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The Social Landscape: The Secret to Navigating a West African City

by Catherine E. McKinley '89

An Accra city map has no practical use to the traveler. You will consign it to a drawer in your room once you've marked for yourself a few unmovable boundaries: Tetteh Quarshie roundabout, the largest in all of West Africa, named after the agriculturist who launched Ghana's cocoa wealth; the Libyan-owned super mart where every luxury is sold; Makola central market; the coastline; the airport road. No map can keep pace with the changes to the city. Willy nilly, something is built up or knocked down, a road closed or widened or carved out by the will of drivers, a district locally renamed. You might mistake Ghana for a directionless world.

At every large intersection or roundabout, cars are headed in every direction, locked in a brutal push and pull, jolting forward and back, until one is able to break free and determine the flow. Streets are without signs. The bright, hand-painted plaques that cover every building and fence and vehicle tell us about Ghanaians' world view more than ownership and history: Peace in the Middle East hair salon, Things Fall Apart tailor shop, Whatever You Do People Will Talk of You provisions shop, Don't Mind Your Wife food bar.

Contact rules this city. As you move about, you often find yourself with others in a friendly lock like the cars in traffic. This is how you establish your road. Your perspective on the city, your belonging or outsidership, is defined not by navigating the streets adeptly, but by entering a labyrinth of social relationships. These relationships humanize you. You are invited to escape the sun, and are given nourishment by a stranger; you feel the tug of a hand that will lead you to where you need to go.

Let me tell you a little story. It took me nearly a year before I discovered the street I lived on had a name. I'd accompanied a friend, Eurama, to the electricity department when she needed to extend light to her small shop at the edge of our compound. There, she gave directions to the technician: "Go to Papaye Chicken. Go down. Look for the Irish people—they have made a bar in that old yellow mansion. Go left at the second junction, ask for Tivoli shop. Oh, everyone knows Tivoli. It is named for my sister Ako who went to work in Italy and sent me money for bricks."

"Yo, mati," he said noncommittally. I hear you.

"He will never find you," I sighed as we left. "Why didn't you just refer him to the bill?"

The bill read "House number 23, Nmetsobu Street."

There are signs of the city's history everywhere. You only have to know how to listen and to read.

I marveled at this. The only streets whose names were commonly known were places like Airport Road and Oxford Street, one of the city's main commercial thoroughfares.

"He will come!" she said confidently. "Accra is a city of illiterates; no one is reading signs. And who cares? The name is only the name of someone who grabbed the land. What he will know is Irish Pub, and everyone will know me and Tivoli. I'm People's Eurama, and this my shop is the first one in the area built nicely with cement."

The man arrived at Eurama's early the next morning, and I was fed lunch by the bean seller at the top of the road, who, it turned out, was his wife's cousin.

"Accra is a society more than a city," Kwesi, Eurama's son, once explained. Again, it was this principle of Contact. It took some time for me to understand that in this large, sprawling capital, the permanence was not of structures— physical or administrative, on which no one could depend—but of clan belonging, the web of customs and ancestral ties, and people's story-making, which was wide and democratic and evident in everything.

Consider a complaint one often hears from both tourists and those Ghanaians who have gone to visit or live in Western cities: Accra has no significant monuments for the world to admire; any great civilization has them. This is true, apart from a few structures like Christianborg Castle, the seat of the modern government, one of 400 such former slave forts and colonial bulking centers along the coast. The few other monuments, like the Kwame Nkrumah mausoleum, are less than 50 years old, markers of the independence era of the late 1950s. All are modest and in disrepair. But what I've discovered in my many days of exploring of the city, and navigating Contact, is that from these structures, and the more ephemeral monuments of storytelling, are spun a much more resilient culture. There are signs of the city's history everywhere. You only have to know how to listen and to read.

I would trade a mausoleum or castle or statue for the beauty of the small Senchi Bridge near the dam at Akosombo, for instance. A Hungarian expatriate friend who arrived in Ghana from her own impoverished village in the 1960s told me this bridge still makes her heart skip a beat, for it was the first steel suspension bridge she'd seen. Her story makes that bridge evoke great feeling in me. And I feel wonder at how the bridge's beauty, immortalized in women's arching hairstyles, extending high like its cables, is displayed too, in Nigeria and other countries. In Monrovia, Liberia, the City Hotel (which was lionized in Graham Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter) may have been burned down by post-war squatters, but it was immortalized on the cloth women wear. Its namesake pattern of small looping florals—an iconic design from the 1950s—is still a nod to modernity and sophistication. These "African prints" are themselves a monument to the slave trade: they were actually manufactured in Holland as early as the 1600s and traded for slaves from the coastal forts—even as African women reauthor the cloths' meaning. They name and rename the cloths, inscribing on them their own history and subjectivity. In a country where colonial legacies have carved and recarved, violently toppled and reconstructed the universe, there is a spirit of reinvention and never a human distancing.

I have tried to carry this sense of Contact as an internal compass, much like the one that brought Eurama to my doorstep in New York City. She visited once briefly, and then returned for a longer stay a few years later. I expected her to have trouble finding me on her second journey, as I'd moved within my Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. I was waiting for her at home; my phone rang and I heard her hurried voice. "I am a bit lost. I passed that your Mexican pizza shop" (Blockhead's, where she'd fallen in love with quesadillas), "Foolish Indian Plate Washerman's shop" (the Desi Deli, where the owner offered Eurama a dishwashing job when his wife left him), "and those Nigerian security guards at the school—remember the one who was in that bad marriage and was bleaching her skin?"

"Ask them to point you to 43rd Street," I interrupted. "Walk straight on Ninth Avenue."

"Yo, mati." She gave me the same noncommittal answer the electrical technician had. "I forgot about you people and your big city and your signs. Blufo ma me esa. The white man is sooooo clever," she joked. "But you people lack patience with human beings.

"Thank you sooooo much," she said with her usual laughter. I imagined her embracing whoever helped her find her way.

IndigoCatherine E. McKinley ’89 traveled to Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar to research her newly released book, Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World (Bloomsbury, 2011). In it, she explores the history of this precious dye and the cultural and spiritual significance of the color blue. McKinley is the author of The Book of Sarahs and has taught creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence.