In spite of the rapid growth of the big cities, Accra and Kumasi, a majority of Ghanaians still live in hamlets, villages and small towns in rural areas where most livelihoods still depend essentially upon farming. In these rural communities the traditional form of housing is still common and most families live in a single room in a compound house. Although the original mud brick walls and thatched roofs have largely been replaced by concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofing sheets, and the size of the compound has been increased, the basic layout and the lifestyle it supports have remained essentially unchanged. What follows is a description of a typical Ashanti compound house in the small gold-mining town of Konongo, fifty kilometres from Kumasi on the road from Accra, as it existed in the last decade of the twentieth century.
The traditional floor plan of the compound house consists of a rectangular courtyard surrounded on all four sides by rows of single rooms, each with a door and a window opening onto the inner courtyard. The rows of rooms form a wall around the courtyard with a single opening on one side to provide access from outside. In former times the opening may have been gated, but compound houses constructed in modern times, like the one in Konongo, often had unobstructed access. Each room belonged to a family and was passed on from generation to generation. Almost everyone in the compound belonged to the same extended family or clan, but a few room owners who moved away or found alternative accommodation may have let their room to a stranger.
The compound house in Konongo, in common with many others in the town, gave the impression of never having been completed. The large central courtyard was unpaved except for a few small areas of concrete outside some of the rooms. On this hard trodden and often-swept orange-pink bare earth floor children learned to crawl and toddle while their mothers cooked, attended to household chores and conversed with other women. Constant sweeping kept the compound free of grass and weeds but the courtyard was big enough to accommodate three shade trees under which the men could gather to smoke their pipes and vent their grievances.
In addition to the trees, the courtyard was littered with building materials left over from the original construction and later extension projects. These piles of sand and discarded building blocks had become gradually weathered into smooth and familiar contours that nobody thought of removing, either to construct a new facility or to improve the appearance of the compound. The surrounding walls may once have been white but now they had taken on the colour of the soil beneath. The iron roofing sheets were rusted and patched; warped, broken and unpainted wooden doors sagged on their hinges, and the louvered windows had cracked and missing glasses, some replaced by strips of plywood.
Many of the shade trees in Ashanti towns and villages are mangoes. These were unpopular with the adults because the children made so much mess in May every year when the fruit was ripe and ready to eat. The children’s standard technique of harvesting was to throw sticks up into the trees which fell back accompanied by the fruit and also by copious quantities of foliage. Fortunately, the mango fruiting season was short, and the smiles on the faces of the children quickly reverted from mango orange to permanent chocolate brown.