Sodom and Gomorrah is the biggest slum in Ghana, a country that sprouts shantytowns like weeds. There are about eighty thousand Sodomites crammed onto less than half a square mile in the capital city, Accra, near a toxic lagoon and a channel of raw sewage. They are surrounded by the guts of one of the fastest-growing economies in West Africa, miles of teeming factories, markets, and workshops. To get to Sodom and Gomorrah, you must cross a river of shit. To do that, you need Fusheini’s bridge.
It’s Sunday, the day of rest in Sodom and Gomorrah. Fusheini Abdullah sits on a bench at the mouth of his bridge, clutching the length of blue rope that he pulls taut to enforce the ten pesewa (three cent) toll. Traffic is low, mostly people in immaculate church clothes and kids coming home from madrassa. The canal below looks like freshly tilled soil until a spotless white heron lands on the water, making the blanket of excrement and trash ripple. The smell is gut-wrenching in the mid-day heat, made more intense by the pall of acrid white smoke from the flaming dump where the canal meets the lagoon.
The canal sits between Sodom and Gomorrah and central Accra. North of the slum is Agbogbloshie, home to a scorched field where tons of the world’s discarded electronics are burned for scrap. South are the glass towers and modernist hulks of Ghana’s government. The waterway was once a clear blue river running through the city until some bright soul decided it would be better off as a sewer and buried everything but the last, filth-choked mile, renaming it the Agbogbloshie Canal. It’s a study in the kind of planning that has the city teeming with cholera, typhoid, and malaria.
The bridge, in comparison, is a masterpiece of careful design. It’s an achievement, considering Fusheini is no engineer. He has been working since the age of six, when his polygamous father died, leaving everybody with nothing. He had to quit school almost as soon as he started, which to this day makes him angry. Fusheini spent his entire childhood on the family farm, doing backbreaking work growing yams and corn, until the family outgrew the farm. Then he discovered that there was no work to be had in Ghana’s stunted Northern Region, especially not for grown men who can barely speak Twi—the nation’s lingua franca—let alone English, which is Ghana’s official language.
So Fusheini moved to Accra and did every job he could find. He worked construction, then as a butcher, and then for years as a low-level scrap dealer, pushing a bulky wooden cart miles around the city by hand, before he started to get too old for it. Then he saw the river of shit, and bet everything on a bridge.
It cost a small fortune: 16,500 cedis, almost $6,000 U.S., in iron beams, timber, and payoffs. He is particularly proud of the iron—very pricy. The first few versions of his bridge were timber and washed away every time it rained too hard. The metal bridge, in comparison, is solid. Fusheini leans forward to draw a blueprint in the dirt path in front of the bridge: two long beams, laid on concrete posts sunk into the banks of the canal, with another crossbeam every meter or so, like a ladder.
Laying the bridge was a feat of improvised engineering. The budget didn’t allow for cranes, tools, or actual engineers, so it was just Fusheini, a couple of guys from the neighborhood, a car, and some rope. They tied the rope to each of the long beams, waded through the muck of the canal to the other side and hitched it to a car, which drove forward, pulling the iron into place. Every day since, Fusheini has collected 50 cedis (about $20) a day in tolls, which would mean the bridge paid for itself in less than a year. Fusheini, however, wants it on the record that the bridge is an act of charity. Many people who use it, school kids especially, don’t have to pay.
In the beginning there was chaos, a few thousand people squatting on a mangrove swamp. The entire area of what is now called Sodom and Gomorrah used to be covered by shrubs and trees tough enough to survive the saltwater tides of the Korle Lagoon, but all that’s left now is a flood-prone flat of mud and sand, owned by the government of Ghana. Order came in the form of profiteers like Fusheini, men and women of questionable authority who parceled out land they didn’t own, broke into the mains at the hospital across the highway to pipe water in, and plied some big man at the Electricity Company of Ghana with livestock until he put up a transformer. A doctor who used to keep his horses on the swamp told the first squatters that anything they built would be swept away like the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. The name stuck.
In the twenty years since the first squatters arrived, Sodom and Gomorrah, officially named Old Fadama, has evolved into home for some of the most eager, energetic, and determined migrants in Ghana. Crowded into this miserable corner of the capital city, without much law to guide them, these people have built a community that has helped lift them out of poverty.
But because everything they do is haphazard, unplanned, and illegal, Sodom and Gomorrah has quickly become a problem for the rest of Accra. It causes floods, harbors armed robbers, and thwarts hundred-million-dollar infrastructure projects. So even as it has grown, Sodom and Gomorrah has been constantly threatened with destruction.
Aliwu Achanso is spending his day off work by the bridge, watching a group of men talk smack over a game of Ludo (similar to Parcheesi). Achanso is middle class by Ghanaian standards. He can earn as much as 1,500 cedis a month—about $500—as a metal worker on construction sites. He builds iron frames for reinforced concrete buildings, which is a lucrative job in a construction boom, almost worth the three years of penury it took to learn the trade.
Despite earning a good salary, Aliwu lives in the slum because it means he can send a serious amount of money home to his parents and still have enough to feed himself and keep a roof over his head. “Everything is cheap here, not too costly as it is in town,” he says. “People may think the people in the slum are foolish people,” he says. “But they know why they’re here.”
Still, he is trying to save enough money to leave. He’s getting sick of being branded a criminal just because he lives in Sodom and Gomorrah: “They combine all of us as bad people.” Plus he just doesn’t feel safe any more. “I’ve been seeing so many disasters here.”
Two years ago, his room—a wooden shack—burned down, wiping out almost everything he owned. It was the worst setback he’d faced since he first arrived in Accra. It took him about two months of work to rebuild his home, this time in fire-proof concrete. Achanso isn’t worried about spending money building a home he doesn’t actually own. He just won’t leave without alternative accommodation or compensation. He did, after all, pay about $180 for the original shack and the land under it, so he’s entitled to something, he says. “They cannot just sack us like slaves or animals.”
Back on the bridge, next to Fusheini, an officious man who looks like an off-duty cop sits down. This man knows everyone in this little part of the slum, and is here getting his kids fitted for new school uniforms. His sister, Fusheni Seheda, works as a seamstress out of a small blue kiosk a few narrow, lightless alleys from the bridge, on a lane crowded with roving herds of sheep and stalls selling everything conceivable—from water to laundry detergent—in cheap, single-use plastic packets.
During the week, she sews five or six orders a day, cutting patterns from memory and sewing them together with an ancient grey Alfa sewing machine. There’s a tiny TV in one corner on mute, cycling through Ghanaian daytime television, which today is a baffling mix of American reality shows and Nigerian movies. A couple of women—market porters and local girls—come by to gossip prodigiously as Seheda sews.
The first thing she did when she got to Accra five years ago was learn to sew. She spent two and a half years as an apprentice. “I didn’t go to school,” she says, “This too is my future.” Her precocious kids are getting the best education she and her husband can afford, at a private school outside Old Fadama. Her husband drops them off at the kiosk after school so they can do their homework, then goes back to work running a shower in the slum. That’s how they met. She went to take a shower, and he proposed to her the first time he saw her. It took her a while to say yes.
Back at the bridge on Sunday afternoon, George Boahene is picking up the day’s takings for his father. Boahene is the second generation of a slum dynasty. His father Kingsley owns most of the real estate near the bridge and almost a dozen toilets and showers around the slum that cost 30 pesewa (about a cent) per use. That sounds low, but almost nobody in Sodom and Gomorrah has a toilet at home. The only alternative to paying for it is hiking over to the lagoon and taking a shit out in the open (one study found that poorer families easily spend 20 percent of their income going to the bathroom). Today George collected 420 cedis, about $170. He says his father is a visionary who saw all the services the government couldn’t provide and cashed in. People from all walks of life come to Sodom and Gomorrah to do the same thing. “It’s like that Jay Z song, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” he says.
Much of the money his father makes comes from renting rooms, more than forty of them around Sodom and Gomorrah. Most are rented to prostitutes and guys who sell weed, because only people making that kind of quick money are willing to pay 25 cedis a week in a place where the average rent is closer to 30 a month ($9).
Angela is one of his tenants. Her room, in a squat, dusty pink compound opposite the bridge, is a dingy white concrete cell with a tiny lightless window. There’s enough space for a thin, single mattress covered by a flower-patterned sheet and a big old tube television, plastered with stickers of hearts and blaring a Nigerian movie. The floor is covered in bright blue linoleum. Two other girls bound into the room, carrying food slathered in palm oil and wrapped in a clear plastic bag. Maafia is dark, with wild hair in a six-week-old perm. She dominates the conversation because she has all the best stories. Gladys does not want to talk.
Maafia says she is an educated woman, a statement that is met with some derision. She got as far as class five in senior secondary school because her father is a principal in Kumasi, but she doesn’t get on with him, because she’s not the obedient type—“I don’t respect at home.” She ran away, and ended up in an Accra suburb with a friend who worked as a prostitute, which is how she got into that line of work.
It’s good money. She can make rent for the week in less than a day, 100 cedis (about $30) on a really good day, she says. But she can spend it all in a day too, “You go find the money plenty, you go spend it to pay landlord, eat, drink, smoke. What we do to make that money, it’s not pure, so all of it just vanish.”
Angela agrees that the money is good, but she’d rather make five cedis ($1.60) a day working as a maid in a nice house where they give you room and board. Jobs like that are impossible to find, however. Angela has tried other things. She wanted to learn to do hair, but trainees don’t get paid, so she couldn’t afford to keep doing it. Her new plan is to get into acting; she’s getting work as an unpaid extra in a historical movie, something about a fallen princess.
A toddler, a little girl, pushes open the rough-hewn wooden door and makes a beeline for a grubby stuffed animal crammed into a corner between the mattress and the wall. Angela keeps talking. She isn’t going to do this street girl thing for much longer, she says. “It’s just not good. It’s not the best thing for a girl to do.” She goes several miles down the coast, to Teshie Nungua, to work, to make sure she never runs into johns close to home. And she’s out until two or three in the morning, which is when Accra really gets dangerous.
“You have to be strong and fearless,” Maafia says, absent-mindedly playing with the little girl, “It happens to all of us.” She’s had a memorable close call, she said. One night, at the brothels near the giant roundabout called Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a guy in a nice car, “a power car,” drove up and offered three girls 100 cedis (about $30) each to go with him. He drove them to a house out in the suburbs, where five guys with muscles and tattoos were hiding away in a back room, doing God-knows-what, Maafia said.
One of the girls went into a bathroom to get cleaned up. Inside, she found the body of a woman with a breast cut off. There was a dagger stuck in her chest. The girls panicked and tried to get out, but the doors were locked.
Maafia said they smashed a pane in a glass door to unlock it, which caught the attention of the guys in the back room. The girls had to jump over a wall and got chased through the bush in this middle-of-nowhere neighborhood. Maafia says that they were lost until a stranger found them and drove them back into Accra, to a police station. The police tried to take them back, but they couldn’t find the house. That’s why she gave up working as a street girl, Maafia says.
In Sodom and Gomorrah though, she feels safe. She first came here to buy weed, and she liked the place so much she stayed. “Here, it’s street girls and street boys; it’s like my group. It’s not like I like to live here.” But if she got robbed or attacked she feels she could take her case to the King of the Bad Boys, a chief who mediates underworld disputes in Sodom and Gomorrah, and represents the slum’s armed robbers at community meetings. If it was really bad, she could go to the Dagomba chief, the undisputed ruler of the slum, and get justice. Sodom and Gomorrah is the only place in Accra where a chief would stand up for a prostitute.
The little girl toddles out and two older girls and a young boy come in bearing a massive joint stuffed with locally grown marijuana. It’s sweltering, there’s one listless fan churning the hot air, which is useless once the room starts to fill with the smell of weed. Outside it’s almost dark, and the smell of raw sewage and burning trash is replaced by the considerably more pleasant smell of woodsmoke.
Ghana has a dirty little secret. The peaceful transition to democracy, the years of double-digit growth, the offshore oil find, the promotion to middle-income status: None of that came with jobs. Unless you’re educated, connected, willing to pay a huge bribe, or able to work for nothing for years as an apprentice, you’re on your own. Of course, you wouldn’t know if from looking at unemployment figures (anywhere between three and ten percent, depending on who you ask) because the government counts every last hustle, down to hawking Mentos on the Airport Road, as legitimate, taxable employment. If you stripped out the informal economy, unemployment could be as high as 80 percent.
The entire west side of Sodom and Gomorrah is actually in the Korle Lagoon, built on layers of silt and rubbish and covered by layers of sawdust. This has narrowed the lagoon so much that during the rainy season, the rivers, canals, and gullies that flow into it back up, flooding huge swaths of Accra. Every year people drown, and everything in the capital city grinds to a halt. Every year, the sitting president announces these floods will be the very last, and explains that the only way to clean up the lagoon—and stop the flooding once and for all—is to get rid of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Last year the city hired an American company to dredge the lagoon. There was a pomp-and-ceremony launch in January 2013. The mayor of Accra, Alfred Vanderpuije, looking like an aging Motown star in a neon yellow safety vest, stood immaculate in front of the toxic lagoon. Also in attendance was the “Queen of Sanitation,” who looked very much the winner of Africa’s least glamorous beauty pageant.
Then there were the American diplomats, who got the gig for Conti, a New Jersey construction company that helped rebuild Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy. This would be Conti’s first project in Africa. The Americans also helped arrange most of the funding— $596 million from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which the embassy was careful to call a “financial commitment” rather than a loan.
President John Mahama, in his trademark Ghanaian-office-casual look, announced the ambitious plan to transform the city. There would be storm drains, sewers, trash collection, and the country’s first actual on-purpose dump. Importantly, the lagoon would finally be dredged. It would fix everything. And if it worked, it would be repeated all over the country.
Of course, the mayor later added, for the plan to work, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah would have to leave.
The dredging project was greeted with scorn, largely because it has been attempted before. In 2000 a consortium of Arab-world aid agencies, a Belgian bank, and the government of Ghana fronted about $160 million to turn the lagoon into a tourist attraction. People were thrilled. One guy even went out and bought a boat. The Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project was supposed to last two years.
More than a decade later, the boat is still sitting in a yard near the lagoon—you can see the mast for miles. The company dredging the lagoon spent its entire budget to little effect, dumped its diggers near the slum and left. One enraged engineer told the state-run Ghana News Agency that every time the workers removed tons of trash from the water, people in the slum dumped tons back in, “Unless they are ejected, the project will fail.”
Today, the only evidence anyone tried to clean up the lagoon is an interceptor, a metal and concrete track that runs across the water, just downstream of the slum. It was supposed to filter the water, but was quickly abandoned and repurposed as a bridge, even though it’s often closed off with a seven-foot gate topped with sagging coils of barbed wire. When the gates are locked, you have to grab ahold of the fence posts and throw yourself around them, and over the water, to get past.
Musah Muhammad lives between the dump and the stagnant lagoon. His is unequivocally the worst bit of land in Sodom and Gomorrah, a freshly reclaimed patch of silt and trash. It would likely be one of the first cleared once the dredging starts, so people keep treating it like an open-air toilet. There is a crust of fat, iridescent blowflies on every single surface.
Musah spent months sleeping out in the open on the dump, under the two diggers abandoned during the last attempt to dredge the lagoon. He was once attacked by packs of rats as he slept, and another time woke up to find himself lying next to corpses that had floated to the surface of the water. Everybody said he’d get killed, but he survived.
He’d had a home in Sodom and Gomorrah, but the rent was high, and when his wife, Blessing Gigenue, got pregnant, every penny had to go to her. So she moved back home with her grandmother and he moved to the dump. The next time he saw his wife, months later, she wasn’t pregnant anymore. The first thing he asked her was, ‘Is my son alive?’ The patch of land he lives on is opposite Korle Bu Hospital, the country’s biggest teaching hospital, and he sees pregnant women going past and coming back without babies all the time. But his son had lived, and it made him feel grateful. “I feel happy in my poverty life,” he said.
His current hustle started from nothing. Musah scratched together four cedis (just over $1), and bought thirty sachets of Striker gin (a shot of alcohol in the same packaging as a packet of ketchup) which he sold for a total of about 8 cedis. He used that to buy sixty sachets of Striker gin. He’d stopped eating sometimes to keep doubling his money. Musah is proud of this, and of the fact that his wife controls all the money. Together they made enough to build a wooden kiosk, a little shop conveniently located near the bustling miniature industrial district that is the dump.
They’ve even built a home, a plywood shack painted blue. And Musah was making a little money turning his patch of the slum into desirable real estate, getting carpenters from the nearby Timber Market to dump sawdust over the layers of trash on the ground.
Now that Musah’s done all the serious dirty work, other people are moving in to the area. He walks over to the middle of his sawdust settlement and points to a new kiosk on the edge of his patch of land. You can tell that the builders are serious about staying here because they’ve run a single red wire over the wall separating the dump from the neighborhood on the southern border of Sodom and Gomorrah: electricity. Even Musah doesn’t have electricity.
Now people are threatening to take his land. A bunch of Dagomba guys destroyed his kiosk and told him to leave. They saw new real estate opening up in the slum and wanted to muscle in, and Musah, who is from the Gonja tribe, has no real backup: “They show power. Me, am not get power.” Plus he isn’t about to start an argument with the tribe of warriors that runs the slum like a fiefdom. Instead, he put up a new kiosk. Smaller, this time, just in case they come back. He jokes about it with a “What can you do?” shrug.
Looking at satellite images of the slum, it’s clear why Musah is being intimidated. Over the past twenty years, the slum has grown so much that the edges are butting up against immovable boarders: the Korle Lagoon, the Agbogbloshie Canal, the markets. The last bits of unsettled land are the electronic waste yards and the dump. But Musah isn’t about to leave, he’s come too far for that. He came all the way from Kpassa, in the Volta Region, with no friends or family or connections, he says. Accra is his only opportunity to make something of himself. “I never catch life. I came to find my own future.”
Opposite Musah’s settlement, on the other side of the lagoon, construction workers and city engineers were for a time transforming the abandoned dredging site, installing hundreds of tons of heavy machinery and air-conditioned trailer offices. They floated a massive pontoon so their excavators could drive right to the middle of the lagoon. The machines skimmed mounds of trash off the surface of the water, quickly forming two twenty-foot heaps of trash on the shore.
But in March 2013, three months after the new dredging project was launched, TJGEM, an American company based in St Louis, filed a lawsuit. They claimed they’d been promised the dredging contract that went to Conti—until they refused to pay the mayor of Accra a $10 million kickback.
TJGEM filed the suit against eight parties, including the government of Ghana, the mayor, and Conti in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. They wanted $425 million in damages. The complaint was a rambling series of allegations about violations of the RICO act, misappropriation of trade secrets, and the mayor of Accra’s past as a disgraced South Carolina middle-school principal. It was almost farcical, but Government of Ghana took the case seriously enough to hire a high-priced law firm to fight it. Nine months later, in December 2013, the judge summarily dismissed TJGEM’s claim: American courts don’t have jurisdiction over matters in other countries.
During the court case, the dredging work slowed, and the heavy machinery at the site disappeared. All that was left was a security guard, two portable toilets, and a single excavator, which spent its days slowly scooping trash out of the lagoon. It was the ultimate Sisyphean task. The guy running the excavator was one of the only two workers left on the site. The other guy did the same thankless job on the afternoon shift. His bosses told him all the equipment had been moved to Kumasi, Ghana’s second city, where Conti is building the infrastructure for a gated community (Conti declined to comment). The dredging project had stalled, they said, because when the government announced the budget for 2014, it wasn’t funded.
Musah and Blessing are still recovering from the last flood, which had turned their little corner of the slum back into a swamp. At least it was just water, Blessing says, speaking Ga. What you really don’t want around here is a fire, which spreads so quickly you don’t have time to think. That’s why her youngest son is living with her grandmother in the city now. This is not a good place for children; If there’s a disaster you have to think about grabbing your kid before fleeing. Now it’s just me and him, she says, nodding at Musah, and he’s not a child, so when something happens—and here she switches to English: “Every man for himself.”
Blessing is ruthlessly pragmatic. When I first met her, she was standing behind her tiny wood-and-chicken wire kiosk, dressing her son with one hand and selling loose cigarettes with the other. Her son was almost two, and she was saving up to send him to kindergarten, so he’ll learn English as soon as he can talk, “So he can have future, not like me,” Blessing says. She was already getting ready to send him to live with her grandmother in a working class neighborhood of Accra. She wanted to leave Sodom and Gomorrah too, but there was no way she was going back to her grandmother’s house without a job or a trade.
Right now Blessing is making enough every week to save a little and buy groceries for her son and grandmother—a big sack of rice, some oil, enough to last a while. She was lucky, she said. She used to go to a Catholic church, and an American there was paying her older son’s school fees. He once offered to adopt him, but she didn’t trust him. “What if my son can’t find me? What if he forgets he has a mother to take care of?” She just needs someone like that to invest in her, she says. She’d learn to sew, move out of the slum, start a business, and claw her way into the middle class, “I too be madam.”
Her ultimate plan is to leave Ghana. Blessing is genuinely concerned about the direction the country is going in. A sachet of drinking water costs 15 pesewa now (5 cents) Can you believe it? It used to be 5 (1.5 cents). Just another sign that there’s no future in Ghana, she says. She wants to make it to America. Not Europe. She’s heard things are rough there.
She’ll make it to Jamaica, and from there, move to the U.S. Another time we spoke, she was going to try for South Africa. However she does it, she’s determined not to stay in Ghana. Just look at the way people are suffering: “Can you believe Musah’s village in the north didn’t have electricity until 2007? I’m a city girl, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says. Musah is offended. Actually, he insists, it was 2005.
Blessing isn’t sure how she will make it out, but she’s already made progress. She used to be a street hawker but she graduated to a small table, and now she has a fully stocked stall. So you see, she knows what she’s doing living on a dump, she says, starting to tear up. She says people think she’s dirty; people ignore her and treat her like she’s less than human. But she’s chosen not to steal, and not to work as a prostitute. If that means living on a dump for a while, so be it. She’s adamant: This is what upward mobility looks like.
The workshops, factories and markets in central Accra make it one of the few places in the country where people shut out of the formal economy can find opportunity. Because of this, thousands of people flood into the city every day. But Accra has a housing shortage so severe that even basic accommodation is cripplingly expensive. Fifty percent of households in Accra live in one room, which means a traditional house of say, eight rooms surrounding a compound, will have sixty residents. If you go to those houses at night, you’ll see everybody sleeping on mats in the middle of the compound or huddled on the porch in the rain.
People with fewer options have to make do with whatever’s available. People sleep in the 37 Lorry Station, on the pedestrian bridge at Circle, and under mosquito nets hung from the wooden kiosks on Kojo Thompson Road. Right before dawn every working day, you’ll see a group of men taking bucket showers in the gutter in front of the Mercedes Benz dealership on Liberation Road. None of these options are free.
In Old Fadama, though, you can rent a shared room for a few cedis a week, or if you’re really adventurous, or desperate, you can find somewhere to sleep for free. You can live on almost nothing and send enough home to feed your family. You can earn enough to finish the fourth grade. (Accra is full of children from other parts of Ghana working to earn their school fees, support their families, or simply survive.) You can save quickly, and get out once you have enough to buy a patch of farmland or start a business. For many, living in the slum is a shrewd, carefully calculated decision. It’s a stepping stone. All you have to do is make sure you come out better than you went in.
Ghana is a nation where evangelists claim the devil is responsible for the plunging currency (the cedi was, for much of this year, the worst performing currency in the world). Despite this, nobody saw the Independence Day storms, on the sixth of March, as an omen. On the anniversary of the end of British colonial rule, there was a huge ceremony with the president, the military, and hundreds of school kids at Black Star Square, a parade ground ten minutes’ drive from Sodom and Gomorrah. As soon as President Mahama started inspecting the troops, the sky turned black and it rained so heavily that they had to send the children home. The sodden President declared the downpour “showers of blessing.”
The deluge forced Blessing and Musah to flee, and completely submerged the interceptor. One man tried to wade across and got swept into the fast-flowing water. Another man dove in to help, but the guy in the water was panicking, and kept fighting off his rescuer. They had to leave him there. The body floated to the surface two days later.
The floodwaters deposited a fresh carpet of trash on the banks of the lagoon: plastic bags, water bottles, coconut shells, plastic Coke bottles, and Styrofoam containers, all interspersed with pools of fetid green water.
Sewage washed into the city’s ancient water system, triggering the worst cholera outbreak in thirty years. More than 170 people have died, and 22,000 have been infected. Such outbreaks are becoming more frequent, and more deadly in Accra. Harold Esseku, a sanitation expert with a roster of truly repulsive anecdotes, points out that this is disastrous: The only way to get cholera is to consume trace amounts of infected feces. “Those of us who didn’t get it, it doesn’t mean we didn’t eat shit,” Esseku says. “It just means our immune systems were stronger.”
Shit is everywhere in Accra. Medical researchers bought plantain chips from hawkers all over the city and tested them. There were traces of feces on every last bag. The consequences are devastating. Tens of thousands of people die from entirely preventable diseases every year. Children exposed to poor sanitation are slower to develop, mentally and physically. This literal shit storm costs Ghana $300 million a year in deaths, hospital bills, and sick days.
None of this is likely to change any time soon. Even multi-million dollar mansions in the most exclusive neighborhoods drain into glorified cesspits called soak-aways (because the sewage eventually soaks away—right into the water table). “Even if you live in an Accra neighborhood with sewers, or you have a septic tank, it all ends up in the sea,” Esseku says. And that’s not because Accra doesn’t have any sewage treatment plants. There are about a dozen. But none of them work, he says, “And nobody cares.”
Drowning in waste is an ignoble milestone, but a milestone nonetheless. Every major city in the world has gone through a period of rapid growth, a sudden explosion in people and waste that completely overwhelms its infrastructure. London in the late 1800s was filthy and dotted with cesspools. In the poorer parts, these were considered a source of drinking water, as long as you let it stand until the water separated from the solids.
London started building sewers in the late 1850s; American cities started in the 1860s. Today half of Mumbai’s waste is pumped into the sea, and workers in India’s financial capital crawl through the drains to clean them out before monsoon season. Beijing’s current sewage system is an old Russian design built in the 1950s that was completely overwhelmed by one storm in 2012.
While Accra’s problems are not unique, the situation is especially grim. Aside from the dredging project, there are no other plans to stop the city from being incapacitated by its own waste. A ludicrously small number of Accra neighborhoods have trash collection, so much of the city’s rubbish ends up in the nearest gutter, storm drain, or stream, bound for the lagoon. Then there’s the effluent from industrial plants and factories all over Accra and the deadly concentrations of heavy metals from the electronic waste dump. As if that toxic soup wasn’t enough, most of the city’s raw sewage is dumped into the ocean less than 200 meters from the mouth of the lagoon, and surges back into the channel every single time the tide comes in. All of this has turned the Korle Lagoon into one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth.
Today at the dump almost everything is on fire. The two twenty-foot heaps of trash skimmed from the lagoon have started to spontaneously combust. People are doubled up, coughing. “It’s too much for us, you see how bad it is,” says a man carrying a sack of trash towards the dump. “Somebody needs to help us out.”
Nii Lartey Obetsebe-Lamptey is a freelance garbage man. He goes around the slum, from eight in the morning until four or five in the evening, collecting trash for small donations—1 cedi, 50 pesewa. Nii Lartey should have better career prospects. Emmanuel Obetsebe-Lamptey was one of Ghana’s founding fathers. His son Jake, is a prominent politician, best known in the slum for promising dumpsters and never delivering. He is almost certainly unaware that a very distant relative is making a living from his failure.
Nii Lartey lives in Bukom, a part of Accra famous for its champion boxers and failing fishing industry. He started collecting trash six months ago when his business collapsed, leaving him scrambling for a way to look after his family. Sodom and Gomorrah was the only place he found opportunity. “I’ll do this until God shows me another job to do,” he says. “I can’t sit down and let my family starve while I’m waiting for work to come to me, they’ll call me wicked.” He drops his trash onto the flaming dump and rushes back into the slum to earn some money.
Across the lagoon, the site of the dredging project looks abandoned again. The company doing the dredging has even given up on the kabuki with the excavator and locked it up behind a chain-link fence. The portable toilets, the security guard, and the two workers are gone, and nobody seems sure why the work has ground to a halt.
There is, it turns out, a very good reason that the work has stopped. There is no $596 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of the United States—and there never was one. At an Ex-Im Bank board meeting a full month after the project was launched, the bank promised to consider an application for the dredging project, but that was the extent of the celebrated deal. “A preliminary commitment is not an authorization but is an indication that Ex-Im Bank would be willing to consider financing for the project,” says a spokeswoman for the bank.
It isn’t even dawn yet and Fusheini is already at his post, taking tolls. Hundreds of people are making their way out of Sodom and Gomorrah. Most of the exodus is made up of young women carrying metal pans: kayaye (literally “carry women”). They are streaming towards the markets where they work as porters, carrying everything from groceries to lumber through the city’s bustling markets, a job that can bring in anything from 5 to 20 cedis a day ($1.50 to $6). They come to Accra from the north to earn enough money for school uniforms and books, or to start a business, or just to keep their families afloat. At the yam market in the heart of the slum, long lines of kayaye are unloading dozens of trucks parked in the middle of the dusty expanse, the metal pans balanced on their heads piled improbably high with yam.
The market is about to be evicted, as part of the dredging project the government insists is still happening. The people who run it lease the land from the city—they even pay taxes—but nobody warned them. They found out about the eviction in the newspapers. The new market is in Adjen Kotoku, sixteen miles away on the outskirts of Accra. There are no wholesale buyers, no hotels, or restaurants, no new roads or ways to get to the port, nothing to connect the nation’s biggest yam market to the people who buy yam in huge quantities. It will kill the market. Thousands of breadwinners will be out of work.
Nobody in authority cares about this because the people who run this yam market are almost all from the Konkomba ethnic group. Despite their long history in Ghana, they’re considered landless immigrants, a point of contention that’s triggered wars against other northern tribes—including the Dagombas—for more than a century. One war in the 1990s forced tens of thousands of people to seek refuge in Accra. They arrived on the yam trucks and stayed right here, turning the outskirts of the market into the refugee camp that grew to become Sodom and Gomorrah.
Despite the fact that the Konkombas were first to arrive in the slum, and run its economic heart, they have little control here. The real power brokers are the Dagombas, who with their numbers and political connections, quickly took control of the slum and the community association. When the government or aid agencies donate money to the slum, it goes through them.
Now the city is telling the Konkombas to take their yams and leave. It’s ostensibly the first salvo in the battle to tear down Sodom and Gomorrah, clean up the lagoon and save the city. But the government also knows it can mess with the Konkombas without consequences. They wouldn’t dare try that with the Dagombas.
After cocoa, yam is the country’s biggest cash crop. Ghana produces 94 percent of the yams exported around the world, and a million tubers leave this market every working day bound for London, Berlin, and New York. “We are the biggest yam market in the country, we export yam all over the world,” says George Bawa, who runs the market. “Nobody cares.”
Haruna Fusheini is partly responsible for the plan to move the yam market. At the time, he thought he was doing the right thing. The government announced plans to demolish Sodom and Gomorrah in 2002, so he helped file a suit to stop the eviction until they could guarantee everyone got compensation. It was thrown out of court: “I have never known of a situation where a landowner has been ordered to compensate a trespasser before ejecting him from his land,” a high court judge ruled.
But the residents are still here, which is a victory Haruna attributes directly to his own work. He did the survey that found that there were 79,000 people living in Sodom and Gomorrah in 2009. Probably more now, Haruna says. If they’d listened to him earlier, it never would have gotten this bad. Years ago, the leaders of the slum had agreed to move to Adjen Kotoku, if the government promised water, electricity, schools, and housing—basically a whole new community. But the government can’t guarantee those things even in the wealthiest neighborhoods in Accra, so the deal fell apart.
After years of promises, Haruna has given up on the politicians. They make a show of coming to the slum during elections and promising things—compensation, trash collection—that they never deliver. “You see all these big men campaigning here, but when they get what they want, they dump you, and you never see them again.” Haruna used to be an organizer for the ruling political party. He recently quit, he says, because he can’t square it with his conscience.
Right after the most recent election, as the results were being contested in the High Court, slum residents from one party hunted down activists for the opposition and attacked them with machetes. Ten or fifteen men were hacked to death in broad daylight near the police station. In celebration, somebody painted the words “64 Butchers” on the wall of the party offices in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Now, most of Haruna’s time is spent running an informal bank for Old Fadama. The bank pools residents’ savings and uses the cash to make loans. The main reason for this is that to qualify for loans from international organizations, an NGO has to have a certain amount of money and a steady income. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah help fund their own NGO.
The city has also announced plans to evict other markets around Sodom and Gomorrah: The yam market, the wholesalers, the scrap dealers, and the Timber Market, will all have to leave. The idea is that if the jobs leave the slum, the people will follow. Then the city can get on with the business of making money from the increasingly valuable patch of land Sodom and Gomorrah sits on. The city seems unaware that people living in the slum work all over Accra now, and that people from all over Accra work in the slum.
At Timber Market, land belonging to the Ghana Railway Company has been turned into an industrial district of narrow lanes. Here, blacksmiths and carpenters use welding torches and lathes to churn out everything from Samsung billboards to wooden bowls.
Monami, a blacksmith, heats iron rods in a fire until they turn red-hot, then uses a hammer and anvil to pound the metal into graceful curves, the embellishment for a set of gates for a villa. He’s heard about the evictions and seen all the notices, but he isn’t worried, he says in pidgin. If they say he should go, he’ll go. He sees no reason to put up a fight, and he can’t really afford to do anything else, he shrugs. “It be money problem.”
Angela and Gladys are standing by the bridge yelling insults at a man who is crossing, quickly, to the other side. He’d asked how much, and they’d cursed him out. They don’t like to work where they live and besides, Angela says, he wasn’t offering enough. Back in her sweltering room, the girls try to change the ringtone on Angela’s temperamental fake Samsung phone, watch television, and gossip about the latest slum drama. A street girl and a local boy, a small-time robber, murdered a man at Circle. They know the girl.
Sodom and Gomorrah is the last safe place in Accra for armed robbers. They used to be able to disappear into other neighborhoods, places like Nima and Madina where the residents would throw themselves into the path of pursuing police officers before they’d let a local boy get taken away. But those places are steadily filling up with homeowners and neighborhood watch patrols. And the Accra neighborhoods crammed full of property worth stealing are also full of electrified barbed wire, German Shepherds, and armed security guards.
That leaves Sodom and Gomorrah, the only place in Accra most Ghanaians, including many sworn officers of the Ghana Police Service, diligently avoid. There’s a persistent belief, reinforced by years of lurid tabloid coverage, that everybody in the place is either being raped and robbed, or raping and robbing. By all accounts, this was a fairly accurate impression of the place until a few years ago when order started to overwhelm the chaos. So now, like Angela and Gladys, armed robbers rarely work close to home, and Sodom and Gomorrah can feel like the safest place in Accra.
It feels that way to me. I’m comfortable wandering the slum chatting about horrific murders. It’s the rest of Accra that makes me nervous. An uncle offered me a handgun, but I’ve never shot anything and my family doesn’t have a great track record with guns. My father was a politician, appointed, then deposed by a couple of military coups. In all that time, he only saw two bullets: both accidentally self-inflicted. Instead, I keep my own off-brand arsenal: matches and a can of Raid I assume I can turn into a flamethrower if robbers break in. It’s always a relief to get back to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Kingsley Boahene, the landlord who owns most of the property near the bridge, is visibly frantic, “They say they’re going to sack us,” he says. The city had announced some more demolitions: The property nearest the canal and the lagoon has to go. This will wipe out much of Boahene’s empire.
Boahene is dressed in a checked shirt, blue Dockers, and an Orlando Magic cap, and is heading for his office, nearby in Palladium, a neighborhood named for a dilapidated cinema. He gets into his battered gold Tata 4×4 pickup and starts to slowly work his way out of the slum, driving down narrow lanes and forcing stall owners to pull their tables out of the truck’s path.
Ten years ago the neighborhood around the bridge was a dump on the edge of the refugee camp, he says. “Then they weren’t having money, and it wasn’t like a refugee camp with social amenities. Us businessmen, we saw people easing themselves in the Korle Lagoon,” and in that, he saw opportunity.
Boahene came to Accra from the Eastern Region in 1975. He built a business and had big contracts making uniforms for major companies like Achimota Brewery and the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation. Everything was perfect until he almost went bankrupt importing second-hand clothes from Canada. The setback forced him to sink everything he had left, a few thousand dollars, into a cheap investment with quick returns: the slum.
He paid off someone at the city and got hold of the land to build his first investment. He knew he wasn’t actually buying the land—the payoff was too low for that—but it was the perfect business, the only set of showers in the entire slum at the time. It was like minting money.
Then he discovered that toilets are more lucrative than showers. With the showers, there was a high water bill and people kept breaking into his pipes to steal his water. Nobody ever tried to steal water from the toilets. Plus, he could just empty the toilets into the canal (someone has the unenviable night job of emptying the latrines by hand).
At the time, the canal didn’t stay dirty for long before everything washed out into the ocean. “Water was flowing, neatly, it wasn’t as dirty as you see it now. You could look at it and see the under, you could see fishes,” he says completely unconcerned about having fouled it.
Eventually, the city got involved, and ordered the people who owned toilets in the slum to build septic tanks. Boahene made sure he got a piece of that too, starting the business that empties the septic tanks.
Right now, almost all of his business is in the slum, which he concedes is a problem: “You do business here at your own risk.” But he’s done his research. He even has a mentor, an expert and grizzled Accra slumlord, who told him that there was no chance the government would evict him. And even if they did, all Boahene has to do is make sure he’s turning a comfortable profit. “Nima started like this, they were threatened with eviction, people sold their property and left. Only those with lion hearts stayed there. Those who had the courage to stay now have property,” he says.
The city, meanwhile, has given him less than a month to clear out. They’d said something about compensation but Boahene isn’t holding his breath, and he isn’t about to complain. “The Lord has blessed me. Why should I go and fight over that land? Some of us are not Dagombas.”
“Now, almost all of the buildings are earmarked for demolition but who knows what God has planned?” he says with a sly smile. He seems pretty sure he’s safe. “First the NPP won the eviction case; the NDC is now in power. This thing has been politicized, now we don’t know who will muster that courage.” Neither the center-right New Patriotic Party nor the social democratic National Democratic Congress are going to risk alienating a constituency as big, and volatile, as Sodom and Gomorrah.
He doesn’t know that the demolitions have already started. In the Timber Market, a man carries a television past the field of fresh rubble and into a shanty, where his family is stacking their salvaged belongings. Another man, who has been drinking shots of gin out of little plastic packets and getting angrier and angrier, starts hacking at a nearby fence with a machete. The bulldozer had turned up with no warning, first thing in the morning. They’d had to leave so many things behind, even his daughter’s school uniform. She’d done kayaye, carrying heavy loads around the market, for weeks to earn 30 cedis ($10) to buy it.
Now there are about a hundred people clustered around piles of belongings hurriedly pulled from the path of the bulldozer. Mattresses, suitcases, pots, beds, chairs, televisions, fridges—all in big heaps. They stand watching as a single bulldozer, protected by police in riot gear, tears into the buildings.
As soon as the bulldozer moves on, groups of boys from the slum descend on the wreckage. They rip out copper wires, and pry aluminum window frames out of the rubble. In minutes, everything of value is stripped out, and the scavengers are carting off neat piles of metal roofing sheets and timber. Little fights break out over who owns what as the newly homeless residents look on.
Three or four months ago, the police and a bunch of city workers had painted red eviction notices and demolition warnings on the walls of the Timber Market. But then the city workers came back around and said that for 40 cedis ($12) a room the landlords could stop the demolitions. They paid up and everybody thought they were safe, until that morning, when they heard the bulldozer.
Every time the government announces plans to demolish Sodom and Gomorrah, a foreign charity issues a press release stating that this would be human rights abuse. The problem is, the swamp is just not fit for human habitation, says Nii Taiko Tagoe, head city planner for this part of Accra. “They’re living in filth and squalor, and in the name of human rights, you’re taking their votes and calling it development,” Tagoe says.
Last time there was a major flood, in 1962, the lagoon burst its banks and submerged half of central Accra. If that kind of flood happens again, Tagoe says, thousands of people will die. Accra doesn’t have a plan for that kind of disaster. The city can barely cope with thunderstorms.
This part of Accra has a rich history. It’s the old city, dotted with near-derelict World Heritage sites. Tagoe had planned to use this to draw tourists, and enough money for basic infrastructure and housing, but the deal fell apart when some Americans came into town. The Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, he says, “declared this place a Millennium City and then brought his students to do studies in urban design. It was more or less student activities, not tangible things.” While he was busy trying to build sewers, Tagoe says, Sachs was offering yet another study on why the neighborhood didn’t have sewers. (The director of the Millennium Cities Initiative says the group has several different projects in the works around Accra, and some include infrastructure.)
It’s dusk on a Saturday and the sky is streaked with orange and purple. Lights are going on in Sodom and Gomorrah, revealing dusty interiors painted turquoise and ochre. The cattle grazing on the dump pick around a pile of air conditioner casings and what look like the plastic innards of a stripped photocopier. In what’s left of the Timber Market, teams of men load massive lengths of wood into pickup trucks.
At the bridge, almost everyone crossing is carrying water in buckets and basins and bright yellow containers ironically named Kufuor gallons. It was under President John Kufuor, in office between 2001 and 2009, that Accra’s water shortage became a crisis.
Today there’s no water in Accra, which is nothing new. The state water company doesn’t actually know what happens to most of its water. The pipes are old, so most of the water is either lost to leaks or stolen. The only difference this time is that this water shortage had an actual cause: The government had shut down the supply for a week to fix broken water mains. Accordingly, the price of water has gone up in Sodom and Gomorrah, from about 50 pesewa a gallon to 2 cedis and 50 pesewa—about a dollar. So people are buying water from outside the slum, where it is still cheap, and carrying it in across the bridge, gallon by gallon, all the way to the very center of Sodom and Gomorrah.
There, through a warren of dark alleyways and up two flights of stairs, is a concrete platform that looks over the entire slum. About a dozen people are up on the roof, smoking weed and dancing to music booming from oversized speakers. Back on the ground floor is a bar, a small open room with rows of benches lined up on one side, facing a dance floor and a small television. It’s almost empty, apart from a small, wiry man perched on one of the benches, selling marijuana from a metal pan. On the other side of the bar, behind a wire screen and opposite a heavily guarded door, is the brightly lit room where they keep the alcohol.
Apasu Yaw is behind the screen, stacking bottles of club soda into a fridge. Yaw is a veteran of Sodom and Gomorrah—he says he started the bar about twelve years ago, soon after he moved down to Accra from the Volta Region. Before that, he’d run a video center, like a slum Blockbusters where locals could rent pirate DVDs, but just as with the real Blockbusters, technology soon rendered the enterprise obsolete. “If you’re doing something and you know it’s not moving, you have to divert it,” he says. So he diverted to his first bar, a wooden shack.
After a series of fires wiped out entire sections of the slum last year, Yaw rebuilt the bar in cinder blocks and concrete, adding the roof terrace. It cost 40,000 cedis, about $12,000, because below the sawdust and rubbish, the slum is still a swamp and he had to pour enough concrete into the ground to keep the building upright. It took about a month, and Yaw says he had to get a micro-finance loan to cover the cost of construction. A stunning, heavily made-up woman interrupts to say “Hi” to Yaw, jokingly calling him John Mahama, after the president.
Some weekdays, Yaw says he makes between 400 and 500 cedis. Some weekends, he only makes about 200 cedis ($60) a day. It just depends on what’s happening in the slum. “This place itself, everybody classifies it as a notorious area. We get money, but because the police come, everybody scatter.” And the police turn up almost every day.
Yaw’s bar, Konkonsah, is also the most notorious brothel in Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s a clever front—between the bar and the roof terrace, there is at least one floor of rooms, which is hidden until dozens and dozens of women, heavily made up and dressed for Saturday night, come streaming out of the tiny bar.
Soon the number of people living in cities around the world will eclipse the number of people living in the countryside for the first time in history. In the developing world, the vast majority of these people will live in places like Sodom and Gomorrah, sprawling illegal settlements with no infrastructure, run by entrepreneurs like Yaw, Boahene, and Fusheini instead of planners and mayors.
The politicians are a big part of the problem, says Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh, a planning expert. In Accra, the mayor is appointed by the president, so most decisions about the city are temporary and politically expedient, says Ohene Sarfoh. “Nobody criticizes them, so they do what they please.” Because the state can barely keep its capital functioning, wealthy Ghanaians have built a parallel city by finding private solutions to public problems: the roads are bad, so they buy four-wheel drives. The educational system is broken, so they send their kids abroad. Last year, when the West African gas pipeline ruptured and energy shortages led to rolling blackouts, poorer Ghanaians got used to living in the dark and richer Ghanaians bought more generators. But the people who can’t afford to build their own private city, the majority of residents, are at Accra’s mercy.
In June this year, a single day of rain led to two deaths, and flooded hundreds of homes and businesses in Accra. The president and the mayor responded by ordering the Ministry of Finance to “release the funding” for the Conti dredging project. “Ex-Im Bank has already given their commitment to the project,” the mayor told the state-run Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. This was still not true.
But that didn’t stop the Mahama administration from briefly turning the project into a centerpiece of its legacy: cleaning up the capital and saving lives. Elections make and destroy fortunes in Ghana, so administrations quickly devolve into four-year campaigns. This one isn’t going so well because the administration spent so much money (ostensibly on populist budget items such as subsidies to keep gasoline cheap and salaries for government workers) that Ghana is broke—IMF bailout broke. The Bank of Ghana has resorted to printing money to stay afloat, which has sent inflation soaring, making basic things like food and water increasingly expensive. The government has already started to quietly abandon infrastructure projects to save money.
“Nothing is certain in life apart from death and taxes,” says Robert Ansah, the mayoral aide running the dredging project, explaining that Ghana’s stuttering economy means it needs to reduce its debt exposure.
But, he insists, this attempt to dredge the lagoon will succeed where others had failed. The city’s engineers sat down and went through everything that happened during the previous attempt, devising solutions. People are throwing garbage into storm drains? Build a citywide garbage system. Residents of the slum getting in the way? Build a wall between the lagoon and Sodom and Gomorrah. Sewage is being backwashed into the lagoon? Build a new sewage system. When it’s done, it’s going to transform Accra. The flurry of activity at the building site before it was emptied, the kabuki with the digger, all of it was preparatory work for the project. “I know we’re still working. I’m putting in at least ten hours every day,” Ansah says.
“I can see it. Believe me, I can see the benches, I can see the lights, I can see people strolling by and children playing on the grass. I can almost feel it.” It will look just like the Champs-Élysées in Paris. In five years, he says, he will stand by the revived lagoon and say, “You see this? I was part of it.” The project will be the crowning moment of his life story—if it doesn’t kill him first.
Weeks later, Ansah announces the project has been abandoned.
Fusheini is ill. Red-eyed and morose, he is leaning on one of the metal posts of his bridge, watching the early evening traffic. A friend asks if he’s seen a doctor and he makes an ‘Are you kidding?’ face and pats the pockets of his trousers, which are white and embroidered with Mandarin. ‘No money,’ he mimes.
It’s dusk, so there’s a haze of woodsmoke from hot water barrels and cooking fires. The slum is alive, despite the swampy post-storm conditions and the freshly aggressive clouds of flies. People have already started to fix the flooded lanes: coconut shells in one puddle, the rubble of a demolished building in another.
Hundreds of people flood back into Sodom and Gomorrah, down the lane from the main road and over the bridge from the markets. Most are market porters carrying empty metal pans on their heads, or kids in school uniform almost universally carrying backpacks emblazoned with Korean script (Ghanaians importing from South Korea quickly cornered the second-hand backpack market).
A girl of ten or eleven runs from one end of the lane to the other, selling plastic sachets of drinking water, sweating with condensation, from a wire drawer balanced on her head. A woman crosses the bridge carrying two buckets of freshly hand-washed, hand-wrung laundry. A guy with his hair in a Jheri-curl Mohawk tries to cross the bridge without paying, pleading poverty. Fusheini follows him across, cursing him out until he relents and pulls out a fat wad of bills.
Isaac Marmarkwaa stops at the bridge on his way to watch a European Champions League soccer match. Arsenal is playing, so he has to get to the football center early or he’ll be standing outside with a bad view. Isaac knows the guy who runs the place, but that rarely makes a difference. Football is serious business in Sodom and Gomorrah and he isn’t getting a pass just because he installed the cable.
Isaac is already souring on his career as a freelance cable guy. People keep cheating him out of his full fee because they know he’s desperate for work. And the pathetic wages aren’t bringing him any closer to his dream. “I want to edit films, that’s what’s killing me,” he says, grinning and grimacing at the same time, “But financial problems.”
He went to a film school to find out how much he had to scratch together, and was told he had to buy the application forms. One hundred and fifty cedis ($45) up front to find out how much the course costs. It’s too much for a man who earns about 30 cedis ($9) on a good day. Isaac looks briefly miserable, then wanders off to watch Arsenal draw one-to-one with Bayern Munich.
Fusheini, meanwhile, is complaining loudly. He needs money to fix the bridge. Five years since he put it up and it’s already falling apart. All the school kids using it for free are ruining him. “It’s too much,” he says. Just come and see it, by two o’clock, there are hundreds of them, and it’s getting dangerous.
The bridge is the quickest way for most of the children who live in Old Fadama to get to school. Paulina’s Queensland School (motto: ‘Turning Losers into Winners’) is a two-story concrete building painted green and yellow.
Inside, the classrooms are a cheerless combination of unpainted cinderblocks, concrete floors, and holes in the masonry in place of windows. There are around 200 pupils. They have to put two grades in one classroom just to fit them all in. The children sit on Dickensian wooden benches bolted to narrow desks that were donated by the parent-teacher association.
The ground floor is taken up by three large, clamorous classes of toddlers. Behind them, beyond a low concrete divider, are a couple of massive, bubbling cauldrons: lunch. Two meters away, another low concrete wall marks the toilets. No door, just a wooden board the kids struggle to pull in front of the opening.
The Ministry of Education inspectors are not happy. The school could lose its license for charging private school fees for public school conditions. Primary education is theoretically free in Ghana, but there are no state schools near Old Fadama, and Paulina’s Queensland is one of the cheaper private options.
The biggest class is the kindergarten. There are no toys, so all they do is eat, sleep, and sing religious songs. The toddlers get bored and crawl up the rough concrete stairs to the first floor classrooms full of older kids cramming for standardized tests.
Upstairs, a science teacher is trying to explain capillary pressure in syringes and thermometers using the only similar piece of equipment to hand: a spirit level. A class of ten-year-olds does an algebra test, then gets publicly graded. The children score everything from 100 percent (everybody claps) to nothing. One girl is publicly humiliated when the test reveals that she can’t count to 200. A few of the children laugh, she fights back tears. Some of these kids, the teacher later explains, come straight from the villages, without as much as a day of school.
Back at the bridge, Fusheini says a kid in a school uniform saw a one cedi note—worth about 30 cents—on the bank of the canal the other day and reached through a gap in the bridge to grab it. The child fell right in and Fusheini had to jump in to get him out. He was up to his armpits in shit and trash and water. Fusheini throws a chunk of concrete into the canal to demonstrate. It slices right through the scum and sinks.
Still, for the first time since he was a child, Fusheini is doing work that doesn’t require backbreaking labor in the merciless heat. The bridge is the crowning achievement of his migrant career and has earned him Big Man status in his part of the slum. It’s a coup, considering he arrived in Accra a couple of decades ago, a grown man with almost nothing to his name.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.