A picture of the Jamestown lighthouse is included in the Ghana Tourism Authority’s latest booklet, its distinctive red and white tower as guaranteed to attract visitors as it once guaranteed the safe arrival of ships coming to land in Accra.
We decided to pay it a visit but when we got there it turned out that it was not a tourist attraction in the usual sense of the word. For a start it, it was locked up and sat on a rough piece of land, with no obvious fanfare or sign indicating what it was. As we stood around wondering what to do, a man materialised from nowhere offering to take us inside for a small fee. When we agreed, someone immediately arrived with the keys as if by magic.
We entered into the gloomy light of the tower’s somewhat tatty interior and were then led up the 80-plus steps to the top, where we were rewarded with spectacular views of the sea and surrounding area. Our unofficial tour guide, though raggedly dressed and red-eyed, was a mine of information and offered to take us to the fishing village that had settled along the beach below.
People lived cheek by jowl in shacks that could be washed away in an instant by some rogue wave. They eyed us with friendly curiosity as they went about their business of doing the things that fisherfolk do and, thanks to our guide, didn’t mind our cameras. A group of boys was busy packing up recyclable rubbish for sale, while further along the beach, past a flotilla of pirogues, the sea was packed with locals taking a swim.
Then we were led into Jamestown proper, the name of the district, stepping over rubbish and walking through narrow alleyways packed with chattering women and children at play. Though poor, it seemed a rooted, self-contained community that looked more like a village than anything else. In fact, we had to pinch ourselves that we were within walking distance of Accra’s central business district.
We ended up back at the lighthouse, where we paid the man his money. Not knowing the going rate, it looked as though we had disappointed him as he pocketed the notes grumpily and took his leave without saying goodbye. When we got back to the hotel showing off the pictures we had taken, a friend who had not come along laughed at us shaking his head, saying, “You’re just like those tourists who stay at a five star hotel and then go back to Europe and show their photos of slums to show what Africa is like.” Well, I could see his point. On the other hand, while places like Muvenpick hotel, Coco Lounge and Westhills Mall are indications that Accra can do luxury with ease, they are essentially clones of a global market in which Dubai seems to be the benchmark. Very nice but not that interesting.
However, there is only one Jamestown. As part of the original settlement of Accra and the base of the colonial government from the 1870s, it is steeped in history. Named after Fort James, a 17th century trading post turned slave barracoon, it developed into one of the country’s biggest ports, hence the construction of the lighthouse in 1871. Although it is the traditional home of the Ga people, who regard Accra as their heartland, its seaside location attracted all-comers. In 1836, a shipload of freed slaves from Brazil decided to return to Ghana and settled in Jamestown after being warmly received by local chiefs and given land. Known as the Tabom, they built Brazil House, which has been renovated as a living marker of their homecoming.
As the country’s second largest port after Takoradi, Jamestown was a prosperous district boasting some of Accra’s wealthiest families among its residents. In 1939, it was hit by an earthquake, which damaged many residencies, prompting the elite to move out in large numbers. Nevertheless, photographer James Barnor, who ran the Ever Young studios there in the 1950s, enjoyed a steady stream of clients, many of them revellers and dignitaries visiting the famous Seaview Hotel nearby.
Then in 1962, the independence government moved Accra’s port activities to Tema 40 km to the east and the area fell into further decline. These days, Jamestown looks the worse for wear and many of its fine colonial buildings are dilapidated or abandoned. Fort James, which became a prison – Ghana’s founding father Kwame Nkrumah was one of its most famous inmates – is now empty and the lighthouse – well I’ve already told you about that.
You wonder why this has been allowed to happen and why, come to think of it, Accra seems to have turned its back on the sea in general, unlike most other seaside capitals. Apart from the small, high-end tourism resort around Labadi, the central Accra beachfront is neglected, with some of it looking like a rubbish dump. There are plans to create an extensive tourism enclave along a stretch of it but whether this will ever see the light of day given Ghana’s present economic downturn remains to be seen. Who wants over-priced hotels, shopping malls and casinos spoiling the view, anyway? Years ago there was talk of regnerating Jamestown, too. If that is still the case, it would provide a perfect opportunity to bring about much needed refurbishment without ruining the area’s charm or dislodging its people. That way, its touristic attractions could be sympathetically enhanced, giving more visitors an opportunity to experience Jamestown’s many gems.