Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Accra is developing fast. Glass-fronted high-rises fill the city skyline, with the steel-and-concrete shells of many more growing daily. Shiny land cruisers pepper the traffic jams that choke the city, while expats and wealthy Ghanaians pack the smart restaurants that serve food from across the planet.

Jamestown lighthouse
And then there’s Jamestown. Accra’s poorest district is just a few hundred metres from its most expensive hotel – $300 a night for the cheapest room at the Movenpick – but the contrasts between the old fishing harbour and the wealthier parts of Accra are stark.

I visited Jamestown with Manuela and Flo, friends visiting from Germany, and it was an instant jolt to the comforts available on my side of town. Mountains of plastic rubbish smothered the ground, some smouldering in small fires. Mixed with the piles of drying fish around the harbour, these gave Jamestown an incredibly pungent aroma. Battered old cars replaced the 4x4 behemoths seen elsewhere, many with more dents than bodywork. And Jamestown is the only place in Accra I have seen kids running about barefoot and in rags; Ghanaians take huge pride in their appearance, but the realities of poverty were evident.

The most striking contrast for me was the small wooden shacks. These are found in all corners of the capital, selling everything from fruit and veg to phone credit and lottery tickets. Elsewhere, they are brightly painted in the colours of whichever mobile phone company sponsors them. In Jamestown, they are cobbled them together from pieces of scrap wood, leaving a hotchpotch structure that looks unlikely to withstand the next strong breeze. Instead of an array of goods on view, most have just a small pile of dried fish or a tiny bag of sweets – whatever the owner could scrape together to sell.

We met outside Jamestown’s lighthouse, where Emmanuel, the keeper, was waiting to show us around. His deep voice made every aspect of the tour sound like a threat.

“This lighthouse was built by the British”, he growled as we went up the spiral staircase.
“Oh, brilliant”, I muttered.
“It has 91 steps” he barked next, with a look that suggested he didn’t think I could make them all.
The stairs
“Oh, ok, that’s, er, really impressive”.

We reached the viewing platform at the top – it’s best not to look too closely at the last few wooden rungs, especially the snapped rotten ones just behind their nailed-on replacements – and Emmanuel started pointing out landmarks.

“That is the oldest hotel in Ghana. Built in 1903”, he said, pointing to the faded Sea View Hotel opposite. “Not just the oldest in Accra, but Ghana!”
“Wow, that’s amazing. Is it popular?”
“It’s closed.”

Sea View Hotel
We continued with our 360° tour, him angrily identifying landmarks – the palace of Jamestown’s chief, Ussher Fort, James Fort – while I struggled to think of replies that didn’t incriminate me or my British ancestors. (Flo and Manuela had wisely sneaked off to the other side). Luckily the views were fantastic and I didn’t need to fake my interest.

After the lighthouse, Emmanuel offered to show us the harbour. I have always felt uncomfortable with ‘poverty tourism’ – essentially looking at some poor people and the squalor they live in. But at the same time I was fascinated by Jamestown and wanted to see more. Plus I didn’t dare refuse Emmanuel.

As we walked, Emmanuel explained the history of the Ga fishing communities who settled here before Accra existed as a city. But he was interrupted by an angry shout from a group of men playing cards.

“You just walk through and don’t offer us greetings?”
A large man had stood up from the card table and was staring at us, his friends grinning silently.
“Er, we’re sorry, we…” began Flo.
“Not you, him”, interrupted the card player, pointing at Emmanuel.

There followed a brief and angry discussion in Ga, the language of Jamestown, including the full complement of Ghanaian hand gestures and shouting. Emmanuel’s quick submission and grovelling bow as we departed betrayed his earlier ferocity, I noted (silently and to myself, of course).

As we continued through the harbour, I made sure to smile and say hello to everyone we passed. The residents responded with varying degrees of amusement, friendliness and apathy; most were too busy sorting the day’s catch to worry about another group of Westerners poking about their home. Tourism is beginning in Jamestown – most evidently with the Jaynii beach bar – but what the locals think of it remains unknown.

Thanks to Flo for the pictures. 

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