Bustling nightlife in Accra may be young people cry for help

Accra nightlife
Accra nightlife

Nightlife in Accra has promised and delivered delirium for close to 100 years. It is lost on many people that this cherished aspect of living in Ghana’s capital would not have happened at all or at least at its current effervescence, if the capital of the Gold Coast had remained Cape Coast. Becoming the centre of political power brought Accra unassailable preeminence in spheres multicultural and economic. But while Accra’s glory may have been orchestrated in colonialism, its nocturnal gaiety has been anything but controlled.

If the African entertainment listicles online and my well-travelled non-Ghanaian friends are to be believed, Accra presents one of the continent’s premium options in nightlife. My Twitter feed agrees and so do most of my friends in Ghana. In the course of the last few years, I have barely indulged in the thrill, probably because it has also gotten costlier.

But the nightly buzz is not simply taking our money; it may be taking our minds as well. While recreation is a necessary part of psychological growth, I have often wondered what we are hiding from when we constantly turn up where the music is loudest, the drugs drag you higher and the alcohol overflows. Of course, all recreation is not equal and my concerns are as a result of what is more popular as a choice for young Ghanaians who wish to celebrate their leisure. One can find in the city centre – an area with a roughly 1,200-metre radius – a saturation of pubs, nightclubs and other such places. Interestingly, this area also contains Accra’s central business district, a situation that gives some credence to the counsel “work hard, play hard”.

However, most commercial capitals across the world are no different. In these major cities, there tends to be a mutually-sustaining relationship between producers and consumers in the nightlife entertainment industry. The free market is most prominent in the entertainment industry where the symbiosis between producers and consumers shapes each party’s destinies and desires. The interaction goes on ad nauseam and the general public can lose sight of the adverse effects it creates. For instance, a 2010 experts’ report that analysed and suggested recommendations for tourism and nightlife culture in the European Union submitted that overseers of clubs and pubs often have very little sympathy for the health of consumers and the sanity of entertainment culture. In these spots, alcohol is sold and alcohol is bought. Music is played and dance floor is occupied. Whoever is reeling under the effects of alcoholism or has a health condition triggered by the magnitude of activity can only count on themselves or their immediate company.

Two of the recommendations made by the report were for nightclub staff to be trained in administering first aid and to significantly enforce “restrictions on opening hours for discotheques, and especially for after-hours parties”. I am willing to believe there are set times proposed by local governments for operation of nightclubs in Ghana but if this will be enforced, along with the training for club employees, your guess is as good as mine.

Apart from the unwanted emergent spurred by alcohol and drugs, women would have to look out for themselves in these spaces where sexual misbehaviour is almost certain to be unleashed by men.

But that’s exactly what frustrates me about the nightlife and recreation in Accra for young people. We place so much emphasis on the young person’s individual responsibility even though the options and conditions of recreation are, to put it kindly, poisonous. Healthier outdoor recreational options in the city are next to non-existent. Also, you are not guaranteed a lot of protection – as the EU report recommended to European countries – when you check yourself into any of the more popular options we have in Accra.

My friend Earl who lives in the inner-city of Accra Central often expresses fears about the future of young people’s relationship with alcohol and drugs as a result of the above. But if there is little protection for young people who frequent higher-end joints in agreeable parts of the city, there is even less for their counterparts in the inner city. And when you add the fact poorer youth have virtually no space or means to seek therapy and rehabilitation, we face the risk of recreating Victorian England where the instruments of state place the vicious cycles of poverty on some deficiency in the moral characters of poor people. This is even more intriguing when you consider the fact that the popular drug-peddling inner-city spot, Ayaata Corner, in the Ashiedu-Keteke sub-metro area, receives nearly as many orders from (upper)-middle-class Accra dwellers as it receives from struggling youth.

Picture the futures that could be possible for a young person growing up in Cantonments and another in Kantamanto even if they are both abusing substances as teenagers today.

Recreation is important for physical and psychological health, building inclusive communities and ensuring general life satisfaction. Nothing should diminish the centrality of recreation in molding a well-adjusted society. In a way, my case could have been made about the basic poverty of recreational options in the city. But reviewing the principal fundament which is nightlife will translate into attention for everything else. Outdoor recreation for young adults in Accra is ostensibly nightlife.

I am statistics-shy of confidently claiming that we are building the momentum for catastrophe. Nightlife has become synonymous with unfettered exposure to alcohol, drugs and noise pollution, and to all that they bring. A researcher at the University of Ghana in 2016 indicated that alcohol consumption on the university’s Legon Campus was nearly 60% among undergraduate students with most students drinking as part of recreation at parties and on outings. To add to that, I personally know a few women and have read the accounts of many more who have to go out in groups due to fear of sexual assault and harassment. For some of them, the precaution they take is so that they do not become repeat victims.

In April of 2021, a nonprofit called Heal and Chill Foundation partnered more than five of the biggest night entertainment providers including the famous Bloombar and Zen Gardens for awareness creation on sexual consent. This was effectively a non-governmental organisation’s intervention in the conversation on sex and gender-based violence, specifically identifying the arena of Ghanaian life that happens to be grounds for so much of such violence.

If there is any scintilla of puritanism in the case I’m making, that is unintended but I sincerely do not even care. Mine is an argument towards prudence – what burdens can we shoulder as a society where some 7 in every 10 Ghanaians are under the age of 40? More than 35% of Ghanaians too are under 15. To put both of these into better context, about 70% of Ghanaians today were not alive or barely remember when the coup of 1981 was made and about 4 out of 10 Ghanaians today were not alive when we redenominated the cedi in 2007.
That is a frighteningly young population for us to throw caution to the wind and maintain a permanent withdrawal of public protections. If we do not reconsider how we urge young people to spend recreation, repercussions for doing nothing will be sternly felt in health, security, employment and other aspects of our economy.

In many countries where policymaking is chiefly driven by corporate interests, mentioning a dent to the economy often prompts a spirited political response. That is where, if you are lucky, other businesses are given the carte blanche to raise healthier avenues of recreation to compete with the existing ones. Or businesses suffer some kind of ‘sin tax’ to alleviate the disaster they serve the public. Human needs necessitated and negotiated through the grips of the free market and all society’s problems are seen as economic opportunities. Each rational actor to themselves, the market for us all.

Nevertheless, I am not too sure neoliberalism is entirely at home in Ghana as it is in many other countries. Make no mistake, it is noticeable but over here, neoliberalism is yet premature. Political party considerations – and not business interests – are still the major controllers of institutions, laws and policies even if you speak of state capture through businesses owned by partisans.

Still, as Ghanaians, we have been trained to see the boom in nightlife adventures as an outgrowth of a steadily growing middle-class.

Classically, a boom in the services sector is read as a sign that a lot of money is going around. So in this case, more hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, event centres (they say there’s even a ‘wedding industry’ in Ghana) etc. spring up and all people can think about is that folks got money to spend. I guess it’s because the services sector is largely viewed through the spectacle of consumption. We do not even ask why people spend money so much on the nightlife. That is the sort of close-mindedness that blinds us to the population abuse committed through Ghana’s nightlife attractions.

Another publication by a researcher in the University of Ghana in 2020 strongly connected depressive states to alcoholic use among working Ghanaians. So, are young Ghanaians reaching for the bottle anywhere they can find it because they cannot find other means of dealing with fragile mental health? What if, instead of simply perceiving the dizzying lights of the night, we also spare some concern for dreary lives? Are we forcing young people to drink, dance and drug away a mental health crisis? These are not exaggerated queries.

Many people with whom I have conversed happen to understand the gentrification and economic challenge to locals that come with President Akufo-Addo’s campaign to make Ghana the tourism capital of the Global Black Experience. All I have been saying is that the boon of the nightlife scene has also come with a bane, and there is no way to dodge it.

I know how attractive the retort to my argument is – that I could let people live as they please. Or that people are responsible for their own safety. The invalidity of such thinking lies in the fact that the state is constitutionally owes protection to individuals. The Ghana Non-Communicable Disease Alliance already tells us Ghana is averaging above the WHO Africa Region figure for alcohol dependence. The dangers of a sexual kind posed to women have never gone out of fashion and we do not seem ready to have a good-faith conversation about drugs in Ghana. But lives are at stake.

Hopefully, we can come to generate the perspectives and sympathies to prioritise young people.

By Nii Sarpei Hornsby

The author is an international media relations and African political narrative communications specialist

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