As a child growing up in the then serene environs of Airport Residential Area in Accra in the 70’s, my group of friends often took long, aimless walks in the evenings around the neighbourhood.
At the time all the streets could be identified by name and so it was through street names that I learnt what Amilcar Cabral, Agostino Neto and Ndabaningi Sithole, (the name of the longest road in Labone), meant to the ‘African cause’. It must have been this wanderlust that formed my casual interest in architecture.
I cannot remember how I met B.A. Mensah’s two sons; Alfred, a year my senior and Bernard a couple of years my junior. Both of them wore glasses at the time and went to Christ the King School. Alfred was the chattier one, Bernard slightly introvert. Their father was fabulously rich but they were normal, unpretentious, unpampered kids. They were not showy or boastful and read avidly.
B.A. Mensah’s house was at the corner where Manakata Avenue meets Agostino Neto Road. It was a magnificent three story building that sat on about an acre of land and was set back about 70 feet from the road. The fence wall had metal gratings in them and huge royal palms dominated the garden area outside the fencewall. There were two gates to the house: one on Mankata Avenue and the main one on Agostino Neto Road.
To gain access into the house, one spoke through the intercom to Bernard and Alfred. Then you were let in. Admission to B.A. Mensah’s house was always an experience. Royal palms bordered the expansive concrete driveway which swept right round the house. The front garden was always well manicured and had almond “abrofo nkatie” trees and traveler palms on them. Lilac and white bougainvillaeas ran along the street facing walls. It was an Eden.
The house itself, a three storey one, had on its ground floor storage areas to the rear and huge open garages for B.A Mensah’s fleet of Mercedes’. (I will come to that later). To the back of the house there was a tennis court and the servant’s quarters. All round the house carefully pruned plants and flowers abounded. The house itself was an imposing, wide, carefully thought out one; planned to suit B.A. Mensah’s lifestyle. On top of the garage area and accessible by an external staircase, were the living and dining area. It was huge.
There were three sitting areas with huge armchairs and sofas and glass topped side tables. One that endures in my memory was a centre table shaped in the African map. The “wall to wall” carpet was rich and deep and the walls and ceilings were paneled in wood. Rich rugs lay on the sitting areas. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The living room opened out to the huge front terrace which gave imposing views of the rich garden. The floor above the living and dining area housed the bedrooms.
There was always some delivery to the house and everything seemed to function like clockwork. The cooks wore white, the housekeepers green and the groundsmen khaki. B.A. Mensah’s sons had the best bikes and it was riding magic to be able to borrow a racer, a Tomahawk or a Chopper from them for the afternoon. Their bikes were from Raleigh, the Bentley of bikes then. Mine were from Eastern Europe. I envied them. The compound was so vast racing round the concrete driveway was a dizzying pleasure. In the ground floor storage area was a fridge seemingly always full of soft drinks. I could help myself to as many Muscatellas’ as I liked from there.
Now where was B.A. Mensah in all this? As I stated earlier, he was a Mercedes convert and would promptly be chauffeured home at about 6.00p.m in a Mercedes 280 SEL. He also had a 350 SE and a gold 450SLC the uber-coupe. It was a joy as a kid to wander around that garage. When the gates flung open on his arrival home from work, order was immediately restored and everyone assumed their right positions. Everything was orderly. But I never heard him shout. He was tall and thin. He wore white shorts around his house and played tennis at weekends.
It was a thrill to see this rich man who owned factories ensuring that little things around his home and garden worked as they should. And he had parties, the preparation for which was meticulous. Coloured bulbs were strung round the front garden and a hive of waiters and staff from State Hotels would elegantly cater for Ghana’s leaders, business people, his friends and family. I told you he had storage on the ground floor. In these vast areas there were spares for machines and boxes of equipment. Did you know he had a thread factory? He did. I doubt there is still a thread factory in Ghana. Airport Residential Area was home to top public servants, diplomats and business people. Appenteng-Mensah, Siaw (Tata) and other big businessmen lived there. But his house was the one all were in awe of.
A hardworking enterprising man; a real achiever.
My dad who insisted that that I kept the right company, never scoffed, as he did at some other households I went to, at the news that I was coming home from B.A. Mensah’s. I was only a child but was in awe of B.A. Mensah, Ghana’s legendary industrialist. How did his contemporaries feel about him? I wish they’d tell us…
B.A. Mensah left this earth on 15th March 2013, but I think he “died” with the wrongful and unfair seizure of his crown jewel, International Tobacco by the PNDC. That “killed” him. Though it was returned to him decades later, he was hardly relieved. His empire had already crumbled and he died a sad, broken man. A great industrialist, employer, visionary, socialite and business mogul who would have grown a class of younger business people and helped in real terms with growing our industries and factories was not allowed to flourish.
What do we have now? A thieving political and business elite who have not raised a dime of their own capital conniving with our civil and public servants to steal Ghana’s scarce resources under all sorts of rotten deals. And they want to be counted as successful business people. And Ghanaians prostrate before these vampires. Nonsense!!
As a kid I naively thought B.A. Mensah meant Bernard Alfred Mensah, a fusion of his young sons’ names. It’s only in his death that I’ve gathered that his name was Benjamin Amponsah Mensah. My childhood icon is no more. My tycoon is gone. His house is a pale shadow of its grand former self. The royal palms are dying and a phone card dealer sits on the now dusty patch outside his walls where once there was lush grass.
I salute him. B.A. Mensah, Rest in Peace.