“Making an African City” – Instagram Preview

It might be a minute before I get to writing about this book in any detail because, well…I’m writing the book. But last weekend I did a takeover of @thearchitectsproject Instagram page, where I talked about the history of spatial colonization and its legacies in 20th century Accra. I wrote way more than you normally find in most Instagram captions. If you want a preview of the book, check it out!

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Greetings from Detroit where I’m working on a new book project that traces the history of “informalization” in 20th century Accra. We often take the existence of “informality” for granted and assume it’s the result of some sort of failure on either the part of individuals or the “system” (social, political, economic) to adapt appropriately to modern conditions. As my book shows (or will show), the conditions of informality were created over time by and through the colonial state, which used regulation and law to privilege expatriate capital/interests and marginalize African values/practices. We live with the legacies of this today and these assumptions have become deeply rooted in our social, economic, political, and cultural systems at the local, national, and global levels. As a result, I argue, we reproduce that violence over and over again through urban planning and development instead of looking for inspiration and innovation in local perspectives. In a city like Accra this is particularly important. Historian John Parker rightly argues that Accra was a Ga town long before it became a colonial capital, and Ga cultural, social, political, and economic values have shaped the morphology of the city in important ways. But Europeans who arrived at the coast viewed the city very differently from the very beginning. Check out this 1760 image of Christiansborg Castle (often referred to as Osu Castle) in Accra. Here the castle, constructed with stone and covered in white wash looms above the mud and thatch buildings of the African town. This scale, however, is an exaggeration, as you can see in the next image, a more recent (admittedly blurry) photograph of the castle along the coast. Construction materials may have changed but many of the buildings along the coast are single story. Implicit or explicit perceptions of inferiority and superiority have a profound impact on the way that we view space, which has profound consequences for the way we propose to alter it. Stay tuned for more images and less words. 😁 #accraviews #accrawedey #modernitycoloniality #informality

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While many postcolonial investments in modernization have been associated with big state projects – the Volta Dam or Tema Harbor, for example – modernity and modernization also shaped the lived experiences of people, and uneven investment further highlighted the growing inequalities in the city. Housing is one of the most visible and richly documented examples. Successive postcolonial governments invested in various (often failed) low-cost housing schemes to modernize the country’s domestic spaces. This was particularly important in and around Accra where older housing stock and a rapidly growing population placed incredible pressures on housing. Echoing challenges from the colonial period, government officials often struggled to get individuals and communities to move into new settlements. Like with colonial officials, these planners and designers underestimated or dismissed the cultural, social, economic, and spiritual attachment to land. The buildings they constructed were also often quickly adapted to better suit the living patterns of local residents. Plans, they found, don’t fundamentally change behavior – successful plans tap into and build upon pre-existing values and structures. The intense investment in these new estates siphoned money away from needs in the old town quarters, where basic infrastructure often remained unchanged since the 1920s and 1930s. As new estates rose and sat empty and people in the old town struggled to collect water and dispose of waste, these struggles supported the critique by some that the Nkrumah government was not particularly democratic and that the patterns of disinvestment and underdevelopment remained. While many others disagreed, this sort of discontentment in everyday life was powerful. Frustrated that outsiders seemed to benefit more from their land than indigenous residents, some members of Accra’s Ga community formed a Ga nationalist opposition party in the heart of Nkrumah’s constituency, rallying around the slogan “Ga land for Ga people.” #nkrumah #postcolonial #ghana #accra #housing #modernitycoloniality

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Not all spatial violence has direct colonial roots… Makola Market, built in 1942 as the city’s center of retail and commercial trade, and the traders who operated in it found themselves the target of attack as Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings sought explanations for the country’s dire economic state at the end of the 1970s. After nearly 2 decades of economic decline, Ghana faced shortages of imported goods and high levels of inflation. Market women, who used connections with import companies, the military, and politicians to access goods for sale, were blamed for the high cost of food and imports and labeled “profiteers” and “cheats”. They were castigated in the press and subject to police raids and other violence. But on August 18, 1979, Rawlings who seized power in a military coup and proceeded to engage in a “housecleaning exercise” to rid the country of corruption, decided to demolish the market. Traders received word and quickly scattered, clearing out their goods and equipment. In reality, of course, the economic situation was much more complicated. This practice of “slum clearance” and market demolition has roots in the colonial period and continues to this day – united by criticism of the “informal economy”, but Rawlings’ actions marked a departure, a more explicitly political act. #ghana #accra #makolamarket #marketwomen #africanhistory #postcolonial

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Government officials complained about “pirate passenger lorries” – mammy trucks that picked up traders as passengers as they made their way through the city to the market to offload goods – throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The language of piracy, I’ve recently argued, highlights the degree to which the actions of these drivers were seen as threats to urban order and colonial power. Instead of listening to driver and passenger needs, officials doubled down on regulations and enforcement and yet still failed to halt the practice. Trotros are the extension of these early pirate lorries – system of small-scale owner-operators who created a robust and flexible motor transport system that was responsive to the needs of passengers and which challenged the artificial regulations and spatial segregation of the colonial (and postcolonial state). Despite disinvestment and criminalization, as well as economic hardship, the Trotro system has continued to grow. While some of its conditions/practices could and should be critiqued, it remains a hugely popular system, carrying 85% of road users and constituting only 15% of road traffic. Trotros move the city. Proposals for bus rapid transit systems – globally circulating mobility models developed in the west – have more recently failed again in Accra, yet another example of inadequate and autocratic planning failures that date back nearly 100 years. What would it mean to embrace these innovations and place them at the center of our plans and designs for the city? To listen carefully to what people need and how they move? To work with ethnographers and historians to understand the culture of mobility and space as a foundation to build on, not to demolish or replace? To accept that western (or “global”) models don’t work everywhere and do the hard work or thinking deeply about context? How would that change development and planning practice? How might it change the city?/2 #modernitycoloniality #mobility #brt #trotro #ghanaonthego #ghana #accra #accrawedey

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In part because of COVID and in part because of the realities of my own limitations, this book is not quite what I first envisioned but, in some ways, the change – shifting focus on this earlier period and really thinking about what the history of informalization and the colonial roots of informality mean for a city like Accra has been exciting. And it’s gratifying to hear from a diverse range of practitioners and scholars that this is relevant and engaging and interesting for them, as well. This book makes an argument about how categories become naturalized through scholarship, policy, and practice, and it seeks to place fields like history, anthropology, urban studies, urban planning, architecture, development studies, and geography in conversation to think about where our conceptual categories come from and what it means to decolonize our disciplines at the conceptual level. It is a scholarly book, but in many ways, I see practitioners and policymakers are my audience. As I wrote in the comments for one of the posts:

If we acknowledge this violent history of informalization and its connection to colonialism, what would it look like to build a just city? What models, policies, and practices would we need to abandon? Who would we need to listen to? In whose interests would we work? Where would we invest?

My book’s about colonial Accra, but I’m always also thinking about the now, about why and how this history matters, about what we can and should learn from it. And, as a humanist, I’m always thinking about the kinds of violence that we perpetuate – often unknowingly – due to our lack of careful engagement with the past and with people.

I feel like I have new energy for the book after this. Looking forward to getting back to it soon. Three-ish chapters drafted. Intro draft is next, mobilized by some of the ideas and exchanges that came through this exercise. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: public engagement is scholarly and productive.

For other recent examples of my work in public forums, see:

“Workers at the economic margins bear covid-19’s costs globally”, Washington Post (WHAT!?)

“The complicated political legacy of Jerry John Rawlings”, Africa is a Country

“What we know about Trump’s policy aims in Africa”, Africa is a Country

“Colonial Governance, Modernization, and the Process of Informalization in Accra”, The Metropole

“What’s ‘New’ in Accra?: On Models, Modernism, and the Promise of Grassroots Innovation”, TAP Narratives

For a recent example of scholarship (that will be chapter 4 of the new book in revised form) and the work of my fellow contributors in a special issue on African histories of technology click here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/761593/pdf