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View over yam market adjacent to Old Fadama.

Negotiating Space and Livelihoods
in Old Fadama
by Afia Afenah

My PhD project is concerned with the complexities of contemporary spatial, social and political conditions in urban Ghana. By exploring the making and remaking of Old Fadama, Accra’s largest ‘informal’ settlement, the study examines how (historical) trajectories of urban planning, land conflicts and migration patterns intersect to reconfigure social-relations in Ghana’s capital. In City Life from Jakarta to Dakar, Simone refers to ‘the city as a thing in the making’ (2009, p.3). In the context of rapid economic, social, and infrastructural transformations in Ghana, I seek to understand the diverse social practices at play in the making and remaking of Accra.

To this end, I trace social process from the colonial period to present day conditions in Old Fadama. The settlement is located in the heart of Ghana’s capital, to the north-west of the city’s central business district. Most residents do not hold ‘legal titles’ to the land on which they have built. Present day Old Fadama is a high-density area primarily made up of self-built wooden structures that lacks adequate water and sanitation facilities. An estimated 80.000 residents live in precarious conditions and have been facing the threat of forced eviction since 2002.

I contend that in Fadama, social and political hierarchies and social relations are continuously renegotiated. In the context of high levels of mobility and migration these processes encourage us to enquire how these shifts in social organization effect contemporary life in Accra. While this project remains firmly based in Ghana, I hope to contribute to the growing scholarship on the changing faces of cities on the African continent more widely, by exploring how new forms of diversity both transform existing social orders and are transformed by them.

Exploring Old Fadama

The methodology for my PhD project derives from the use of ethnographic inquiry to explore the complexities of urban life in Accra. I do not presume that theory and method can be neatly distinguished; instead I assume that they are intrinsically linked. Following Hall, I set out not only to uncover ‘the global-local or dominant-subaltern relationships, but the unanticipated (often inconsistent) expression of human frailty and ingenuity, and how these intersect with the economic forces and political frameworks of our time’ (2012, p.14). To this end, I use an ethnographic approach guided by the extended case method developed by members of the Manchester School of Social Anthropology, which deploys participant observation to locate everyday life in its historical and extra local context.

I combine participant observation with semi-structured interviews that are conducted with the help of interpreters. Given the existing knowledge gap about who lives and works in Fadama, the interviews were initially designed to help establish basic demographics, as well as to enquire about residents’ knowledge and viewpoints on the planned eviction and the subsequent resistance movement. At the outset, participant observation was somewhat daunting and impractical in a busy neighbourhood of 80.000 residents, where ‘network chains run on without visible end [and] new faces keep showing up while others drift out of the picture unpredictably’ (Hannerz 1980, p.313). Who do I observe, when and why? And how do I participate in peoples’ everyday life? Setting up appointments for interviews with my translators then, gave me a reason to be in the neighbourhood, and allowed me to slowly, but steadily become more comfortable moving around and hanging out, observing and participating in everyday activities. In hindsight, the social situations that will form central parts of my extended case study analysis occurred while waiting for interviewees, or simply hanging out with one of my key contacts in-between interviews.

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Afia Afenah holds a BA in Social Anthropology and Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and an MSc in Urban Development and Planning from the Development Planning Unit, University College London.

Her doctoral dissertation in Social Anthropology is supervised by Dr. Tilo Grätz, Privatdozent, Institute of Social and Culural Anthropology, Freie University Berlin, Prof. Cilja Harders, Centre for Middle Eastern and North African Politics, Freie University Berlin and Ass. Prof. Kanishka Goonewardena, Department of Geography, University of Toronto.