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(In)completeness and Constructed Urban Space in Accra

May 31, 2017

 

Accra is the kind of place that demands attention from every one of your senses. The most immediate sensation is the heat, which seems to hang over the city in a heavy haze. This feeling of wearing a thick wool sweater in ninety degree whether is often compounded by gusts of exhaust from taxis and tro tros (minibus taxis) and clouds of smoke from the cooking fires of street vendors. Almost impossible to miss is the smell. The thick scent of exhaust mingles with smoked fish and roasted meat skewers with the occasional hint of burning rubber. The sound scape also competes for full attention, adding to this palette with the quirky honks of speeding mopeds, the revving engines of tro tros and trucks, and the resonating calls of their drivers, yelling out the names of their destinations to attract potential passengers. Women dot the roads with everything you can imagine balanced effortlessly atop their heads, including wide baskets with dried fish, large iced basins filled with water bottles and sodas, and small wooden and glass cabinets filled with bofrots (fried dough balls) and skewered meats. The main streets are mostly paved with black asphalt, but there are countless small roads of red-brown dust jutting off in all directions. Vendors line the roads in their small stands, often made from reclaimed Vodafone or Airtel kiosks, as well as wood and corrugated metal. Along these streets, people are rebricking sidewalks, fixing up cars, catching up with each other, and peddling all manner of items from sunglasses to phone chargers to mangos. Everything is happening here all the time.

 

Accra is a city bursting at the seams. Each home and store front appears as though it was impossibly squeezed there, leaving little room for anything else to possibly fit. Things here are both happening and also not happening. This curious dichotomy began to emerge the more I walked along the major thoroughfares sporting impressive construction projects. However, construction continously appears to be in a liminal space in which it is never completed, but always hovering somewhere between start and finish. Exposed cinder block walls, steel skeletons, and piles of building materials can be seen at every turn. However, everyone is using these structures prior to completion. It seems as though, as soon as a structure is functioning at a baseline level, it is immediately used. After a while perhaps, there may seem no real reason to complete a project, such as finishing the walls or windows, when the structure is serving its purpose as is. These practices challenge the notion of completeness that might be expected of typical construction projects in Euro-American urban settings.

 

 

Residents of Accra seem to routinely use these “incomplete” urban spaces around them creatively to support their businesses, send messages, or simply live practically. One evening while walking under the Kwame Nkrumah Bridge with a new acquaintance, I saw a number of shoes carefully displayed on bare cement pylons on either side of a pedestrian crossing. They appeared to be there to dissuade non-pedestrian traffic from using the sidewalk, but it had in this case become an opportunity to display shoes for sale. Additionally, I continue to observe multiple half-completed cement walls, especially in residential areas, surrounding empty plots of land and obscuring them from a roadside view. Many of these walls display spray painted messages to back off if land was not for sale, or offer contact information if the property was for sale. The structure serves a dual purpose in that it both demarcates the claimed land and also provides an open canvas for advertisement or warning. I also began to notice a large unfinished house in my neighborhood with exposed concrete blocks and mortar as well as a large gaping window with no glass, open to the air. Sitting on the window’s ledge were about ten pairs of shoes. Because the sight was too far away, I was unsure exactly why they were there, but it appeared as though someone had arranged their shoes in a perfect row for either storage, sale, or perhaps to dry. The fact that this house was in the middle of being built seemed to be of no concern to the people using it.

 

Finally, the Nima Mosque is a sterling example of this apparent philosophy as well. Nima, a Hausa zongo, or strangers quarter, is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in an overwhelmingly Christian city. The zongo has its own mosque, which too is unfinished. The first level is smooth finished concrete with Arabic script elegantly carved over the entrances and windows filled in with beautiful green glass block. The higher levels, however, are bare concrete with gaping windows and no apparent roof. However, the mosque is clearly a central fixture of the neighborhood already being utilized with individuals passing in and out for prayer as well as set up directly outside selling goods on the mosque’s sidewalk. As I was walking by the other day, I could clearly hear the evening call to prayer echoing throughout the neighborhood and looked up to see a number of loudspeakers wired to the exposed cinder block of the upper levels. It seemed as though this structure had been deemed complete enough and someone had decided to install the loudspeakers in order to signal its functional readiness.

 

The brand new Kwame Nkrumah Bridge is a distinct departure from this line of thinking. The structure has a sense of finality among the consistently morphing and halting structures around it. The bridge, unlike so many of its counterparts, is complete and even has decoration added: a Ghanaian flag painted on each of the massive cylindrical support beams. I was walking by it a few days ago with a new acquaintance who commented again and again how beautiful this bridge was to him and how amazing it was that it was finally completed. Earlier that day we had stopped at the national museum, which was closed for renovation. I asked how long the museum would be closed and my friend shrugged and said, “Ghanaians are good starting, bad finishing.”

 

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