Accra, Ghana (Inzuna) – The harshness of life on the streets in Accra, Ghana frequently makes Kwabena, 21, fall sick.
“Whenever illness comes I do whatever I can to go back home. I know I will probably die if I stay here in Accra because not only could I not afford to treat myself here, but the comfort is not there to recover,” he told Inzuna.
In a period when migrant deaths in the Mediterranean dominate news headlines, legions of poverty-stricken young men in Africa are being forced out of their homes in pursuit of economic emancipation in the cities and capitals across the continent.
In Ghana, they often end up hustling on the streets of Accra where they push wares of all kinds, including mosquito repellents and nets, shoe racks, books, fruit juice, dog chains, tissue paper, and bow ties, while exploiting the heavy traffic that ebbs and flows through the avenues and boulevards of the city.
This has led to complaints from motorists, shopkeepers and pedestrians generating polarized public discussions, with politicians from rival parties blaming each other. Meanwhile, the public is accusing politicians of incompetence and lacking the political will for decisive action due to the fear of losing votes come election time.
In the midst of these exchanges and occasionally violent but short lived attempts to expel the hawkers, not much attention has been devoted to the personal narratives of these roadside vendors and the forces that compel them to choose the street as the place to undertake what is ultimately an illegal and difficult form of self employment.
There are no exact figures on the number of street hawkers in Ghana, but they are seen as part of the informal economy, which the Ghana Statistical Service says employs a staggering 86.2 percent of the approximately ten million people employed in Ghana. Across the sub-Saharan African region, the International Labour Organization estimates that the informal economy accounts for 72 percent of non-agricultural employment.
From the Interior to the Big City
“I am just concentrating on staying alive to make it to the next day,” John, a diminutive man who is also 21, told Inzuna at the Okponglo intersection where Freetown avenue cuts across the Accra-Aburi road from East Legon and into the University of Ghana campus. He was drenched in sweat wearing worn jean shorts with a faded blue t-shirt and selling grapes in transparent plastic bags to a late afternoon build up of saloon cars and SUVs.
He works a daily shift from about 9:30am to 3:30pm. His grapes are in different sizes of bags and cost 2 cedis for a small bag and 5 cedis for a larger bag, about 60 cents and 1 dollar and 30 cents respectively.
The grapes seemed overheated in the perforated packaging, and what should have been droplets of melting ice resembled the vapour produced by the punishing sun roasting the temperate climate fruits in the plastic.
For the one hour I observed this tiny man following the traffic and thrusting his goods in countless car windows, he did not sell a single bag of grapes. He held on to his withered produce defiantly, however, as each convoy of vehicles waited for a green light and sped off into the distance.
John makes the 23-minute journey to this intersection every morning by minibus from Achimota where he sleeps on the steps of a shop after it closes for the day.
He says times are getting harder.
“Business is not good now. Sometimes I don’t make enough to bring me back to my sleeping place. I walk back when that happens,” he said.
A native of Kumasi, which is about 250 km away, where he was raised along with his four siblings, John was driven to Accra by a quest for economic opportunity. His parents are still alive, but after he left junior high school in 2011 he realized they were not in a position to help him.
He began life on the streets in 2012.
“I am just trying to save something and learn a vocation. It has been hard. This is not where I see myself spending the rest of my life. Sometimes it gets very depressing,” he told Inzuna.
When asked why he didn’t try to make a living from cocoa farming, which is centered in Kumasi and is the chief agricultural export for Ghana, he replied that his parents and grandparents forgot about the younger generation and did not leave any farms for them. He said that there is no hope for him in Kumasi, and he doesn’t have much interest in farming anyway.
Hopes and Despair
Like John, Kwabena also sleeps at night out in the open behind a store at the edge of a big gutter. He left his hometown, Agona Swedru, after failing to secure a job at a poultry farm. Bearing the heavy responsibility of being the eldest in a family with four brothers and one sister, he made the trek to Accra 4 years ago.
He’s now selling air fresheners in the street.
“I do not want to fall into crime. That’s why I am trying to endure this suffering,” he told Inzuna.
He complained that commuters usually take him and other hawkers for criminals. “Whenever we go close to their car windows they look terrified and quickly close the glass.”
When asked about his future goals, he explained that he has plans to learn a vocational skill. However, whenever he starts building up savings a family member tends to call needing assistance, and he cannot refuse giving them money.
So he is forced to carry on.
Kwabena makes about 20 pesewas, about 1 cent, on each air freshener sold.
City authorities add to the problems of roadside vendors by occasionally confiscating their goods for unauthorized selling, Kwabena told Inzuna.
Francis, 22, another native of Kumasi and now in the streets, agreed but said that selling goods near the edge of the university campus was better because there it was only the university security that harassed them.
He came to Accra in a group of about 50 boys. Virtually, all of them now sleep on the streets at night.
“We sleep outside but we use mosquito nets,” he informed Inzuna. “Being under the sun all the time gives me headaches. So I take anti-malarial tablets as a preemptive measure,” he added.
Dressed in pink pants and a black sweatshirt turned inside out, he works every single day. Francis left his hometown for Accra because he needed support to learn how to make shoes, and his parents, who are both farmers, could not help. He’s slowly pursuing his goals by training at different times and paying his instructor in installments. He visits home whenever he has the time and money.
He does not want to come back to the streets, he explained. Consequently, he’s working hard not only to pay for the final part of his training but also to set up his own shoe making shop in Kumasi. For this reason, he works longer hours and covers a wider range of traffic running up and down the boulevards in all four directions.
Meanwhile, some of the other street hawkers, such as Kwabena, carry the demeanor of men in despair. Lean and pale, Kwabena limped through traffic after our talk, and greeted commuters with a weak, feeble voice as though he was short of breath.
Follow Johnson Ayonka on Twitter at @Kudugo_Ayoka
Follow Inzuna on Twitter at @inzuna