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The City and the Writer: In Accra, Ghana with Meshack Asare

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Accra as you feel/see it?

I’ll begin with the very common adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” because the city also happens to be “all things to all people.” Having said that, I am of the opinion that we do not just populate and inhabit our city. The city is a live, intelligent, feeling, breathing, growing space—otherwise it could not expand and grow as it does, as we do. And just as our genetic imprints—our ancestral environments, experiences, history, adaptations, and culture—all manifest in us as living beings, so it is with our city. I believe that the kind of person that we bring to interact, or perhaps transact, with the living city determines the mood of the city for us—in other words, the city responds to our own priorities, actions, and perceptions. In this animistic view, Accra is one of the most beautiful cities that I know. In fact, it is family to me, my “lost and found family.” The capital city of Ghana, Accra is every bit a city of the twenty-first century—convivial, dynamic, rich, cultured, optimistic, kind, and happy. There is nothing intimidating here to make a person feel small, insignificant, and alone. It is an ordinary, human-centered city with a true, welcoming smile.

I came to Accra when my parents moved here in the 1960s and I was on the cusp of adulthood, just before starting university. The city provided opportunities to do for the last time what boys do. It offered the space to explore the wild—the near-empty scrubland of Alajo was there for one to roam freely. My only challenge was when a startled red ant entered my ear in a mango tree. I tried my first puffs on a cigarette and gave it up for the sizzling-hot fried turkey tails and tatali on the nighttime streets of Accra’s New Town.

Accra allowed masses of people to mingle freely and safely with each other. On one unfortunate day, I had to walk the six miles from the beach to our house at Kotobabi, through the city, with nothing on except my skimpy underwear. I had returned from swimming in the sea to find that my clothes and money were gone! And though I was seen heading away from where the city’s mental hospital was located, no one bothered me as long as I kept walking.

Years later I was driving my VW Variant in the city on a Saturday afternoon when the engine exploded at the back of the car. My car was on fire. Those were hard years in Ghana. But Accra never loses its heart. The car stopped. My two passengers and I got out but I had no fire extinguisher. I heard someone giving the order, Clear off, it will explode, and another replying, Then you clear off, yourself. Passersby simply swarmed on the burning car and, in a frenzied orgy of determination, mobbed the spurting flames to extinction. Out of my inevitable daze, I saw them, the best of Accra, rubbing the sand off on their hands and smart clubbing clothes with utter satisfaction.

I was in Accra when Americans were voting to elect their forty-fourth president. The city brought its drums out into the streets and onto the beaches and celebrated the entire night. Finally Americans were going to prove to the world, as is enshrined in their constitution, that indeed “All men were created equal,” wise words which the city of Accra has always held to be true.

Adding it all up, I think we have here a fairly three-dimensional image of the city and its mood. The richness that the city of Accra embodies is not measured in great buildings and material wealth but in the people who inhabit the city, who are affable, respectful, tolerant, adventurous, hard-working, and life-loving—qualities that are not lost on discerning visitors to the city.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

After living abroad for five years, I went home to Accra to visit my family and friends. One afternoon while returning from an errand, I was suddenly stopped by the military. With two bayonets in my ribs, I was prodded and pushed and marched into an enclosure surrounded by a high fence, which turned out to be a makeshift military camp/detention center. My offense: It was raining and rather than soaking to my underwear, I had crossed the road to take shelter in the shops on the opposite side. I was supposed to walk on until I found a crosswalk, where I was then allowed to cross a road legally. I was detained there for three hours and then released. Except for the very foul insults that were hurled at me, not a hair on me was touched. I got back home in one piece but I was advised never to tell my mother. A member of her church had died from a beating only shortly before, having been stopped and taken to the same place in the same manner. It felt as if I had been ambushed and attacked by a trusted, much-loved member of my family.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Like many other coastal cities, Accra has its origins in ancient trade and commerce. As early as the fourteenth century the Portuguese were coming down to trade with the local Ga who founded the city. The Portuguese had followed the Phoenicians, who used to go everywhere, and before them possibly the Hebrews, who also traveled everywhere and produced the maps. After that, the Danes, French, Dutch, and English all followed to court friendship and trade with the local Ga of Accra. From this very long history of contact and interaction with peoples and cultures from far-flung places, the Ga learned the ways in which different people lived. By nature, the locals of Accra are a sophisticated and tolerant people who can make any decent person feel welcome and comfortable in their city.

Daytime light of exceptional quality—something that made the Impressionist painters of Europe flock to the southern coast of France at the turn of the century—is taken for granted and hardly noticed here. In Accra, you stand smack in the middle of your own shadow at midday, right in the middle of the world. The Greenwich meridian and the equator intersect here. And as the air and sky are fanned clean by the regular yawns of the Atlantic Ocean, the daytime light is of the purest quality in Accra and it cheers everyone up.

Accra has no dungeons or ancient catacombs but rather the fantastic Makola Market in the city center. Here you have a shot of the city’s life force—a panoptic view of the city’s, and arguably the country’s, material culture. Billions of dollars worth of trade and commerce take place here. In this crowded, colorful, rambling yet orderly marketplace, keen eyes may observe among priestly women’s hands the very sacred human rituals of buying and selling. Prices and the cost of living are largely determined here under the sole control of the Market Women—an apt reminder that, despite the garment of gleaming towers and elegant avenues, Accra is a very traditional African community that has brought the culture, customs, and system of beliefs from the past to the present day.

And just fancy being sent off to your grave in a coffin that is shaped exactly like a pen because you had lived your life as a writer; or in the shape and color of a ripe cocoa pod if you had been a prosperous cocoa grower, etc. Here in Accra—and possibly only here in this city—even the dead may enjoy such exclusive privilege and respect.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was a trendsetter. There is Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, and Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s award-winning novel Tail of the Blue Bird, a true “must-read,” and his collection of poems The Makings of You. I was already familiar with the poems of Parkes on the tube trains of London’s Underground and got to enjoy his novel later. I think he must be followed seriously.  


Is there a place here you return to often?

The W. E. B. Du Bois Centre in the Cantonments area. My first time at the Centre was many years ago when I attended a conference there and visited his personal library in the bungalow where he had lived. I met him in person when I worked briefly at the Centre and I’d read his book The Soul of Black Folks. The Marcus Garvey House, in the same compound, offers comfortable lodgings and a terrific restaurant. In the facility there is also the makings of a Ghana National Art Gallery. These organizations are all comparatively small-scale and they could use some capital and a bit of imagination, but there is still something very rich and precious about the compound. Perhaps it is the overview of the nation’s aesthetics and visual culture that is facilitated here. It is an enclave with character. It is especially beautiful to meet old friends and make new ones over a glass of wine or the world-class beer that is brewed here in the shade of the compound’s ancient flame trees and mahoganies that know all the history and try to share it with you in friendly whispers.  


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The beautiful campus of the University of Ghana at Legon, north of Accra, is a treat and inspiration. The real trophy is the Balme Library—its eclectic neoclassical and traditional architecture, the neatly tended grounds, and the stocks of invaluable historical records and literary collections attract scholars and academics from far and near.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Another beautiful thing about Accra is the place-naming in the Ga language: Adabraka, Chorkor, Osu, Labadi, Labone, Achimota, Legon, Kaneshie, Teshie, Nima, Kokomlemle, Alajo, and many more. These are all mini-cities each in the tribal sense, if one may borrow that word for its good connotations. The city is largely settled in enclaves and satellite communities by assorted groups of “strangers”—that is, people from other regions of Ghana. Over the years these have grown into “hidden cities” within the city of Accra with their own distinctive traditions and flair. In these enclaves, people often have a common language, know each other’s name and business, borrow and exchange pepper and onion over the fence, intermarry, belong to the same political party, and defend each other if necessary. Nima is such an example: poor, rich, energetic, enterprising, religious, and exciting, it is a Fauvist portrait of the city. The indigenous Ga live in their own traditional clan of Ga “cities” within the city of Accra. Jamestown is one such indigenous Ga enclave. It is a powerhouse that has produced professors, administrators, and writers of note, such as the performance poet, novelist, broadcaster, and literary advocate Nii Ayikwei Parkes. One also hears about Accra’s Bukom Square, another indigenous Ga enclave. This is where Ghana’s world-famous boxers are bred and nurtured, beginning with my childhood idols, Roy Ankrah (the “Black Flash” himself) and Atukwei Klottey. Accra has a tradition of extreme sports and its home is this “hidden city” where life has no chance of getting boring.      


Where does passion live here?

Accra loves its beaches, beer, and dancing, so there is a string of “Pleasure Beaches” along its shores starting from Tema, where I have my home some eighteen miles to the east of the city, to Chorkor, about twenty-one miles west of the city. The Labadi Pleasure Beach, which lies halfway between Tema and central Accra, always has the magic to bring a person out of the doldrums. Whatever the factors are that operate here, people look more beautiful, happier, and friendlier, and they are simply so charming that you love all of them as a whole. Perhaps it is the blend of the gently lapping waves of the sea, excellent beer, kebabs, song and dance, laughter, sweet aromas, and plenty of cheer and freedom in the air. Sitting with a friend in a corner over drinks and just watching happy, healthy life here is as enchanting as anything that I know. But this is only one of many places where passion lives in this city.


What is the title of one of your works about Accra and what inspired it exactly?

Tawia Goes to Sea (GPC, Tema, 1970) is the title of my first book, which was inspired by the fishing activities on the beaches of Accra. On these beaches I was able to watch the tough, simple, hardworking Ga fishermen closely and spend some time with them as well. Another of my books, The Canoe’s Story (Sub Saharan Publishers, Accra, 2010), is about the transformation of a giant tree in the Ashanti forest into a much-loved fishing canoe in Accra. The tree even has a beautiful name in the Ga language: “Ka shi mi” (Don’t leave me).  


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Accra does an outside exist?”

Accra radiates in all directions through what used to be discrete towns, villages, and settlements that are now interconnected by growth and transformed into neighborhoods of the city. Most of these start on the coast and spread inland. Someone living at Achimota, or East Legon, for instance, would say, I live outside of Accra. At the same time, someone living in Tema, as I did, eighteen miles east of Accra on the same coast, says, I am going to Accra while going to Achimota or Legon—a Möbius strip kind of feel!      


Meshack Asare was born in Ghana and is a leading African children’s book author. His many awards include the Austria National Prize, the Ghana National Book Prize, the NOMA Prize, the NSK Neustadt Prize, the UNESCO Prize for Tolerance in Literature for the Youth, and the White Dove Peace Prize. 

Published Jun 25, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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