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Asymmetry in Accra: Divergent Urbanization in Two Scenes

June 4, 2017

Deborah Pellow (2002) describes Accra as a “cultural mosaic of ethnic groups and physical layouts,” teeming with a wide array of religious affiliations, ethnic identities, socio-economic statuses, and linguistic practices (p. 2). Because of the “curious melange of history and migration, of European colonization and post-colonial social and economic inequalities,” urbanization has impacted different areas of the city in drastically divergent ways (p. 15). There is no one easy way to characterize the city as a whole, due to the extreme differences one immediately observes from neighborhood to neighborhood. While most of Accra can be understood as undergoing urbanization to some extent at the present moment, the processes and impacts themselves seem to be increasingly Janus-faced.


According to Pellow (2002), the population of the city increased from 17,895 in 1901 to 2,725,896 in 2000, thus transforming Accra from a landscape of scattered Ga fishing villages to an overflowing panoply of city-dwellers from across West Africa (p. 16). However, this one hundred year population explosion impacted different parts of the city in vastly different ways and created a city of extreme opposites. The Nima zongo is one of these extremes, characterized by its low-income housing, enormous open air street market, and numerous neighborhood mosques. The Airport Residential suburbs illustrate the other end of the spectrum, a juxtaposition in almost every way, characterized by its high rise luxury apartments, gigantic financial institutions, and upscale restaurants and hotels. First, we can examine Nima’s characteristics and then move on to investigate the multiple juxtapositions the Airport Residential neighborhood provides. 


Within the largely Christian setting of Accra, there are multiple communities of Muslim immigrants from across the region who have settled together is small neighborhoods around the city. These zongos, the Hausa word for “strangers’ quarter,” have served as a haven for outsiders since the late 1800s, welcoming individuals from parts of northern Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, and more (Dakubu 1997). During the mid-nineteenth century, Hausa immigrants began to filter in from northern Nigeria, seeking new economic opportunities in large scale trade and local commerce. Some moved for other reasons, such as the first zongo’s founder Idrissu Nenu, a Qur’anic teacher. While many of the first zongos were started by Hausa families, eventually these neighborhoods became extremely diverse.


As Pellow (2002) explains, “As long-term residents in the southern zongos, the Hausa have served as hosts to more recent migrants and northern traders” (Hill 1966; Peil 1979, as cited in Pellow 2002). Zongos have thus become a patchwork of individuals seeking refuge as they start new lives in the capital city. This makes for a diverse mix of languages, religious practices, and national origins, although the clear dominating forces are use of the Hausa language as the lingua franca and practice of Islam. However, the one thing everyone seems to share is the pointed interest in making a living through constant and persistent commercial activity in the public arena of the outdoor neighborhood market.


For the past few weeks, I have been living in Nima, one of 10 attested zongos in the Accra, and discovering the validity of these past accounts from Pellow and Dakubu. This zongo is home to the Nima Market, a neighborhood open air market where one can find just about anything, including food items, clothing, electronics, and household items. The narrow roads are absolutely packed and everyone competes for space. Tro-tros slowly trundle through the roads, looking for passengers to fill the vehicle so it can speed on to its next destination. Taxi drivers impatiently beep at pedestrians running to cross the street or at stopped trucks unloading boxes of bottled water and sacks of grain, and attempt to squeeze through impossibly small openings between moving and parked traffic. Mopeds whizz by in the spaces where taxis cannot fit and pass on both sides of the street, often ignoring the direction and flow of traffic. Large white hump-backed cows and small herds of goats cautiously cross the road and flock to the sidewalks, munching on spare tufts of browning grass, discarded vegetables, or the occasional plastic bag. Men, women, and children fill in every open space, flowing like a river through an always congested path. Everyone fits as a critical moving piece in a delicately constructed machine, crafting an unspoken order, which to the uninitiated, seems like chaos. 


Women in bright dresses and skirts balance gigantic silver and plastic bowls on their heads and pause to turn around when they hear the ubiquitous summoning call, “Ssssss!” of an interested customer. Most frequent are the women who sell bagged water, somehow impeccably chilled despite the oppressive heat. They place a knowing hand blindly into their stock and select a water bag from the pile, pulling it out to hand to their customer. They accept 50 pesewas in return and continue to move up and down the street, again and again, calling out “Pure Water!” Some women balance prepared foods in platters and boxes on their heads and take the containers down to fill orders on the spot. Some carry boiled eggs with a hot pepper sauce and others carry bofrots and other fried delicacies. Some even carry miniature restaurants in gigantic plastic bins, ready to fill orders for rice and stew, soups, and cooked meat and fish dishes. Also circulating around the market are men selling clothing, electronics, and household items like bathroom cleaner and insecticides. 


On the sidewalks and spilling into the roads are seas of women sitting on plastic stools under recycled umbrellas, sporting old logos for phone companies or banks. They sell any matter of item, including gigantic bowls of cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, rice, beans, and the ubiquitous bags of ground red chili pepper used to make the famous Jollof rice. The tallest buildings here are often the mosques or other unfinished cinder block builds a few stories high with rusting rebar spiraling toward the sky. Most structures are one or two levels, filled with small store fronts and boutiques to further accommodate the teeming population of buyers and sellers swarming the streets. The Nima residential areas are often tucked just behind the store fronts on Nima Road (Al-Waleed bin Talal Highway) and extend out into tangles of dirt roads. To the uninitiated, these neighborhood streets look like an utter maze. One level multi-generational homes line the roads, mostly made of poured cement and corrugated metal roofing. Front doors are often tucked into alleyways, where strings of drying laundry flutter in the breeze and glistening suds from the wash meander down the street-side gutters. The neighborhoods are so quiet compared to the market, save for the occasional bleating goat, crowing rooster, or morning greeting to a neighbor.


These descriptions of Nima Market are reflected by Hart’s (1973) notion of the “informal sector,” which characterizes individuals existing in systems with poor infrastructure and few salaried, full-time employment opportunities, who take it upon themselves to create economic opportunities of their own. In Nima, this certainly seems like an economic niche critical to the community’s survival. Individuals are buying and selling from sun up to past sun down every day of the week. This set of informal economic practices seems to fuel the zongo and provides those who otherwise would have no income an entrepreneurial opportunity to support themselves and their kin.


In stark contrast to the Nima zongo are the residential suburbs to the north east of Nima near the city’s airport. Urbanization looks completely different for those living in these spaces. Immense sky scrapers and massive bridges detail this landscape, all brand new structures that have sprung up in the last few years. Residential roads sport extravagant privacy walls with elegant wrought iron gates, enclosing pastel-colored mansions. The sidewalks look relatively bare in comparison to Nima, save for the very occasional fruit or prepared food stand. The highway that runs through has painted traffic lanes that vehicles mostly obey as well as traffic lights and cross walks.


There are no animals wandering around here and the constant presence of trash found in the zongos is much less apparent. Things look more polished here and construction projects appear to be finished with flashy architectural design elements and official, up-to-date signage. While walking around there the other day, I was in true awe of the enormous structures in these neighborhoods, ultramodern looking with clean lines, bright colors, and gigantic, reflective plate glass windows. Here it seems most people own their own cars, except for the occasional tro-tro or taxi passing through. It appears as though Accra’s socio-economic upper crust live and work here, enjoying the fruits of increasing infrastructure, including swanky high rise apartment buildings and formal employment opportunities with businesses such as banks, phone companies, and luxury hotels.



Visiting these two locations in one day feels as though one has been abruptly transported between worlds. The results of urbanization and notions of modernity are lived completely differently by those living in each community. While the Airport Residential areas resemble the Euro-American ideal of an urban center and are evocative of cities in which I have lived such as Buffalo and Detroit, the zongos are experiencing this rapid urbanization simultaneously, but completely differently. What do urbanization and modernity mean to people coming from these two different worlds and how does the aspirational ideal differ based on one’s neighborhood? How are people differently benefitting or being impeded by this process depending on which part of the city they live in? Finally, to what extent do these urban socio-economic strata graft onto ethnic, religious, or linguistic boundaries?


From my current observations, it seems as though native Ghanaians who are predominantly Christian and Twi speaking inhabit these wealthy areas, while recent immigrants and Ghanaians with foreign ancestry who are predominantly Muslim and Hausa speaking (among other languages) inhabit the zongos. Based on the initial commercial success of the Hausa in this area, how is it that they now experience this urbanization at the margins? 

*Please note that I have only included original photos from the Airport Residential neighborhood, as I have yet to really photograph anything in Nima. People are very wary of white foreigners photographing them and understandably become extremely uncomfortable if they feel they have been taken advantage of. As such, I have been extremely conscious about not taking pictures in this community yet, until I feel as though people will voluntarily and excitedly participate in a photograph. However, I have included a screen capture from Google maps to emphasize the market and neighborhood structure in the Nima zongo. 

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