A pungent stench invades the nostrils when we step over the unusually wide, overfilled gutter.
“This place is stinky” my colleague remarks. “I’m going to use a whole bar of soap when I wash tonight.”
We enter Old Fadama, one of Accra’s largest slums, popularly referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah for the way in which its 79,000 inhabitants apparently behave—rough, sinister and uncontrollable.
It has been mythologized among Accra’s middle and upper classes. When I told a co-worker I would be there to work on a story, she remarked that it’s “full of violent people, armed robbers, crooks, prostitutes and the unemployed.”
There is a crime element in Old Fadama, but that is only a marginal aspect of the community. In reality, a majority of the people are industrious and well-organized, building their own homes and running their own businesses.
I’m told multiple times to keep my laptop and camera close to me. It’s midday.
My colleague and I are whisked around the neighbourhood by Victor Nartey, a task force commander of the Old Fadama Development Association (OFADA), an organization founded by the community to monitor itself.
“There’s no chief or assemblyman here, so we take the risk to control the whole place in case of any problem” says Nartey, standing in front of a dilapidated OFADA office that burned down last month. “We have big men and chiefs among us, and we are working together with the regional police command for peace, because we are all one here.”
They run trash collection, home rebuilding and sanitation programs. They also work with police to help reprimand the “robbers, crooks and prostitutes” I had been cautioned about—taking initiative to improve their conditions themselves.
Old Fadama is a maze of wooden structures built around narrow, unpaved rough roads. Fires are commonplace here, sparked by faulty electrical lines and cooking fires.
Nartey continues, “When we were here, and our kiosks were burning, we didn’t even have money to buy plywood so we used cardboard to [make] our rooms. [Within] a small time fires burned. People would say ‘you are behaving like the people in Sodom and Gomorrah.’”
The poverty is obvious. What’s not as apparent is the general perception that these people are sub-human—wretched and expendable.
The stereotypes marginalize the community beyond socio-economic gaps, public data and NGO reports. The average person is unable to empathize with residents of the slum, who have had their identity imposed on them by the larger society.
The poor of Old Fadama are more intelligent and self-aware than one might presume. They are forcibly humbled by their environment yet maintain dignity and self-possession.
“People used to talk against us here, that we are thieves and so and so. We have the police who live here, navy who live here. We are trying as much as possible to control [the area],” Nartey says, offering us plastic chairs in the temporary OFADA office, a room in the house of a popular lady in the neighbourhood.
It’s the customary scenario with poverty worldwide: the poor are blamed for their circumstances, instead of examining the systems that perpetuate their conditions. And the antidotes to urban slums—housing policy, vocational training centers, mainstream education and income-generating programs—can quickly get as complex as the schemes that produce them. Beneath the cycle of proposals are a people trying conduct their lives and meet their basic needs.
There is another gap—between Old Fadama, which exists in Accra, and Sodom and Gomorrah, in many people’s collective unconsciousness.