Street in the Ayigya neighbourhood

Accra, 02:00 hours. We walk through the bare corridors of Kotoka Airport. People are sleeping on mats or pieces of cardboard here and there. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re homeless or just airport staff resting before the next shift. As we exit through the last sliding doors it doesn’t feel like I’m standing outdoors but like if I’ve entered a new space. A warm, humid space that smells sweet and is teeming with cycads. A space as big as a continent: the African night. 

Thirteen students and two tutors from Rotterdam Academy of Architecture travelled through Ghana for two weeks. We wanted to find out how we as architects and urban designers can contribute to one of the most urgent problems of this century: the uncontrolled, explosive growth of cities.
The tour forms part of a much wider programme called Working on Cities (WOC). This is a collaborative venture between Rotterdam Academy of Architecture, the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (Rotterdam) and the Kwame Nkrumah University for Science and Technology in Kumasi (Ghana). The  project started in the spring of 2008 as an initiative by two students to ‘do something’ in ‘a developing country’. Since one of the students was born in Ghana, a study in that country seemed natural. The idea caught on, plans gained momentum and in mid-January we left Brussels for Accra.

The women of Old Fadama

Accra, Old Fadama, 11.00 hours. We shuffle into the small hall on our dirty slippers. Women dressed in colourful robes wait silently for us against the wall. The heat seems to rise up out of the ground. Perspiration runs down my back. A ventilator spins lazily above our heads. One of our guides holds a short speech and then raises his clenched fist and shouts loudly ‘Information!’. The women answer enthusiastically: ‘Power! Information! Power! Information! Power!’ 

We are visiting the neighbourhood of Old Fadama, an illegal settlement on the edge of Accra, which the locals call Sodom & Gomorra. And not without reason. Living conditions are very poor here. There is no sewage system, the waste isn’t collected, there is a shortage of water, fires rage regularly, and the lack of space is severe. The women’s group we are visiting is one of many that form the Ghana Federation of Urban Poor. Together the women try and find solutions for the problems in the neighbourhood. They also collect money for new amenities like a small school and a mosque. The leader of the group, Abu Haruna, commands respect with his controlled performance. He calls on us to look and listen carefully, so that in the future we might be able do something for people like them. ‘You only get a chance like this once in your life,’ he says seriously. ‘So make the most of it.’

Old Fadama

Larabanga, 5:30 hours. I slip out from under my mosquito net and crawl out of the hut. It’s already starting to get bright. Goats and pigs are rummaging around outside. Loud music is coming from the neighbour’s house and Ole, my guide, is busy getting the fire going by the light from his mobile phone so that I can have a warm shower soon.

We have two weeks to get to know a country, a culture, a way of thinking. Our itinerary is intensive. In the first week we visit a number of slums in Accra. Also on the agenda is a visit to the Dutch embassy, a visit to a project by UN Habitat, and discussions with local NGOs. In the second week we stay on the campus of KNUST in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city. Here we study the Ayigya neighbourhood together with Ghanaian students.
The old village centre, now completely swallowed up by the rapidly expanding city, has to cope with overpopulation and very inadequate infrastructure. During a workshop with students from the KNUST we make our first sketch designs for the neighbourhood.
In the Netherlands we generally design according to the programme-context-concept recipe. The students from the KNUST do it according to another threesome: structure-climate-culture, and clearly in that order. While we spend the workshop sketching various alternative strategies, the Ghanaian students are busy collecting data about Ayigya, which they then translate into a ready-made building. Here are two different ways of working that complemented each other in principle. That said, there is a lot of sounding each other out tentatively and learning about each other’s expectations. It’s an educational process that also produces a mine of ‘insider information’.
The results of the workshop are presented on the last afternoon in Kumasi. In addition to the tutors and students involved, a handful of interested people from KNUST join us. Sam Larby, a well-known figure in the world of Ghanaian architecture is also present. The comments are generally positive. When the discussion threatens to become too abstract, Larby speaks. He reminds us cleverly what it’s all about: where you cook and where you wash yourself, which is highly relevant in a country where the average age is about twenty (as opposed to forty in the Netherlands), where do the children play?

Maintenance of a house in Kpalsi

Widinaba, 13:00 hours. It’s warm. I turn off the engine of my scooter on the dusty road and look around. Traditional mud houses are situated at large distances from one another. Between them are fields with goats and here and there a big baobab. A youth of about sixteen comes towards me. ‘Welcome’, he says. ‘My name is Simon.’ Tourists often come to the village and he asks if I want a guided tour. I ask if he shouldn’t be at school. ‘No’, he says. ‘Today I have to repair the roof of my room.’

In the dry season the damage caused to the houses by the rains is repaired. Next to each house lies a pile of freshly cut reeds and mud bricks, ready to be used. A traditional house can be built in a week. Each layer of mud bricks takes a day to dry, and a wall can be made of a maximum of five layers. Another day is needed to build the rafters and another to cover the roof. The traditional houses are efficient and free. What’s more, their construction and maintenance play an important role in strengthening the social structure of a family. ‘If you behave well your family will help you,’ explains Simon. ‘But if you’re disobedient you have to restore it on your own.’

Grounds of a house in Kpalsi

Accra, 17:00 hours. Some youths in dungarees covered in oil are playing football on a dusty field beside the railway. These are the car mechanics from the neighbourhood. They are all athletic and fast, and since I’ve nothing better to do I watch from the embankment. Soon one of the youths sits down beside me. ‘Oburuni,’ he says, which means ‘hello white man’. ‘Obibini’, I answer, hello black man.

We start talking and when Raymond (for that’s his name) hears that I’m from the Netherlands he tell me he’s busy setting up a NGO that focuses on the development of agriculture in Ghana. He plans to travel to the Netherlands soon to collect money for his organisation. Raymond is a calm, intelligent fellow. Like most Africans he speaks openly about the problems of the continent. ‘I love Africa,’ he says, ‘because we Africans just happen to love ourselves. What I don’t like about Africa is that we don’t try to make progress.’ I nod but say nothing. It’s a thought I would never had had the courage to say out loud. After a few weeks and lots of experiences, however, I’m inclined to think the same myself. But Raymond forgot himself and, like him, a small group of young, well-educated and very ambitious Ghanaian people who do have the capacity and the will to help the country move forward.

The mosque of Kpalsi

Accra, 01:00 hours. In the bus to the hotel I meet a friendly Dutch couple. The pair, a retired judge and an artist, travel regularly to West Africa to look for art treasures for their collection. The conversation soon turns to the differences between African and European art. ‘Different standards apply to African art,’ he explains. ‘Half a century is old. And an item has to be used before it’s of any value.’

That last remark intrigues me. It takes me back to something I’ve been wrestling with the whole time in Ghana. Everything in this country seems worn out, rusty, and repaired a number of times. ‘Aesthetics’ seem totally absent, yet everyone is still immensely proud of their possessions. Does the relative poverty explain this? Or is there another reason? Do Ghanaians, just like collectors, determine the value of a site or an object on the basis of other properties than material and aesthetic ones? The mosque of Kpalsi: the outline of a small mosque marked with stones in the sand. The sacred woods in Ayigya: a triangular garden next to a busy street, full of rubbish, where the ancestors are honoured every Friday in an ugly concrete building. A driver who has screwed a stair handrail holder rather than a chrome star to the bonnet of his taxi.

Larabanga – Accra, 15.00 hours. We drive with an all-terrain vehicle from Larabanga to Accra. A fourteen-hour journey over some very bad roads. The mood of the driver is as changeable as the quality of the road surface. A cloud of dust appears in front of us. As we draw nearer we see a tiny overloaded Daihatsu zigzagging its way very slowly between the deep pot-holes. I grin as I read the text in stark yellow letters on the rear window: ‘Satan in trouble’. No such thing as bad luck, just delays. Knowing the right way isn’t important; it’s about knowing the right detour.