Accra: Sensing the City Through Sound

It’s Saturday morning and Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, a high-traffic and high-commerce road that links Accra’s Kantamanto and Makola Markets, is bustling.

In May, African Urbanism contributed to MIT’s Community Innovation Lab (CoLab Radio) “Listening to the City” series. The series includes sounds from cities such as a market in Mexico City, a struggling street market in Thessaloniki, Greece, and sounds of Los Angeles’ street economy. What do other cities sound like? Read descriptions of other cities included in the series, or contribute your own.

It’s Saturday morning and Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, a high-traffic and high-commerce road that links Accra’s Kantamanto and Makola Markets, is bustling.
It’s Saturday morning and Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, a high-traffic and high-commerce road that links Accra’s Kantamanto and Makola Markets, is bustling.

It’s Saturday morning and Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, a high-traffic and high-commerce road that links Accra’s Kantamanto and Makola Markets, is bustling. Walking the 100-meter length of Kwame Nkrumah Avenue from Commercial Street to Derby Avenue offers a glimpse into the lively economic activity at the heart of Accra’s busiest hub. On one end of the avenue, Kantamanto Market has earned a reputation as the city’s most famous secondhand goods bazaar. There, hundreds of traders have created an indoor/outdoor market for goods – from women, men and children’s clothes to curtains, purses, bags and shoes. On the other end of the avenue is Makola Market, built in the 1920s in the heart of today’s Central Accra.

The street’s sounds include vehicular traffic, vendors and pedestrians and their hustle:

Vehicular traffic: This morning’s street sounds are typical of the area; the hustle and bustle of vehicles and commercial traffic make this place a thriving commercial center. There’s the ubiquitous rumble of vehicles, their rickety engines ebb and flow in line with changes in the traffic light. Trotros (small minibuses) and car horns blare in short bursts that pierce the air. It’s a call to attention for pedestrians and cars alike, a means of indicating one’s presence, one’s intention, as if to say, “Watch out!” “Make way!” or “I’m available!”

By and large, the dominating sounds are the transport-related ones. The exhausted engines of vehicles stopped at the traffic light rise in rhythm to the signals of the device. When the light turns green, the vehicles shift into movement, continuing on their journeys. There is a regular series of trotros, many heading in the same direction. The trotro mates – charged with attracting customers and collecting fares holler out the destination of their vehicles. These ones are headed northwest in the direction of Kaneshie Market and the peri-urban areas of Kasoa, Kaneshie, Odorkor, and Mallam. The trotros rarely bear signs noting their destinations. Instead, the mates communicate it in typical style: verbally.

Street vendors and pedestrian interactions: Shop owners, street vendors and customers decorate the air with the consistency of conversation and haggling in the local languages–Twi, Ga and Fante. It’s a familiar street rhythm. An old man walks along, singing to himself. Vendors call out to passersby, with greetings, hails and other attention getters, hoping to entice potential customers…”

Sounds of hustle: “Pure water!” calls a young female water seller, deftly balancing a load of water sachets and bottles on her head. It’s nearly empty now. Her eyes dart back and forth as she looks for potential customers in all directions. A man forms a kissing sound to call her, and she rushes over.

To read the full article, view photos and listen to the sounds of Makola’s Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, continue reading here.

Sustainable Cities conference bridges cultures, demonstrates shared experiences on public spaces


The challenges of traffic congestion, civic engagement and shrinking public spaces are key themes for cities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; these same challenges cut across West Africa’s cities, too. November 4-5, African Urbanism participated in the conference “Towards a Roadmap for Sustainable Cities in the MENA Region” in Beirut, Lebanon, organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Lebanon and the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Public Policy Institute.

In particular, when it comes to threats on public spaces, many Middle Eastern, North African and Sub-Saharan African cities are up against similar challenges. On the panel “The Citizen and the City: Environmental Inclusion, Equity and Public Space,” African Urbanism shared experiences and strategies for promoting public spaces along with Mohammad Nayoub of Nahnoo, a Beirut-based NGO and advocacy organization that works to democratize public spaces in the city, and Merve Aki, urban planner with EMBARQ Turkey, who planned and executed a pedestrianization project in Istanbul. Continue reading “Sustainable Cities conference bridges cultures, demonstrates shared experiences on public spaces”

Exploring “Oxford Street”: Author Ato Quayson shares insights from new book

Book Cover for Prof. Ato Quayson's "Oxford Street: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism"

Prof. Ato Quayson’s new book Oxford Street: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism explores the history and dynamics of one of Accra’s most popular and globalized streets – the stretch of Oxford Street in the Osu district. Quayson is a professor of English and director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto; his book Oxford Street is based on more than 10 years on the streetspace, not only examining and researching the urban planning history, but also observing and dialoguing with its users on the street’s dynamic characteristics. The result is a detailed study of one of Accra’s most interesting streets, and a window into better understanding the city’s urban spaces and distinctive growth that blends local and wider  transnational aspects.

In this interview with African Urbanism, Quayson shares insights from the book, his research and learning process of studying and writing on Oxford Street. Catch the Introduction to his book below.

AFRICAN URBANISM: In your more than a decade of studying Oxford Street, what are some of the fundamental changes you have seen in the streetscape?  

ATO QUAYSON: I think the most significant changes have taken place firstly with respect to the speed at which new shops open and the range of renovations that various shops undertake to make themselves more attractive than their competitors.  Thus within the ten or so years of my research, the place that is now Oxford Street Mall was previously MTN. Today’s Ramona was simply Kwatson’s and Barclays was a large supermarket called Afridom.  Matumba nightclub was Black Caesar’s, Koala was decades previously called Cedar House, a secretarial school, and so on and so forth.

But perhaps most interesting is the range of banks that have located their offices on Oxford Street, from Liberty Bank, to Amal, to Barclays, etc.  Only recently (July 2014), I noticed that some estate developers are building a high-rise condo building at Danquah Circle which is provisionally being called Oxford Street 1.  This is further evidence of the concentration of finance capital along this barely mile-and-a-half mile stretch.
Continue reading “Exploring “Oxford Street”: Author Ato Quayson shares insights from new book”

Re-imagining Accra’s “public spaces”


What if we let go of the limiting idea of our public spaces as “city parks” and began exploring the entire range of social spaces that already exist in the city? This is the first in a series of posts. 

Talented architects, designers and public space practitioners, green space enthusiasts, and everyday citizens dream of a greener Accra, one in which city parks can become the norm. Like any growing, changing and developing city, Accra is evolving. The city attracts investment, enterprises, and residents. It’s a space with numerous competing land uses: commercial properties and activities, office spaces, churches and mosques, housing, roads, and sidewalks for some of those roads, among others. Construction is happening all around us, building outward (urban sprawl), building upward (vertically, with more and more multistory and high-rise buildings), and rebuilding on existing space. This shift is everywhere; we can look at the satellite city developments in planning and implementation, we can examine land use turnover (tending toward commercial properties and apartments). In Accra, space is money, and many feel that open spaces and parks are losing out.

All that said, my instinctual response is to emphasize that Accra does have open spaces and urban parks. Many of them could be better patronized: There’s the underutilized 12-acre Efua Sutherland Children’s Park, one of the largest green spaces in the city. There’s Ako Adjei Park, Nyaniba Park and Kawukudi Park:

View PARKS IN ACCRA in a larger map

So for me, critical questions emerge: Why are we only looking at city parks? What, if anything, are we already doing/what is happening organically or informally? And who is “we,” anyway? Continue reading “Re-imagining Accra’s “public spaces””

On “Town Planning in West Africa”

The more things change, the more they stay the same? A familiar depiction of present-day Accra, Ghana, but this speech was made in 1946:

“Accra is a town like Freetown. During the war, its water and electric services have had to do double work, and it has surprised me that they have managed to go on working at all. The town is developing rapidly and the need for housing is felt everywhere. Any knowledge of rents is never very accurate, and it is difficult to obtain information because the records are few, but we know that Africans are paying very large sums for terrible accommodation in Accra, for they cannot go too far outside to find new houses.
So here the problem is very largely a housing one…”

–E. MAXWELL FRY, F.R.I.B.A. “Town Planning in West Africa” (1946)

In his presentation, Fry described the British colonial government’s work on town planning in Gambia (Banjul, then known as Bathurst), Sierra Leone (Freetown), Ghana (Kumasi, Sekondi, Takoradi and Accra), Nigeria (Lagos, Kano, with mention of Port Harcourt, Enugu, Owerri).


Dakar and Gorée Island: Linking history, tourism and local economies

With its just over one thousand residents, Gorée Island sits two kilometers (1.2 miles) off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. For tourists, the small island is a recognized cultural destination and UNESCO World Heritage site, based on its famed history as a slave-trading station as part of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But for island’s residents and businesses, it’s a small economic magnet for a local economy.

A view of Gorée Island, an island just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, home to the House of Slaves and a small indigenous local economy.
A view of Gorée Island, an island just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, home to the House of Slaves and a small local economy.

Continue reading “Dakar and Gorée Island: Linking history, tourism and local economies”

In Dakar, a graffiti festival connects artists, cultures and ideas

A graffiti artist recreates the bust of Thomas Sankara on a wall at Biscuterie de Médina in Dakar, Senegal as part of Festigraff 2014.

For 10 days in April, graffiti artists from around the world gathered in Dakar, Senegal for the fifth annual Festigraff, the Festival international de Graffiti en Afrique/Senegal.

While the term “graffiti” can carry a negative connotation, spray can art is Dakar’s most ubiquitous urban art expression, ranging from vandalism to approved and encouraged art. As in many West African urban areas, in Dakar, walls are everywhere, but what’s different here is how people use them: Each wall is an opportunity, a potential canvas. One can hardly walk, stroll or drive through nearly any district or community without catching some form of graffiti or wall art, on buildings, along highways, even commissioned on personal homes. Graffiti is an essential aspect of Dakar’s colorful landscape. Examples abound, and just one is the neighborhood of Médina.

Festigraff 2014
Festigraff 2014

The festival taps into this established art culture of using spray paint to create vertical wall art and drills down deep in this mode: Through the creation of new art murals and graffiti works, street parades, training young artists, conferences, roundtables and community concerts, the festival networks artists and builds off of community acceptance and appreciation. This year at the Biscuiterie de Médina, the festival created a graffiti village, where artists painted walls, vendors set up shops and music blared, creating a creative community of artists, art lovers and art in a tightly knit space.

Continue reading “In Dakar, a graffiti festival connects artists, cultures and ideas”