This fish came from Jamestown harbour, in the coastal part of what is known as ‘Old Accra’.
Getting there is not difficult. You leave the main road at the colonial-era lighthouse and descend a steep ramp, then walk south down muddy paths lined with small wooden shops and houses. And then, quite suddenly, you emerge onto a quayside. Atlantic spray flies over the harbour wall to your right, while to the left the arms of the bay hug scores of bobbing pirogues.
On the quayside itself, female traders set out their wares on wide platters and upturned bowls. Snapper, grouper, mackerel, barracuda, crab. Some are still bright-eyed and glistening, others faded and dry after hours in the sun – not everyone has a ready supply of ice.
This is, by any measure, a working class neighbourhood. The city’s Ga founders settled it centuries before the colonial administration moved the capital here from Cape Coast in 1877, but its centrality was not to last. The wealthy began to migrate to other districts after the earthquake of 1939, and port activity moved to the newly developed Tema in the early 1960s. Fishing and petty trading dominate, and only special events like Chale Wote bring in much tourism.
Nor are obroni shoppers common. The traders thought they’d found buyers for the older fish, but I’m familiar with the signs of freshness too – in metropolitan Britain the middle classes know this stuff, drilled by TV chefs and cookery books. Gentrification moves in mysterious ways.
On the way to the harbour my friend Ruby had speculated that it could come here too, in time. Jamestown is the kind of place property developers love to ‘regenerate’: coastal, central, cheap, packed with heritage and artisans. I thought briefly of my last trip to Britain, when I looked down from the terrace of Rocksalt, an aspirational fish restaurant dropped like a crashed spaceship into down-at-heel Folkestone harbour, and saw the arse crack of a local fisherman who was stooping to clean his boat.
We bought three mid-size snapper, the only pair of mackerel we could find and two piles of what I think are round sardinella. They were passed on to three older women, who arranged themselves around a rough, low table and set to work cleaning. Scales flew. Cleavers sheared off jaws and fins. Gills were torn out and viscera tugged through the holes. It was a scene of swift, skilful carnage.
Ruby asked permission to take a photo, and the most senior of the three threw up two open palms: not an objection, but an entreaty to wait. She pantomimed preparing herself for the camera, to the delight of some resting fishermen. It was done in good humour, but the subtext was: “You think this is picturesque? This place? These fish guts? Me?”
I’d left my camera at home, and was glad to dodge the question. That afternoon I washed down the fish and removed the last of the intestines. It felt good: each body heavy, textured, real. We baked the mackerel in foil parcels with garlic, tomatoes, green chili and white wine, and it was beautiful.