It’s approaching noon, a day after the close of the 8th edition and greatest Chale Wote ever, an annual street arts festival held in Jamestown, Accra. As each succeeding year has swept away the exploits of the last, the street art festival has become a major event in West Africa.
Already, temporary art installations that went up for less than a week are being torn down, the cleaning teams rapidly purge the streets of filth, and boys, 9 or 11 years old by their looks, are locked in combat over a football on a square that only yesterday housed a cosy slew of pop-up festival shops. All that will remain in a few hours are the fantastic works painted by invited artists to be ‘discovered’ by location managers, directors and passersby looking for a backdrop for their music videos and selfies, and the spirit of Jamestown.
The spirit of the old colonial district of Jamestown will sleep another year as it contemplates its 400-year history.
Like many natural harbours along Western Africa’s coast, Jamestown attracted nations from the West which had learned that there was wealth to be made in Africa. They came to trade, but in the end, they plundered, colonised and enslaved. By the time the British had erected James Fort in 1673 in the village of Soko, the Dutch and Denmark-Norway had already built their bigger forts nearby – the Ussher Fort and Christianborg Castle, and the Portuguese had already arrived and been evicted by the native people of what would later become Accra, the Ga people. These forts and castles projected the power of these western nations and provided security in times of war. But they were primarily trading posts where slaves and gold, the primary trading ‘commodities’ of that era, were stored before being shipped off. If you didn’t have a fort, you were not in the game. In time, they would come to be a symbol of the aggressive expansion of greed and trade, the exploitation of that era.
The Ga people operated in the sweet spot between the gold and slave-dealing tribes of the interior far from the coast and the resource-hungry Europeans. The two-way play that was the natural advantage of these middlemen brought the angry, more established warring nations who wanted direct access to the marketplace from the far inland to the south with their own natural advantage – war. Over the next two hundred years, the Akwamus, Akyems and Asantes who brought slaves and gold from the forests and plains inland, would conquer and rule over substantial portions of the coast, and the wars between the Danes and British, far away in Europe, would bring disunity between the Ga groups in Ussher town, the Dutch settlement, and Jamestown.
The cosmopolitan spirit of Jamestown was the one thing that would remain.
Jamestown was also where the Tabom people, the Afro-Brazilian people of Yoruba descent, settled when they returned from Brazil in the dying days of the slave trade. It would later form a significant portion of Old Accra, the new capital of the Gold Coast colony in the late 1800s after the British moved it from the Cape Coast and later the seat of the Executive at Christiansborg.
Today, Chale Wote’s week-long art and cultural talks discuss the legacies of slavery, trade, colonial exploitation and appropriation of cultural heritage; and all the other losses and gains that come up in turn with the churnings of the history of the town. In the light of this history, a discourse ensues between the art and the community, and the crowds get to revel in the pioneering anti-establishment spirit for a short while.
In 2015, Crazinist Artist’s performance in the nude depicting the indignities of slavery at the fore-court of the Bible House led to the banning of the use of the property in subsequent editions and showed that an unease remains between the uprooted traditional customs and the powerful “coloniser’s religion”. In 2016, Yaw Owusu’s Back to the Future (the flag), a sprawling mosaic of the Ghanaian flag made with the near-worthless one pesewa coins (nearly 500 such coins make a dollar at current exchange rates) was immediately besieged by children who flung stones at it – an unexpected depiction of the work’s commentary on the loss of economic power as the political class take the nation’s wealth for themselves.
But there’s more to the festival. Much more than art, commerce rules. Stands bear earrings, cloth, clothes, knick-knacks from all over Africa, and food.
Apart from local shop owners who don’t have to pay to sell from their own shops, some enterprising hawks do business on the sly in less prominent settings. The locals say “business is good”, and I see that the organisers are increasingly running a tight ship. Media accreditation notices on the website this year are stiff and stern, and the rates for small operators would raise eyebrows. The middleman spirit of centuries-old Jamestown is making his play once again. But keep in mind, Chale Wote has received little external funding and help in all eight years of its existence. After years of trying to get the Government’s help, the Ministry of Tourism gave GHS300,000 this year to get things moving.
Mirroring conflicts and the exploitations of the past, from having to pay tributes as a conquered people, to slavery and then colonialism, I’m told the colonial lighthouse, built by the British in the 1930s to guide ships into harbour is no longer open to the public: the lasting result of a dispute between the owners, the port authority and the town’s youth group. This rift is about who should control the fees charged at the gate and how they are to be used. Whatever the merits of the feuding factions’ cases, no one gets to make money now, nor can I look upon the town from the lofty 28-metre height. No one wins.
Jamestown is still that rustic almost provincial fishing community.
But on the bright side, Jamestown seems to be opening up in something of a resurgence. There are new businesses and places to hang out, and daily trickles of people seduced by a new-found popularity that has grown with the festival. Old run-down buildings are newly whitewashed as major families look to make a good impression on the visiting throngs. The proud people of Jamestown will not sell out their lands and let in gentrification like other townships in the capital.
This is refreshing, but not all is well. Down by the fishing harbour Nii Adamah-Addy, who just opened ‘It’s Your life’ – an ocean-front bar, tells me he spent the equivalent of $6,000 on cleaning up his land of garbage before setting up the bar. The filth now shares a place, next to him, with the market, the fishermen’s canoes, their nets and the fishmongers’ open air kitchens. Nonetheless, the festival was better this year than the last, and the year before. This is the aim of the Chale Wote festival, “using art to rejuvenate public spaces”.
Jamestown is still that rustic almost provincial fishing community.
It is also that cosmopolitan centre-of-all-things, a lighthouse that draws people to its shores, where the world meets to trade and talk even after 400 years.
Top image: Beachfront, Jamestown, Accra (2018) | Photo Courtesy of IfeOluwa Nihinlola
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An update was made to the article on 30th September 2018. The Chale Wote Festival referenced is the 8th edition, not the 11th edition as initially stated. “The Ga people” was also originally written as “The Gas (Gãs)”.