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Notes on the Geography of Ghana: Accra 1: Jamestown and Central

We begin with the oldest part of the city. Logical, no?

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The James Town light is an obviously good place for an overview.

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An elegant curve. The structure dates from the 1930s and replaces one from 1871.

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The view north. The foul Korle Bu (Korle Lagoon) can be made out as it slides rather than flows to the sea. Despite what appears to be a coastal highway, the road is only local. The real coastal highway lies several miles inland. As the crow flies, we're 80 miles from Cape Coast, which until 1877 was the capital of the British Gold Coast. We're 200 miles from the Ivory Coast. Sorry, sorry: Côte d'Ivoire.

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The view north. The Danes, Dutch, and British all set up trading forts within a few miles of each other along this part of the Gold Coast. The British named theirs James Fort, hence James Town.

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Panning slightly eastward.

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And more. The football ground is interesting: how does it happen that such a large area is vacant in such a crowded area? Part of the answer may lie with that pink building.

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This is the palace of the paramount chief of the Ga, the dominant ethnicity. And you thought Ghana was a western-style democracy, pure and simple?

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The multi-storied buildings of Accra Central are in the distance.

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A defaced World War I memorial stands along the road. Behind it is the tin-roofed square of James Fort. No heroic architecture here.

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A corner of the fort is at the left; to the right is a fishing port protected by a breakwater. Although commercial shipping used to anchor here, and unload even in rough surf, the British in the 1920s built a modern port 150 miles to the west, at Takoradi. Sacks of cocoa are no longer piled here awaiting shipment. (That's how they were shown in a photo in The Gold Coast Handbook of 1928).

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Looking down from the light toward the former Sea View Hotel. Richard Wright, who visited the Gold Coast in the 1950s just as Kwame Nkrumah was taking power, stayed here. He reviewed the hotel: "Next morning I resolved to move at once into the center of the city and I made the round of the three available hotels. I finally settled on the Seaview which stood at the edge of the beach and fronted James Town, the slum area. The Seaview was grim, with dingy mosquito nets over the beds; there were flies, greasy food, spattered walls, wooden floors whose cracks held decades of filth.... No breezes blew here to freshen the air. My skin was always oily and wet and tiny mosquitoes bit deeply into my arms and ankles. The humidity was so dense that each time I shaved I had to clean a film of sweat from the mirror.... At mealtimes fried food, prepared by a chef whose god seemed to have been named grease, was served. The mattresses on the bed were damp and stained by God knows what... The lavatory, when it was flushed, set up a groaning, howling noise that penetrated every room of the hotel at all hours. And almost always one could hear the continuous and mysterious beating of drums deep in the maze of the streets...." (Black Power, 1954, ch. 10).

Imagine that on Trip Advisor.

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The hotel is no longer a hotel.

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Inside, the rooms are closed and the courtyard is used to prepare food sent out. A remote kichen, in other words.

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Like Wright, we, too, can wander. One of the first things we'll see is a riot of Christian exhortation.

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Muslims are a significant minority, and mosques dot the neighborhood.

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Funding from the usual source.

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Sadder but wiser.

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We'll drift down to the port.

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Here's the entrance to the fort, which is now empty.

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Seen from the waterside.

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The straight alignment is no accident. Official maps from as late as 1986 show a railroad spur passing here and continuing to the breakwater.

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The breakwater itself is of cemented rock fragments.

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A tunnel under the breakwater.

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Along the way, a boutique.

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The older boats are dugouts carved from the wawa (Triplochiton scleroxylon) tree, blessedly splinter free. Newer ones appear to be of planks.

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Wright wrote, "In shady places the men could be seen standing or squatting, mending nets, or talking politics, or arranging the details of their next fishing expedition" (p. 107). Elspeth Huxley came by at about the same time and wrote of nets "each one immensely long and heavy... stretched out to dry... [Men were] patiently repairing them, knotting the string with a quick twist of the fingers" (Four Guineas, 1954, p. 104). Go back to 1920 and the beach was neatly piled with sacks of cocoa, waiting for surf-boats to take them to freighters anchored offshore. In 1928 the cocoa-shipping business shifted a four-hour drive west to Takoradi, where the new port had opened and allowed ships to dock.

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Beached. Tentative translation from the Yoruba: "Mawu (the creator-goddess), Deliver Me."

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Plenty of sects to choose from. Eye Ogya comes from a Nigerian one that translates as Pentecostal Fire.

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A third of a mile closer to Central, Ussher Fort.

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The Dutch built their first fort on this site in 1648. An earthquake in 1862 destroyed its replacement. The British took over in 1868, rebuilt the place again, named it after Governor Henry Usher (1879-80), and repurposed it as another prison. It remained one until 1993. The gateway trimming was added by Gordon Guggisberg, probably the Gold Coast's most productive governor.

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Accra Central, with the post office on the left.

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Things have perked up a bit since Wright came by: "Early next morning I found a taxi at the roadside and went into the city. I got out at the post office. There were no sidewalks; one walked at the edge of a drainage ditch made of concrete in which urine ran. A stench pervaded the sunlit air."

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Most buildings in the area remain in poor shape, although not so grim as when Wright was here.

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"Where's that lawyer I'm paying for?"

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Here's a building in good shape.

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A bit of style, from perhaps 1950. The ghostly initials may refer to the United Trading Company.

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Another bit of moderne.

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A picture that had to be taken on a Sunday. Understand?

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This one, too. The building has no style but offers a bit of air.


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