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

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

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.
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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.

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

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

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.

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Dakar: A city full of color

Here in Dakar, it seems that the entire urban landscape is full of color: The walls, the sidewalks, the transport, houses and buildings, as well as the bright clothes of urban dwellers themselves. For example, the bright contrast between the light brown sands of this Sahelian city and the azure sky. The walls dressed in its history of graffiti, murals and mosaics. Property owners of each house and building design the small sidewalk spaces in front of their buildings, assembling boldly colored tiles in reds, blues, yellows and oranges. The urban scene is a mix of colors:

Urban graffiti in Dakar, Senegal.
Urban graffiti in Dakar, Senegal.

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straightened wall art

Dakar: Who wouldn’t love a city with all this graffiti and wall art?

Bonjour de Dakar!

Here, graffiti is everywhere; it’s as if every wall is an opportunity for artistic, political and/or social statement. The more you look, the more you can learn about the city, its people, and their sentiments.


It’s my first day in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and one of the first things that struck me (visually) was the graffiti and wall art and designs that color the city. From political slogans to artistic creations, walls are a canvas for expression:

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African Urbanism author Victoria Okoye at Black Star Square (Independence Square) in Accra, Ghana. (Photo Credit: Abena Annan)

African Urbanism’s in The Guardian! And more reasons you should follow their Cities site

If you haven’t discovered it already, The Guardian has started a Cities site, thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Here are some fantastic reasons why you should be following this initiative: Continue reading


Schools prepare for Independence Day, Ghana style [video]

As March 6th approaches, in schools all over the country, teachers and students prepare for the infamous Independence Day parades. A celebrated ritual of patriotism on national days, children file along roads, marching in line to music in synchronized steps.

Here’s a short video of students in a school in Ghana’s Central Region preparing for tomorrow’s parade – a great mix of Azonto dance style with traditional marching: 


Bread, bread and more bread in East Akim

So one of many things I have in common with Ghanaians is my love for bread.

After a meeting at the East Akim Municipal Assembly in Kibi today, a colleague led me to a totally hidden gem behind the Assembly’s office.

Bakery in Kibi, East Akim Municipality in Ghana's Eastern Region.
Bakery in Kibi, East Akim Municipality in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

Up a small hill, and following a sort of winding, man-made path, I found my first experience with a Ghanaian bakery specializing in bread: We’re talking butter bread, sugar bread, tea bred, buns, the whole thing. As we approached, my first sight was a taxi with the entire backseat FULL of butter breads and sugar breads. Continue reading


On water improvements: Access, attitudes and economics

When it comes to sustainable improvements in community water and sanitation access, the “hardware” (physical facility) is just the beginning — it’s the “software” (changing attitudes, behaviors, mindsets) that makes the difference. Equally important is addressing the economic dynamics that govern people’s water vending and purchasing behavior.

In the peri-urban community of Manhean, in Ghana’s Greater Accra Region, there’s a WaterHealth Center, a surface water kiosk that uses UV and other technologies to treat raw water sourced from the nearby Densu River. The center treats the raw water, making it clean and potable for drinking and household uses. In terms of operations, the water kiosk is pretty top notch: the facility managers keep the center running during regular hours of operation, they track sales on a daily basis and the residents patronizing the facility are happy with the water quality. Community residents can fetch water from the kiosk at a cost of 25 pesewas (about 10 cents) per 20 liters, and the water from the kiosk is available in both rainy and dry seasons. Continue reading


What about Africa’s rural communities?

When we talk about African urbanism, we often forget (or neglect) the inextricable linkages between Africa’s towns and cities and the (still very prominent) rural areas. That aluguntugui (sour sap) that we buy in the market, the yam, the cassava, the plantain, where does it come from?

Woman, aluguntugui, generosity. Central Region, Ghana.
Woman, aluguntugui, generosity. Central Region, Ghana.

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Exploring city development, design and planning, with a focus on West Africa.