Old Fadama is the largest and most notorious slum in Ghana. Around 80,000 people call this maze of narrow allies their home, and those lucky enough to escape from it look down on those who remain. Most inhabitants come from Northern Ghana in search of better opportunities, and many arrive alone with the intention of sending remittances back to their families. Overcrowding and a lack of adequate health and education facilities perpetuate the hopeless condition of the settlement, and shanty wooden structures offer little protection from fires and heavy seasonal rain.
Just three weeks ago, a fire destroyed over 40 structures, affecting an estimated 150 people. The fact that little is ever done in response to a fire or other calamity affects all 80,000. The land on which the settlement lies is government-owned, meaning that all inhabitants are living there illegally and no public services are provided. Although seemingly detached from the political sphere, representatives from all political parties visited the slum following the fire to pledge their support and commitment. The presidential elections are coming up in December, and 80,000 votes are a lot of votes. But the words remain words and no action is taken.
Eviction has been an issue ever since the designation of the slum as a permanent settlement. The issue became particularly tense in 2003 when the Ghanaian government introduced the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP) in an effort to clean up the main dumping site adjacent to the slum. The project was made possible with the help of OPEC, the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, and a Kuwaiti Development fund, which provided a combined amount of around 10 million dollars for the project. As the plans for the KLERP included the subsequent transformation of the trash-topped lagoon into a major tourist attraction, the stakeholders called for the eviction of all slum dwellers since their presence decreases the area’s property value and deters prospective tourists. When faced with eviction, the slum community drew together to fight for their homes – and they won.
It was during this time that the People´s Dialogue on Human Settlement came into being. The PD is a community-based NGO that seeks to give a voice to those living in the slum, and the organization gained further recognition when it allied with the widely known Slum Dwellers International as a local representative. While the PD has emerged as a type of political party advocating for those living in the slums, the organization is criticized for taking part in patronage and not effectively demanding basic services for the settlements. The eviction issue, which prompted the People’s Dialogue, also remains far from resolved. Moreover, instead of making it a topic of discussion in current election campaigns, the issue has been muted to avoid protest similar to those of previous elections. While the eviction issue is likely to resurface when this year’s election draws to a close, no resettlement project has been introduced, and the slum dwellers are not making plans to leave any time soon.
Walking through the areas affected by the recent fire, one can already see new structures being built on the ashes that remain. Without money, leaving the slum and moving into a better neighborhood simply is not an option. Yet new regulations require all new structures to be built of cement – and cement blocks are not cheap. So where is the money coming from?
In the slum, the best job you can have is probably the Shower-Patron. In Old Fadama, a shower costs 20 pesawas (about 10 cents); multiply that by the 2000 or so inhabitants that will line up to take a shower at your facility each day, and you find yourself with 400 Cedis (210 USD) in your pocket when you close shop. Well, that is 400 minus the amount you pay to the water company, who are officially not providing any water, but are unofficially making a little extra cash. And it doesn´t stop there. Further up the line, politicians are also aware of the opportunities that the slum can bring. Because no public goods can be provided to the slum dwellers, politicians and public office holders make profitable use of their patronage. They seek out individuals within the slum who have influence over the sentiments of the inhabitants, and charm them with jobs and bursaries. In turn, they want a vote. Or a better public image. Or silence…
After the eviction battle in the 2000s, the People’s Dialogue has been talking more, but saying less. The NGO is receiving broad support from slum dwellers, but having become comfortable with their links to big boss officials, the promises they make are empty and little change is visible. Slum-dwellers are seeing this more than anybody else, and powerful members of the community are stepping up to raise the voice of the people. While a noble effort, empowering these settlements to demand change may not be enough.
The majority of Ghanaians still condemn residents of Old Fadama as slum rats responsible for the trash mounds ruining the image of their cities. These misconceptions need to be changed if new opportunities for the slum dwellers are to emerge. Without the public pressuring officials to give these people a chance, the government faces few incentives to reform the system and seriously deliberate resettlement projects.
There are things the government can do, but little attention is paid to these settlements because there are more pressing issues at hand, hlike how to reap the largest profits from the country’s recent oil discovery. But for the people in the community, no issue is more pressing. The government cannot shelve this matter until campaigning is over and the votes are cast. It needs to be addressed before the election in December.
– Valerie Weber