouses packed in neat rows within that small area. Among the companies here were: United Trading Company Motors, a car assembly and parts plant; GB Ollivant, a Scottish conglomerate that traded in almost everything; and United African Company, which traded in goods locally and with many neighboring countries. At its height there were over 50 of these company buildings in picturesque rows dotting this tiny corner of European Town.
About a quarter mile southwest of the business district was the ever-bustling railway station, the first built in Ghana to connect Sekondi and the far-flung interior. In its glory days this station was the pride not only of Sekondi but the entire Western Region. People traveled long distances just to enjoy the travel atmosphere it evoked. The train station was flanked by a gigantic circular British-style General Post Office. When I was a child this was a magical place where we went often to retrieve mail from our overseas pen pals. I still recall the priceless joy I got just from the sight and smell of new books and tracts I received from the numerous Bible correspondence schools I was enrolled in.
A block from the post office, lazily meandering into the eastern Atlantic shoreline, sat the imposing boat yard, the nation’s only wooden fishing boat factory. And a mere five-minute’s walk to the west was what was known simply as The Base. The naval base was originally an inconsequential docking harbor used by European merchants to load and offload trading goods. After Ghana gained independence it converted this trading harbor into a port for the country’s nascent navy, charging it to defend its territorial waters against imaginary encroachers. Still nearby perched on another hilltop facing the small town of Esikado were the Western Regional Ministries, a complex of buildings that continues to serve as administrative offices.
So it was with heightened expectations, inured by latent childhood longings, that I returned to European Town. But once there I was met by scenes bearing little to no resemblance of my memories. The business district is no more. No more, that is, as businesses. The old buildings remain, a testament to the area’s once vibrant past, and those not boarded up advertise a repurposed incarnation but serve no thriving companies—that is, unless we consider some of the new occupants to be businesses, like the 200-member Sekondi Seventh-day Adventist Church, which now worships in the former UAC building. Otherwise, the entire business hub looks and feels dead.
The train station is also practically dead. It was once the buzzing gateway linking the western coast to the mining and agricultural hinterlands, but now it is reduced to a ghostly shell that seems unsure of its purpose. Strewn about are its assorted remains, apparently left in disorganized heaps to fend for themselves. Gone also is the boat yard: its demise surgical and clean, leaving no carcass to remind posterity of what had once been there. In its place is a beehive syndicate of pretend hostlers, who seem oblivious to the hallowed ground they now desecrate with impunity.
But all is not death and decay. The post office building still stands and continues its function, as does the navy base and regional ministries complex, the latter screaming to whoever would listen that a coat of paint would be welcome. What befuddled me about the structures that remain, though, was that they appeared so much smaller than how I remembered them. Even the base, which has undergone some expansion, seemed diminutive. The post office and regional office buildings appeared considerably shrunk compared to the grand edifices I had imprinted in my memory from elementary school days. Obviously, the buildings were the same. But clearly, something had changed. I’m not sure whether it was just my perception, or if something more fundamental was happening.
This feeling of bafflement was re-enforced when I reconnected with Kofi and Kwasi, two high school classmates I had not physically seen for over 40 years. Despite the intervening time, our conversations were easy, and our recollections augmenting. The most enlightening part of our meeting was discussing key events from high school. I soon realized that, though we recalled the same events, in the retelling we differed about some details. This turned out to be therapeutic, because it revealed that the sum of our collective memories added more to our high school experiences than we had previously supposed when we relied only on our individual recollections.
As I now reflect on these events it is clear to me that we humans have a tendency to freeze our earliest recollections, then romanticize and tuck them into a safe place in our memories. There we protect them from reality as we mature by refusing to expose them to scrutiny. But it is not only our cherished memories we treat this way. We extend this tendency to religious ideologies, shielding outmoded beliefs from daylight by branding them as “conservative.” We point to statements in our sacred writings, often out of context, and insist that, because those statements are in holy writ, they are “conserved” and thus exempted from inquiry regardless of new knowledge or evidence that might contradict them.
History is replete with accounts of subtle and not-so-subtle abuses perpetrated against those who challenged entrenched but flawed ideas or called for a re-examination of long-cherished beliefs. Throughout its antebellum period, for example, American southern whites believed in their god-ordained superiority and specialness, with their preachers pointing to passages in God’s own “Word” for validation. So, in the early 1960s, when another preacher of a darker hue reinterpreted this same Word, and the same God was portrayed as standing with the oppressed against the injustice of their oppressors, traditional Southern morality was stood on its head.
Memory is not only selective but also a poor judge of reality. It deludes us with assurances of certainty by constantly pointing to the supposed lived experiences lodged in our recollections. So, it serves us well to occasionally revisit the actual scenes we’ve lionized in our remembrance. We should visit the European Towns of our youth and match shadow with reality. While returning home risks shattering long-cultivated illusions of permanence and ideological constancy, the process is also transformative as it can help us outgrow our adolescence. Icarus flew above his station and tumbled to his death, but how else could he have seen above his horizon or defied the limits imposed on him?
It's true that going back home after a long absence, like mustering courage to disturb the serenity of our edified past, can be jolting. But the attempt is not without reward. With maturity we throw off the training wheels. In religion, we start transitioning from Paul’s milk-drinking childhood understandings to his meat-eating adulthood (1 Cor. 3:2). This is where God wants us to be. Like visiting our personal European Town, we reread the same biblical passages, but now aided by the benefits of time and accumulated knowledge interpret them from a higher and more nuanced perch. Gradually we begin to enjoy reading the whole passage or book. But now we read within its context to mine the essence, instead of joining disconnected verses together in misguided attempts to remain drinking Paul’s milk. So, it’s ok to go back home. Traveling there can show us that we’re adults now. And we can stand up to see deeper truth.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.