A CRIME TOUR OF ACCRA

In CHILDREN OF THE STREET, murder leads Inspector Darko Dawson to many different settings in Ghana’s capital, Accra. The geography is as correct as I could get it and the names of all the streets in the novel are real. That might not seem to be a big deal to a western reader, but in Accra and other Ghanaian cities, most streets are not signed (or not clearly) even though effectively all streets do in fact have names. Directions given usually make use of buildings and other places, e.g. before you get to the Circle, turn right at the Ecobank, etc. Although this may sometimes work out in Accra in real life (actually it’s often incredibly confusing), it lacks the precision and specificity needed for a detective novel.

So in 2010, I used a large Accra city map published by Surf Publications to identify by name the streets and locations to which Darko finds himself taken by his investigations. To do this, one must walk the streets. There is no lazy/easy way to do it. Couldn’t I just use Google Earth? Well, as it happens, no. Although GE was of some aid, it would have been woefully insufficient and misleading to depend on it.

I chose May 29 2011, a Sunday, to go back over the territory and take some snapshots. A weekday or Saturday would have been so teeming as to make getting good images difficult. As a kind of spoiler alert, I’ll say that although I won’t give away any clues or the identity of the guilty party in the novel as we go on this “crime tour,” if you would prefer to discover these places in the course of reading CHILDREN OF THE STREET (COTS), then you should skip this post until after you’ve finished the book.

So now, let’s begin the tour. The novel starts right off the bat at the toxic, choked channel of “Sodom & Gomorrah” in a slum of Accra called Agbogbloshie, where a grisly discovery is made one sweltering Sunday morning.

The infamous Agbogbloshie slum at the Agbogbloshie Channel

Although I visited this Agbogbloshie during the day, I would not venture it at night. It is truly dangerous, particularly for women. The packed, wooden kiosk dwellings are generally windowless, making sleeping inside of them on a hot night an unachievable goal. This drives women and girls to sleep outside, setting them up for rape. Between men and boys, knife and broken bottle fights occur with sometimes deadly consequences.

The Abossey Okai street overlooking this channel is a trucks, cars and pedestrian jumble that somehow sorts itself out.

It’s a high traffic and commerce area with onion, yam, timber and other subdivision markets. At dusk, the prostitutes move in to take up business as the market closes down.

Large sacks of onions make the air unmistakably pungent

Yam tubers (What are called "yams" in the US are actually sweet potatoes and belong to a different family)

The congested slums and marketplaces of Agbogbloshie are found on the east side of the problematic and polluted Korle Lagoon. On the west side of the lagoon, where all building has been prohibited by law, a completely different and bafflingly peaceful and pastoral picture is painted.

A lovely, grazing bay mare on the west shore of the Korle Lagoon, whose outlet to the ocean is seen on the far right of the image

Cattle getting plump on the green of the rainy season

Southeast of this contented grazing ground is the Fire Academy along Cleland Road, close to which Darko has a violent physical encounter.

Proceeding farther east along Cleland, which becomes High Street, one reaches the fringes of James Town, the oldest district of Accra. Here there are several buildings that have been abandoned and shuttered for years. One is the Woodcrest Services Gypsum and Acoustic Tiling Factory, which name is far grander than the lonely, impotent structure the building has become – like poor Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. I suspect most buildings like this at the edge of James Town will eventually be razed to give way to modern retail and/or residential buildings.

A defunct factory in James Town

Inactive for years

Up the street from here is a famous landmark on Cleland Road: the James Town lighthouse.

Freshly painted James Town Lighthouse

In 2010 when I was in Ghana, the lighthouse looked like this:

An easy ride for "truck pushers" down the hill from the James Town lighthouse

In COTS, Darko has a rendezvous with a reporter at the blue Ghana Customs and Excise building on High Street in James Town, not far from the lighthouse.

Ghana Customs & Excise Building

Going north into the city, we find a pathetic and nonfunctioning Accra Railway Station. Squatters occupy the space that was long ago a piece of the bustling railway system. There was once a train from Accra to Nsawam and points north, but service was allowed to ignominiously fade away as cars came into prominence. It’s rumored that a modern, extensive inter-city rail link is planned for the next decade, but I haven’t confirmed that.

Tower clock of the old railway station, stuck at 12:32

During the day on Sundays, church services are held inside the station. I don’t know how that came to pass, but none of that pious activity has much effect on the dangers of nightfall at and around the railway station, when this area becomes unsafe and squatters are again potential targets of violent crime, as in Agbogbloshie. Clearly, this squatter situation is unsustainable in either location and needs to change. No one is quite sure how to achieve that, though. At one point in COTS, Darko wonders if anyone really cares.

Railway yard – Nkrumah Avenue is on the other side of the wall and in COTS at this site, something wicked this way comes
Life and trade goes on

As does a soccer pick-up match

 

Posing with a world famous soccer star (j/k)

 

Storefront slumber

 

Open areas in front of stores that close at night and on Sundays are sleep refuges for the kind of street children we encounter in COTS, but this kind of exposure also makes them easy targets for robbers and worse.

A “truck pusher” who might have worked all night sleeps on his cart in front of a closed store.

 

In COTS, a wide area approximately the shape of a parallelogram, within whose boundaries the old railway station falls, is crucial to the story Some of these locations are shown below.

Okai Kwei Road off Nkrumah Avenue

Tudu Road is busy with commerce and is also where we encounter one of the most odious characters in COTS

Tudu Road features prominently in COTS

Merchant Bank on east side of Nkrumah Avenue

Sidewalk sales along Nkrumah Avenue - the sidewalk is of special significance in COTS

The pace along Nkrumah Avenue is decidedly laid back on a Sunday. All that will change on Monday

Kwame Nkrumah Avenue with Ghana Commercial Bank on the west side of the street

The old UTC (United Trade Company) building, just rotting away. At night, the area around this building is impenetrably dark and eerily quiet

The strictly pedestrian Commercial Street, with the adjacent Ghana Commercial Bank alongside

This store is the only structure with an address that decisively shows the street to be Knutsford Avenue, albeit misspelled

Transposition of letters in "Knutsford" to "Kuntsford"

Knutsford Avenue ends blindly in Kojo Thompson Road, whose sign is barely legible:

It's faint, but it's there

During my revisit of the COTS crime areas, I got a surprise: in the novel, a scene takes place at the Novotel Lorry Station. In the year that I’ve been away from Ghana, that station has been cleared out as the space is prepared for a giant multi-story building – retail/hotel/offices etc. My mouth dropped. The lorry station was a real entity only a year ago, but with the pace of a certain kind of development in Accra – the type that generally ignores poor people’s status – some things will disappear very quickly and be replaced.

New construction site where the station used to be

And behold, a massive hotel/retail/office building shall rise from the ashes of the lorry station

There is another new structure on the skyline that was only in its infancy when I visited Accra in 2010.

The new, massive Movenpick Hotel, grand opening in the third quarter of 2011

And finally, not part of the crime tour exactly, but essential contributions to its success, my driver companions past and present, Bernard from 2010, and Frank on the present visit. Both men are Ewes, the ethnic group of the Volta Region, where WIFE OF THE GODS is set.

Bernard on left, Frank on right

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