Accra Rising and the Dangers of Spatial Apartheid
Gentrification has gone global, indeed. Is it therefore accurate to capture the ongoing redevelopment projects—and I use this phrase reluctantly— currently underway in Accra, the capital of Ghana, as a clone of the ruthless global gentrification taking place? How useful will the term/concept be for thinking about and examining the rather queasy infrastructural transformations that fall under the rubric of “development”? Might thinking about the gaping economic inequalities in Ghana through gentrification be useful for our assessment of class hierarchies in Ghana, and how they interweave with race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality? These questions are certainly relevant to an analysis of gentrification. As a student of Anthropology, I share the view that to explore the innuendos of development, especially when they are nourished by the break down of people’s expectations, increasing corrupt systems, which are themselves linked to a globally corrupt political economy rendering “in-human” the bodies of the exploited and marginalized, exposes whatever hides beneath “reality”. Maybe…perhaps maybe… there will be a time when I will seriously consider writing about corruption as a global pandemic which renders Africa and other continents anaemic.
What I call domesticated gentrification shines light on the cultural resources that enable, consolidate, as well as heighten both domestic and global forms of inequality. It also brings into the limelight the manifold ways that gentrification takes in contexts that are believed to not be suffering from such social issues as racism and xenophobia. So, while some might argue that to even bring up the issue of race in a context like Ghana is tantamount to fixing a square peg in a round hole, I am of the view that race is global, and that we perform it in rather uncanny ways. My senior colleague and anthropologist Jemima Pierre reminds us that the kind of racism that animates Ghana, for example, can be read as “the predicament of blackness.” So it is useful that when one thinks about gentrification in Ghana, they account/think about how racial, class, gender, ethnic, matrices work together to hone inequality.
Gentrification, coupled with other forces, minimizes opportunities by further pushing those in the periphery into situations of wretchedness. The incredible gale force of developmental projects gushing through Africa, while hailed as representing Africa’s economic transformation, has occurred as a result of the deterioration in the lives and bodies of those regarded as disposable matter. The global dimensions of gentrification is evidenced in how cities on the continent of Africa continue to be restructured in a way that widens, unceasingly, the gap between the rich and the poor. What I here call global gentrification reminds me of an erudite observation made by Frantz Fanon in “WRETCHED OF THE EARTH.” Fanon, paraphrased here, demonstrates how the desire to live in and within the colonial quarters, kraaled by the picket fence, animated the imaginations of the colonized. In this day and age, this desire continues to thrive, suggesting that the “colonial desire” metamorphosed into “neocolonial desire,” a la Kwame Nkrumah. This observation therefore prompts the question: Did colonialism ever end after all?
One has only to look at the shifting urban contours of cities like Accra, Lagos, Dakar, to give but a partial list, to understand how geographic inequalities produce and reproduce social, economic, and political hierarchies. Here one sees how the drastic shifts in urban landscapes also signify drastic shifts in the lives of those who are negatively affected. The construction of high rise apartments, condominiums, gated estates, to mention but a few, is contingent on the displacement and dislocation of those who by the sleight of hand of neoliberal capital become victims. In this sense, the institution of comfort is largely nourished, if not vitalized, by social and economic violence, enacted through the displacement of bodies considered unwanted and miserable.
Scouting through Accra daily, I am amazed at the intensity of the infrastructural projects underway. I find it ironic, however, that in a country, or in a city like Accra (here I make frantic efforts to flee from the allure of hasty generalizations), which chronically experiences poor supply of potable water to her populations and regular power shortages, an emerging skyline has become the symbol of development. What is forgotten in this formula of advancement, or to put it less mildly, development, is that a city is populated first and foremost by human beings. It is a sanctuary for all and sundry, a place where ecology intersects with human habitation. A tro-tro ride from Legon, where I reside, to Osu, where I work, feels like walking through a flash of multiple scenes. These transitions are sharp, revealing the degree to which Accra has emerged as a “multiverse.” In this geographic milieu there are several universes interwoven together by processes/forces of cohesion and coercion.
Legon, natal home to the University of Ghana, has a mix of educational and residential appearances. However, as one heads south, towards Accra, the hybrid Legon transitions into a more hyper-residential, lofty, resolutely sophisticated East Legon, which is dotted by gated houses with well-manicured lawns that give one the dystopian feeling of being out of Ghana. However, a “modern” suburb such as East Legon is nestled with archipelagos of old villages/hamlets, such as Bawaleshie, Okponglo, Adjiringano, to name a few. The presence of these settlements, which were once populated mostly by Ga speaking peoples, as well as some nomadic cattle herders, have been hemmed in by the gated, majestic, palatial and sometimes monstrous buildings which the wealthy and the nouveau rich call home.
There is a divide between East Legon and the rest of Accra, which is the Tema Motorway stretch. This road stretch joins the East to the West. To the West, the Tema Motorway, also known as the Kwame Nkrumah Tema Motorway, becomes the George Walker Bush Highway, so-called because of the US’s “magnanimous” support to the Ghanaian government. This highway is part of the Trans-West African Highway project, which has been underway for close to forty years. The less-than-a-decade-old Accra Mall plus the rather esoteric Villagio projects, are infrastructural witnesses to the marriage of the Kwame Nkrumah Tema Motorway to the George Bush Highway. What a compelling interlock? And, in fact, what would Nkrumah have said about this arranged marriage to Bush, had he been alive? Not to forget/mention the homoerotic connection, which, I dare say, inheres in the link between the roads, too. Does that mean that Nkrumah’s term neocolonialism has lost its efficacy? You be the judge.
This thought reflection I have typed out emphasizes the undulating nature of Accra’s topography as both literally and metaphorically a reflection of the undulating nature of Ghana’s economic habitat, which has tended to favor, over and again, the rich and nouveau rich. Hence gentrification breeds undulation, such as the widening disparities between the rich and the poor, whites and blacks, men and women, able bodied and disabled bodies, inter alia!