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Strung out along the coast: contrasts in Accra town

Accra’s prices can be breathtaking.

I treated Jonathan Dotse to beer and pizza at a downtown venue called the Venus Lounge. It was better than the hotel where we had lunch, and I’d been eating most of the weekend. But beer and pizza cost about sixty quid—say about eighty dollars. Talking to Uber drivers about rents in cosmopolitan Accra, you could be paying $5,000 a month. Honestly, that beats some London prices.

Ghana has a lot going for it. It is definitely West African in feel, but in a much more restrained way than Lagos. People say it’s safer, though Lagos to me seems safe enough. There are a lot of Nigerian expats living there, I am told. I only met one Nigerian while there and he was not exactly a resident.

I did meet a policeman who, with the rest of his time, runs a fashion store. He is one of the butchest fashionistas I ever met. I shared lunch with a gay Ghanaian who showed up with his boyfriend, a handsome young man at least twenty years younger who said about five words all lunchtime. I met a worker for a Chinese company who spends a lot of time and money gambling in Accra’s casinos. I went to a multisensory cinema in an ageing mall in which my seat bumped and sprayed me with scent and water to recreate the thrill of being chased through a 3D gaming world. The more recent shopping mall nearer the airport would not have been out of place on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona.

I frequently say that if you live in the West, you do not have a single accurate image of Africa in your head. In this chapter, you’ll meet one writer whose day job is running a company that makes VR films for a living. Another writer’s day job is working as a marketing intern for an online real estate company modelled on Zillow.

Accra is small enough, laid-back enough to have a beach vibe. The town flattens its face against the sand like a hungry kid at a restaurant window. You can smell the salt spray, and sometimes hear surf. The club life is air conditioned and sharp eyed. I went to a club opening—stylish, icy cool, well behaved and aloof, full of unbelievably beautiful young people, often dancing with oldsters, unembarrassed Ghanaian dads with bellies.

Ghana was the first African country where I ran across that poisonous thing, sex tourism (The Gambia seems more beholden to it and to resent it much more). The beach is full of trim young men in the company of middle-aged wobbly white people.

My landlord (for the second half of the stay) was an ebullient, thuggish Italian-African, born and raised in Ghana. He turned out to run a chain of massage parlours. The women were pleasant as people: honest, funny, and mostly concerned with getting money home to their families.

He was a fascinating character—rooted in his beachfront community, mentoring and adopting a six-year-old boy with whom he had a touching parental relationship. He made damn sure I tipped everyone. He was also buying up villages and converting them to tourism. One of my most interesting days was a long drive and boat trip with him to a palm-frond village on a river island. He was buying it up with the approval of the smart young men of the village and the misgivings of the older gentlemen. "They’ll have even less if they don’t have this," my host warned me.

Unlike Nigeria, Ghana has swathes of empty land. Its population in total is roughly 28 million (Lagos not including Lekki is about 21 million). We drove for most of a day though towns that didn’t seem to have much industry at all.

When I flew to the ancient capital of Kumasi, I was astounded to see forests and lakes, beautiful countryside that I was not used to seeing in Nigeria.

Land: view from an apartment complex in Kumasi

Uganda has no fewer than five continuing sub-national kingdoms, the most notable being that of the Ganda people. Ghana has the Asante Empire with its royal palace in Kumasi. It’s now a museum full of royal tables and sofas, photographs, old radios, mementos, and videos of rituals. My host in Kumasi, Faith Ben-Daniels, whom you will meet later in the series, insisted on taking me on a tour of the palace. Unfortunately, after my Ghana trip, my phone died, taking many of my Ghana photos with it. So no photos of the island, the school visit I made to present to school kids with Jonathan, or of the visit to the royal palace.

The Asante Empire survived ruthless attacks by the British—including the exile of its king Prempeh. The grandmother of his heir took over. The continuity of the Empire and the kingship survived—there is still a king. You will not see the golden stool that is the mark of his office. It descended from heaven and it houses the soul of the Asante people, including those to be born in the future. The king himself is not allowed to sit on it.

The British demanded that their representative sit on it, and that it be sent to Queen Victoria—and when it was refused, hunted it to melt it.

Colonialism old and new haunts Ghana. Faith Ben-Daniels wanted to show me part of a national park that had been strip-mined, she claimed, by illegal Chinese miners. Certainly, there were posters in the airport warning foreign nationals against illegal mining. The gold is taken from the land and sent away illegally with no taxes paid (unless you count bribes as tax).

It was called the Gold Coast, the centre of the slave trade where European ships came to buy people and ship them in foul conditions to countries where everything they were and knew was going to be obliterated. Historical tourism of the slave sites has become an industry. Manu Herbstein has made himself an expert in that history with such worldwide implications.

Ghana does seem to lack the extreme poverty that slaps you across the face when you travel across Nigeria by bus. Accra looks pretty generally more prosperous with less overall wealth ... though the skyscrapers around the airport give Victoria a run for its money.

Accra airport skyscrapers.

The conventional narrative is that the monster Jerry Rawlings shot many of the corrupt class and that gave Ghana some room for growth (the taxi drivers will also tell you the corruption is coming back). I don’t buy it, but I pass it on as an interesting urban legend—and because Ayi Kwei Armah, in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, describes the avenging terror so unforgettably.

Ghana was the first African nation to become independent of Britain in 1959. The University of Ghana was founded in the 1940s at the same time as the University of Ibadan in Nigeria—mainly at the insistence of the Ghanaians. After independence it became a university in its own right with the power to award is own degrees.

The University of Ghana in Accra, where Martin Egblewogbe teaches.

For a country of its size, Ghana seems to have an organized literary life. Great writers who are Ghanaian include Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, and B. Kojo Laing. An Accra journalist and teacher called Geosi organizes regular visits by writers to a local school (he had me and Jonathan Dotse together), in addition to interviewing African writers. In this part, Martin Egblewogbe describes the small but very active activities of the local literati.

Ghanaian aspirations: advertisement in Accra airport.

B. Kojo Laing

I had planned this trip in advance to interview B. Kojo Laing, author of classics such as Search Sweet Country, Woman of the Aeroplanes, and Major Gentil and the Achimoto Wars. Alongside Syl Cheney-Coker and Ben Okri, he was one of the 1990s giants of West African spiritual and magic realism. He died the month before I arrived in Ghana. Before he too died, Binyavanga Wainaina was supposed to be working on a new edition of Laing’s works.

The Ghanaian press were curiously silent at first about the death of this great writer. Since that time Penguin Books in the UK have begun to issue reprints of Laing’s novels in their Modern Classics range. The African Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook posted a thread of remembrances by people such as Wole Talabi, Tade Thompson, and Ntone Edjabe. The Johnannesburg Review of Books published these as an online tribute.


Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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