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“Nkrumah’s Baby”: the Akosombo Dam and the dream of development in Ghana, 1952–1966


The Akosombo Dam across the Volta River in Ghana remains at the center of debates and imaginations about nationhood, modernity, and development. Originally designed in the 1920s to serve the British metropole, the Volta River Project was reshaped by the country’s founding leader Kwame Nkrumah in the 1950s. The revised project included a hydroelectric dam, an aluminum smelter to process Ghanaian mined bauxite, new cities, a deep sea harbor, and other infrastructural investments. The project became central to a modernization program that promised rapid industrialization and reducing the country’s dependence on cocoa exports. Public discourses increasingly identified the project with Nkrumah and his dream of development. In the course of its planning and construction, the Akosombo Dam became a manifestation of the personalization of state politics that engaged with international donors, multinational companies, foreign governments, and local expectations. Based on multi-sited archival and oral research, the article explores how public, government, and expert discourses about the Volta project produced different temporalities of an industrialized future that would transform the country’s rural past and create new cities, factories, and infrastructures during the 1950s and 1960s. The Volta scheme is an excellent prism to reconstruct how a large dam became not just the engine for the imagined transformation of Ghana during Africa’s era of decolonization but also a vehicle for multiple actors with competing agendas within the Cold War context. In this article, I unpack these interventions that led to a series of tensions and paradoxes. Analyzing the Volta scheme’s debates and public spectacles provides an account about the interplay between development aspirations and possibility, dreams and reality.

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  1. 1.

    In the 1950s, cocoa accounted for about two thirds of export earnings (Killick 1966, p. 236).

  2. 2.

    The Co-Operator 1, no. 20, Feb 1962; Daily Graphic (DG), 27 March 1962, pp. 6–7. DG had in 1962 a circulation of about 100,000 copies (Austin 1964, p. 423).

  3. 3.

    Nkrumah papers and files are available at the Public Records and Archives Administration Department, Accra (PRAAD), in the series Record Group (RG) 17/1 (which was originally thought to constitute the papers of the Bureau of African Affairs and listed SC/BAA) and RG 17/2. For the archive of the Nkrumah era, scattered in fragments, see Allman (2013, pp. 119–120). The archive of the Volta River Authority in Tema (VRA-A) includes the files of the VRA predecessors, the Preparatory Commission (1956) and the Volta River Development Secretary.

  4. 4.

    Gold Coast (1952a, pp. 1, 5, 7); PRAAD ADM 13/1/20, Cabinet Minutes, 24 March 1952, item 9 (v), p. 5.

  5. 5.

    18 April 1952 (Gold Coast 1952b, pp. 1137, 1139).

  6. 6.

    Ibid, pp. 1139–1142.

  7. 7.

    Ibid, pp. 1153–1156. For the East African groundnut scheme, see Hodge (2007, pp. 209–213); according to Jackson (1964, p. 147), this failed scheme had “disastrous consequences” for any development project across the Commonwealth.

  8. 8.

    18 April 1952 (Gold Coast 1952b, p. 1158).

  9. 9.

    25 April 1952 (Gold Coast 1952c, pp. 1303–1333).

  10. 10.

    DG, 1 Dec. 1952, p. 7.

  11. 11.

    DG, 13 Dec. 1952, pp. 9–11. For the TVA as a “comprehensive development” model for the building of hydroelectric dams in 1950s Japan, see Dinmore in this special issue; for the export of the TVA as part of U.S. foreign policy, see Ekbladh (2010); for a debate about the transfer of the TVA model to Tanzania during the 1960s and 1970s, see Hoag (2006).

  12. 12.

    DG, 14 Jan. 1953, p. 7 and 26 Jan. 1953, p. 3.

  13. 13.

    DG, 9 Feb. 1953, p. 1 and 16 Feb. 1953, pp. 4/7. See Austin (1964, p. 166n).

  14. 14.

    DG, 11 Feb. 1953, p. 8. For Nkrumah dismissing criticism, see DG, 10 Feb. 1953, pp. 1/8. A four part series “by a Correspondent” sought to explain the project and deflate critique: DG, 14 Feb. 1953, p. 9, 16 Feb. 1953, p. 3, 18 Feb. 1953, p. 10, and 19 Feb. 1953, p. 3.

  15. 15.

    See related discussions about hydroelectric dams in 1950s Japan as examined by Dinmore in this special issue.

  16. 16.

    23 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953a, pp. 461–462). This debate is discussed in Apter (1972, pp. 234–241).

  17. 17.

    23 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953a, pp. 469–472). For the government’s anticipation of the debate, see PRAAD ADM 13/1/22, Cabinet Minutes, 16 Feb. 1953, item 9 (iv), p. 2.

  18. 18.

    23 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953a, pp. 469, 471–472). Later in the debate, Ofori Atta, G. O. Awuma, Anthony Woode, and A. E. Inkumsah also mentioned the Iranian nationalization, 24–25 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953b, pp. 558, 589 598, 607–608).

  19. 19.

    23 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953a, pp. 481, 486, 492–494).

  20. 20.

    Ibid, pp. 509–510.

  21. 21.

    24 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953b, pp. 527–528, 531).

  22. 22.

    23 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953a, pp. 494, 496, 498).

  23. 23.

    24 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953b, p. 556). The 1948 Accra Riots, followed by a state of emergency, was a watershed in Gold Coast history. In its subsequent report, the Watson Commission not only recommended constitutional reform that led to self-rule but noted that the Gold Coast population would benefit from the Volta scheme; Great Britain (1948, pp. 55–56).

  24. 24.

    24 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953b, pp. 556–558, 566).

  25. 25.

    Ibid, p. 567.

  26. 26.

    25 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953b, pp. 586–587); Danquah referred to Gold Coast Review, 25 Feb. 1953.

  27. 27.

    25 Feb. 1953 (Gold Coast 1953b, pp. 605–609).

  28. 28.

    Ibid, pp. 625–627.

  29. 29.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, R. Walker, Ministry of Development, to Commander Jackson, 27 Feb. 1953.

  30. 30.

    PRAAD ADM 13/1/21, Cabinet Minutes, 13 June 1952, item 4 (iii), p. 8; 23 Sept. 1952, item 10 (v), p. 9; 9 Oct. 1952, item 3, pp. 3–5; 11 Nov. 1952, item 7 (ii), p. 5; and 5 Dec. 1952, item 10 (i), p. 7.

  31. 31.

    For Robert G. A. Jackson, see James Gibson’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,, accessed 20 May 2012.

  32. 32.

    PRAAD ADM 13/1/22, Cabinet Minutes, 27 Jan. 1953, item 6(v), p. 6; and 5 Feb. 1953, item 13(i), p. 6. See “Secret Talk on Volta,” DG, 5 Feb. 1953, pp. 1, 8. Jackson was to receive a salary of £7,000 per year plus the entertainment allowance of £500, the maximum that “could be justified locally,” see PRAAD ADM 13/1/22, Cabinet Minutes, 9 Feb. 1953, item 2, p. 3.

  33. 33.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, Robert Jackson to J. Walker, 5 May 1953.

  34. 34.

    PRAAD ADM 13/1/22, Cabinet Minutes, 22 May 1953, item 12 (ii), p. 10. The discussion included a press release about the Preparatory Commission.

  35. 35.

    3 July 1953 (Gold Coast 1953c, col. 76–82). The third international expert was General G. N. Russell, an authority in transport. For earlier discussions on the National Committee, see PRAAD ADM 13/1/22, Cabinet Minutes, 12 June 1953, item 20 (v), p. 10 and 30 June 1953, item 8 (ii), p. 6.

  36. 36.

    13 July 1953 (Gold Coast 1953c, col. 319–322). The other nominees included J. C. de Graft Johnson, T.M.K. Mercer, and E.E.K. Kurankyi Taylor to shore up support among CPP backbenchers. See PRAAD ADM 13/1/22, Cabinet Minutes, 9 July 1953, item 4 (iii), p. 4. The National Committee, upon expiration of its appointments was reconstituted in Aug. 1954, without renewing Ofori Atta, de Graft Johnson, and Kurankyi Taylor (Gold Coast 1955, col. 588).

  37. 37.

    Although never built, the prescriptions for Kpong foreshadowed debates around Akosombo Township, the model city at the foot of the dam (Miescher 2012).

  38. 38.

    For an overview of the commission’s work, see Preparatory Commission (1956, II, pp. 23–35).

  39. 39.

    Preparatory Commission (1956, I pp. 126–127). For Damodar Valley Corporation, India’s TVA, see Klingensmith (2007).

  40. 40.

    The consulted experts are listed (Preparatory Commission 1956, I, pp. 127–128) and acknowledged throughout the report and its appendixes.

  41. 41.

    See PRAAD ADM 13/1/24, Cabinet Minutes, 26 Aug. 1955, item 2, pp. 4–5 for the discrepancy with the National Committee, and PRAAD ADM 13/1/24 Cabinet Minutes, 9 Dec. 1955, items 2–10, pp. 2–25 and 16 Dec. 1955, items 2–6, pp. 2–12, for extensive discussions of the findings.

  42. 42.

    The report has three volumes: (I) summary of findings and recommendations; (II) appendixes with reports by the commission and by outside experts; (III) engineering report by William Halcrow & Partners. Estimated coast are summarized in Preparatory Commission (1956, I, p. 70).

  43. 43.

    Gold Coast (1956a, p. 2). In an ironic twist, as Holbrook (1985, pp. 360–361) noted, the CPP in its ant-colonial struggle copied many propaganda tools of the war-time Information Department. By the 1950s, with the CPP in government, these efforts had come full circle. Cf. Shapiro (2003, pp. 83–84), who interviewed J. R. Moxon, appointed DIS director in 1954.

  44. 44.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, R. Walker to Jackson, 7 May 1953 and DIS director J. Lillie-Costello to Walker, 4 March 1953.

  45. 45.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, Minutes of meeting in Jackson’s office, 20 July 1953; VRA-A VRP/PC/34, Note of Meeting at the Preparatory Commission, 13 Jan. 1955. The National Committee visited Alcan facilities in 1953; a reconstituted committee visited the model city of Kitimat and the Kemano hydroproject in British Columbia in 1955. The cost of these visits led to questions in the Assembly, 17 Nov. 1955 (Gold Coast 1955, col. 588–589); see Hart (1980, pp. 18–19).

  46. 46.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, R. J. Moxon, Director of Information Services, to Regional Commissioners, 5 Jan. 1955.

  47. 47.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/34, Note of Meeting at the Preparatory Commission, 13 Jan. 1955; VRP/PC 28, Information Services Department, Notes of 22nd Weekly Briefing, 2, 21 Jan. 1955. Cf. Gold Coast (1956a, pp. 10–11); Moxon (1984, p. 73); Preparatory Commission (1956, II, p. 26n). For press coverage, see Daily Echo, 26 Jan. 1955; DG, 4 June 1955 and 5 May 1956, cited in Shapiro (2003, p. 84 n35).

  48. 48.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, Moxon to Regional Commissioners, 5 Jan. 1955. For modernization as spectacle, see Bloom et al. (2014).

  49. 49.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, Moxon to Regional Commissioners, 5 Jan. 1955.

  50. 50.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/28, strictly confidential memo addressed to Jackson, 2 March 1955.

  51. 51.

    The Chairman of the Local Council opened the exhibit at Wenchi on 18 May 1956, PRAAD Sunyani, BRG 1/9/1Quarterly Reports on the Wenchi-Sunyani District (1953–58 Reports); thanks to Bianca Murillo for this reference.

  52. 52.

    The Alcan films are mentioned in VRA-A VRP/PC/34, Note of Meeting at the Preparatory Commission, 13 Jan. 1955.

  53. 53.

    Crawley Films of Canada with technical assistance from Alcan produced the first part, originally entitled The Saguenay River: Aluminium Production in Canada. The Gold Coast Film Unit with camera by George Noble and a script by Robert Raymond produced the second part. Crawley Films was in charge of editing and animation. VRA-A VRP/PC/29 E. H. Roach, Aluminium Fiduciaries Ltd., to R. J. Moxon, 11 Nov. 1954. The Gold Coast Film Unit, established in 1949, made educational films on health, development, and citizenship; see Bloom and Skinner (2009/2010).

  54. 54.

    Arvida had a daily output of up to two million pounds of aluminum (Graham 1982, p. 25).

  55. 55.

    For the script, see VRA-A VRP/PC/29, Commentary for Volta River, 30 Sept. 1954. Promoters of the dam projects on the Çoruh River, Turkey, have deployed a similar language: “The River does not flow in vain anymore,” see Evren in this special issue.

  56. 56.

    The commentary was recorded by Bruce Belfrage, formerly of the BBC, and by 1954 featured “in the Canadian broadcasting field,” VRA-A VRP/PC/29, Roach to R. J. Moxon, 4, 11 Nov. 1954.

  57. 57.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/29, Commentary for Volta River, 30 Sept. 1954.

  58. 58.

    Preparatory Commission (1956, I, p. 124). For labor policies, see Cooper (1996, pp. 433–436).

  59. 59.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/29, Commentary for Volta River, 30 Sept. 1954.

  60. 60.

    For a summary of Cabinet discussion, see PRAAD ADM 13/1/24, 2 Dec. 1955, item 3, The Volta River Project: Pre-Rubicon Brief (1)—Publicity, p. 2.

  61. 61.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, Prime Minister’s memorandum, the Volta River Project: Pre-Rubicon Brief (1)—publicity, n.d. Seeking to give the traveling exhibit permanency, DIS commissioned a 10-min color film, VRA-A VRP/PC 28, Information Services Department, Notes of 22nd Weekly Briefing, 2, 21 Jan. 1955; see Gold Cost (1956b).

  62. 62.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/27, Note of a Meeting in Jackson’s Office, 28 May 1956; the report’s print-run included: 2,000 copies for vol. 1; 1,250 for vol. 2; 500 for vol. 3.

  63. 63.

    PRAAD RG 17/1/334, W. A. Lewis to Nkrumah, 13 April 1956, and Statement by the Gold Coast Delegation, n.d. For Alcan’s demands of abandoning the fully integrated aluminum industry, see Hove (2013, p. 202).

  64. 64.

    PRAAD RG 17/1/334, W. A. Lewis to Nkrumah, 12 April 1956. Lewis requested Nkrumah to destroy this letter.

  65. 65.

    DG, 28 July 1956, pp. 1/9–10; The Economist, 28 July 1956, pp. 323–24.

  66. 66.

    VRA-A VRP/PC/32, Notes of a meeting about publicity in Jackson’s office, 16 Aug. 1956; DIS memo to regional officers, 8 Oct. 1956, which includes “Speakers Notes for Lectures on the Volta River Project” with 45 talking points based on the Preparatory Commission’s report.

  67. 67.

    For the articulation of Arab nationalism through the construction of Aswan High Dam, with Soviet support, see the contribution by Alia Mossallam in this special issue.

  68. 68.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, Joint Statement by Eisenhower and Nkrumah, 28 July 1958.

  69. 69.

    PRAAD RG 17/1/3012, Lewis to Nkrumah, 8 Dec. 1958 and Nkrumah to Lewis, 19 Dec. 1958. For Lewis’s fallout with Nkrumah, see Tignor (2006, pp. 172–178).

  70. 70.

    PRAAD RG 17/1/407, Geoffrey Bing to Nkrumah, 29 June 1959 and Nkrumah to Bing, 30 June 1959.

  71. 71.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, Jackson to Nkrumah, 2 July 1959.

  72. 72.

    For a personal account about Nkrumah’s commitment to science education and research, leading to the founding of the National Research Council in 1959 and the Ghana Academy of Sciences in 1963, see L. Obeng (2008, pp. 234–237).

  73. 73.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, Barnett to Nkrumah, 20 March 1958 and 29 May 1958; Nkrumah to Barnett, 9 April 1958.

  74. 74.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, Barnett to Nkrumah, 15 July 1959—Nkrumah noted in his customary green ink: “Erica, refer this to Cmdr. Jackson”; Nkrumah to Barnett, 31 July 1958.

  75. 75.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 1, Record of Meeting at Flagstaff House, 15 Dec. 1959; Agreement between Government of Ghana and VALCO (in formation), 16 Dec. 1959.

  76. 76.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, Immediate Program of Work, n.d.

  77. 77.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, S. Ratnam to Nkrumah, 12 Aug. 1960.

  78. 78.

    A mill is one–tenth of a U.S. cent. PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, Record of Meeting held in the Suite of K. A. Gbedemah with representatives of Kaiser Industries, 30 Sept. 1960.

  79. 79.

    PRAAD RG 17/2/495, 2, E. Kaiser to Nkrumah, 1 Nov. 1960; Moxon (1984, pp. 106–107).

  80. 80.

    VRA-A SDR/454a Minister of Fuel and Power, Bui Hydro-Electric Power Project, n.d., detailing the project’s history; see Miescher and Tsikata (2009/2010, p. 26).

  81. 81.

    See the detailed discussion in Mahoney (1983, pp. 167–179). Barbara Ward maintained her own personal relationship with Nkrumah, see PRAAD 17/1/220.

  82. 82.

    PRAAD RG 17/1/317 Kennedy to Nkrumah, 14 Dec. 1961.

  83. 83.

    20 Jan. 1962 (Ghana 1962, col. 65).

  84. 84.

    DG, 24 Jan. 1962, p. 7. At Akosombo, Impregilo was led by Mario Baldassarrini who had also been in charge of dam construction at Kariba, interview with Baldassarrini, Lugano, 16 Oct. 2010; VRA-A SDR/61, Statement by Osagyefo to Parliament, 12 May 1961; Moxon (1984, p. 101).

  85. 85.

    For Kariba, built in the 1950s, see Tischler (2013); for Cahora Bassa, built by the Portuguese in Mozambique during the late 1960s and early 1970s, see Isaacman and Isaacman (2013).

  86. 86.

    20 Jan. 1962 (Ghana 1962, col. 67).

  87. 87.

    Evening News (EN), 20 Jan. 1961, and 15 Jan. 1962. EN, the CPP paper, had a circulation of about 50,000 in 1960 (Austin 1964, p. 423).

  88. 88.

    Volta River Development Act, 1961, (Act 46), Section 10 (1); see interview with E.A.K. Kalitsi, Accra, 25 June 2008.

  89. 89.

    VRA-A SD R/61, A. B. Futa to Sr. Programme Organiser, GB-System, 24 Jan. 1961.

  90. 90.

    VRA-A SD R/61, S. B. Mfodwo to J. Panford, 25 Jan. 1961, describing two radio scripts; “Harnessing the Volta” includes the promise of extending the power grid to the north.

  91. 91.

    VRA-A SD R/61, Presby Middle School Suhum to C.E. 5 Aug. 1963. See the correspondence by S. N. Addo, Public Relation Officer, May 1963, and his schedule for a speaking tour to Ashanti, Addo to Ghana News Agency, 2 July 1963.

  92. 92.

    VRA-A SD-R/62, United Ghana Farmers Council Co-operative to VRA, 16 Sept. 1963; report by S. N. Addo, 4 Oct. 1963.

  93. 93.

    In his talk to 500 students at the Bunso Agricultural Institute, S. N. Addo emphasized the “better living standards” for those to be resettled, DG, 24 May 1963, p. 3.

  94. 94.

    For the discrepancy between rhetoric and the traumatic experience, see Miescher (2014); for downstream communities, see Tsikata (2006).

  95. 95.

    Interviews with John Osei, Akosombo, 17/18 July 2006, 18 July, and 27 July 2008.

  96. 96.

    See DG, 17 Nov. 1961; EN, 15 Jan. 1962 (quoted).

  97. 97.

    For establishing the visitor center, see VRA-A SD-R/62, Minutes of Meeting between C. E. Dobson, Akosombo Town Manager A. B. Futa, and R. J. Moxon, 21 Oct. 1963.

  98. 98.

    For visits by members of the National Assembly, see DG, 27 Jan. 1962 and 24 Feb. 1965, EN, 24 Feb. 1965, p. 1; for visits by chiefs and party officials from Brong-Ahafo and Young Pioneer organizers, see EN, 1 April 1964 and Ghanaian Times (GT), 24 March 1965; for visits by trade unionists, members of Council of Ghana Women, and members of Council of United Ghana Farmers, see GT, 1 June 1965, 19 June 1965, and 13 Aug. 1965. GT had a circulation of about 30,000 in 1960 (Austin 1964, p. 423).

  99. 99.

    GT, 11 Jan. 1963, p. 7.

  100. 100.

    DG, 28 Oct. 1965, p. 1; GT, 28 Oct. 1965, p. 5; EN, 29 Oct. 1965, p. 3 (quoted).

  101. 101.

    GT, 9 Sept. 1965. The 500,000 visitors consisted of 643 groups, including foreigners, heads of state, diplomats, and numerous Ghanaians. The stream of visitors sharply increased after the closure of the diversion tunnel and the formation of the Volta Lake in 1964. The VRA Annual Reports list figures of visitors to the dam site.

  102. 102.

    VRA-A SD-R/60, Draft Remarks by Chief Executive, 4 Sept. 1964. See DG, 26 June 1964, 3 Nov. 1964, 6, and 1 Dec. 1964; EN, 25 Aug. and 6 Oct. 1964.

  103. 103.

    Interview with Ablade Glover, Accra, 22 March 2011.

  104. 104.

    For a discussion of Scott’s work that shows how VRA officers, administering the Akosombo Township, were producing high modernist local knowledge, see Miescher (2012).

  105. 105.

    In his radio broadcast, “Work and Happiness,” Nkrumah explicitly (1997 [1962]) linked the party program and the seven-year development plan. For the cultural and educational modernization in Nkrumah’s Ghana, see Plageman (2014) and Manuh (2014).

  106. 106.

    EN, 20 Feb. 1963, p. 2. For scientific farming in terms of resettlement, see Miescher (2014).

  107. 107.

    David Apter (1972, p. 370) noted that the National Assembly in Ghana’s First Republic “never became a complete rubber stamp,” as “lively debates continued right to the end.”

  108. 108.

    23 Sept. 1964 (Ghana 1964b, col. 38); see Preparatory Commission (1956, II, p. 226).

  109. 109.

    23 Sept. 1964 (Ghana 1964b, col. 46–48). The National Assembly discussed another motion that called on government “to speed up the development of the resettlement areas by establishing industries and improving social amenities.” After the customary praise of Nkrumah, speakers listed the inadequacy of the resettlement towns, which lacked latrines, bathrooms, kitchens, drinking water, drainage, access roads, and especially electricity, 16 Feb. 1966 (Ghana 1966, cols. 517–554). Press reporting of this Assembly debate omitted the criticism of the resettlement program, see GT, 17 Feb. 1966.

  110. 110.

    EN, 18 March 1965, p. 1.

  111. 111.

    EN, 27 April 1965, p. 1.

  112. 112.

    For the begin of power production, see DG, 18 Sept. 1965, pp. 1/3, EN, 18 Sept. 1965, pp. 1/2, and (quoted) GT, 18 Sept. 1965, p. 3; for the commissioning, when “all roads [led] to Akosomobo,” see EN, 21 Jan. 1966, p. 1, GT, 24 Jan. 1966, p. 5, and DG, 24 Jan. 1966.

  113. 113.

    The article was appropriately headlined: “Major Event for Africa” and in Twi “Kwame Nkrumah woayeade” (Kwame Nkrumah you have done well), EN, 22 Jan. 1966, p. 1.

  114. 114.

    GT, 24 Jan. 1966, p. 5.


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Miescher, S.F. “Nkrumah’s Baby”: the Akosombo Dam and the dream of development in Ghana, 1952–1966. Water Hist 6, 341–366 (2014).

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  • Development
  • Modernization
  • Postcolonial studies
  • Hydroelectricity
  • Cold War
  • Ghana