Houston, Once Removed

Go to Accra, Ghana, and find gated communities modeled on our own hometown

Like many natives of Houston, William Ohrt begins his morning commute by backing a Toyota Land Cruiser onto the new cement of a prim, tree-lined street. He idles along at a responsible 20 miles per hour -- with an eye out for joggers -- nods to the guard of his gated community and braces for 45 minutes of grueling traffic.

But Ohrt will not cross Loop 610 or crawl down the Katy Freeway. He's 6,000 miles away in an upscale housing development he helped build on the fringe of Accra, the capital of the West African nation of Ghana. And when he passes the gate of his tidy suburban enclave, his commute is sometimes stalled by herds of inner-city goats, potholes the size of televisions and crowds of pedestrians carrying sack lunches of deliciously spicy snail soup.

Ohrt is the director of the Ghanaian-American housing company Regimanuel Gray. Founded in 1991 as a partnership between Houston developers David Gray and John Passler and Ghanaians Regina and Emmanuel Botchwey, the company was created to use American know-how to build quality homes for Ghana's growing middle class. Twelve years later, Regimanuel Gray is now Ghana's largest private housing developer, and has begun to reshape the urban landscape of Accra.

Emmanuel Botchwey and William Ohrt both own 
stakes in Regimanuel Gray, a Ghanaian-American 
joint venture.
Courtesy of Regimanuel Gray
Emmanuel Botchwey and William Ohrt both own stakes in Regimanuel Gray, a Ghanaian-American joint venture.
The traffic in Ghana's capital, Accra, approaches 
Houston proportions.
Wim Focke
The traffic in Ghana's capital, Accra, approaches Houston proportions.

Born in 1954 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Ohrt moved at age 13 to Houston, where he attended Memorial High School. He paid his way through Texas A&M University by working as a carpenter and graduated in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in construction technology. He worked for several Houston construction companies before joining David Gray's firm, Gray Construction, in 1985, where he rose to regional project manager. Before joining Regimanuel Gray in 1992, he had no international work experience and had never been to Africa, but he was ready to try something new. "I was sort of in between marriages and in between projects and I said, 'Okay, I'll come over and take a look.' "

Ohrt liked what he saw. A young nation free of British rule for less than 50 years, Ghana was still struggling with how to transform its capital city -- where the population had topped one million -- into a place where the lights turned on and the toilets flushed. "Everything was very underdeveloped, much more so than now," Ohrt says. "So everywhere you looked, there was an opportunity." And where Ohrt grasped it was in a vision for Accra's suburban landscape. Ghana's capital was a fast-growing city in need of affordable housing, a polluted metropolis with empty land at the fringe, and a place of potential where safe subdivisions could outfit young couples with the building blocks of independence.

The future of Accra, Ohrt decided, was Houston.

Step off an air-conditioned 747 onto the tarmac of Accra's Kotoka International Airport, and the air sloshes around you and seeps into your clothes like a wet overcoat plucked from the spin cycle. Inhale and it gushes into your lungs and sets up camp as a sort of permanent squatter on the doormat of your cilia. It is heavy, sooty and rude -- an introduction to a city that feels oddly familiar.

Find a cab at the edge of the airport -- there's no public transportation within sight -- and drive. A half-hour blur of nondescript strip centers gives no hint of progress or destination. The cabbie reassures loudly as his roaring machine trembles. And then the blur slows, revealing a hotel in a seemingly isolated outpost near an overpass. Only later does one learn that, like Houston, Accra is a city without a center, a place where the roads are the star attraction.

The number of freeway overpasses in Ghana's capital can be counted on one hand, but all of them are objects of intense national pride. An overpass experience often happens in this way: A dented cab clatters over a pocked two-lane road; the pavement suddenly smooths out; the cab speeds up; the lanes grow to three, then four; a sign announces that tax dollars paid for this magnificent improvement; and -- whoosh! -- a bridge swoops overhead and the road returns to a potholed stutter.

The bad roads in Accra breed traffic, but not enough to discourage anyone with an automobile from driving, and driving fast. People in Accra love their cars almost as much as Houstonians. Blame the heat, the sprawl or the fact that the sidewalks have crumbled into oblivion. As in Houston, constant crashes dissuade no one. A cab sat on the road in front of the national theater for several hours when I was in town -- surrounded by a pool of glass, upside down. Onlookers barely paused.

But most people in Accra still don't go by auto, and here the two cities part ways. Although Houston faces poverty, the average Accra resident lives in a crumbling cement condo or a clapboard house overflowing with cousins and uncles and chickens. Most people struggle to earn enough for clothes and food, not liability insurance and gas money. They ride to work for a quarter in packed VW vans. Or dodge cars on skinny dirt paths worn into the side of the street, carrying eggs, plantains, little bags of nuts -- anything passersby might purchase -- and inhaling plumes of diesel along the way.

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