Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah – Old Fadama.

Written on Tuesday 24th of June 2014


 

24 hours. It’s been a while, electricity.

Experiencing a long power-cut has not only made me more aware of my dependency on computer and phone for daily work and social life, but it’s boosted my appreciation for solar panels. It’s understandable why most business owners I’ve met around Accra express an interest in buying a solar panel to power their fans, lights or TV.

While I’ve done my fair share of complaining, it seems everyone here are perfectly used to it. They shrug it off and see it as a naturally occurring thing that they don’t have power to change. They simply move on to whatever’s next – perhaps this is an attitude grounded in the daily struggle through the hustle. On the flip side, they seem to be reaping a much larger benefit in the form of friendship. Patrick, a local radio celebrity and my current guide, told me that at the end of every day and at the end of every week, everyone just does their best to relax. “On Fridays, the doctor’s de-stress, the lawyer’s de-stress and the professor’s de-stress. You wouldn’t be able to tell a mechanic and a high-flying businessman apart in the streets.” This attitude has been impossible to ignore in the midst of the familiar atmosphere at my regular pub, the Red Lion. When I went there last night to meet with Patrick I immediately got called over by one of his many friends, Chamberlain, to sit down for a beer. Ten minutes into the conversation I was already invited to his birthday dinner later in the week.

Since I came here, Patrick and I have watched almost every world cup game, shared many beers and had many laughs with his friends at the Red Lion pub. But the other day, I decided to speak to him about Old Fadama and find out what he knew about it. He said there was a political deadlock that caused all legitimization or eviction attempts by any government to fail. Apparently, any government that tries to legitimize the citizens or provide them with some basic access to water, electricity and sanitation are met with criticism by the opposing side, being accused of legitimizing the illegal or wasting tax money. Considering there is roughly 100,000 people living there, the votes of this community can make or break a candidate’s campaign, so all political adversaries closely monitor all moves in relation to the region.

In his explanation of the situation, the scarcest resource of them all became apparent: belief in the government. By this I mean not just the current government – any government. Things had never moved in Agbogbloshie and they never would. The status quo seemed to be an impenetrable and accepted barrier to change. Patrick told me outright that he was surprised I had not been assaulted or robbed on my way to and from work, considering it was a place riddled with criminals and trash that the government wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. “Sodom and Gomorrah” he called it. But in my opinion Sodom and Gomorrah is an outdated label for Old Fadama. In a country where Christianity is strongly present, the name only serves to instill a sense of Godlessness within people’s views of the slum, but the many mosques and churches tell a different story. Rather than being a crime-ridden slum forsaken by God, a more accurate description would be a community abandoned by the Government.

I asked Patrick whether he would come along with me on a normal day to work. Although he had driven past Old Fadama many times, he had never set foot inside. The next day, Fred, one of his friends who happened to hold a degree in Environmental Impact Research, came to pick us up and took us to Agbogbloshie. With quick and increasingly familiar steps I showed them through the slum all the way to work, and from there we went for a quick visit to the Korle lagoon. It was their first time there and I could tell they were almost as shocked as me when I first arrived.

In my weeks here I have noticed the people working in the streets, looking for a way to start a business or to increase their prospects of success. I have not been attacked once nor made feel uncomfortable. When they speak to me I speak back – a simple show of mutual respect, the presence of which has made me feel increasingly safe as I walk to and fro work. I’ve been told that the reason why I haven’t been subject to crime is because these incidents happen at night. This may be so, but crimes occurring at night are not phenomena exclusive to Old Fadama. The lack of Government-provided streetlights just means that when the pitch-black darkness sets in at about 7pm, rapists and robbers are engulfed in a perfect cloak. Part of Energy For Old Fadama’s work here is tackling this problem by increasing the number of light sources in open communal areas, for instance by providing solar lanterns. Time will tell if it’s an effective solution.

The next day I spoke to Patrick about his thoughts since our last conversation about Old Fadama. His words were few but true: “When I walked out, I felt sober and privileged.” Hopefully his changed perspective and stance on Old Fadama will reach out to his radio audience. It is clear that something must be done to dispel the myths about the community – not just to people abroad but clearly also to the citizens of Accra. Without any change on this front, the Government’s inactivity means its feet will be sinking further into the mud…


 

Wednesday June 25th 2014


 

The past three days I have been preoccupied with interviewing the owners of the solar panels installed by EFOF. Although I have about half left to survey, I am already gaining a fairly clear idea of the short and long-term benefits of the project, as well as some of the areas where we can do better.

Because of the cost of the panels, it is essential that the panel is installed where it can benefit the largest number of people to the greatest extent possible. Hence, a business selling food all night to 200 visitors would benefit more greatly from a solar panel during a power cut than a school home to 400 that closes at 3pm. In my surveys, the question “what has been the most practical impact from the solar panels?” has produced the most interesting answers. Previously, many of the buildings where there are now solar panels would resort to kerosene lights, fuel-powered generators and candles during power cuts. Not only is kerosene highly toxic, but it also increases the risk of fires in the community. In a place where most buildings are made of wood and close together, fires are a particularly big danger that must be monitored and fought with all precautions. Furthermore, all these alternatives are costly and diverts money that could be better spent elsewhere. Additionally, by lighting up areas such as food markets the owners of these buildings have seen a direct increase in the number of customers. This is actively spurring the local economy and could have long-term benefits in terms of employment that might steer people away from sifting through metals at the electronic waste site.

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One of the schools with solar panels installed. The solar lightbulbs are the ones on the left and right side as well as the fluorescent lights.

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Solar panels powering a school of over 500 students. Each class is about 50 students big.Bild
Fatawu, case intake officer at FLAP and my interpreter for the day, surrounded by many happy faces at a solar-powered school.

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A Kayayee (head porter) in one of the solar-powered food markets
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The proprietor of the Kayayee Youth Union, a community center supporting Kayayees with their worker’s rights and other issues that arise. I was told that many of the people working as Kayayees (these are, by the way, present on every big street during traffic jams) come from Old Fadama. The area where this building is situated is particularly susceptible to power cuts and sometimes these last up to a week.

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Fatawu reaching for a light switch to test the solar lamps in one of the busiest food markets. The market can now continue to operate at night without resorting to kerosene lights or having to close shop – power cuts happen about 3-4 times a week for 8-12 hours.

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On our way back from surveying the buildings, we passed Stephen’s house, one of the workers at FLAP. His wife, to the left, trains the women working with WISEEP in how to make Batik cloths. They also run their own business making, packaging and selling hair gel (the big blue barrels).

 

Before I get to bed, one last update on the Pepsi situation. As I said in my previous post, I was told by Pepsi to come back today. When I went back, I wasn’t surprised to find out the CEO was not available due to external visitors. True or not, I knew it was going to be a struggle. That’s why every time I had come so far, I made sure to pay a visit to the woman working in the Pepsi retail store outside the factory. Every time I’d tease her by letting her guess my nationality, and her curiosity eventually led her to invite me into the shop for a drink while we sat and talked about Ghanaian culture as she continued guessing. Eventually she, Stella, asked me what I was doing at Pepsi every day. I explained to her my idea of getting Pepsi involved in recycling but that my efforts to meet the CEO were thwarted every day. Upon hearing this, she stood up and walked me over to the security guards who proceeded to tell me again that I needed to call Francis to see whether he was available. No answer from Francis meant no visitors badge.

Nevertheless, Stella did not give up. She called over a man walking past outside – after an introduction by Stella the man told me he knew a marketing manager on the inside. He called him up and handed me the phone – now I’ve got another meeting for Friday. After this Stella introduced me to three more workers at Pepsi, working on a fixed contractual basis with installing the IT technology in the new offices. Again, the enthusiasm was present and by the end of our conversation they were all brainstorming on how to help. One of the men, Peter, gave me some advice on what information to prepare, and further told me that if I brought a full report of my ideas on Friday he would pass them around to some of his contacts working within recycling.

While I may not have met the CEO, it seems I am gaining the support of the workers. Working from the bottom to the top is proving more efficient than I had thought – the enthusiasm I am met with is a testament to the will to change things. All that was needed was for someone like me to come along with an idea backed up by a bit of persistence.

Rights and Plights of Slum Children

Written on Monday, 16th of June

What a day.

We started off with a set of group discussions with some women who are learning to start their own business, thanks to the help of Women in Slums Economic Empowerement, an NGO run by Frederick. I had only 20 minutes to prepare, but I believe it went well, as I gave them some ideas on promotions, maximizing efficiency on the production line and differentiating their product. Although I needed an interpreter, I felt we had good communication as a group and that they withdrew some inspiration from the discussion.

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The first claim arrived at 11am. A woman being forced by her boyfriend to have an abortion, for the second time. She had agreed as long as he paid, but he refused. Furthermore, all abortions are illegal in Ghana and she has been warned by a nurse that another illegal abortion would hurt her irreparably. Now he has estranged her, barely speaking to her and leaving her to endure this process on her own. Child maintenance has been one of the big topics today, and I’m glad I was prepared. Ghanaian law recognizes an equal responsibility of both parents to clothe, feed, provide shelter, medical treatment and play-time for their children. She has a legal right to force him to pay. But legal proceedings are long and costly –  this is where FLAP’s mediation process comes in handy.

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By speaking to the man’s boss at his place of employment, a car shop, we hope to compel him to the mediation table, where we will explain that he must face this child and the consequences of having it whether he likes it or not. Having noticed that the woman was devastated at the estrangement by the man, we will attempt to reconcile the couple. Failing this, we will reach an agreement between the parties that they can at least observe in the best interests of the child. If things go according to plan, the issue should be resolved by tomorrow afternoon – I’ll let you know how it goes.

Subsequently, we prepared a presentation on Child Maintenance for a group of women in the slum. We explain the rights of the child and obligations of the parents to a group of about 10, who seemed to be listening carefully. After finishing our presentation, we received two new claims on the spot. A woman’s daughter, aged 16, had become pregnant and was refused support by her boyfriend, aged 17. As we further investigate the claim tomorrow, we will explain to the parents of the boy that they are equally responsible for the maintenance of the child until the boy turns 18. If we have any difficulties conveying our message, the chief of a local tribe (who command the respect of locals after being elected) is at hand to help resolve the dispute.

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Left: sitting next to Nana and Vidette, the two Queen Mary Pro Bono Society volunteers. Right: standing next to Isaka, the chief of a local tribe, in front of FLAP

What struck me most was the second case. One of the women at the presentation pointed to a young girl (let’s call her Lucy) who had been sitting next to us with a look in her eyes that didn’t fit her age. We were told that she had been kicked out of her home when she was 6 years old, and had lived with the women for 9 years, as her mother would not accept her and had allegedly abused her on repeated occasions. As we interviewed Lucy, she burst into tears. In order for her to go to school, she had cut down on buying food. Without time for play, learning or development, she was working long days just to get by. It was clear that she was doing everything to empower herself through education, but without the support and guidance of a parent, a child can only do so much.

Tomorrow Lucy will come to the FLAP center, accompanied by a woman at the slum. We will determine what to do next and what she hopes to achieve. I am worried that the mother cannot (or rather, should not) take care of her, and in this case we must contact social services in order for them to investigate and hopefully provide the girl with the support she needs. An alternative would be to somehow find the father, who’s identity has been refused to Lucy by her mother. I hope speaking to her mother tomorrow will go according to plan, but I have a feeling it won’t work as smoothly as we hope. Our only hope is that we can alleviate the pressure and responsibility that has unjustly been bequeathed onto her.

After this, the day was over, and I went home thinking how many more children there were like Lucy around the world. What are some of them forced to do just to stay alive? What are they doing right now? Who do they turn to? What would I have done if I had grown up in such a context?

Being the day of Ghana’s first world cup match, I decided to meet up with Patrick, to clear my head and cheer for my host country in Accra’s busiest place: Oxford Street. My hopes of celebrating with the Ghanaians were crushed in less than 40 seconds, and despite being a game largely dominated by the Black Stars, they missed too many opportunities and the game was lost. Having invested a lot of emotions into the game (since Sweden didn’t qualify I had strong hopes for Ghana), I was let down by my expectations and felt sad for the Ghanaians. Yet we still enjoyed the night, the game and the general atmosphere.

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View from Ouso mall down to Oxford Street, where a big screen lit up thousands of people in the street.

Driving home, we passed over a bridge through a thick cloud of burnt rubber and plastic. I looked to my right and saw a bright fire burning with some people scattered around it. My memory jolted, I remembered where I was and why I was there. Memories of the football game disappeared. Tomorrow’s work matters infinitely more.

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