Last weekend, in Jamestown, an oceanside district in Accra, Ghana, there was a flood. No, the former port city for colonial powers wasn’t overrun by the Atlantic usually lapping at its shores. It was submerged in live paintings, on walls and eager bodies; a prison wall-high installation, DJs lining the streets, competing for a jiving crowd, with their playlists and sound volume, graffiti murals, photo exhibitions, food and fashion vendors selling tote bags above market price, performance art parades of Ghanaians in their traditional finery, decked in gold or in outfits with wings, walking on 12 feet tall sticks, carrying pots of incense, and firing guns loaded with blanks (thankfully!).
The occasion? The Chale Wote Street Art Festival.
Present at the festival were scores (thousands, maybe?) of colourful people – mostly local, some visiting, walking in all directions – shirtless, sporting neon hair, crowded at intervals around stands and wheelbarrows of coconut water cocktails, dancing to King Promise’s hit song CCTV and a number of other Ghanaian jams.
To say Chale Wote is an experience is an unjust underestimation. Launched in July 2011 and now in its seventh year, the festival has gone from a community project to an international summer must-visit destination on the tour calendar of anyone who might appreciate such an immersive showcase of art, artists, tradition, community, history, sport, and more.
Accra (dot) Alt, organizers of the festival say on their website, they challenge “both artists and community-based audiences to connect through art” while also cultivating “a wider audience for the arts in West Africa by breaking creative boundaries and using art as a viable form to rejuvenate public spaces.”
Arguably, an accurate claim. Jamestown, sans the festival, is an urban fishing community, rich in history, colonial legacies and ritual, which the festival brings to the fore, investigates, celebrates when it holds, with the community itself as part of the conversation. Specifically, as former colonial spaces go, this is not common in West Africa. To note, Ghana’s neighbour, Nigeria, has its own Jamestown – Badagry – which does have a cultural festival that celebrates slave ancestry, angled towards diasporans, yet without the verve, inclusion or heft of Chale Wote.
Nigeria could definitely learn a thing or several.
Until we do, “Chale Wote!” to the next festival, which means “Friend, let’s go!”. The first word a Ghanaian slang, the second from the Ga tribe. Or perhaps, friends, let’s go again.
Photos from the 2018 festival by traveller, photographer, and storyteller Eric Atie for The Sole Adventurer.