“Making space for history” in Accra’s Ga Mashie neighborhood

in Cultural + Heritage/Urbanism from Ghana by

Cultural tourism walks a precarious line. Private sector investments can generate significant socio-economic benefits for community members and revitalize cultural interests. On the other hand there are many opportunities for exploitation— interest groups stand to profit from over-development, pricing out existing low-income residents. As the growing number of arts, culture and touristic activities in Accra’s historical district Ga Mashie continue to yield intense attention, including private sector interests, it is clear that something needs to be done. On Saturday, October 24th, esteemed community leaders including Ga chiefs, royalty, government officials, scholars and activists gathered at the National Museum for the Bleema Noko (Days Gone By) Cultural Fundraising Event to address the current condition and future development of Brazil Lane, a vibrant side street that branches off of the main thoroughfare High Street in the Usshertown area of Ga Mashie.

According to the Brazil Heritage Foundation, who organized the fundraiser, private sector real estate developers and interest groups are impinging on Brazil Lane, which is anything but tablula rasa. Brazil House is the main cultural anchor on Brazil Lane but the street is saturated with tangible connections to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade such as Franklin House, an old slave house built around 1750 constructed from the brick ballast of slave ships and its adjacent public square where slaves were once auctioned and sold. Brazil House and Brazil Lane trace their origins to seven families of Afro-Brazilian returnees who arrived in Usshertown between 1829 and 1836 and settled and integrated into the indigenous Otublohum Ga community. The story of these freed Brazilian slaves who arrived in Ghana from Bahia and came to be known as the Tabom (also written “Tabon”) is as pertinent to Accra’s cultural history as the diverse African diaspora that was displaced by slavery.

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William Franklin House, a small slave fort turned communal dwelling place on Brazil Lane. Franklin House was used to keep slaves as part of Accra’s central role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Progress should not expunge history—this is one major concern confronting the future of Ga Mashie development. Nonetheless, some development is necessary to restore historical integrity to Brazil Lane’s crumbling heritage sites. Franklin House, for instance, is a prime example of slave architecture from the 18th century colonial period but the structure is visibly deteriorating. Ussher Fort and James Fort, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites not far from Brazil Lane, have closed their doors to tourists and museum-goers and are beginning to succumb to urban blight.

The Foundation’s campaign aims to empower local residents to take control of development and restoration projects and capitalize on existing tourism potential, but it is important to remember that these structures are more than tourist attractions. Ussher Fort and James Fort held slaves before they were shipped across the Atlantic to the New World and later served as prisons until the end of the 20th century. Built by the British in the late 17th century, James Fort was the center of British colonial administration of the Gold Coast and served as a major outpost for slave trade until the mid 19th century. Ussher Fort, which currently houses the Monuments Division offices of the Ghana Museum and Monuments Board, once held Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah, who was a central forefather in the fight for independence. Keeping these structures in good condition is imperative to preserving and enriching critical historical and cultural connections.

In the case of Brazil House, Ga, Tabom and Brazilian relations amalgamate in this two-story building. Brazil House was built on land granted to the original seven Tabom families by the Otublohum chief. It was restored thanks to significant support from Ghanaian and Brazilian private sectors, which was leveraged by the Brazilian Embassy following President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 2005 visit to Brazil House. Once home to cultural events and a rich photographic collection of Tabom descendants, the museum on the ground floor of Brazil House constitutes the only commemorative structure to Ghana’s Tabom heritage. Today Brazil House bears few traces of its rich ancestry, save for the sign and plaque on the building’s front façade.

The museum is currently defunct—regarded as a no man’s land by tourists and locals alike. Without legitimized exhibition space, museum-worthy cultural artifacts vanish into private collections, like the ones displayed at Bleema Noko, and the Tabom are reduced to footnotes in the annals of history. This campaign, according to symposium speaker Nat Amarteifio, architectural historian and former Mayor of Accra, represents “an opportunity to reinstate the popular history of one of the most neglected, marginalized groups in our society.” Most academic studies focus on the Akan-Asante clashes with colonialists since those ethnic groups dominated political and economic relations at the time. Only within the past 60 years have scholars even begun to look into coastal society contributions outside of slave trade dynamics. But Accra and its peoples are more than products of colonialism and capitalism.

The Tabom rapidly and seamlessly assimilated into Ga society upon their arrival in 1829. Their heritage, such as a wealth of knowledge about artisanal craftsmanship, agricultural production, blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry, tailoring and irrigation techniques, sublimated into Ga society, making their legacies difficult to trace. Musicologists Dr. Juan Diego Diaz and Benjamin Amakye Boateng (University of Ghana, Music Department), both presenters at the Bleema Noko symposium, point out that a distinct Tabom identity is preserved in arpa music, a style of percussion-based music that blends African and Brazilian influences. Arpa is just one of many Afro-Brazilian manifestations. In this thread practicing arpa simultaneously connects and distinguishes the Tabom from other Afro-Brazilian musical genres such as maracatu, capoeira and afoxé. However, these cultural expressions need a place in contemporary society—public, accessible platforms like performance spaces or museum exhibitions— if they are to be celebrated as living culture rather than as bygone relics.

The built environment may be the Rosetta Stone in untangling this understated legacy. The Tabom were instrumental in shaping Accra—their influence is codified in present day Jamestown structures. Many of the wells common in Jamestown compounds were dug by Tabom workers to deliver potable water to factories. In addition, the Tabom were at the vanguard of stone architecture building practices, which had been previously only used for colonial castles and forts. Their arrival and influence marked a departure from mud-thatched huts and the beginning of modern architecture in Accra. Amarteifio insists that these structures should be regarded as World Heritage Sites, let alone National Heritage Sites, to commemorate and preserve a dematerializing legacy, stating, “We do what we are doing so that [the Tabom] do not disappear.”

This is not Ga Mashie’s first “cultural revitalization” proposal.  Ophelia Akiwumi, philanthropist at the Brazil Ghana Heritage Foundation, expressed the hope of transforming Jamestown into a cultural Mecca uniting artists, musicians, craftsmen and the African diaspora in a way that leverages Brazil Lane’s cultural heritage to benefit and uplift current residents. But thanks to previous coordinated endeavors, Ga Mashie already welcomes thousands of visitors who come to participate in walking tours, traditional celebrations and popular events like the Chale Wote Street Art Festival. Mona Boyd, CEO of the tourism company Landtours, added that she believes Usshertown will have the support of the tourism industry, however landmarks like Brazil House, Ussher Fort and Jamestown Lighthouse already compel tourists to wander the winding streets amidst the hustle and bustle of Accra’s oldest and most densely populated neighborhood, so does Ga Mashie really need another cultural tourism initiative?

The ideas presented at Bleema Noko are not radical. The intervention aims to build space for a community and a foundation or coalition of community leaders can promote development that does not compromise the culture, tradition or livelihoods of current residents. None of the goals presented at Bleema Noko are ostensibly controversial—who is going to argue against investing in the local economy, historical preservation, cultural celebrations or a better quality of life for others? A better question might be who is going to help make that happen?

The Brazil Ghana Heritage Foundation is looking for an answer. Boyd called on community leaders to embrace these development efforts. Brazilian Ambassador Irene Vida Gala stressed the importance of local coordination not just to protect local interests, but also to act as a substrate for developing partnerships with private companies. She reiterated the urgency of the situation stating that now is the time not to solicit money, but rather to present ideas, petition the government to create policies that invest in culture, and reach out to established networks for support. The Brazilian companies on the ground in Ghana ultimately cannot contribute without local involvement and oversight, said Gala.

While the lack of financial resources is an impediment, it is not the root of the problem, but rather a symptom of a more profound breakdown of community values.  In the case of the Brazil House Museum, the poor condition signals disintegrating respect for past connections and divestment in potential. “It [Brazil House] does not represent the Tabom people and does not represent the relations between Brazil and Africa—Brazil-Ghana in particular,” Gala declared. She implored Ghana reflect on how it values land and property before it invests in heritage. The Tabom are part of a larger, transnational moment in history, repatriating the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade narrative. Discerning their contributions legitimizes Tabom agency and adds another dimension to the African diaspora. But if stakeholders (businesses, community members, public institutions etc.) do not place high worth on historical resources and public spaces, cultural tourism initiatives will collapse.

Successfully sustained cultural spaces are not end goals—they are comprehensive processes that require institutional and infrastructural support. As an investment in the future of Ga Mashie and Accra, the success of the Brazil Lane initiative should not be incentivized by financial gain, but by pride for Tabom heritage and lively public spaces. This symposium is the first of many discussions articulating cultural ownership and placemaking. Whichever way the talks develop, whether or not Brazil Lane will become a springboard for other revitalization projects, one clear challenge moving forward will be coordinating efforts across the board. Although various politics implicated in Brazil House complicate restoration projects, both developers and community members need to be at the table to arrive at a time when Brazil House open its doors to the world again.

Arianna Friedman is an intern at African Urbanism. Her interests include urban development, culture and transnational spaces among other topics.