We head to Africa for today’s Geo Quiz. That’s where President Obama is headed at the end of this week. He’ll be visiting a West African city where you can find European forts from the 17th century.
Dutch, Danish, and British buildings stand sentry along the coast. They’re relics of the slave trade. Today, this city is the capital of a country that proudly won independence from Britain in 1957.
So, can you name this African city that will host America’s first African American president?
The answer is Accra, the capital of Ghana. When President Obama arrives there, he’ll be in good company. Many Americans go there. Some to conduct business – others to study. If you go, make sure to take time out and head to the beach. There’s a bathing spot just outside the city.
Its name? Well, there’s a story in that. We’ll let the World’s David Baron explain. (photos: David Baron)
Baron: Accra’s most popular beach gets crowded on weekends.
Swimmers bound in the surf. Tourists slump in lounge chairs. Acrobats and musicians entertain them. It’s a good place to relax, but if you want to start a heated conversation, ask this question.
What’s the name of the beach?
Lifeguard: “Labadi Beach.”
Koney: “It’s not Labadi. It’s La. It’s not Labadi.”
Student: “No, no, no, no. It’s Labadi Beach. Labadi Beach.”
Baron: Some call the beach Labadi. Others just call it “La” Beach. And it turns out this dispute has a deep and emotional back story.
You know how in the U.S. Native American groups have sought to change the names of certain places? Particularly places called Squaw Mountain or Squaw Valley. Some American Indians find the term “squaw” offensive. Well, it’s similar with the name “Labadi.”
Borteye: “The name has some historical background.”
Baron: Sampson Borteye is a regular at the beach, and he told me he knew the story. The local people, he explained, are known as the “La” people. “La” means fire.
Borteye: “During the colonial time, white people referred to the La people as bad, La Bad. That is how the name Labadi all came about. But the actual name is La.”
Baron: The British colonists called the La people “bad”? That sounded a little suspect to me. So I tracked down one of the La people.
Glover: “My name is Ablade Glover. I’m a retired university teacher.”
Baron: Professor Glover now owns an art gallery on the beach. He told me it wasn’t the early British settlers who gave this beach its name. It was the Danish.
Glover: “The Danes used this place as their bath place. They come to swim here. And they called this place the bath place. Bad in Danish is bathing place. So this then developed, and it became La bad, La bad.”
Baron: Then I heard a third version of the story. A linguistics professor at the University of Ghana contends Labadi is a variation on La Bonne. Bonne is the name of the place the La people are said to have come from.
But whatever the origins of “Labadi,” Ablade Glover says his people consider the term derogatory because many assume it means the La people are bad.
And his community has been asking for twenty years now that the name be retired. Still, you’ll see “Labadi” on maps and in guidebooks.
Glover: “I don’t know how long it’s going to take to pump this into people’s heads. The people here do not want to be called Labadi anymore. They want to be called La, which is the original name they settled with.”
Baron: Ultimately, this fight over language isn’t really about word origins. It’s about politics – and respect. We name mountains, cities, beaches – to make sense of a landscape.To claim and control it.
But times change, and names can grow dated. Consider Mt. McKinley, Constantinople, Peking.
When the inhabitants of an area decide they no longer like a name – particularly one imposed by outsiders – don’t they have a right to change it?
For The World, I’m David Baron, La Beach, Accra, Ghana.