Ghana’s jockeys cherish their horses—and their traditions

Ghana’s jockeys cherish their horses—and their traditions

Published September 14, 2022

10 min read

Accra, GhanaIt is only 10 a.m., but the jockeys of the Korle Gonno stables have already been up for seven hours. They sit in a semi-circle behind the Korle Bu district outpost of the Electricity Company of Ghana talking, occasionally chuckling, one of them eating waakye–a Ghanaian street food classic of rice and beans–from the large, waxy leaf in which it is served.

“We’re up at the break of dawn to take the horses to the beach,” explains Michael Allotey, a trainer. “We use the main roads to reach the beach, but it is very early and the streets are quiet. Some days we canter the horses, sometimes we do gallop training, but we’re back here by 5 to 5: 30 a.m.”

I have lived in Accra most of my life but have never seen the jockeys of the Korle Gonno stables riding their steeds through the city’s streets before dawn. The establishment, which has been in existence for decades, is an integral part a horse culture that has survived for centuries. West Africa’s history with horses dates back at least to the Malian Empire, which was founded in the 13th century by Sundiata, a West African monarch. Artifacts such as an armed terracotta figure on horseback, currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, confirm the long-standing relationship, as do oral histories passed down through generations and the stories of the jockeys and handlers themselves.

Allotey takes us to several wooden shacks that are perched against cement walls in the early morning. These humble structures are home to some of Ghana’s most talented racing horses, including Skylight (an emerging star) and Lucky Boy (a serial race winner at Accra Turf Club, the capital’s only racetrack). The shacks are where mares and foals graze.

I notice two cows standing out from their place. Allotey takes me to the shade under a squat to join the seated men. He explains that one the jockeys raises cattle to supplement his income. Despite their long history with horses, Korle Gonno’s men do not make a living from their equestrian activities. (At this Texas horse auction, traders and rescuers face off over the fate of hundreds of horses. )

Twin jockeys Dennis and Davis Ahinakwa tell me that their grandfather was a jockey; Allotey’s great-grandfather was one, too. Mohammed Jara, who manages the stables comes from a family that immigrated from Mali many generations back. His father, Baba Jara was a renowned horse trainer and rider. Kantara Kamara was one of Ghana’s most successful jockeys.

The stables are awash with sand in the morning breeze. Although they speak a sonorous, humorous Ga, my mother tongue but they are fluent in equestrian languages. They lament, for instance, what they see as the Ghana Army’s misuse of thoroughbreds–horses that they covet but can’t afford to bring in to breed. They reminisce with evident pride about local horses such as Sandring, who was a two-time winner at the National Derby and was the only Ghana-bred horse ever to win the race.

As the afternoon turns into morning, it becomes clear that each man has a deep love and appreciation of horses. They are full of poetry when they recount their morning rides along the shoreline, where they can gallop for miles while the fishermen lower their nets to allow the horsemen passage. (Beloved Chincoteague ponies’ mythical origins may be real. )

They have been bound to horses since they were young boys, sometimes running errands for free just so they’d be given the opportunity to ride. Jara claims he has never lived in a home without horses. “I was crawling between the hooves unbroken horses by the time I was just a few months old. Because they never harmed me, everyone in the family said I had the gift.”

The stable’s horses are never put down, Allotey says. As they age, the horses are moved to more gentle work such as riding tourists on gentle beaches, helping with wedding photos and acting as props. Horses that have been injured are rehabilitated using tried and true methods.

“We are experts in horse care and make their food ourselves,” Jara says. “We only need a bit of investment, and we could breed champions here.”

I believe him because I know that generations of expertise fuel his conviction. Each of these men is part of the history of West African horse-riding. It is only the future that is uncertain.

As my departure approaches, a motorbike pulls in front of me. It’s a customer who is trying to negotiate the cost of a horse for a neighborhood celebration. It would seem that life is a constant stream of cantering.

Akosua Viktoria Adu-Sanyah is an internationally exhibited and published German-Ghanaian visual artist and documentary photographer based in Zurich, Switzerland. Her work is often awarded for her exploration of new territories through image-making and research.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a 2022-23 Hutchins Fellow at Harvard University, where he’s researching historic connections between Africa and its diaspora.

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