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Kaneshie Market, Accra, Ghana

Interdisciplinary Introduction to African Urban Studies

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Program Quick Facts

General Description

The main principle for this course will be to use Accra as a way to illuminate cities of the students' own choice, wherever they might be located.  This means that the course will be inherently comparative and that features of Accra will be used to ignite students’ understanding of details of the urban in general.  Features of other African cities such as Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, and Johannesburg will be introduced primarily through literary, anthropological, and other humanistic texts. And spatial concepts such as spatial morphology, spatial traversal, means of locomotion, space-time anamorphism (for science fiction), topoanalysis (from phenomenology), and chronotopes (from Bakhtin) will be progressively introduced and applied to different urban features.  The course will be a combination of classroom discussions and various fieldwork walking and bus tours of Accra.  These will help to further ground the spatial concepts students will have been introduced to in class.  There will also be trips to Christiansborg, Elmina, and Cape Coast Castles, old seats of the European trading presence on the Gold Coast/Ghana and sites of the slave trade.  From 1877 to 2015 Christiansborg was the seat of both colonial and post-colonial governments.

Location

Accra, Ghana, but with additional trips to Cape Coast and Elmina, sites of some of the most famous castles on the coast of West Africa.  The name Accra is a corruption of the word “nkrang”, which means “ants” in Akan. Legend has it that the Ga people emerged like ants from the east of what is now Accra and were thought to have come from the Yoruba in Nigeria.  Certain linguistic features and words are shared between the Ga and the Yoruba but the links are too ancient and vague to be properly corroborated. What is more pertinent to the history of Accra, however, is events that took place in the mid-17th century.  Dutch merchants procured land on the coast and built a fort in today’s Usshertown in 1649; the English built Fort James a canon’s shot away from Usshertown (1 canon shot = 300 feet), while the Danes, also very significant European merchants on the coast, built Christiansborg Fort (later Castle) in 1659.  But the real historical significance of these dates is that following conflicts between the Ga Kingdom at Ayawaso, which was located some 11 from the coast, and the warlike Akan tribe of Akwamu, the Ga Kingdom was defeated and the people there fled to the coast to seek protection under the shadows of the three European establishments.  What seems like a straightforward story of war refugees however conceals other complex social realities, and it is these complexities that later on provided the seeds for what by the late 19th and early 20th centuries became the bustling city of Accra. In the 21st century Accra has been recognized as a buzzing transnational and African metropolis that boasts cosmopolitan features which are amply leavened with traditional details.  While some of these features and contradictions are specific to Accra, they are not entirely exclusive to the city. Through them we can get a really good sense of the evolution of other African cities that were formed through the crucible of European colonialism such as Lagos, Nairobi, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, and Johannesburg, among others.

Living and Travel Conditions

Students will be placed two to a room at the Roots Apartments Hotel at Osu, which is walking distance to Oxford Street, many eating places, and some of the most interesting nightlife spots in the city.  The hotel is also well connected through all modes of transport to the city centre and other parts of the city. Uber is now ubiquitous in the city, and very good way to travel across town. All classes will be held at the Roots Apartments Hotel.  A bus will convey the class to Cape Coast and Elmina for a weekend site visit to the castles. The group will be resident at Coconut Grove Hotel at Elmina, a lovely beach resort right by the ocean.

Faculty

Professor Ato Quayson

Professor Ato Quayson is an elected Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, of the British Academy. He is the Morris M. and Jean G. Doyle Professor Interdisciplinary Studies and Professor of English at Stanford.  He is also by courtesy Professor of Comparative Literature.

Quayson studied for his undergraduate degree at the University of Ghana and took his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge after which he held a Junior Research Fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford before returning to Cambridge to become Reader in Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literature in the Faculty of English from 1995-2005. He was also Director of the Centre for African Studies and a Fellow of Pembroke College while at Cambridge.  Prior to Stanford he was Professor of African and Postcolonial Literature at New York University (2017-2019) and Professor of English and inaugural Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto (2005-2017). In 2016 he was appointed University Professor at the University of Toronto, the highest distinction that the university can bestow.

Professor Quayson has published widely on African and postcolonial literature, disability studies, diaspora and transnational studies, and urban studies, among others.  His book Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism(2014) was co-winner of the Urban History Association 2015 Best Book Prize (non-North America) and was named in The Guardian as one of the 10 Best Books on Cities in 2014. He also wrote a new Introduction and Notes to Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom(2003). His most recent book is Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. He is also also working with Grace Tolequé on Accra Chic: A Locational History of Fashion in Accra for Intellect Books and Chicago University Press. 

Professor Quayson is former  President of the African Studies Association (2019-2020)

Prerequisites and Expectations

Students will be expected to immerse themselves fully in the experience of this new city and to use this as a means by which to re-think their understandings of other cities they are familiar with.  Even though the focus of the course is mainly on Accra and other African cities, the objective of the course is to use these as conduits and portals for understanding various aspects of city spaces in a nuanced and engaged interdisciplinary manner.

Grading Basis

Letter Grade. Grading will be based on 3-4 fieldwork reports from walking and bus tours of Accra, Cape Coast, and Elmina, along with one research  proposal at the end of the program. Marks will also be given for active participation in class. Letter grades will form the basis of the final overall  assessment, with some marks being given for familiarity with reading material and active participation in class discussions.