Lab Project

East Legon Past Forward

Namata Serumaga-Musisi

Decolonial Explorations with the Griot Introspect

Development is coming to Ashaley Botwe

The rebuilding of the road to School Junction is paved with political intention – an undertaking that will be wrapped around our necks come election time. The disintegrating bitumen oases in the red desert have been dug up, as construction helmets dance in the sun – bright with the promise of what is to come.

“It is good,” says one taxi driver, our teeth rattling from the impact of unabsorbed shock. “We have been suffering with this road for too long.” And we have, as commuter patience is reduced to sullen despair while bodies are thrown about in an almost comical dance, shoulders being bruised against rusted doors, spines aching from the effort of retaining some semblance of order, of form.

Development is coming to School Junction. For months now, we have endured the dust, the traffic, the cutting of old trees along with their blessed shade, the detours; we are proponents, not enemies, of progress, you see. We will all benefit from development. All of us.

This morning, the carriers of progress come wearing task force jackets, their neon backs blazing with the promise of displacement. A few finger-pointing, surveyor-squinting hours later, their plan is clear.

Who would have thought? The road at School Junction is now actually a dual carriageway — not the single lane we had become accustomed to. The entire taxi rank is on this road, kiosks and all. They will have to go. They will have to go — development is coming to School Junction.

Away with the kiosks, away with the taxis, away with the trotros and their communities. trotro routes are being discontinued at a moment’s notice, their passengers left to improvise. It is alright though — we are proponents of progress, and development is coming to School Junction.

This morning there is one trotro stationed at School Junction, a lone wish in front of the trotro drivers’ shed. Inside the shed, the mates who used to fight over passengers now shrug their shoulders  —  if they even look at you at all.

Will the city look at us, plan for us, at all?

As development settles over School Junction, a lone police officer enters the shed, making his way to the office at the back. The resident stationmaster looks up and, without flinching, flips to the back of the open book before him, pulling out a wad of cash. The police officer is soon on his way. As are we, our necks rigid in defense of the dignity the incomplete road wishes to deny us.

We resign ourselves to the illegitimacy of our being, for we are proponents — not enemies — of progress; and development is progress, even if it excludes us. We are proponents of progress, development.

And development is coming to Ashaley Botwe.

The Reactionary City

Accra City’s task force has gone through Madina Zongo Junction, clearing away vendors and destroying their structures; this in response to the Ashaiman Market accident last week, where a truck ran into vendors and pedestrians, killing one and injuring several.

The Madina vendors are asking, the Ashaiman Market Queen is asking, we should be asking : Where are the people supposed to go?

The city’s chosen action is an example of our insistence on the approach of symptom ‘management’: a knee-jerk reaction that highlights our refusal to address the real issue, the real disease — the fact that we have yet to build a city that accommodates its inhabitants.

A city that in crisis responds with erasure, a task force that focuses that energy on the marginalised — these are not signs of ‘development’.

Nor are they signs of incompetence.

The city knows that the evicted vendors will be back within the week. The evictions will do nothing in the long run — except to further deliberately criminalize the ‘informal’ residents, economy, sector that we continue to refuse to [adequately] accommodate.

What would have been the ideal?

A city concerned for its people’s well-being would have perhaps already been in the process of pedestrianising the roads in and around our markets. Market structures would have been built in response to a critical analysis of the needs of the people, instead of arbitrary sheds [or worse, multi-storey structures]: concrete ovens, far from the hub of commercial activity, which remain abandoned years after completion.

That city would engage its inhabitants, instead of importing foreign answers to the urban problem.

And that city, having catered to the needs of its people, would then be able to rightly and consistently enforce regulations, with the knowledge that the infrastructure in place could and would adequately carry its residents.

This [temporary] removal of the vendors is a move to appease short-term middle-class indignation, to demonstrate ‘action’ before we are swept up into the next scandal, crisis, political drama. By no stretch of the imagination is it intended to permanently resolve a problem that would require us to revisit our treatment of the marginalized, the ‘informal’.

This is intentional. The poor will continue to pay for the failings of the city, of our governments: first through their marginalization, then through the selective rejection of the ecosystems they build on the fringes (and without which the city could not survive), and then through their violent displacement when our failure to incorporate them (them: our hands, our eyes, our mouths) into our ‘development’ plans becomes more evident in crisis.

The city performs governance for us. So before we avert our middle-class gaze, we must join the marginalized in asking : Where are the people supposed to go? [Image 6_Market Project (Multiple): Plug and Play: The Griot Introspect was invited by the Mmofra Foundation to conceptualise and create plug-in educational play spaces for the children of market vendors in Accra’s Mallam Atta and Nima Markets. The team collaborated with the resident communities in order to identify needs and locations before creating the installed interventions. 

A Love Letter to Accra

If you want to know whether your city is built for you, take a short walk from Spanner to Accra Mall.

When you are done running, dodging, and skipping, let us talk about how cities today are designed to absorb surplus capital [Marxist scholar David Harvey on the podcast Intercepted], i.e., cities are built by the elite for the elite, which means they are not built for you. We build the Circles, the Atomic Junctions, the motorways that carry the vehicled elite from one investment to another; your pedestrian overpasses are an afterthought: inadequate, inconvenient, incomplete.

Let us talk about how you feed this city; how you underpin the economy with your ‘informal’ trade, making this city — which is not yours — functional, flowing between the cracks where this photocopied urbanism did not stick, filling them with pure water sellers on hot, badly designed junctions, soothing them with mobile money kiosks where GCB would not venture. How you innovate (!) without your generators and shock-absorbing, AC’d V8s, almost transcending the gutterless roads, the neglected trotro station, the unreliable power supply. Almost.

Let us look at how, when they no longer have need for you, the native elite will periodically, violently remove you from their sight, you — a speck of dust on the fabric of modernity. You are assigned a state of proletarianism — nothing of yours will be accommodated except your labour. They will call your houses informal, your workspaces informal, your business itself informal, you — informal.

Why would they alienate you, you, the foundation of the city? Because you, true urban hybrid, are a threat to surplus capital. They will not invest in your business, they will not invest in your neighbourhood, they will not venture out of their elitist bubbles to offer you, backbone of the city, an equal share of opportunity. They will work to alienate you from access to that opportunity, that capital.

The cities we are building — composed of these emulators of the houses of Western capitalist economy — continue to ignore us, ignore our reality; yet, because we are real, we keep slipping out into the open, seeping through the cracked veneer of modernity [what is that?]. Accra Mall will continue to need workers. Workers will continue to need trotros. trotros will continue to be parked at Spanner. Commuters will continue to alight at Spanner. Vendors will continue to be drawn to the commuters. Commuters will continue to run across an unpaved roundabout to get to the mall.

By marginalising you, the elite make you rats, scampering across what is supposedly a fast-growing economy. You cannot be accommodated. You must be punished. So they will continue to destroy your homes, your workplaces, your businesses, in the meantime building their imported replacements. You will not be accommodated because you are the truth – the marginalized blemish on a parallel  and, without you, unsustainable , ubercity.

And it is you who are building, maintaining, resuscitating this city — this is why you are still here. So, while we still have the chance to think, shift, reclaim… Who is building your cities? Who is defining them?

Whose Utopia is It, Anyway?

In the days and weeks after [government-sanctioned] “Operation Murambatsvina” (Clear the Filth) was launched on May 19, 2005, police burnt, bulldozed, and destroyed tens of thousands of properties around the country. The destructions resulted in the mass evictions of urban dwellers from housing structures and the closure of various informal- sector businesses throughout the country. According to the United Nations, 700,000 people — nearly six percent of the total population — have been forcibly evicted from their homes, made homeless, or have lost their source of livelihood since May 19. The evictions and demolition of houses and markets stalls, and the manner in which they were carried out, constitute serious human rights violations. 

„Clear The Filth“: Mass Evictions And Demolitions In Zimbabwe”, The Implementation of Operation Murambatsvina (Clear the Filth) Human Rights Watch, Sep 2005 

A similar fate befell the vendors (though perhaps not on the Zimbabwean scale) in downtown Johannesburg, after their mass eviction in 2013, Agbogbloshie June 4 market [Accra, Ghana] during the July 2015 demolitions; and the tenants of the Nakivubo Parkyard Market in Kampala, Uganda, who, in March 2017, woke up to the bulldozing of the structures that were, for many, their entire livelihoods. 

Many African urban spaces have remained oppressive in the 21st century, a legacy of colonialism on the continent. Emerging communities, economies, and structures that should have taken hold in the immediate post-colonial era were and continue to be marginalised into informality by the ‘template’ that we continue to aspire to. This is reflected in our use of urban areas, with the hierarchical tension between spaces such as markets and malls, and between modern African hybrids such as Mobile Money kiosks and banks. 

Cities have taken the form of a rigid, insufficient mould that rarely meets the needs of their fast-growing, dynamic populations. The inhabitants, unphased by this rigidity, continuously move around and adapt, flowing through and filling the gaps created by imported urbanity, thus highlighting its failures, particularly in spaces where they are not allowed to flow. 

As urban creatives living in and observing these spaces, we find ourselves with a unique opportunity for introspection. A new equilibrium must be sought. 

The Age of Multiplicity

The urban dweller of the postcolonial age goes through life straddling a razor-thin line dividing the perceived modern – too often read ‘Western’ – and our inherent identity, a traditional, yet forever evolving, morphing, breathing identity. Every action is the result of a number of conscious and subconscious decisions based on this fluid identity and the global – and therefore no longer foreign – identity. 

Nowhere is this multiplicity so clearly expressed as it is in our cities. We live out our urban lives in an infrastructure constructed and designed by and for a different age and inhabitant. The functionality of the Physical City must often be questioned as we face the violence of navigating this alien structure that has been imposed on our reality by authoritarian figures, in the name of ambiguously defined modernization and development. 

The Living City, on the other hand, tells a different story; the inhabitants act as fillers, flowing through rigid infrastructure and challenging all restrictions and channels, recreating and reinforcing more dynamic solutions to our needs on a daily basis. A street vendor at an intersection that is notorious for congestion ensures that commuters are hydrated. His colleagues provide everything from toilet paper to airtime and chocolate. Thus, the most marginalized [by design] of the populace have become a living map of our needs in the hybrid state that is our existence. 

With this wealth of dynamic information at our fingertips, our infrastructure should reflect the innovative nature of our inhabitance of space, yet we continue to import alien models in a misguided effort to prove ourselves worthy within the global urban development discourse. We label markets and public transport systems ‘informal’, building [then abandoning] parking garage markets in commercially dead zones and bus stops for inadequate bus systems instead, all of which will be altered and repurposed by those they were intended for, before being labelled as ‘problem areas’ during the next wave of government mandated development planning. We invest in unconnected development plans, but do not engage the communities they impact. We reject – in terms of structure but not in function – that which is truly representative of our needs, our way of life, identity, and take on outdated versions of models that continue to grow outside of us, thus guaranteeing ourselves a back seat in our own development. 

In living this schizophrenic existence, in appreciating the innovative measures taken to ensure an [uncomfortable] equilibrium, one finds the opportunity to facilitate a more inclusive development dialogue that transcends generation, class, and borders, for a manifested whole. This dialogue must be founded on a period of introspection, allowing all who engage a moment to reflect on space in all its embodiments, in the understanding that the Physical Space cannot be at odds with the Living, that for the Living Space to manifest itself in intentional design, we must engage all aspects of our psychological, mental, and virtual space, and that for us to truly engage, we must empower the primary informant in this dialogue – the citizen.

We must take the development narrative and return it to those who live it. 

[Image 14_Mapping the Living (Multiple): Mapping the Living: This Griot Introspect project aims to move away from traditional cartography as defined by globalised standards, replacing it with a process of dialogue facilitated by artists visiting communities; identifying the true hierarchy and formation of space within said communities and using collected data to – along with the community – generate representative Living Maps: landmarks and installations on the city. 

Empowering the Interstitial 

There is a disconnect between the imported urban ideal and the lived reality. The world of the ‘informal’ is possibly the only mediating element, the organic space where the needs of the citizen take priority. These spaces are structured, sustainable ecosystems that dominate economy and serve the communities who build them. 

What if we were able to use these spaces as platforms for development dialogue and implementation? What if communities were the driving force behind development? 

To begin this process of recalibration we must engage, deconstruct, and analyse African revolutionary thought, freeing it from the exclusive circles of academia and enriching it with the lived experiences of the majority. This could be easily achieved, as the tradition of disseminating information and engaging in dialogue in shared spaces, beginning with the Griot, continues to be manifested through, among others, mobile community radios, market preachers, singers, and actors. Across the continent, preachers effectively share their faith with commuters, quoting biblical texts and leading in prayer and song from within the matatus of Nairobi and Kampala, the danfos of Lagos, as well as the trotros of Accra.

An established dialogue in which all parties have a voice would allow the urban creative to explore, engage, and record the interstitial that is the informal, setting the foundation for various expressions of collected observations, installations that are living maps of the reality: recorded space as installation. In mapping the experienced space, the creative is able to identify hierarchies, issues, gaps, potential; creating and leaving visual traces of this mapping in the process: installation as intervention. The more permeable our physical, psychological, mental, and virtual spaces become through this intervention, the more efficiently the greater community will be able to engage with it, allowing the citizen, facilitated by the creative, to direct the development of their own space: intervention as space.

This is the Griot Introspect.