These days, commuters and residents along the Kanda Expressway between Kawukudi and Kanda have a new view along their community landscape: a bright, expressive art mural at Club 10 junction, painted on a family’s high, cement wall and running more than 50 feet long. “Imagine Accra,” the mural commands in bold, curving purple lettering. The command is accompanied by a set of familiar scenes — a tro-tro, a waakye food stand, people dancing Azonto, even the face of Kwame Nkrumah (a visionary and the country’s first president).
“Please, it’s somehow deep,” the tour guide warns as each member of the group climbs down into the dark cell. “Come closer and take a look, but watch your head.” Each descends, one by one, away from the slave castle’s bright exterior and into an inner chamber, engulfed in near total darkness.
This is Cape Coast, a town on Ghana’s southern coast that attracts throngs of visitors every year. It’s a Saturday, and hot; the sun is high in the sky. Down below, the waves push up against the shore. The structure’s white walls gleam in the midday sunshine, a stunning, white-washed camouflage to the still dank, still dark and still seemingly haunted chambers below. The group of tourists circle round the tour guide as he recounts history.
And it has a heavy history, this slave castle. For many who visit the castle, its memories and rememories are still fresh. A holding place for slaves just before their shipment across the Atlantic to the New World (and the first seat of government for the British colonial government), this is perhaps one of the more recognizable and faithfully preserved edifices of Ghana’s (and black people’s) economic exploitation. But the castle is also an important part of Cape Coast’s history, an opportunity for experiential tourism to explore the past, and a resource that could — and should — be leveraged to support the city’s economic future.
The second installment of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival took place yesterday in Jamestown, the historic section of Accra. The event, produced by Accra[DOT]alt, aims at creating a space for creativity and art in the neighborhood and attracting residents and fans to this historic and culturally rich area in Ghana’s capital city. Last year, I wrote about the first installment, and I’ve written about how the festival, along with other creative initiatives, is carving out a space for cultural creativity in Accra, leveraging local artistic innovation and activities.
Check out this slide show of some of the festival’s activities (mainly focused on activities at Old Kinsgway Building, since that’s where I was helping with the program):
You can also see these fantastic photos by Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah of the event.
Beyond these photos and the colorful, action-packed moments of Chale Wote, it’s clear to see that this type of festival is changing the game when it comes to promoting arts, cultural and local tourism in Accra.
The traditional, or indigenous, forms of West African design, architecture and planning can on first glance appear low-tech and plebeian: we imagine mud-brick houses and thatched roofs commonplace to rural communities, untarred roads, dilapidated structures, the lack of “improved” technologies like electricity, plumbing and piped water systems, and an agriculture-based economy. But on deeper introspection, we see that in many cases, these forms of architecture/design/planning served a very functional, holistic purpose — something too often lacking from contemporary West African cities and the way city officials and developers plan and design them.
BIKE LORDZ is a short documentary about the self-taught, self-invented bicycle culture among young people (mostly young men), which has been created, refined and passed on to younger contemporaries over time.
The film follows crews of these young bicycle “lordz” as they practice, discuss and hone their craft, perform and try to use their skills to make money, gain recognition, and earn a living on their own terms. See the film trailer here:
Bikelordz : Stunts and Styles from Accra, Ghana from Bikelordz on Vimeo.
Thanks to fellow blogger of A Bombastic Element for first bringing this phenomenon to my attention!
I recently came across a few months old New York Times feature story on the city of Djenné, Mali, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since this impressive recognition of the ancient city’s historical and cultural significance, one of the challenges for city residents has been to balance the strict requirements of UNESCO with their present and future activities and needs as citizens existing in this space.
|The Great Mosque (c) UNESCO.|
The city of Djenné was occupied as a settlement dating as far back as 250 BC. The city is most noted for its mud-brick buildings, such as the Great Mosque and individual residences. It is these particular structures that have earned the city its World Heritage status, and that UNESCO seeks to protect and conserve. However, residents struggle involves UNESCO’s need to conserve these structures with their own needs to adapt the structures and buildings they live in to their modern-day needs: enlarging rooms to accommodate for furniture, changing the interior design to make the rooms more comfortable, etc:
The problem, said N’Diaye Bah, Mali’s tourism minister, is modernizing the town without wrecking its ambiance. “If you destroy the heritage which people come to see, if you destroy 2,000 years of history, then the town loses its soul,” he said.
Djenné residents take pride in their heritage and recognize that the Unesco list helped make their city famous. Yet they wonder aloud about the point of staying on it, given the lack of tangible gains, if they are forced to live literally in mud.
Many homeowners want to keep the distinctive facades, but alter the interiors. Unesco guidelines prohibit the sweeping alterations they would like, however.
“There is a kind of tension, a difficulty that has to be resolved by not locking people into the traditional and authentic architecture,” said Samuel Sidibé, the director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako, the capital. “We have to find a way to evolve this architecture, to provide the basic necessities the community needs to live, and to do it in such a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of the mud-brick architecture, the characteristic at the heart of the city’s identity.”
The planning question central to the city residents’ plight is central: Djenné for whom? Does the preservation of the city aim to serve the global audience/international tourism/etc, or does/should the city serve its residents, whose needs may change over time, and so too must their living circumstances/spaces with such changes?
Cities are increasingly embracing their local culture as an opportunity to create a distinctive sense of “place,” to improve their image locally and globally, to attract visitors and to stimulate urban economic development. With funding from the United Cities and Local Governments organisation, the city of Accra received substantial funding to promote a cultural mapping project to create a comprehensive, digitized map of the city cultural and historic sites. The funding, applied for by the local NGO Accra Culture and Arts Network (AccraCAN) on behalf of the city of Accra, will go towards refurbishment of key historic sites like Ussher Fort as well as the mapping project, as tools to achieve the long-term goal of preserving the city’s cultural identity and transforming Accra into a “cultural capital.”
The aim of the project is to preserve the city’s memory and build economic opportunities around the city’s cultural elements: These cultural sites often lack responsive stewards and go uncared for, and the dilapidation and disappearance of these sites impoverishes cities, by taking away tangible and intangible access to these cultural resources.
“The aim of AccraCAN is to infuse into the neighbourhoods of Ghana’s capital: arts and cultural activities that improve exposure to, understanding of and respect for diverse national and international cultural heritages; and to support arts activities that engage the community. To that regard, it was announced at the culture ceremony at the Ussher Fort last Thursday, March 10 that part of the grant would go into refurbishing the Usher Fort and restoring it into a museum that would preserve the history and culture of the people of the Accra.
The 55,000 Euro grant is also expected to be used to fulfil a number of mandates including developing programmes and tools to help turn Accra into a Cultural Capital, a key goal of AccraCAN, which has already begun a cultural mapping project that seeks to identify, collect, record, analyze and synthesise information about the cultural resources, networks, links and patterns of usage of communities and spaces in the capital. It will also be used to build capacity in training for cultural managers in civil society as well as for the municipality.”
The potential significance of this project is immense. If successful, the city of Accra will become one of the first Sub-Saharan African cities to effectively establish itself as a cultural capital (although it won’t be the first to have made such an attempt — the city of Johannesburg, in South Africa has made large strides to build an arts/culture scene and transform the city into a cultural capital). In addition, the initiative will create a city identity based in its local, authentic character that espouses social and economic potential.
United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) represents and defends the interests of local governments on the world stage, regardless of the size of the communities they serve. Headquartered in Barcelona, the organisation’s stated mission is “to be the united voice and world advocate of democratic local self-government, promoting its values, objectives and interests, through cooperation between local governments, and within the wider international community.”