Imagining a Better Future – Playtime in Africa

Two acres of green space in the Dzorwulu neighbourhood of Accra, Ghana are being primed for transformation. It’s all about the kids, or Mmofra as they are called in Ghana’s Akan language.

This story, about a small plot of land, spans decades, continents and generations. It’s the story of a woman’s vision, of her love for children. The seeds were sown 50 years ago when the late Efua Sutherland wrote her groundbreaking book on Ghana’s play culture, Playtime in Africa. The narrative and accompanying photographs by Willis E. Bell were the first real documentation of children’s play in the newly independent African nation.

Sutherland was part of a post colonial cultural renaissance, a storyteller, an educator, a playwright and a community builder. Bell, an ex-patriated American, was in the process of establishing himself as a leading documentary photographer in the country. His work is considered to be an important part of Ghana’s visual arts culture.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Sutherland was also an untiring ambassador for play, an advocate emphasizing its importance in developing young minds and bodies. Her life of service established her as a cultural icon within Ghana and brought her work to the attention of a broader international audience: there is an Efua Sutherlandstraat in Amsterdam. On her retirement in the 1990’s she set the groundwork establishing Mmofra Foundation to continue her advocacy for children.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Now fast forward – time and space shift. Amowi Phillips is an adjunct professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. She is seven time zones and half a lifetime removed from this same plot of land where she played as a child. She is one of Efua Sutherland’s three children, a volunteer board member of the Mmofra Foundation, president of a newly formed partner organization, Friends of Mmofra, in Washington State, USA and one of the kids captured forever young in Playtime in Africa.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Fifty years ago Playtime in Africa introduced this very rich, nuanced play culture of Ghana to the world. That really bears some sharing. It’s a reminder of the sankofa principle – keeping what is of value from the past.

Amowi Phillips – Member, Board of Directors Mmofra Foundation

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Phillips, her two siblings Esi and Ralph, and the Foundation, are helping to lead the charge to create a public natural play space for children on this two acre plot that fuelled so many happy memories from their own childhood. They are uniquely qualified to do so. Ralph will be the principal architect, and Esi, an international consultant on education and a professor of African Studies, is the executive director of Mmofra Foundation.

They hope the project will serve as a prototype to encourage child-centered spaces in Ghana’s cities. In the 1980s, the forward-thinking Efua Sutherland conceptualized park-library complexes throughout the country. Pilots were built at the village and city levels, but were allowed over time to fall into disrepair and ruin.

If we are able to galvanize public advocacy for a thoughtfully designed child-friendly green core in central Accra, it will be a fresh start.

Amowi Phillips

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

At the end of May, the Foundation is organizing a design charrette on site in Accra’s Dzorwulu neighbourhood. This is the next big step in re-imagining the use of the land, in creating a space for play. Community stakeholders, designers, architects, indigenous knowledge specialists and elders, landscape architects, planners and politicians are being invited to participate. Architecture for Humanity has encouraged the project.

“Our concept is very much about inscribing the culture of Ghana into the landscape, enhanced by elements adapted from other parts of the world. We’ll have to see what happens on the ground,” says Phillips. The three siblings will participate in the charrette injecting their passion for play and for children into a place that was once their own land of daily adventure.

From Playtime in Africa – Courtesy Mmofra Foundation. Click photo for larger image.

Another important consideration for the Foundation is to design a space in such a way that people can take elements of it and reproduce them in their own neighbourhoods. “We want to be intentional about creating room where children can develop their imagination and creativity,” continues Phillips.

Through their work, the Foundation is finding out about similar projects in other parts of Africa such as South Sudan and Sénégal. For Phillips, it’s time for Africa to be part of the global conversation about spaces for imaginative play and discovery and she sees herself as a connector, having brought together an international coalition of people who are passionate about play around this project.

An online search for a children’s parks or museums yields very little between Cairo and Cape Town. Without environments where children can imagine a better future, dependency can really become entrenched.

Amowi Phillips

Source: Mmofra Foundation. Click image to enlarge

Playtime in Africa from the land of Anansi stories, adinkra patterns and kente cloth. As with so many things in life – nsa baako nkura adesoa – one hand cannot lift a heavy load. To participate in the development of this playspace, contact Mmofra Foundation.

14 responses to “Imagining a Better Future – Playtime in Africa

  1. I loved this article and will share with my friends from Accra.

    • Thanks Crystal, it really is an inspirational story with the focus on kids and their well being. I’m very excited to see what this play space will look like once completed. Mmofra Foundation has a lot of fine work on the go.

  2. Pingback: First volume of Willis Bell’s classic Ghana photographs goes on sale | Sushi in Accra

    • Thanks for linking in. I look forward to following this project over time. It holds so much promise and is moving forward with steady, informed and passionate energy. Cheers

  3. For articles on Aunty Efua’s work with children and information about her writing for children see ‘The Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan-African Cultural Activism’ ed. Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy, Ayebia, Oxford, 2007, USA distribution by Lynne Rienner Publishers, co-published in Ghana by Centre for Intellectual renewal.. ISBN 978-0-9547023-1-1

  4. Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE
    “The Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan-African Cultural Activism” co-edited by Anne V. Adams and Esu Sutherland-Addy is also available from the Publishers website at http://www.ayebia.co.uk and is also distributed in UK and Europe by Turnaround Publisher Services at http://www.turnaround-uk.com and is available in Ghana from the Legon University Bookshop.

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  8. I will be in east africa building platgrounds (which is not that close to Ghana, but its closer than Australia) and i would be happy to offer any assistance with this project if need be.

    If anyone has any information let me know…

    Marcus
    playground guy, Playgroundideas.org

    • Hey Marcus, how are you? Great to hear you’re going back to Africa. Which country are you going to? I believe you’re connected with the East Africa Playgrounds group….

      I still plan to write about PlaygroundIDEAS and two others great stories that I have had a hard time getting to. You should get in touch with Amowi at Mmofra if you haven”t already. The Playtime in Africa post is a similar kind of treatment that I would like to do for PlaygroundIDEAS.

      Hope all is well with you. Keep building playgrounds, happiness and community. Cheers, Alex

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