The little business people of Bolgatanga

Underage head porters in northern Ghana sell water sachets and fruit on the streets. Others, like the girl above with a barbeque, help to move heavy goods. Photo by Hez Holland.

Street children who hawk goods in Bolgatanga, the capital of Ghana’s Upper East region, have a hierarchy to climb if they want to make money.

At the bottom rung, initiates usually begin by helping people carry heavy goods, especially around the city’s busy bus and taxi station.

They then graduate to selling things like sachets of water, I’m told. But it’s stuff like oranges that bring in bigger profits.

You can usually buy seven or six orange for fifty peswas, which equates roughly to $0.30 CAD, says Azure Akolgo, 13. Then, a vendor can resell three or four oranges for fifty peswas, he adds, which doubles their profit.

Azure and his friends tell me more about the business of selling goods on the street: banding together to help each other out, placing orders with the dealers who travel out of town and the risk of selling perishable food.

It’s all kind of astonishing—you have to remind yourself that these kids are all preteens.

But the crash course in business these children received from spending their childhood on the street is pretty much the only good thing about it. They’re robbed of the horizons school provides and are left in an endless cycle of selling cheap goods.

Aisha Imora, 12, tells me what put her to work in the first place.

“We were not getting food to eat,” she said. “That’s why we decided to go to the streets and see if we could see somebody on the streets carrying heavy things, maybe we can help that person and that person can give us some money so we can eat and feed ourselves.”

She was five at the time, she said. Her father died and her mother also sold goods on the street.

But today, the children I’m speaking to are far away from their usual haunts.

They’re getting their first field trip ever—a tour of the Vea-Gowrie dam and pumping station, which provides water to the northern city Bolgatanga. The trip has been organized by a British child rights NGO, Afrikids.

For kids who have only attended school sporadically, if at all, it’s a stark departure from their normal lives.

And they don’t pass up the opportunity. The dam’s staff are peppered with questions as they head through the wet and noisy pumping station.

Azure, who told me earlier he wanted to become an engineer when he grows up, asks questions you’d expect from a full-time student.

“What happens when water gets in the pump?” he asks, and the pumping expert explains how to prevent water getting into the system.

The kids are all part of a project called “The School of Night Rabbits,” a program that offers night classes twice a week by Afrikids. The children sell goods during the day and go to class at night.

It’s become a stepping stone for children trying to escape the necessity of working on the street.

Azure’s mind is in full bloom during the field trip, proving he has more potential than selling fruit. In a world stratified by wealth, school is often the only ladder that crosses through the hierarchy.

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About James Munson

Learning the way the world works first-hand drives James Munson's passion for journalism. After graduating from the University of King’s College in 2008, he headed west to Denver to work for the Hill Times, where he finagled a ticket to hear Barack Obama accept the presidential candidacy. His impulse then lead him north to the Yukon News in Whitehorse, where he cut his teeth as an investigative reporter and feature writer. He won the 2010 Ma Murray award in environmental writing for a story about the premier’s hand in suppressing the advice of scientists who recommended protecting the Peel watershed from mining. He also exposed the premier’s negotiations to sell the Yukon’s public power utility in 2009. James and the premier are no longer speaking. His experience in northern Canada has prepared him for the rigours of Tamale in northern Ghana—he thrives on living in a strange places in strange times doing exhilarating work. He’s looking forward to working at Diamond FM where he hopes to focus his work on politics and governance issues.

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