A Tale of Two Parks in Accra

 

Efua Sutherland Children’s Park in Accra this day is almost deserted. Under the pavilion, a wonderful woman has organized a “soup kitchen” program for street youth who are gathered together to receive words of wisdom and a meal. Otherwise, this large green space at the center of Accra’s hyper-congestion is almost empty. Brilliantly colored dragonflies and butterflies dart and flutter among rusted metal playground structures on which no child dare step: sharp edges are everywhere, spikes abound, corroding metal curls away from all surfaces in threatening shards and whirls.

The brightly-patterned ferris wheel and the deserted children’s train that once ran around the park add to the post-apocalyptic scene: you can almost hear the laughter of long-ago children, the shouting and carrying on of Accra youth about to vacate school. Where have the bodies of children been snatched to? What alien force has taken them from the 12 acre park that was named for them? What is going on with Efua Sutherland Children’s Park?

And still, my children play. The broken beer bottles do not prevent them from racing across the field; the train without a floor is still fascinating. There is still magic and invitation here.

Later on in the day we go to Mmofra Place, a park and playspace created by the Sutherland family foundation in Dzorwulu (Abelenkpe Road, next to Marvels). Immediately, the kids are off running, whooping and hollering in a space that has been curated just for them. Here, there is no worry– everything in the eponymously named Mmofra Place is designed with children in mind. The treehouse, climbing wall, jungle gyms, drama stage, wooden motorcycle and more invite children to run, touch, dream and commune with the natural world. We watch lizards and talk about the gardening boxes. In the majestic treehouse the kids come up with a complicated game suspiciously resembling a Nollywood plot. Mmofra Place’s comparatively low entrance fee of 5GHC per day reflects its sense of mission: young couples can stroll the well-kept grounds, people might picnic, exercise, meet, and just breathe free in a place of beauty.

The distance between the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park and Mmofra Place is substantial. One is public (albeit currently inaccessible), the other private. One is in woeful disrepair, the other strikingly lovely; but both are connected by the name and personage of Efua T. Sutherland, the artist, creator, and institution-builder who believed that all Ghanaian children (and perhaps their parents, leaders, and politicians) need green spaces to play.

In the 20 years surrounding national independence (1947-1967) Efua T. Sutherland was a secondary school teacher and a children’s book writer. She also founded the cultural journal Okyeame, started the Experimental Theatre Players in Accra, founded the Ghana Society of Writers, (later the Writers Workshop at the Institute of African Studies) and created the touring theater group Kusum Agoromba. In 1997, the public park across from the National Theater was named after Sutherland to honor her advocacy for Ghanaian children whose needs, she insisted, were a true north in the project of nation-building.

More than 20 years later, the blightedness of the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park is a problem hiding in plain sight. There  have been articles and blog posts aplenty mourning this display of dilapidation at the center of Accra, but nothing is being done. What is going on with Efua Sutherland Children’s Park?

A few years ago the previous government was involved in negotiations to sell these twelve acres to be “developed.” Questions raised by the Sutherland family prevented the loss of this national public resource. Since then, the Children’s Park has been very much left alone- the government has not rubbished the rusted play equipment that makes the place a hazard; the benches remain broken, the prohibition on public use is there.  Only organized events– funerals, festivals, political rallies can come there. The generation of children growing up now will have no positive memories of playing in the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park, of strolling from there to the National Theater, of darting around the center of their Accra on a plot of land preserved for them.

And on some level, perhaps this is the point. The continuing neglect strengthens the hand of those who look at this 12 acres and see only dollar and cedi signs; only hotels or malls, more large private concrete buildings jockeying for space in the sky.  When there is no-one who remembers what Efua Sutherland should be and once was, the process of selling it will be that much easier.

The government sits on its hands and shrugs, insisting that it cannot manage a simple park. This, then, becomes yet another sector of Ghanaian life that appears to only work when it is privatized, outsourced and set to a fee.  This willful neglect– to the degree that it sets the stage for the sale and loss of one of central Accra’s only green public spaces—is more than child’s play.  Government’s refusal-to-steward/willingness-to-sell cultivates this mantra where the only good Ghanaian future is a privatized Ghanaian future.

Part of the triumph of Mmofra Place is that at every stage, in name and vision, it references the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park. The practical beauty of Mmofra Place juxtaposed with the deliberate dilapidation across town forces the question:  so what is going one with Efua Sutherland Children’s Park?  The new site, spearheaded by the Sutherland family, is a creative act of institutional optimism. It does not solve the problem; it should not let the government off the hook! However, this project recognizes that  children (and adults) have to experience what they’re missing to know what to work towards, what can be possible. Mmofra Place is a seed, a lesson. It is reproducible and inspirational; it is nourishment. It preserves Efua Sutherland’s dream (which was always public, for all Ghanaian children) even in our time.

This also should be named: the ongoing neglect of the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park is the attempted erasure of a Ghanaian women’s brilliant contribution to the content of national independence. Given the current administration’s focus on expanding the public memory of the independence era, it is surprising that this assault on the legacy of a visionary foremothers continues. Any child will tell you that unless you learn to respect the voice of your mother, you will never be happy. So we must ask, as many times as is necessary, what is going on with the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park?

My gratitude to all who provided feedback and insight.

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