We approach what is known as the ‘iron building’ and we hear the little girls giggling before we see them. Huddled together on their haunches, they are excitedly cooking a tiny fish over a small paraffin burner on the pavement. Their innocent childlike glee is contagious and makes us grin as we walk past. We then reach the bold green and yellow building which certainly lives up to its name with its sharp angles and unusual shape – it looks just like an old-fashioned coal iron. My mom and I smile for a photo and we laugh with Collins, our guide, as he bends down REALLY low to make sure the pointed tip of the roof makes it into the photo! I love the co-incidence of actually seeing one of these coal irons, which were very popular in the late 1800s still being used by a seamstress months later in a rural village in Ghana!
A year ago when my mom came to visit us, we first discovered Jamestown. Along with Usshertown these are the oldest districts of Accra. With its iconic bright red and white lighthouse and vibrant colourful buildings, this fishing town is an enlivening place to walk through, and although the extreme poverty you see will likely leaving you heartbroken and humbled, it is the overwhelming sense of resilience of its people that makes the biggest impression. The strength of its inhabitants pulses through the town like a heart pounding after a strenuous run. The abundance of vibrant colour in the beautiful murals and buildings are symbolic of the tenacity of people living in one of the poorest parts of Accra, yet pushing through trying circumstances with creativity and big doses of human spirit.
Collins and Nii are two men who wholly embody this resilience. They come from humble beginnings yet with much hard work have built up a successful theatre company and have travelled globally putting on productions. They are very involved in serving others at the Jamestown Community Centre and are passionate about showing outsiders the charm of their birthplace. They offer walking tours of Jamestown every Saturday starting at 2pm but these can also be arranged for weekdays, and their contact details can be found here.
Only a twenty-minute drive from our home in Ridge, yet worlds apart from built up Accra, seeing the derelict old colonial buildings will leave you a little surprised that Jamestown is so close to the privileged radius that many of us expats move in. In fact it can feel like another world – one that I feel is most important to see if you are living here, to remind us of how immensely privileged so many of us are, and what the reality of everyday life is like for many Ghanaians.
On the day of our tour, Collins and Nii first give us some background information about Jamestown. This community emerged around the slave forts that were built by the Europeans in the 17th century and today it is a cosmopolitan place made up from people descending from Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Britain, The Netherlands and Portugal.
As the men lead us to a traditional African religious shrine, there are constant reminders of the British colonial rule that ended in 1957. We pass by a turquoise building with bricked up windows that used to be the Piccadilly Biscuit Factory, and as we walk with the warmth of the golden afternoon sunlight on our backs, Ghanaian Collins tells us that his surname is in fact Smith!
“But how do the Ghanaian people feel towards the British?” I enquire standing gazing at the peeling old wooden window shutters that remind me of those you see in Europe.
Collins answers matter of factly and explains that way back it was a two-way relationship they were in with their colonists. When slaves were traded, African chiefs were also involved in selling their own people because they wanted goods that only those from Europe could offer. “Also, if it weren’t for the British there wouldn’t be hospitals and schooling as we know them” he tells me.
Being South African I’m so much more used to a tainted response where racial issues are concerned. This has been a big learning for me in Ghana that colonialism and the history thereof is often viewed in a more neutral light, but having said that, I don’t want to us forget, condone or negate the horrendous treatment of African people for centuries when they were kept as slaves. Learning about this history here has absolutely sickened me to consider how evil humans could be, and sadly often continue to be to fellow humans.
As we approach the shrine, a stubborn, shaggy goat with a rope tied around his neck is refusing to walk any further despite its owners’ best efforts to pull it across the road! The shrine is in the middle of a busy road, and Nii has to sometimes stop talking as the noisy motorbikes and traffic drown out his voice.
Two golden sculptures of eagle birds with outstretched wings look as they are about to take off from the poles beneath them, and they are surrounded by a hyena and life size statues of two people draped in white cloth. A sacred tree is growing inside the white enclosure that is covered in writing and smaller sculptures of a turtle, flowing vines, crabs and deers adorn the walls. The shrine belongs to one of the seven clans of the Ga people of Jamestown, who are said to have started migration in the 13th century from Israel and headed southward through present day Uganda, along the Congo river and through Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo and finally arrived in Greater Accra.
Next we make our way towards the gorgeous lighthouse which was originally built in the 1930s and replaced an earlier version that was erected in 1871. I notice that the red roof next to it has one green sheet of steel, which almost looks purposefully placed! In this town if you look beyond the ordinary, little artistic treasures abound. A man walks past the lighthouse with his family and I love his fancy baby blue and heavy white lace robe and pants that shine in the sunlight.
The wonderful murals we see on many of the buildings are from previous Chale Wote festivals which have taken place annually in Jamestown in August since 2011. Every year there is a theme for the artwork that is created and the beautified walls around the town retain the incredible energy of that festival. (I will be writing about that experience soon!).
Shirts, shorts and pants are lying lazily over balconies drying in the afternoon breeze and some are spread out on the floor relying on the stored sunshine in the pavements to remove their damp state. When I was young we used to visit the Pilansberg Game Reserve in the province of Mpumalanga in South Africa once a year, and one of my favourite parts of that trip was driving past the local villages with their round rondavel huts and rainbow coloured washing hung up on lines. My teenage cell-phone-free self never envisaged that cell phones could one day take photos, but longed for a zoom lens so that I could capture that bright washing beautifying the landscape with colour. Here in Ghana all of my old dreams come true as we stroll through Jamestown and the gorgeous African wax prints that have such a stronghold on my heart, flutter and float in the gentle wind from string strung lines across doorways and windows.
This cloth is not only used to make clothes from, but women simply wrap it around themselves as skirts, men drape it over their bodies for traditional wear and it is also used as bed sheets and coverings when sleeping.
We stroll past houses and buildings in brilliant saturated primary hues that match those in the African fabrics, and a proud mother hen struts ahead of us with her brood of five clucking and losing a few soft small feathers as they move. Saturday afternoons are not only for washing, but for dreaming in Jamestown with many naps being had outside simple houses as we make our way through the maze-like passageways between the living compounds.
We walk past the thick white walls of James Fort Prison, the local royal palace and murals of boxing glove clad men where we learn that Jamestown has a strong boxing heritage and is home to over 26 boxing clubs.
We sit for a while and discuss how families here live in homesteads, with a number of rooms surrounding a common courtyard area where social gatherings take place, and laundry is done. The family head is the oldest member of the family. The icecream coloured walls and doors look like they have shed hundreds of skins of paint, like ancient snakes and undoubtedly hold just as many stories.
On the move again we wind our way through the town and are greeted by the inhabitants of Jamestown who are getting on with their Saturday afternoons. The warmth of the people here is evident in the beautiful big smiles we receive and an elderly lady selling eggs stops us to ask where we are from. They are so exquisitely framed as my camera clicks by these bright walls!
The vibe is laid back and relaxed, a small white ball is hit back and forth across a ping pong table in an open space and groups of children are gathered around an open-air foosball table. The tiny armless, immobile soccer players who are given movement through these energetic kids, are the same colours as a further reminder of previous British rule – the union jack painted on the outside of the table.
The contents of domestic life as we know it – usually concealed in cupboards, drawers and multiple rooms, is on full display everywhere here; piles of silver pots, pans and big bowls tumble into the courtyards and pavements, stacks of wood, buckets, prayer mats, toys, plastic containers of oil, crates of beer and small goods for sale can be seen as we wander through the streets. Hungry goats sniff around hopefully while a pregnant girl goat who looks like she is about to pop, looks on.
My eyes are drawn to clusters of similar colours, where blue jeans hang over walls beside blue painted doors and blue packets dance in the wind, and arches of grey reveal views of grey shadows and bricks, in spaces beyond.
While we take in all the abundant life around us, we notice too the death posters pasted on some of the walls. I had never seen these before coming to Ghana. When someone passes away a poster is put up in their community with a photo of the deceased, family information and funeral arrangements. The date of birth and age at death is also always included. “Called to Glory” is the most common heading on them when the deceased is elderly, but “Gone too soon” is seen too frequently. If the person is an important member in society, they may get a billboard announcing their death like the Queen mother’s one we see on this day.
We pass the Royal Pallet Club and momentarily lock eyes with Mandela and Che Guevarva.
I’m always charmed by the religious names and biblical references of the road side stores selling small household and food items, and we see many of these. It is believed that by praising God in the naming of your shop, that you will have increased prosperity and healthy sales. I especially love the “His Time Pub – Dealers in alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages” and the “Jesus Never Fails Fish Mama”.
We head for the beach and it is lovely to see the blue Atlantic ocean on the horizon, the wooden canoe shaped fishing boats that are out at sea appear from this distance like clusters of tiny seed pods that have fallen from a tree and are gently floating on water.
We make our way down to the beach and the surrounding poverty feels like a kick in the stomach and is very confronting. Crumbled stone is scattered everywhere, plastic bottles, packets and litter clog the drains along with filthy toxic looking water. Large plastic and steel sheets protect basic wooden shelters and fishing supply shops below, and are held down by old bicycle tyres and large rocks. Dozens of fishing boats are huddled together in a frenzy of flying flags, slatted wooden seats and sharp pointed boat ends that daily weather the waves.
Piles and piles of soft, translucent blue fishing nets are all around, waiting for their owners to begin the arduous daily task of folding them up again. These nets are the very means by which this subsistence community feed themselves and maybe manage to make a meagre living. I wonder how kind the sea has been to them today?
While we stand on the pier men and children unexpectedly appear, head first, pulling themselves through holes in the cement with strong arms, and we are reminded that the sea is also used as a toilet to many people here. The bleating of sheep can be heard with the sounds of the gentle waves. The Osu Castle, where slaves were held during colonial times, can also be seen blurrily in the distance, in the dusky twilight.
It is all rather heart wrenching to witness….but yet….the beautiful sun is setting on childrens’ giggles that rise up from the shore, as they delight in an evening swim. The fishing boats have been meticulously painted with religious references or optimistic words of bravado, “Good Fighter”, ”VIP”, “Pray for Me” – some have also been scratched into the wood, these etchings implore an unseen God to show mercy on their daily fishing endeavors. Men are playing draughts and laughing. I look around and feel an overwhelming sense of a community holding onto hope.
We end the day with a cold Club at the Jamestown Boutique, a place where since this walking tour, we have spent wonderful Friday nights enjoying the jazz evenings that take place weekly at this spot. It is here where we have sat listening to incredible saxophone music and the most amazing voice singing into the balmy night air, as sweet and delicious as the succulent seedless South African grapes available in Ghana at the moment. The chicken, yam chips and shito sauce make a scrumptious evening meal!
In those moments sitting on the plastic chairs designed with the Ghanaian Adinkra symbol representing God’s omnipotence, I have stared into the starry night sky and not wanted to be anywhere else in the world!
Tips for visiting James Town:
- Walk around with James Town Walking Tours, Collins and Nii are friendly and wonderful gentlemen with a wealth of knowledge about their home town.
- The Jamestown Cafe is another great spot to have a drink and meal and there are often art exhibitions on display.
- Walk on the shaded side of the streets as much as possible as at certain times of the year it is so hot! Always take a water bottle with.
- Be sure to buy a smoked mackerel or two from the fish ladies, they are on sale near the huge drums close to the beach, where they smoke the fish. These are SO tasty with some butter on crackers, and don’t cost much – in fact you won’t believe how cheap they are. The perfect dinner after a walking tour with a glass of white wine 😉