Accra’s Mmofra Foundation puts children at the center of public space design

Mmofra means children,” explains Amowi Phillips of the Mmofra Foundation, giving the backstory on the children’s park that unfolds around us. Overhead, the gray sky and the sprinkle of droplets threaten rain, but here below we’re in an expansive green space full of life and activity. She takes me around the two-acre green plot of land tucked away in Accra’s Dzorwulu neighborhood, where large, thick trees extend their branches overhead, their protective limbs creating a leafy canopy. Around us young children dart back and forth, exploring, playing games and instruments. It’s an enclave, this natural, serene space. Outside is Accra’s cement jungle, where the city plans for cars, not bikes; where condominiums, malls and offices usurp open spaces; where residents, especially youth, are left to transform car parks, streets and unused fields into playing fields and social venues.

Accra is a young city. Almost two-thirds of the population is under the age of 15, but scenes conducive to children’s play, creativity and safety are too few and far between. The fact is that the people behind Accra and other Ghanaian cities’ development often fail to design with children in mind, Phillips says. “When it comes to urban green space and designing for children, it’s still not really there.”

Once upon a time (a few decades ago) there were more safe, educative places and spaces for children to grow, to learn about their environment and to play. “In the mid-80s there were some lovely park complexes around Ghana,” Phillips says, naming Kumasi Children’s Park, Efua Sutherland Children’s Park, here in Accra, and another on the road to Cape Coast*. “But what we’ve learned is that this country can allow these things to deteriorate. So everything that was done in the 80s either no longer exists, or has just deteriorated to where none of those places is functional now.”

The other challenge is that when these spaces do exist, like Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Gardens or Kwame Nkrumah Centenary Park, potential users must pay to enter.

More than 40 years ago, Efua Sutherland, a playwright and children’s advocate, worked with photographer Willis E. Bell on Playtime in Africa, a photoessay documenting children at play in Ghana. Sixteen years ago, Sutherland started the Mmofra Foundation, today one of the foremost organizations working on children and culture. Today, Sutherland’s children, including Phillips, and a dedicated staff continue this creative experiment, working to transform her vision for a child-centered, environmental-friendly park that blends playtime and an appreciation for local culture into a reality through the Playtime in Africa initiative.

Video: Playtime in Africa, by Efua Sutherland and Willis E. Bell (1962).

Video: Playtime in Africa: Children Making Music with Mmofra Foundation (2013).

“We’re not just talking about a specific model site; we are talking about a movement,” Phillips says.

Phillips describes the process through which the foundation developed their vision: Last year, they conducted surveys of children’s, teenagers’ and parents’ attitudes and desires for recreational spaces in Dzorwulu. They held a three-day community charette to jumpstart local ideas and better understand community demands for recreational space for young people. They looked at local and global examples of how children play and engage with their space. They have developed a worldwide network of international architects, park designers and global supporters from Brazil, Japan, the United States and beyond. All of their ideas, hopes and dreams for developing the space are compiled in a digital repository at Pinterest.

The result is a conceptual plan for a park that includes a community garden, active/teamwork areas and passive social and observation play areas, a library and exhibition spaces, as well as opportunities for life-size games, like oware, a social strategy game played widely throughout Africa*. The organization is also working with expert horticulturalists to identify context-appropriate vegetation for the space.

Spreading the movement

“The idea is that this [park] serves as the model to show what [Efua Sutherland Children’s Park] could be, and what other children’s parks around the country could be like,” Phillips says. Efua Sutherland had secured the space for the children’s park, Phillips says, but after Sutherland’s passing, “the aesthetics and the principles [that Sutherland stood for] have not been maintained.”

It couldn’t be more true: At the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park, hours of entrance are limited, payment is required (the park is open for ticketed “fanfares”), and once-beautiful benches under large trees and the children’s train seem to be falling apart.

“We are not making optimum use of this extraordinary asset [Efua Sutherland Park] that the city has,” she says. “It’s like Central Accra’s last green lung! It could be an extraordinary civic space.”

“It’s frustrating because we know what the potential for that park is,” Phillips says.

Here in Dzorwulu, they are demonstrating that potential. Two small girls observe an older girl deftly hashing out a design on wood, and a few yards away, a local artisan crafts child-sized chairs out of logs. Inside a hut constructed from long, thick palm fronds, two young boys tell stories and strum a guitar. A group of children join with older adults to play instruments and sing songs. This is a space for children – not a space where children have to conform to a built environment shaped for adults, but one created specifically for them.

“It’s a park for all of Accra and for any child in Ghana to come to,” Phillips says. “And the idea is to have things here that people can then scale up or take ideas into their own community.”

The organization’s hope is that the park can teach children from a young age how to appreciate, and be responsi
ble for, their urban space: “To begin to create some awareness – not just about play, but also seeding civic awareness,” Phillips stresses. “We have very little of that left in Accra…There’s just no consciousness of a kind of civic responsibility, a sense of civic aesthetic and how to be a 21st century urban, cultural city – our own city. So start with the children, that’s the idea.”

(See Victoria’s slideshow of photos from Mmofra Playtime Park at Flickr).

*Article corrections (Aug 14, 2013): The original version of this article incorrectly spelled Amowi Phillips name. It also incorrectly stated that one of the children’s parks Phillips referred to was in Cape Coast. The park is on the road to Cape Coast. Lastly, there is some debate about whether or not the game oware originated in Ghana, as stated in the original article. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections. Urban Africa regrets the errors.    

Head image: Photograph: boys in a hut at Mmofra Playtime Park. Victoria Okoye. (See Victoria’s slideshow of photos from Mmofra Playtime Park at Flickr).

 Based in Accra, Ghana, Victoria Okoye is a community planner, urbanist and communications professional passionate about inserting community dialogue into the planning process. In her writings and research she explores the dynamics of West African cities, the people in them, and how they negotiate their space. Victoria has masters degrees in Urban Planning and International Affairs from Columbia University, and she has worked in Nigeria and Ghana on local economic development, cultural planning, urban transport-land use and water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as local community development projects. Connect with Victoria on her blog African Urbanism and on Twitter.



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