Exploring Accra’s historic Jamestown district with local fisherman Nii Aryekwei
Considered by many to be the 'real Accra', Jamestown, one of the oldest districts in the city, has all the ingredients of a creative hub. A stone’s throw from the Bank of Ghana, the juxtaposition of what's left of the city’s colonial architecture with the swell of tightly packed together shacks, tells the story of its former commercial significance and subsequent decline. It has character in abundance, a strong local community and centuries of international influences. It also has the kind of authenticity and opportunities for chance encounters that artists always look for when searching for new places to make home.
Wonder just a few minutes off the main road and you will find fish smokers, bakeries and, most unexpectedly, pig farms. The local population includes generations of fisherman with wives and daughters who work as traders, providing a steady stream of fresh produce and services to locals.
The Ga fishermen who first settled here in the 17th century remain the bedrock of Jamestown’s economic life. We met Nii Aryekwei at the pier, repairing his nets alongside other fishermen. Among the boisterous conversation between most of the men, what stood out about him was his stillness. Softly spoken and contemplative, he was incongruous among the atmosphere of riotous laughter and bawdy jokes. Spending time with these men reveals much of what you need to know about the character of Jamestown. Their work is arduous and physically demanding, with men at sea sometimes for days at a time. It is part of the reason why the community is so tight, frank and sometimes hyper-masculine. The waters are unforgiving of indecision and demand brotherliness to ensure safety.
Nii Aryekwei spoke to us at length of the reflective nature of being at sea and the opportunities to travel and see the Ghanaian coastline that his occupation has afforded him. We’re just a few minutes from James and Ussher Forts, which facilitated the trade in bodies from this place, so the opportunity for men to now go out into the ocean, on their own terms, is powerful. Successive waves of European powers - the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes and the British – have given the neighbourhood a complex and layered history. Places such as Brazil House reveal the presence of the Tabom people, afro-Brazilian returnee slaves who settled in the area in the 19th century and went on to become influential in the country’s cultural life. The diversity of these influences, combined with the steadiness of the fishing community, has built a culture that is very adaptable to change but sure of itself.
Creatively, the district has a rich inheritance. It is home to the country’s oldest photography studio, Deo Gratis Photo Studio. Jamestown's centrality in trade and proximity to Europeans meant that the technology came here first. Jamestown is also where photographer James Barnor chose for his original Ever Young Studio as well as that of Felicia Abban, Ghana's first professional female photographer. In recent years the creative community has started to take note of the area again. Brazil House is now home to Accra[dot]Alt, a cultural network that spearheads the cultural scene in Accra and beyond through events, a radio show and, most notably, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, which attracts an international crowd every August.
Jamestown Café, founded by architect Joe Osae-Addo and affiliated with ArchiArfrika, is also an important spot in the area. The café reaches out far beyond the local people and the architects and creatives who work from there, as it is also home to the radio show Sane Gbaa (Conversations in Ga). Hosted by Joe and legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela, who joins weekly via Skype, the show is recorded live and invites participation from whoever is present in the café that day. As more people are looking to Jamestown than ever before, we should keep this inclusivity in mind. There are current plans to redevelop the area, with a political agenda will that respects the contribution of the community and matches the collective energy that has already been invested in the area. The potential for Jamestown's growth is endless.