Going deep into James Town, Accra, Ghana
James Town is one of Accra’s oldest neighbourhoods with beginnings that ought to make a history buff sit up.
Nat Nuno-Amarteifio, in perhaps one of the most informative pieces about James Town I have had the pleasure to read about, paints a rather interestingly rich portrait of this historic town.
The story of Jamestown began with the erection of James fort by the British in 1673–74. The British fort was the last European trading post to be erected in Accra. It was the smallest of the three forts and was built about one and half miles from the Dutch fort. It stood at a village called Soko owned by the Ajumaku and Adanse clans.
The site for the fort was leased in 1672 to the Royal African Company by the Ga Mantse Okaikoi. King James I of Great Britain granted a royal charter to the company to build the fort and gave permission to name it after himself. Jamestown’s cosmopolitan mix of peoples started literally at its birth.
The British brought slaves and labourers from the Allada kingdom in Nigeria. Allada was a major regional market for slaves and the word Alata, a corruption of Allada, entered the Ga language to describe people from Allada. It survived to identify Yorubas in general. Before the British created Ngleshie Alata there was already in Accra an Alata community residing at Osu. The neighbourhood, Osu Alata, is still in existence. Ga and Fanti workers joined the workforce at James fort, as artisans and labourers.
My Dad had grown up in the area – Adedainkpo – and was kind enough to give James, Matthew and I a tour of this place. As we alighted from his car we were instantly struck by a scene that was totally unexpected. In the midst of all the dilapidated but charming colonial era houses and modern day ghetto shacks was the finest Rolls Royce I’ve ever seen in Accra. That scene put a smile on my face. Such a contrast. This is James Town after all – the richest enclave in Accra when its harbour ferried all sorts out of the Gold Coast. Folks here were once, highly educated wealthy business people and traders and perhaps there were still some remnants of that wealth still clinging on to the good old days. The development of Takoradi harbour in the 1920s in the Western region ushered James Town into blight and now poverty.
The shock of the Rolls Royce scene had barely sunk in when a man who later introduced himself as Nii Teiko came over to ask if he could be our guide, to which we said yes. You don’t need an Economics degree to sense that James Town had an economic problem. Nii Teiko personified that problem. He was not a professional guide affiliated to an organised tour outfit. He was a hustler who cleverly saw an opportunity to make a quick buck. All around me, as I got out of my Dad’s car, were small ramshakled stalls selling all sorts of things that just about passed as more valuable than junk. Petty trading and the ubiquitous kenkey making and selling seemed to form the basis of enterprise around here. How the mighty has fallen.
Nii Teiko spoke briefly about the James Town Light House. The James Town Light House was built by the British in the 1930s and it became an elevated point for a panoramic view of the Accra’s rising skyline.
As we walked to the palace of the James Town Chief, Obrepong Nii Kojo Ababio, we walked across Mantse Agbonaa, the large area in front of the Palace to cross the road leading to the entry to the Usher fort. The fort as my Dad explained was once the home of Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah. He was a political prisoner in the fort.
Nii Teiko was keen to point out that we were in British Accra and that as we walked away from the red and white stripped light house we would soon emerge in Dutch Accra. James Town in its British and Dutch colours as well as Usher Town is more popularly known by the indigenous Ga as Ga Mashie and this was what my Dad often used to refer to the 100 hectare or so land mass of the area. We walked past a rather beautiful colonial era building, the Ghana Customs building.
A moment or so later Nii Teiko pointed out that we were about to cross into Dutch Accra. Shortly after crossing into Dutch Accra we veered left to come off the pavement as we were greeted by a rather artistic looking graffiti with a couple of posters of political figures around it.
This was after all on December 5th and with general election slated for December 7th 2016, campaigning for each of the two major political parties, the NDC (National Democratic Congress) and NPP (National Patriotic Party) was in full swing. Nii Teiko was excited and full of praise for his local Member of Parliament, Nii Lantey Vanderpyue. This was an NDC area he proudly announced.
Anyway politics aside, to the right of the graffiti was a fish smoking house. A quick tour of it revealed how this predominantly fishing community preserved fish. Again like Nii Teiko’s hustling, the smoke house highlighted to me that this beacon of economic strenght had so little power left that its once vibrant fishing processing industry could barely be described as a cottage industry.
We emerged from the fish smoking area and headed directly down some steps dotted with the familiar black plastic bags that often contained excrement. The first ever pipe borne water facility in Ghana was introduced here and yet in the 21st century James Town had no effective sanitation system to speak of.
This was the old glorious James Town harbour. It was once the purveyor of economic boom and prosperity. Now it merely served at best to provide some sort of subsistence existence to the fishermen who toiled to eke out a living from the sea.
A stone’s throw away from the last of the steps as we descended into the harbour was a small quaint shop with an interesting display of rusty canoe anchors.
A few metres away from this shop was a pink house with the inscription Ashiedu Keteke. I recalled listening to my grandmother talk incessantly about Ashiedu Keteke, the name given to the sub-metro area of James Town. Ashiedu Keteke means more to the folks in the know though.
This was where I began to notice how popular Nii Teiko was. Literally anything that moved greeted him, always calling him by his nickname, “nice boy” to which he responded “all the time”. His influence really did transcend that of a guide. He was a Mr Fixer extraordinaire whose local connections gained us access into areas we could never have imagined going into. He was also an incredibly enthusiastic teacher and a passionate advocate for James Town.
He was always keen to introduce us to some of the local celebrities including Isaac Nii Ayi, a local welterweight champion. Boxing in Ga Mashie is an obsession. Bukom in James Town boasts over 20 boxing schools and former illustrious fighters such as Joshua ‘The Hitter’ Clottey, Ike ‘Bazooka’ Quartey and Azumah ‘The Professor’ Nelson. Bukom has more boxing schools and has produced more world champion boxers in the last 75 years than any other place on earth.
A little over a quarter of an hour later, we had seen all there was to see by the old harbour. Interesting but it had an edge to it that perhaps would discourage me from going there at nightfall. In the day time the smiles of the boisterous kids on the beach, wanting to be captured on film alone will make your day.
As we ascended the steep steps back onto the main road, which incidentally was renamed after John Atta Mills, a former president of the Republic of Ghana, the front of the Sempe palace came into view.
“Nice boy” led us into the various nooks and crannies of James Town. This was a lively and boisterous little corner of Greater Accra. Even without a camera i’m pretty sure i’d have been spotted as an outsider a mile off. Everyone seems to know every one and I had never experienced a people with such a strong attachment, to their community as I did in James Town, anywhere in Ghana.
We went past the Freeman Memorial Methodist church, which was built in 1860, where my father was baptised as a child.
The graffiti on a couple of local buildings also caught my eye as I watched “Nice boy” do what he did best – bantering with almost everyone who crossed our path.
As we drove into James Town and toured the town, I was most fascinated with the colonial buildings as well as the houses and palaces of the various sub-chiefs.
45 minutes later we had done a complete 360 degrees to where we had first started our tour at Mantse Agbonaa. We parted company with “Nice boy” after we’d paid a small fee to him for his time. As if to symbolise the end of this odyssey, a lone lady perched on her window ledge next to an obituary smiled and waved goodbye as I wondered when i’d be back and what changes (if any) i’d see when I do.
James Town was a mix bag of goodies which for some reason left a sour taste. It will always hold a special place in the colonial history of Ghana as well as the history for independence. Kwame Nkrumah an Nzema of Akan stock, was elected here as a Member of Parliament, as my Dad loves to point out proudly, by a Ga indigenous population. He run against Ga candidates some of whom were born and bred in James Town and yet there was no whiff of tribalism as he prevailed. He rose to become Ghana’s first elected leader and a great one at that. Ironically his decision to build the Tema Harbour finally nailed James Town’s fortunes to the economic doldrums. James Town’s goody bag, although a little soured, is still incredibly priceless. Accra now has some of the plushest neighbourhoods on the West African coast. However, no other enclave of Accra boasts of James Town’s rich history and colonial architecture. I believe that generations from now, others will write about how the unique culture of its people, welcoming spirit, sense of community and natural resources including its vast beach front led to an economic and cultural resurgence…..or at least I hope. The youth in James Town gave the world Azonto not too long ago and now spear head the largest and most popular street art festival in Africa – The Chale Wote street festival. Who knows what they’ll give James Town or the world next?