Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism

Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism

by Ato Quayson


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In Oxford Street, Accra, Ato Quayson analyzes the dynamics of Ghana's capital city through a focus on Oxford Street, part of Accra's most vibrant and globalized commercial district. He traces the city's evolution from its settlement in the mid-seventeenth century to the present day. He combines his impressions of the sights, sounds, interactions, and distribution of space with broader dynamics, including the histories of colonial and postcolonial town planning and the marks of transnationalism evident in Accra's salsa scene, gym culture, and commercial billboards. Quayson finds that the various planning systems that have shaped the city—and had their stratifying effects intensified by the IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs of the late 1980s—prepared the way for the early-1990s transformation of a largely residential neighborhood into a kinetic shopping district. With an intense commercialism overlying, or coexisting with, stark economic inequalities, Oxford Street is a microcosm of historical and urban processes that have made Accra the variegated and contradictory metropolis that it is today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822357339
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/03/2014
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ato Quayson is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing, Calibrations: Reading for the Social, and Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, as well as editor of the two-volume Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, coeditor of A Companion to Diaspora and Transnational Studies, and General Editor of the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry.

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Oxford Street, Accra

City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism

By Ato Quayson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7629-3


Ga Akutso Formation and the Question of Hybridity: The Afro-Brazilians (Tabon) of Accra

At one of the top private schools in Accra a conversation takes place between two fourteen-year-old girls. Ama is the older of two daughters and her mother is an Ashanti cloth trader at Makola. They live in the posh Mc-Carthy Hill neighborhood right on the outskirts of Accra. Her friend Sara, an only child whose parents are both prominent professionals, lives in the Airport Residential Area. She is trying to persuade the increasingly skeptical Ama that she is a Tabon and not just a Ga and, moreover, a descendant of one of the earliest Tabon families that arrived in Accra in the nineteenth century. She cites a long list of prominent Ghanaians of Tabon stock: Miguel Augustus Riberio, she notes proudly, was Ghana's first ambassador to Washington and Dr. Aruna Morton was President Kwame Nkrumah's first private physician, while Azumah Nelson, the finest boxer Ghana has ever known, was also a Tabon. When she gets to Justice Georgina Theodora Wood, the country's first female chief justice, Ama can hide her surprise no longer. "Georgina Wood! A Tabon?" Ama interjects, the list of prominent Ashantis she was rehearsing in her mind as a riposte suddenly seeming somewhat paltry in comparison. "Well, she probably didn't know either," ventured her friend kindly. "But as for me, I am a Tabon and I want you always to remember that. Always." The fact that Sara, after over 150 years of the Tabon's coming to settle in Accra and their adoption of the customs, language, and culture of the Ga people, can still assert a strong Tabon identity ahead of her identification as a Ga should not really come as a surprise. Rather, this conversation raises the larger question of cultural hybridity and the processes by which the Tabon progressively became Ga and yet managed to retain a persistent sense of their Afro-Brazilian identity. Clearly, the designation of Tabon is not just one imposed upon them by those with whom they came tointeract, but is also a self-declared mode of identification that has persisted from their first arrival in the nineteenth century to this day.

There are no secure figures for the demographic changes that took place in nineteenth-century Ga Mashie until the first colonial census of 1891. Even then demography was reduced to questions of gender ratios, the population flows from different parts of the colony, the tribal provenance of residents, and, finally, the racial composition of the town. The last census element just listed was a key means of monitoring the needs of the European population in relation to those of other nonnatives such as the Lebanese, whose numbers came to increase steadily in the course of the twentieth century. Rather than being the banal articulation of a demographic detail, the Tabon allow us also to raise the question of the differences between multiethnicity and multiculturalism. We shall see how the census elements of tribes and races help in the consolidation of multiethnicity during the period of colonialism but frustrate the grounds for the articulation of multiculturalism then and afterward. In the overall processes by which the Tabon were transformed from being Portuguese-speaking Afro-Brazilians to being counted as "native" Ga, we see the tensions between ethnicity, multiculturalism, and hybridity, and the implications that these raise for understanding the cultural constitution not only of Accra but of Ghana in general. To understand these processes and questions, however, we are obliged to take a detour into the overall history of Ga Mashie akutso formation from the seventeenth century onward and how the Tabon came to be inserted into this process on their arrival from Bahia in Brazil.

Accra: A Potted Historical Sketch

Oral tradition suggests that the Gas arrived in Accra at different stages from about the thirteenth century, with the most popular account asserting that they appeared like a mass of ants from the eastern horizon, likely from the western part of today's Nigeria. The ant image accounts for the Akan name Nkrang (ants) by which they are referred to to this day. However, by the early seventeenth century, the Gas were already a well-organized group, with a discernible sociopolitical structure and six settlement townships or man (pl. manjii) along the coastline that included Ga Mashie, Osu, La, Teshie, Nungua, and Tema. In this period the capital of the Ga polity was situated at Ayawaso, some eleven miles inland from the coast. The Abonse Market at Ayawaso was a major hub for the exchange of goods between the coastal peoples and those of the hinterland. European goods such as cloth, basins, knives, guns, and rum were exchanged for gold and slaves at the market. In addition to the imported commodities, products such as salt, fish, and cattle were sold by the Ga in exchange for crops from the fertile inland regions. The Abonse Market was so well organized that it had its own trade minister who regulated prices and levied taxes on commercial transactions.

While there had always been traffic between the inland Akan tribes and the Europeans on the coast, Ga mastery of European trade languages made them indispensable middlemen and interpreters for all Akwamu, Akyem, and Ashanti traders. Things were to change dramatically from the 1640s when the Gas attempted to institute a monopoly on trade with the Europeans, insisting that all commercial exchanges be concentrated at the Abonse Market at Ayawaso and restricting coastal access to traders from the hinterland Akan groups. This state of affairs was to trigger major conflicts, culminating in wars with the powerful military kingdom of Akwamu from 1677, which comprehensively defeated the Gas in 1680. The Ga kingdom at Ayawaso was utterly decimated and their king Okai Koi decapitated. Akwamu was to exercise sovereignty over the Gas until 1730, when they were in their turn defeated by a joint army comprising Ga, Akyem, and Akwapim soldiers with the active support of the Europeans on the coast. Other oral traditions suggest that Ga society also underwent a period of rule by priests. However, Ga social evolution and the fact that they had to contend with other warlike ethnic groups meant that by the end of the seventeenth century they had adopted asafo military organization from their Akan neighbors. The Gas had also progressively severed priesthood from chiefly rule and consolidated the institution of chieftaincy as the main instrument of political organization, while also assimilating minimal sacred roles of priesthood to that of the chief. One of the main effects of the destruction of the Ayawaso kingdom, their enforced migration to the coast, and the Ga adoption of Akan military forms was the fissuring and interethnic hybridity that came to define Ga identity, especially in the formation of the akutsei (sing. akutso) under the shadows of the different European forts and castles on the coast. By the nineteenth century the overlap and later competition between chiefly and priestly roles came to also manifest itself in arguments about primogeniture among the various traditional elders and their more Westernized cultural elites who had taken sides in pursuit of their own modernizing agendas. With Accra's rapid urbanization in the first part of the twentieth century, arguments about primogeniture became central for adjudicating land ownership, who had natural claims to the land and who could claim ownership only as a stranger, thus suggesting contradictory yet profound spatial implications drawn from the oral traditions. The spatial implications of native versus stranger derived ultimately from the nature of Indirect Rule, but was shown most forcefully in the distinction between traditional Ga areas and the various zongos (stranger quarters) into which migrants from the north were encouraged to settle. We shall learn more about the zongos in chapter 6.

It is to the observations of travelers to the coast from the nineteenth century, however, that we ought to turn for a sense of the character of the town's early settlement patterns. The description that Henry Morton Stanley provides of Accra's coastline in 1874 has been much cited by historians of the city and provides a good starting point for tracing a number of details about its early spatial form. We are obliged to quote the relevant passage at some length:

At seven o'clock I was awakened by a hideous din of human voices jabbering alongside the ship in their surf-boats and unintelligible jargon of words such as no Christian like myself could stand without nerves getting unstrung. I therefore looked upon what was called Accra with a sullen face and in no amiable frame of mind.

The scene ashore was that of a straight beach backed by a mud terrace, which stretched to the right and left and rear of Accra for many miles singularly open and clear as seen from shipboard. Accra itself straggled for nearly a mile on the edge of a terrace overlooking the beach, many pretentious houses, whitewashed, attracting attention from their prominence above the clay-brown huts amongst them. Almost to the extreme left was the Commandant's house; its wide verandah promised coolness, and the wide space around it informed you that at one time or another some occupant of it had been assiduous to procure unpolluted air. Away to the extreme right was another large house with wide verandahs, and abundant grounds about it. This was the Basle Mission House, occupied by a singular community of religious Swiss and Germans, who have banded together for the sensible purpose of teaching the natives and making money by them from honest trade in palm oil and gold dust. In the very centre of the town was the port and lighthouse of Accra. Between these houses the body of the town of native and European buildings jammed itself. Some three miles to the east of the Basle Mission is the village of Christiansborg, a picturesque mass of whitewashed buildings consisting of a ruined castle, a ruined martello tower, and another large establishment of the enterprising Basle Mission.

Stanley's reference to the "mud terrace, which stretched to the right and left and rear of Accra for many miles singularly open and clear as seen from shipboard" is suggestive of an attempt at enframing the description, almost as if describing a picture. The word "terrace" usually denotes a level paved area or platform next to a building or a patio or veranda, but another meaning also refers to the slope of ground that stretches to a body of water, be this a lake, a river, or the sea. Thus to state that the mud terrace stretched to the right, left, and rear for many miles and not just in front of the town leading toward the sea produces a picture frame for the description that unfolds within it. The contrast between mud, with its suggestions of potential for disorderly dissolution and even disease, and bush, with its implication of land that has not yet been claimed for settlement and cultivation, is a telling semiotic dyad that becomes a recurrent thematic in debates on Accra's urban planning well into the colonial period. While the blatantly racist attitude toward the local population expressed by Stanley was by no means to continue in such an explicit form into the later workings of the colonial administration proper, the essential coupling of the civilizing impulse with that of nausea for local life was to be restated in a variety of formal and informal contexts, but most significantly to promote sanitation and decongestion policies in much of the colonial period and also to justify the racial segregation of European housing that was to have a major impact on the nature of the town's morphology and expansion.

Strictly speaking, however, the value of Stanley's remarks comes from the settlement topography he provides us of the town. As he rightly goes on to point out later in the description, the Accra township of 1874 was divided into three distinct European spheres of influence. While the Portuguese had arrived at Elmina as early as 1471 and were the dominant traders all along the coast for the next 150 years and thus had a telling impact on all coastal societies, as we noted earlier it was the mid-seventeenth-century wars with hinterland groups that saw the Ga social polity decisively fissuring and reconstituted under the aegis of different European spheres of influence. The Dutch had built Fort Crèvecoeur in 1649 (later renamed Ussher Fort) at Usshertown, also known as Kinka, a cannon's shot away from James Fort which was itself put up by the English in 1672 in what was later to become Jamestown but is also called by its alternative local name of Nleshie. The Danes, on the other hand, established themselves much farther eastward at Christiansborg Castle, itself taken over from the Swedes and completed in 1659 at Osu, where three and a half centuries later Oxford Street was to flourish. The conjuncture of the dates of the establishment of European merchant presence on the coast with the escalation of conflicts between the Gas and their neighbors at midcentury is not entirely accidental, as it has been shown that the European presence heightened the need for military protection of hinterland trade routes to guarantee the continuing flow of goods from the Europeans into the hinterland and vice versa. By the end of the seventeenth century, the slave trade had instituted a comprehensive transformation of coastal states, converting war into a concomitant and necessary aspect of the slave trade itself. The Europeans were also obligingly to supply guns and ammunitions to the Gas in exchange for favors of land, privileged access to hinterland markets, and expansion of the slave trade.

Despite the detail of his account, Stanley's description of the morphology of the town in 1874 was already being swept into the dustbin of history even as he was penning it. The Anglo-Danish Treaty of 1850 and the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1874 ensured that the entire Gold Coast was finally taken over by the British, with all the forts and castles on the coastline passing over to them. The incorporation of the Northern Territories as a protectorate in 1898, the annexation of Ashanti in 1901, and the ceding to Britain of part of the mandated territory of Togoland (previously run by Germany) by the League of Nations in 1922 was to set up the essential geographical boundaries of what was later to become independent Ghana. More important, the unification of the British administration under the new capital of Accra in 1877 coupled with the progressive pacification and incorporation of the other territories set up a dynamic relationship between the growing township and its various labor and economic hinterlands, thus also ultimately altering the evolution of the town for good.

While Ga allegiance was for a long time to remain splintered along the European spheres of influence even after the forts and castles were all incorporated into the singular British scheme from the mid-nineteenth century, it is the Ga system of divisional akutsei (quarters) that was to feed into political conflicts with the British colonial administration, and from the early twentieth century into the character of Accra's spatial expansion. Each of the six Ga townships is divided into different akutsei or quarters with the Ga Mashie township being constituted by seven akutsei, namely, Abola, Gbese, Asere, and Otublohum located in Kinka/Usshertown, with Akanmaji, Sempe, and Alata to be found at Nleshie/Jamestown. If the formation of the Ga Mashie akutsei in the seventeenth century was influenced primarily by factors of kinship localization and the occupational specializations of fishing, fish processing, salt making, and trade, by the end of the nineteenth century the akutsei were more significant as self-interested collective political agents in their interactions with the colonial administration as well as within the context of inter-akutso rivalries.

Ga Mashie political organization was generally decentralized and, as colonial rule got consolidated, exposed a number of crucial stress points. For complex reasons of historical priority, the Ga Mantse (chief) was normally nominated from among the leading families of the Gbese and Asere akutsei, Gbese itself having originally split off from Asere. Each akutso has its own divisional chief or headman, whose interests have historically not always coincided either with those of the Ga Mantse or with other divisional chiefs. Furthermore, the power of the akutso mantse was countered by that ascribed to oblempon (rich man) stools, normally established by successful merchants commanding the allegiance of a large number of commoners and slaves. With the invigoration of the asafo as organized channels of youth dissent from the 1920s, a challenge was also to be felt from commoners, with the number of calls for chiefly destoolment multiplying severalfold between 1920 and 1950. Ga chiefly authority was to be fundamentally destabilized by colonial policies that, while attempting to codify a coherent sense of what passed for customary law, also progressively undermined the Ga chiefs' power to exercise authority over their own subjects. At a formal level the process of colonial intervention into Ga chiefly structures was articulated through various instruments such as the Town Councils Ordinance of 1894, the Public Lands Ordinance of 1876, the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance of 1910, the Municipal Corporations Ordinance of 1924, and the Native Administration Ordinance of 1927. These and various other ordinances, policies, and laws sought to institute governance procedures for the town that ultimately came to pitch the chiefs against their Western-educated elites on the one hand and against the colonial authorities on the other. Stranger groups provided a further overlay of complications to any idea of a uniform Ga Mashie identity, as the example of the Tabon exemplifies.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction. Urban Theory and Performative Streetscapes 1

Part I. Horizontal Archaeologies

1. Ga Akutso Formation and the Question of Hybridity: The Afro-Brazilians (Tabon) of Accra 37

2. The Spatial Fix: Colonial Administration, Disaster Management, and Land-Use Distribution in Early Twentieth-Century Accra 64

3. Osu borla no, sardine chensii soo: Danes, Euro-Africans, and the Transculturation of Osu 98

Part II. Morphologies of Everyday Life

4. "The Beautyful Ones": Tro-tro Slogans, Cell Phone Advertising, and the Hallelujah Chorus 129

5. "Este loco, loco": Transnationalism and the Shaping of Accra's Salsa Scene 159

6. Pumping Irony: Gymming, the Kòbòlò, and the Cultural Economy of Free Time 183

7. The Lettered City: Literary Representations of Accra 213

Conclusion. On Urban Free Time: Vladimir, Estragon, and Rem Koolhaas 239

Appendix. Tro-tro Inscriptions 251

Notes 255

References 279

Index 293

What People are Saying About This

Critique de la raison negre - Achille Mbembe

"A fresh portrait of a rising African metropolis by one of the most original and skilled critics of the African condition. Deeply researched, packed with detail, and bold in scope and analysis, Oxford Street, Accra is a unique addition to the growing body of work on contemporary African urbanism. This extraordinary book shows the extent to which the future of urban theory might well lie in the global South."

For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities - AbdouMaliq Simone

"Oxford Street, Accra is an erudite and accomplished book by one of Africa's most prominent literary and cultural critics. Ato Quayson is astute in his use of critical theory to illuminate transforming African urban cultures, and he is creative in the aspects of urban space he chooses to analyze. He inventively depicts the tensions of the diverse imaginaries, calculations, and ethical sensibilities that cut across the conventional zones and distinctions of city life, giving rise to new connections near and far."

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