The value of water
In many ways, water envelopes and defines the community life in Ga Mashie, the historic district of Accra. Perhaps there is no place in the city that has maintained its sea and historical linkages as much as this space has. In addition to the physical coastal location of Ga Mashie, the power of the sea helps shape its community worldview, and livelihoods draw from it. In turn, the community connection to water contributes to a vibrant space for social life, demonstrating the centrality of water to the entire community.
Traditional beliefs run deep in Ga Mashie, and the Ga worldview includes an understanding of and respect for a supreme being (Ataa Naa Nyongmọ), as well as divine beings or spirits of nature (dzemànwọdzi). The supreme being is the source of all things: an invisible creator, both omnipotent and immortal. The divine spirits are associated with earthly topographical spaces and features thought to be the natural places of their descent or abode – such as rivers, mountains, and the sea. It is believed that these beings manifest themselves in these topographical features and communicate to the Ga people through traditional priests and priestesses (wọŋtśεmεi). These traditional priests and priestesses interpret the will of these divine beings, who themselves serve as intermediaries between humans and the supreme being.1
Within this Ga worldview, the sea is more than just a physical or topographical feature and source of their livelihood, it is a powerful deity with divine qualities that impact aspects of their lives.2 It is the divine will of the sea god to rest on Tuesdays, and on this day each week in Ga Mashie, fishing activities cease.3 From time to time, some may challenge this belief by going out to sea, but stories prevail of fisherman who have dared to do this and never returned.
Fishing is the oldest livelihood in Ga Mashie, whose origin as a coastal settlement dates back to the late 16th century. Fishing is a livelihood that literally depends on the sea’s daily offerings. Even through economic changes – the arrival of European trade and colonial administration, the emergence of Ga Mashie as a global trading and warehouse port, and the relocation of the city’s major port and post-independent government administration outside of the area – fishing has remained a central livelihood and identity for Ga Mashie.4 From the early mornings through to the evenings, teams of fishermen make their way out to sea. It is gritty and physically taxing work and has been indelibly stamped into the human fabric of Jamestown. Seasonal in nature, there are high and low periods: the success of each day’s catch has reverberating impacts on households that must work with a seasonal income security. The result: the area is one of the most impoverished pockets of poverty within Accra.5
The beachside stretches along the coast, and at the harbor, long, lean, and brightly colored wooden boats line the shore, perched along the sand. There are dozens of boats, but each is unique, decorated with colors and intriguing aphorisms. On each boat’s long, curved surface, the owner has painted pithy, powerful local sayings and Biblical references in Ga and English. “Fear God,” one says, in strong, white block letters. Life, like the sea, may seem unpredictable (despite its cultural heritage, Ga Mashie is one of the city’s poorest areas), and although the fisherman are at the mercy of powers stronger than them, their faith instills within them courage, willpower, and inner strength, despite their challenging circumstances, and provides order in an uncertain world.
When the fishermen’s catch runs low, traditionalists go deep into the sea and offer a full-grown cow or ram to the sea god, as a means of appeasement or to earn favor. The sacrifice also serves a practical purpose: The sacrifice can also serve as bait, attracting fish that can be caught in subsequent fishing rounds. These practices still continue in Ga Mashie and other indigenous settlements of Accra.6
Water-based livelihoods are a gendered space: While men go out to sea, women stay on land to sell, preserve, and prepare the catch. Nearly every day of the week, it is women fishmongers who are teeming inside the cramped covered market and along nearby paths to the sell varieties of freshly caught fish and seafood. It is also women who prepare fish in various methods, including sun-drying the fish for long- term storage, or smoking it. Near the beach, women find open spaces to spread the silver, finger-sized fish out in the sun to dry; after three to four days, the curled, browned fish are ready for storage and can last months when properly preserved. These dried fish are a key ingredient in shito, a black pepper sauce. Smoked fish is another traditional method of preparation, done in large, multilayered wood-burning ovens constructed of traditional clay or more modern cement block or metal. Medium- to large-sized fish are laid out on a layered series of trays at the top of the large oven. At the bottom, the women feed special osha or odanta wood logs into the fire to support the heat that is required for the six-hour-long cooking process.
While the water serves as an organizing force and source of worldview and livelihoods, the community has created the beach as a space for informal community life. Previous colonial and post-independent planning policies prevented the building of structures along the beachside; instead, the planning emphasized a segregation of uses: fishing at the beach, with residential and commercial activities taking place in the distanced, elevated space around which the colonial buildings had been laid, and the streets, sidewalks, buildings, offices, and houses packed around them.
Over time, a new community grew up and established itself at the beachside. Wooden shacks served as dwellings for the fishermen, boat repairmen, and security guards and families, enabling proximity to their major economic activities. The community attracted commercial vendors in turn to set up kiosks, popular drinking and small chop bars for eating; their loud music filled the air. Throughout the day, the sound of the waves against the shore is interspersed with the voices of young people at play, especially boys, who start pick-up soccer competitions, and who challenge each other to dive competitions at the fishing pier, or who simply observe. Open spaces and paths became recreational areas for child’s play. Collectively, the community had transformed the beach into an informal multifunctional space through which they actively engaged, lived, and played with the sea on a daily basis, further emphasizing how the sea serves as the community’s greatest resource.
The informal multifunctionality of this place was not part of the city government’s plans, and yet it has consistently thrived in the face of government plans for redevelopment. These plans had always been a subtle threat, until recently. In November 2015, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly authorized the demolition of a wide spread of these “illegal structures” – shack houses, restaurants, chop bars, kiosks, and other community-contributed infrastructure – at the beachside. It is part of a long series of demolitions of informal, or “illegal” structures throughout the city, another tangible setback within the constant tug-of-war between government-planned “formality” and community-created “informality.”
CHF International / Global Communities and Accra Metropolitan Assembly (March 2010). Accra Poverty Map: A Guide to Urban Poverty Reduction in Accra.
Nat Nuno Amarteifio (November 2015). “The Definitive Story of Jamestown British Accra by Nat Nuno Amarteifio.” Online. Accessed November 11, 2015: http://www.modernghana.com/news/655280/1/the-definitive-story-of-james-town-british-accra-b.html
Samoa Mark Hansen (August 2015). Interview and beach tour at Jamestown, Ga Mashie.
Sheikh Mustapha Watson-Quartey (2011). “Religion of the Ga People.” Online. Accessed November 10, 2015: https://kpakpatseweroyalfamily.wordpress.com/tag/kpodziemo/
1 Sheikh Mustapha Watson-Quartey (2011). “Religion of the Ga People.”
2Interview, Samoa Mark Hansen (2015).
3 The specific day to not go out to sea depends on traditional priests’ consultation with the gods. In other settlements of the Ga people (includign Labadi or Teshie Nungua), the community may pay their respects to the sea on different days.
4 Nat Nuno Amarteifio (2015). The Definitive Story of Jamestown British Accra.”
5 Global Communities (March 2012).
6 In February 2014, a local news outlet covered the story of a bull that was caught at sea by local fisherman, after it was used as a sacrifice to the gods. From the Daily Graphic, February 14, 2014.
VICTORIA OKOYE is the creator of African Urbanism and Urban Advocacy Specialist for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). As an urban development planner and researcher, Victoria engages with informality and bottom-up citizen placemaking, particularly in public spaces, in West Africa.