Jamestown, the historic district in Accra city centre, is a paradox. Sitting next to new money and high rise offices is a community that is proof of inequality in Ghana.
The rundown neighbourhood was the heart of British colonial rule but after years of neglect, its potential as a major tourist attraction has been untapped; making this fishing community one of the poorest in the nation’s capital.
However, amidst Jamestown’s visible challenges, including sanitation, substance abuse and unemployment, is a group of community volunteers who are using theatre to bring social change.
‘Theatre with a purpose and heart’
“We create awareness [and] talk to community members through interactive theatre performances” – says Collins Seymah Smith, director of Act for Change; which was founded five years ago.
The youth-led non-profit uses plays to advocate for societal and behavioural change on a wide range of social issues. They have previously tackled issues such as reproductive health, human rights, stereotyping, HIV and climate change.
On the day of our interview, they were preaching an end to open defecation; which has taken a shine off what could have been a pristine beachfront.
“Today’s project [funded by Unicef and Alliance Française) is about educating people on open defecation and in Jamestown, we see it on a daily basis. We want to add our voice and our creative efforts to drive home our message on open defecation and encourage community members to desist from it and encourage the households to build their own latrines”, Smith said.
“It is not the same”, says Anett Jaeger, a volunteer from Berlin, Germany. According to her, the productions she was part of in Europe were stressful because it was all about “[staging] a good production because they need this [amount of] money. Everything is about the money.”
“…And here, it is like theatre with a purpose and heart”, she adds.
The group approached local authorities who agreed to let them use an abandoned colonial warehouse which is now the Jamestown Community Theatre Centre. The centre now serves as the venue for not just their plays; but for behaviour change workshops and other seminars for community members.
Where are the mentors?
A teenage girl at the centre of a Kpodziemo (local word for naming ceremony) is commonplace in Jamestown. And so are children roaming around on a Wednesday morning. That is because in many cases, the parents of these children are teenagers, who are un(der)employed, have been abandoned by the fathers and do not have a means to see these children through school.
This and other challenges such as substance abuse, the lack of skills and opportunity are telling of the cycle of poverty as seen in the community.
But for Smith, an even greater cause of generational poverty in Jamestown is the lack of mentors.
“We have people who have made it; they lived in Jamestown and [when they became successful] they moved out. So I keep saying, ‘if everybody who has made it moves out, who is gonna (sic) put Jamestown out there?’
… Not necessarily coming back to live here but at least let us feel your presence in the community. Once in a while, you come here, speak to the youth, motivate them…start a small business here. If they can see you, talk to you, you know what I mean? (sic) touch you, then they can have this feeling that [they too can make it in life]”
Smith and his group of volunteers, who are indigenes, are filling this void. The centre is now the first port of call for counselling about issues affecting the youth; turning Smith into the go-to person for condoms and advice on sexually transmitted infections.
‘I really try to let my work influence the community’, says Hamid Nii Nortey, the volunteer actor cum artist, chiefly responsible for the theatre centre’s infectious graffiti. H. Nortey (as he is popularly called) plans to help train a new generation of artists in the community.
Related: Chale Wote review: Blitz, teenagers, selfies and the Armageddon
Art has been identified as Jamestown’s gem; transforming the community to the centre of Africa during the Chale Wote Street Arts Festival.
The festival has been great in reshaping the image of Jamestown, attracting tourists to the heritage sites and much needed commercial activity albeit for one weekend every year.
Act for Change has been performing at the festival since it began five years ago.
Characteristically of a non-profit, Act for Change’s main challenge is funding. Many of the previous projects are self-funded with some of the volunteer actors chipping in to help. A situation which Smith describes as ‘not fine’.
Blown away by a performance, an audience member reached out to the Australian High Commission in Accra to help the group. The Australians sponsored the complete renovation of the colonial warehouse and the acquisition of props.
“Everybody applauds what we are doing. Everybody supports us. But as to putting where their mouth is; is the issue.”
Inadequate funding has also made it difficult for the group to spread their message of social change to other parts of the country.
However, the group recently positive news from the Canadian High Commission which could see that change. Through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, Act for Change will be campaigning against child, early and forced marriage in Somanya, in the Eastern Region.
For Collins Seymah Smith, the dream is to have the group’s own theatre centre, a touring group that canvasses the country and growing the Jamestown Arts Festival it started earlier this year to supplement Chale Wote.
For volunteer actor David Tagoe, it is to see a reduction in teenage pregnancy and unsafe abortions in Jamestown and beyond through the plays.
In the absence of the state to address the peculiar needs of Jamestown, these young Ghanaians show how creative social programmes can be the panacea to a troubled neighbourhood.