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A Reading Journey Through the Heart of Ghana’s Capital

5 Mins read

A Reading Journey Through the Heart of Ghana’s Capital

Accra is rich with stories, some of them only a few words long — Still Hustling; Work Hard and Dream Big; Short Ways Are Dangerous — and written in bold letters on the rear windows of tro tros, the ubiquitous minibuses that ferry residents and visitors around the city. These mantras are meant to represent the people who own the buses. But they also tell of life in Accra, and what it takes to make it in this vibrant city.

Accra, Ghana’s capital, is in the southern part of the country and borders the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries, its coastline has served as an entry point for people both from neighboring countries and from farther away. Ghanaian writers have found rich material in the city, the home of the Ga people. And writers from other African countries and the diaspora, such as Wole Soyinka and Maya Angelou, have called Accra home, even if only for a short time.
Though much of Accra’s creative activity has taken place in centers like the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, interest in stories and books permeates the city.

Merchants selling books line many thoroughfares. There is a good chance that, when you stop at a major traffic light, a bookseller, wares in hand, will come to your window and try to get you to buy at least one. Even bus stations can be a treasure trove. One of my favorite activities as a teenager was shopping for books at Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a busy bus station in the heart of the city, where volumes are neatly arranged in stalls or on canvas spread out on the ground. And when I didn’t have enough money for a book, Accra still came through for me: I could always read and imagine the stories behind the one-liners on the buses idling nearby.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s “Tail of the Blue Bird” brings the city to life. This slim novel is set in Accra and Sonokrom, a small village. Kayo, a forensic pathologist working in Accra, has been forced by a high-ranking police officer to investigate a sinister discovery in the village.

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The novel’s lyrical prose and rich dialogue, which incorporates Ghanaian words and phrases, make it delightful to read. Through Kayo’s work, outings with friends and encounters with the police, we see different aspects of life in Accra, while his time in Sonokrom and interactions with the village’s intriguing inhabitants offer a glimpse of how people outside the center relate to the city.

If you prefer nonfiction, Ato Quayson’s “Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism” offers an excellent introduction to the city. It takes the reader on a journey through Accra’s history, showing its evolution from a fishing village to a port town during British colonial rule, to a vibrant metropolis that draws in people from around the country and the world. With Oxford Street, a bustling commercial corridor, as a starting point, Quayson evokes the sights and sounds of the city with keen attention to how people interact with each other and their surroundings. Forays into the salsa and gym scenes underline the transnational dimensions of life in Accra.

What books or authors should I bring along with me?

Accra is at the heart of Yepoka Yeebo’s “Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World.” This work of nonfiction is a wild ride about one of the boldest scams of the 1970s and ‘80s, carried out by John Ackah Blay-Miezah, a charismatic Ghanaian. Blay-Miezah promised huge returns to thousands of investors from around the world, tied to a bogus trust fund allegedly set up by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. While Blay-Miezah targeted victims across the world, his dealings with government officials and other businesspeople in Accra facilitated his scam and, ultimately, contributed to its end. The book is a meticulously researched and riveting account of politics and money in post-independence Ghana.

Fictional stories of murder can also be doorways into Accra. In “Sleep Well My Lady,” by Kwei Quartey, a female detective’s investigation of a murder offers a glimpse into the lives of the rich and the not-so-rich of the city. In Kobby Ben Ben’s “No One Dies Yet,” Accra is the scene of mystery and sex, in a meeting of Ghana and its diaspora.

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What books can show me other facets of the city?

There is always something to discover in Accra, even for people who are already familiar with the city. It helps to know the right people, though — or at least the right books.

“Accra Noir,” edited by Nana-Ama Danquah, is a collection of 13 stories set throughout pockets of the city. Their characters encounter the kind of sky-high hurdles that a thriving, cutthroat metropolis puts in the way of its residents — unemployment, corruption, abuse of power. And, determined to make it, these characters do not hesitate to adopt creative and extreme methods, often in places that are hidden from view: hotel rooms and bedrooms, dark alleys and a market at night.

Serena Owusua Dankwa’s “Knowing Women: Same Sex-Intimacy, Gender, and Identity in Postcolonial Ghana” is also about finding joy when the conditions are unyielding. It is a study of same-sex desire among women and of their relationships, which happen in every part of Ghana, yet aren’t typically visible in the open. The historical discussion of same-sex desire and intimacy in Ghana, and Africa more broadly, is illuminating, and dislodges widely held reductive ideas about the subject. Dankwa’s interviews with women, including female athletes, both in Accra and in a midsize town, reveal a great deal about desire and intimacy and the influences of class and social norms.

If I have no time for day trips, what books should I read instead?

Books of poetry are one way to travel around Ghana. Kofi Anyidoho’s collection “The Place We Call Home” is rhythmic in its treatment of history and the present. Anyidoho is also the editor of a book of poetry by another Ghanaian great, Kofi Awoonor. “The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013” beautifully renders life in Ghana and abroad.

“The Girl Who Can,” by Ama Ata Aidoo, a writer with a towering legacy, is a collection of stories that explores girlhood and womanhood. Aidoo’s novel “Changes: A Love Story” chronicles one woman’s attempts to live and love on her own terms.

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For books that take you on journeys into the past, start with Ayi Kwei Armah’s “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.” This classic of Ghanaian literature unfolds during the 1960s and follows an unnamed railway clerk determined to stay on the straight and narrow path — unlike others around him. “The Hundred Wells of Salaga,” by Ayesha Harruna Attah, is set in the 19th century. In this novel, the trade in enslaved people plays a major role in changing the lives of two young women. Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” goes further back, to the 18th century, to narrate the outcomes of one family’s encounters with the West.

What’s a good place to curl up with a book on a day off?

Accra is a city of beaches and, in addition to sunshine and a cool breeze, a few of its waterfronts have the ambience that make for a good reading experience. But I’m partial to green spaces, many of which are beyond the city limits. Aburi, in the Eastern Region, is a short drive outside Accra. Situated on a hill, the town is cool and has several spots where you can curl up with a book while enjoying the lush scenery.

Peace Adzo Medie’s Accra Reading List

  • “Tail of the Blue Bird,” Nii Ayikwei Parkes
  • “Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism,” Ato Quayson
  • “Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World,” Yepoka Yeebo
  • “Sleep Well My Lady,” Kwei Quartey
  • “No One Dies Yet,” Kobby Ben Ben
  • “Accra Noir,” edited by Nana-Ama Danquah
  • “Knowing Women: Same Sex-Intimacy, Gender, and Identity in Postcolonial Ghana,” Serena Owusua Dankwa
  • “The Place We Call Home,” Kofi Anyidoho
  • “The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013,” Kofi Awoonor (edited by Kofi Anyidoho)
  • “The Girl Who Can” and “Changes: A Love Story,” Ama Ata Aidoo
  • “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” Ayi Kwei Armah
  • “The Hundred Wells of Salaga,” Ayesha Harruna Attah
  • “Homegoing,” Yaa Gyasi


Source: New York Times

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