Review: Oxford Street, Accra

Author(s) Ato Quayson
Publisher Duke University Press
Year 2014

Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and Itineraries of Transnationalism is a work inspired by more than a decade of research by Professor Ato Quayson into the cultural shifts and influences that inform the bustling, vibrant commercial corridor known as Oxford Street in Accra’s Osu district. Despite its title, this book isn’t just about the 1.5 mile street in Accra’s colloquially named “Oxford Street.” It’s rather about the multitude of forces that have shaped Accra as a city, historically, economically, culturally, from the vantage point of one particular street.

In Part I, Quayson painstakingly lays out a nuanced foundation for understanding the historical influences of Accra and present-day Oxford Street and the Osu district. Throughout the book, Quayson’s method is to pick apart elements of street culture and understand it separately as well as holistically (as part of a wider system of cultural, social, economic and political forces). In Chapter 1, Quayson takes the reader to a time that predates Oxford Street and even the Osu district, covering the history of Ga Mashie and the historic European settlement of Jamestown. Using the example of the Tabon, he shows how issues of multiethnicity and mutilculturalism have been shaped, and why they are important for understanding Accra’s population makeup. The Tabon were descendants of repatriated slaves who left Brazil and arrived in Jamestown. They partially assimilated and partially maintained their cultural identity, while at the same time being counted by the colonial government as “native” Ga. The detailed Tabon experience of re-becoming African is an opportunity to consider the impact of migration and the way in which stranger groups assimilate to place while maintaining their cultural hybridity.

In Chapter 2, Quayson sifts through colonial land use planning practices and policies and their impact on spatial development. The city expanded from Ga Mashie/Jamestown outward due to public health concerns and economic shifts; the once pivotal Jamestown port fell into decline with the construction of the Tema port, and the rise of Makola and Tudu markets shifted the location of the city’s central business district. Neighborhood growth extended and expanded in tandem. As the colonial administration became increasingly involved in the purchase of lands for development purposes, various actors sought to profit from these deals, bringing into question the complexities of tracing traditional land ownership, and collective vs. private property — questions at the fore of Accra’s urbanization even to the present day.

In Chapter 3, Quayson moves the reader into Osu itself, tracing its development as a transcultural space and popular business district anchored by market relations and trade networks following on the heels of European arrival. He details its original settlement, the Danish trade influence and intermarriage with the people of Osu, later British influence, and how this district, by the nature of its location, trade anchors and strong familial and socioeconomic networks, escaped the destiny of a congested settlement like Ga Mashie/Jamestown on the one hand and European-only settlements of Ridge and Cantonments on the other, evolving into a unique, racially diverse, upwardly mobile business district. With this historical framework firmly in place, the book moves into the present day. This second part of the book makes a shift from a geographic and historic lens to a more ethnographic lens.

Quayson uses Chapter 4 to literally “read the street” and explore of the use of slogans on vehicles and billboards as testaments of everyday urban realities. These texts, which are can be inspirational, aspirational, comical or even critical in nature, are strongly linked to oral culture and identity, social imagination and religious-influenced messages of prosperity. Quayson highlights this ubiquitous trend as a form of discourse present not only in Accra but also in the typical West African city. In the following two chapters, Quayson selects and expands on two present-day aspects of youth culture. The focus of Chapter 5 is the rise of salsa dancing culture among middle-class Ghanaians, expatriates and transnational travelers, as well as those looking to connect with and enter these circles. Chapter 6 focuses on the rise of a “gymming” culture among Accra’s working class, unemployed and underemployed. Quayson links the “gymming” phenomenon to something much deeper than just a superficial aesthetic preoccupation. As Quayson writes, it’s bound on the one hand to cultural images of muscular masculinity dating back to the warrior-soldier archetype of the precolonial and colonial periods, the more recent army and police existence, and even the Hollywood 1980s action films. On the other hand, it’s intricately linked to present-day concerns of security, protection and also employment. Gymming serves as a perceived path to escape unemployment and underemployment and paves the way for possible employment opportunities as bodyguards to politicians, bouncers, even roles in the movie industry (or as personal trainers to celebrities). Quayson’s connections here are salient. Bringing in the Ga term and conception of “kòbòlò” (referring to a “good-for-nothing street lounger”) adds a cultural and human context often missing from the issue of Accra’s widespread urban unemployment, informal employment and this group of perceived troublemakers and criminals. Oxford Street is a rich resource for examining a streetscape of Accra, not as a physical space, but as a dynamic sociocultural space and from the perspective of its stories. In that vein, it’s not surprising that Quayson, a professor of literature, rounds out the book with a final chapter on African literature itself, and what he calls “novelistic narrations of urban space.”

The final chapter focuses on connecting fictional representations to physical realities via two novels, Kofi Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother…(1972) and Ama Darko’s Faceless (2003). This chapter also brings Quayson’s discussion full circle. After all, Quayson’s Oxford Street is, in a way, a story and a story about stories. Quayson traces oral histories, shares pieces of colonial correspondence and recounts conversations with urban denizens on their salsa and gymming hobbies. Even the pithy tro tro and billboard slogans aren’t missed in his analysis, which invites the reader to engage with the ongoing discourse on Accra’s urban street life.

 

Victoria Okoye is an urban planner and communications specialist based in Accra, Ghana. Victoria is the creator of African Urbanism (www.africanurbanism.net), an online initiative to research and discuss urban development in West African cities and an offline initiative to engage community residents to improve their public spaces. Victoria has worked in Ghana and Nigeria on urban transport and land use, cultural development, public spaces and water and sanitation planning and improvement projects. Email: victoria.okoye@gmail.com

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