Tag Archives: Accra

Holding a City Ransom

Abu Smith overlooks the valley at Agyemankata near Accra, Ghana, where a World Bank-funded landfill project is threatening his home.

Daniel Addo Adjare says the community will resist any attempts to build a landfill site at Agyemankata.

The villagers don’t want to talk to Ghanaian journalists. “Africans, Ghanaians, no!” said Abu Smith, shaking his head in disgust and setting off again across the side of a long, lush valley.

“They don’t care, they don’t do anything,” I hear him saying, the words drifting back as he races down the road that leads to his school as if he had springs in his skinny ankles that stick out from his too-short trousers.

“I knew you were a white lady, that’s why I said you could come.”

Smith is angry. He’s not happy I showed up at the wrong junction at the wrong time in Kwabenya, a community on the northern edge of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. He’s not happy I showed up with a Ghanaian colleague, who—evidently with good reason—had insisted I call to set up this meeting with the village firebrand.

But most of all, he is angry the government wants to build a garbage dump on his house.

The proposed landfill site at Agyemankata, a suburb of Kwabenya, has been in the works since the late 1980s. Its gestation period has grown ever-longer as the project hit snag after snag, with technical issues, funding issues, and a long war of attrition between the local community and the government.

The site covers 365 acres in a valley surrounded by green hills that roll out from the city, echoing with the ringing of hammers in the quarries that dot the area, where the stone crackers crack stones under the watchful eyes of foremen who sleep under thatch lean-tos. Stone-cracking is about the only job to be had in Agyemankata.

The hillsides echo, too, with the sound of drills and saws and cement mixers, and bricks sit piled by roadsides across the valley.

People are building houses.

The government took over the land in January 2007, using its powers of “executive instrument” that allow property to be seized for public interest. It was about that same time that the project sponsor, the World Bank, ordered Ghana to get things underway or risk losing the millions offered up for the landfill.

The Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) says 89 landowners filed claims for compensation in 2007 during the window of time applications were being accepted, as per the law.

Community activists, however, argue that many residents didn’t know their land was being seized and never filed for compensation. Even those who saw the scattered signs posted around the valley and in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest daily, couldn’t necessarily read them.

Anyone who missed that window of opportunity in 2007 is out of luck, according to the AMA.

AMA program officer Daniel Aidoo, who oversees the Kwabenya project, says there were no structures in the valley when the government took over the land. There may have been several that lacked building permits, he relents, and for those, the owners would be compensated. Three years later, no one has received any compensation.

And yet, in 2007, buildings across the valley were slapped with red paint ordering the occupants to remove the structures within 10 days, signed off by the National Security Authority. Most residents wouldn’t—or, without compensation money, couldn’t—leave.

The fierce agitation from the community over the years has resulted in violence numerous times. Most government departments won’t go there anymore, out of fear.

But regardless, Aidoo says the project is going ahead.

“Landfill has to be done,” says Aidoo. “The AMA is of the view that a few people cannot hold to ransom the entire city… It’s about the public interest.”

Currently, the garbage from more than three million people in Accra is dumped at various sites on the edges of the city, forming fields of waste that stretch out for kilometres.

If the community resists when the time comes to start work on the landfill, Aidoo says flatly, “State security will handle it.”

Meanwhile in Kwabenya, more people keep moving in, building grand homes with vaulted ceilings and wraparound balconies overlooking the valley. And many, like Smith, say they’ll never move.

Daniel Addo Adjare is a 65-year-old retired aircraft engineer who supports a family of 15 in two buildings on a hillside overlooking the proposed landfill. He says he saved for a decade to buy his land here.

“You can’t take it from me, I’ve paid for it,” says Adjare. “I used all my money, I bought this land. I can’t go anywhere.”

A military man for decades, Adjare prefers to stand in the shade under a tree in his yard where a long row of white underwear sways on a clothesline.

If they come, the community will resist, he says, as several elderly men around him nod in agreement.

“There will be trouble, a lot of trouble, because we will have to resist it.”

Smith, a banker turned pineapple farmer who now runs a school for about 200 students in Agyemankata, emerges from his house carrying a stack of papers that he has to peer around to see where he’s walking. It is every piece of correspondence between the community and local government, national government and international governing bodies.

There are newspaper clippings, too, but Smith says he’s given up on all of them—the politicians, the bureaucrats, the journalists. None of them really care, he says.

But he gets a spark of delight in his eye when he tells stories of the villagers going through the valley at night, removing all the pilings and surveyors’ lines put in place during the day. He’s taken trips to the police station a handful of times over the years, suspected of mischief and troublemaking.

“Look, look, would you put garbage there?” he asks, gesturing across the valley. “It’s just like they are coming to put an atomic bomb here, bang! Does the government want civil war?”

Smoke and Culture Shock on the Side of the Road

These are some definitions of culture shock:

Culture shock refers to the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, confusing, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown culture such as one may encounter in a foreign country.

Culture Shock is an American travel show hosted by Shenax Treasurywala on the Travel Channel.

Culture Shock was an anarcho-punk/ska punk band formed in Warminster, Wiltshire, England, in 1986 by Dick Lucas, previously of the Subhumans.

They tell you about it in training.

You will move to a foreign land. You will have a “honeymoon,” during which everything will seem shiny and exciting. You will be riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave through exotic, unknown lands, marvelling at the sights, the smells, the sounds, of your brave new world.

Then your surfboard will disintegrate, you’ll get dragged under a nasty wave and smashed to a million pieces against rocks coated in sharp, poisonous barnacles deep under the stinking, disease-infested sea, never to be seen or heard from again.

That may be an exaggeration. But at some stage, you’ll probably feel disoriented, anxious, depressed and frustrated, and maybe have anarcho/ska-punk song stuck in your head while you’re trying to sleep.

They tell you people deal with it in different ways. Some get mad, some get sad, some drink too much, some sleep too much, some stop talking. They tell you to stay positive. Remember, this too shall pass.

I arrived in Ghana on July 3 after a frantic month of quitting jobs, saying goodbyes, giving away most my belongings, sitting through a hectic eight days of training in Toronto whilst living in a stink-infested hostel on Spadina Avenue and spending two or three sleepless days traversing half the globe.

I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. I was drunk on Africa-love.

If you were to steal my journal and read entries from the first couple weeks of July, you would find embarrassingly corny passages like this:

“La Beach. Mist kind of floats over the wet sand jam-packed with shiny bodies doing acrobatics, riding horses dressed in Ghanaian flags, swimming, dancing. In the distance, the lines of fishermen pulling in their nets….Colours, smells, sounds, all foreign, all different, and so, so wonderful.”

“Everyone touches all the time. You sit cuddled up with strangers on the trotro and they sweat all over you and people hold your hand and it’s wonderful.”

“A playground for the senses, a T.V. blasting the World Cup game, three versions of “Waving Flag” playing at once, sewers and goats and garbage and tilapia grilling and fresh Star beer. It’s (you guessed it) wonderful.”

When I re-read this stuff a month later, I throw up, make a note to get a thesaurus and look up ‘wonderful,’ and then laugh. And laugh.

My first weeks in Accra were spent in a veritable orgasm of wonderment, revelling in all that was bright and new. A burble of languages, mysterious words in Twi and Ga singing out over the fruit stands and African clothing bursting with colour, the generosity and warmth of Ghanaians, who will invite you to eat and cook and drink with them, telling you as you walk down a strange street, “You are welcome.”

The landscape was breathtaking, the green hills dotted with palms and mango trees, the long white beaches with the surf crashing endlessly against them.

The inconveniences were charming — the 50-km tro-tro ride that takes four hours on a seat that collapses at every turn, falling into an open sewer, going five days with no running water, hours upon hours spent waiting for things that may or may not ever happen, getting violently ill seemingly every second time you eat, having throngs of children run over to touch your skin and hair. It’s all just so, so wonderful!

It is ridiculous to think, during this heady time of glee, that you might ever find anything bad about this place.

But if you flip a couple dozen pages through the stolen journal, the first line of every entry for days is this:

“I am tired.”

Suddenly, you find yourself irascibly irritated when you want to be somewhere and must sit for half an hour waiting for the tro-tro to fill up with people. You really wish you could just have a bloody shower instead of trying to bathe in a couple litres of water from a cracked bucket. You must practice meditation so as not to throttle someone who says they’re coming in a minute, and leaves you waiting for three hours. You can hardly choke out another “Hi!” when a group of men guzzling beer by the roadside start yelling “Obruni! Obruni!” at you and following you down the street.

It gets to you.

Over the course of about a week, I found myself getting more and more grouchy.

Then came a Wednesday when I spent hours in the office waiting for someone who was on the way, to be there in minutes. When the colleague showed up, he said he would be going for lunch. I smiled.

Then I went for a walk, to cool off in the 35-degree heat.

Despite efforts to refrain from smoking (which, unlike many African countries, is frowned upon in Ghana), I bought a package of Pall Malls and set about stomping down the road, chain-smoking, looking for some positive thoughts.

“Hey obruni!” came the usual call.

The man was striding toward me. I looked at him, unable to muster any sort of reaction.

“What is that in your hand? Don’t you know that smoking is illegal in Ghana? You should go to jail! A woman, smoking! You are an abomination.”

“It’s illegal?” I think I said.

“Go to jail!” he yelled, flapping his arms for emphasis.

It hit me like a wild tide of heartbreak, coming from my chest, funnelling into my throat, and straight out my eyeballs.

I started bawling.

The man looked frightened.

“I. Am. Having. A. Bad. Day. And. I. Just. Want. To. Smoke. One. Cigarette,” I think I said.

“I was joking, I was joking,” he said, patting my back nervously while I tried, unsuccessfully, to close the floodgates on my face. He ushered me to a concrete block and sat down beside me.

“Sit here, rest,” he said. “Are you hurt? I was joking, I was only joking, you will not go to jail. You can smoke anywhere in Ghana. This is a free country. Smoke all you want. Here, want more cigarettes? Smoke!”

Laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, while snot and tears continued to sketch in the layer of red dust coating my face, I kept telling him I was just having a bad day, and he kept apologizing for making me cry. Passersby looked on quizzically.

Eventually, I regained control of my eyeballs and he got most the snot off my face. As I stood to take my leave, he asked if we would ever see one another again. I shrugged.

“But I want to marry you,” he said.

“You’re crazy,” I told him. He raised his eyebrows at me.

“I’m crazy?”

We both began to laugh again, and I walked away.

The tide of unpleasantness came in and then, after some extra sleep, a few lengthy emails to old friends, and some snot left on the side of the road, it went out, leaving in its wake something in the middle of the two extremes experienced in the first weeks here.

I ran into my roadside friend again yesterday.

“Hey, crazy obruni, I see you’re still a chimney!” he called out, striding over to usher me to a concrete fence to sit.

We sat again for a short time on the side of the road and we laughed as I explained the reasons I was not a suitable candidate for marriage, but assured him there were others who would come along.

“You can just hassle obrunis about smoking. It’s a good way to meet them,” I told him.

He chortled.

“No, no, no. You people are crazy.”

Alive, Alert and Aware

A taxi driver threatened to kill me today.

I think.

A simple misunderstanding over my intended destination was the root of the problem and that misunderstanding amounted to five Ghana cedis, or roughly $3.62 CAD.

That much, I know.

When I arrived at the Accra Mall, my actual destination, and gave my initially agreed upon five cedis, it was rejected – with extreme prejudice. My formerly friendly driver sprung out of his car to follow me to the mall entrance, where I was headed with my back turned.  I didn’t make it very far before my right arm was seized mid-swing under the vice-like grip of the cabbie’s fingers.

“You bring ten cedis,” he barked.

“No. You said five. I got in the cab for five,” was my resolute reply.

This driver was also quite determined – to grab my wallet. He only loosened his grip of my arm momentarily to take a swipe at my purse. Naturally, this got my attention and I replied with language that can roughly be translated from the streets of Accra to this forum as: “Please sir, I don’t appreciate your aggressive physical contact. Please refrain from touching me and kindly go away.”

My driver responded in kind: “You said Accra Mall, not shopping centre. Bring me ten cedi.” Unbeknownst to me, at the time I was trying to go to the Accra Shopping Centre, that some locals call Accra’s most famous market, Makola, the Accra Mall.

The conversation bounced back and forth like an increasingly angry ping pong match, refereed by a small mob of idle taxi drivers and parking attendants that had nothing but a he-said, she-said set of emotionally-charged stories to render a verdict on.

In spite of the parking lot jury being stacked with cabbies, they sided with me.

Game. Set. Match.

Sadly, my victory was short-lived. After the ticked-off taxi driver got into his car and proceeded to pull out of the parking lot, he rolled up next to me, looked me up and down and bid me adieu:

“You don’t know me,” said the cabbie, furiously wagging his finger at me like an enraged head teacher at a naughty student. “I will punish you.”

“Are you threatening me?” I asked, suddenly relieved that I had scrawled down the driver’s vehicle i.d. number moments earlier.

He drove away, without answering.

The incident left me shaken, but fortunately, the questions in my head were the only things stirred. “Why would he be so desperate to squeeze me for five cedi?”

“Why do I feel like I’m constantly being hustled here?”

“Why is there so much corruption here?”

Then, as I strolled down the aisles of Shoprite supermarket, several thoughts came to mind.

One: minimum wage in Ghana, as of February 1, 2010, was 3.11 Ghana cedi a day, which is about $2.24 CAD.

Two: The national rate of inflation in Ghana has been on a steady incline, resting at 9.52% as of June 2010. Canada’s current rate, as of June 2010, is hovering just over 1 per cent.

Three: I just picked up a dish cloth that cost about 10 cedi. Even on my modest, but fair salary, here in Ghana, at this Shoprite, as was the trend at so many places in Accra, the prices weren’t right at all. I couldn’t afford a dish rag. Though my uni days were long behind me, I was eating instant noodles again, out of necessity.

Truth be told, I never really feel unsafe here in Ghana, but I do feel like everything I do requires all of my energy. Whether I’m fetching water for a bath, or sifting through my change purse for money for chicken, rice and a bag of pure water, I’m infinitely more aware that life is often harder here. I’m more aware of life, in general, which also, on a positive note, makes me feel, more alive too.

Alive, alert, and aware.

In a country with such abundant mineral wealth, it’s amazing that so little wealth actually reaches the pockets of Ghanaians. It’s no wonder that sometimes, people will do almost anything, including swipe at the pockets of others, to make that extra cedi.

Art for Advocacy

The presence of Ghana’s traditional and contemporary art in everyday life is extremely vibrant, literally.  The bright colours composing Ghanaian dress, buildings, posters and advertisements are so vivid and captivating that they are almost blinding at times.  Traditional kente cloth, often worn for special events, but used for everyday purposes as well, displays colour combinations that are particular to the original tribes of Ghana.  Here in Kumasi, there is a lot of kente with a yellow, red and green pattern to represent the Ashanti people.

My favourite place to admire all of the artwork around Ghana is in the painted signs advertising everything from toothpaste to sardines.  Often, an entire wall stretching around a large building will be covered with the repeated, painted logo of a single product, turning the entire building a bright red, green, or blue.  Even the smallest of shops have some elaborately painted signs or detailing.  Be it a simple chicken thigh and a fish to draw buyers into a cold shop, or the intricate portrait of a women with an elaborate hairstyle on a placard outside of a salon, painted signs are always eye-catching.

A poster on the wall of the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition in Accra

What I find most interesting, though, is the way Ghana’s strong connection to visual art is utilized by NGO’s for advocacy.  While visiting one Ghanaian anti-corruption institution to the next, the large number of anti-corruption posters hanging in frames on the wall caught my eye in every office.  Messages in a bold font that tell you, “Say no to corruption”, or “Be a whistle blower” are accompanied by a strikingly drawn, Ghanaian man or woman pointing an accusatory finger at the poster’s viewer.  Throw in the bright colours that adorn everyday Ghanaian life and, needless to say, these images become difficult to ignore.

In a country like Ghana where, according to UNICEF data, 35 per cent of adults are illiterate, organizations are realizing the importance of making information accessible by other means if they want their advocacy to make an impact.  The Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC), for instance, is working to inform civil society of the corruption that occurs in all levels of social life including one’s day to day interactions in both public and private institutions.  On top of their more structured training sessions to teach civil society members how to identify corrupt practices, one of their largest initiatives during Anti-Corruption Week, coinciding with the UN’s Anti-Corruption Day, is to widely distribute anti-corruption bumper stickers throughout the streets of Accra.  GACC is trying to make a visual impact that will constantly remind Ghanaians to be on the watch for corruption around them.

An artist’s rendition of “Democracy & Governance” outside the Centre for Democratic Development

Even something as seemingly complex as the Whisleblower Act, a bill passed in 2006 to protect those who report suspected corruption, has been condensed into an image-based message to make the Act more accessible.  The pocket-sized, 30-page “Guide to Whistleblowing in Ghana” includes a series of cartoons right in the centerfold that highlights the main points of the guide.  The larger training manual for civil society organizations also includes the same cartoons, but in a full-colour version.  The cartoons artistically portray the whistleblowers, the allegedly corrupt persons, the police, and the media all in the same illustrated style that is so characteristic of Ghana’s street scenes.  A cartoon woman drawn in one box asks a friend, “Can I still blow the whistle if I can’t read or write?”  In the same box, the cartoon explains that whistle blowers can make a claim verbally as well as written.  Hopefully, these splashes of colour and an artist’s touch will go a long way to educate other members of civil society just like her.

Putting the people back in politics

As Canadians, we could probably go for weeks without using the word ‘constitution’.  For most, it is linked more closely to the history of Canada’s founding rather than our contemporary understanding of what it means to be Canadian.  For Ghanaians, however, the 1992 Constitution holds the promise of keeping government accountable to its people, entrenching Ghana’s commitment to human rights, and bridging the gap between traditional and contemporary African society.  Interning at Kapital, it is rarely that a workday goes by without someone addressing the Constitution.

Because it plays such a large role in Ghana, it is important that it is constantly scrutinized to ensure its relevancy today.  That is exactly what is happening now during the Constitutional Review Process.  While I was in a Accra a week ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a press conference about the findings of a survey conducted by the Centre for Democratic Development.  The survey measured the public’s opinion about suggested constitutional amendments.  The public’s responses were separated into either the ‘household’ or ‘elite’ category with those in the elite category supposedly having a more specialized knowledge of the Constitution.

The panel of hosts at the Centre for Democratic Development's press conference

The findings presented at the press conference were only highlights of the survey results.  They presented significant discrepancies either between elite and public opinion, opinions divided along regional lines, or where there was almost full support for the constitution to be changed in regard to a particular issue.  An interesting split is found in the question about whether there should be a minimum education level set for MP’s.  Eighty-five per cent of household respondents declared a minimum level should be set, while only 65 per cent of elites felt the same way.

Many suggestions would also have large ramifications for protecting human rights if they were to be adopted into the Constitution.  For example, a large majority of respondents in both groups decided that it should be specified in the Constitution how long suspects can remain in police custody.  This would go a long way to prevent the abuse of prisoners’ human rights, a large concern in Ghana currently.

What I found most interesting was the measure of respondents’ attitudes toward the Constitution, highlighting just how important it is to the average Ghanaian.  Although 89 per cent of Ghanaians in the household category reported that they did not have access to a copy of the Constitution, a majority of Ghanaians (58 per cent in the household survey, and 96 per cent in the elite survey) reported that they were ‘familiar’ or ‘somewhat familiar’ with the contents of the constitution.  Moreover, over 90 per cent of respondents in both categories deemed the constitutional review exercise to be ‘necessary’.  It is my hope that those who are ‘somewhat familiar’, are familiar with Chapter Five at the very least.  This is where Ghana has committed itself to the majority of human rights listed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The highlight of the conference for me was the time reserved at the end of the presentation for public remarks.  Members of NGO’s and various media-houses present were free to critique and make suggestions regarding areas of the Constitution addressed in the survey.  This was the best example of direct democracy that I have seen in a while, perhaps ever, and the consideration of public opinion is only set to increase until the end of the constitutional review exercise.

Starting now and lasting until December, the Constitutional Review Commission is entering into a series of public forums on particular themes.  Proposed topics include “Gender and the Constitution”, “Media Accountability”, “Human Rights (DPSP)”, “Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ)” and “Traditional Authorities and Government”.  I find it very exciting to see such a focus on human rights and particular groups such as women and the media whose relationship to the Constitution and society, for that matter, are constantly shifting.