The sheer density of a place like Agbogbloshie is breathtaking. It is the largest slum in Accra, in the center of the city. Frequently we think of slums as amassing on the periphery, ringing the outskirts of town. Agbogbloshie is in the middle, as if Accra were pressing in on it from all sides and gradually compacting it into a impenetrable maze.
Women—and it is mostly women that we saw— scrub laundry, stir enormous steaming pots, braid each other’s hair, sit on stoops and chat; children scamper about. You don’t walk around so much as maneuver: you duck under hanging laundry and sidestep people balancing huge loads on their head, all the while treading with great care on the slippery, uneven ground. Agbogbloshie is packed closely with low, tin-roofed, concrete-and-wood houses whose doors are nearly always open. Peering into a room, you see an improbable number of adults and children inside in the semi-dark.
Everywhere in Ghana the streets are lined with open sewers, and you need to practice constant vigilance to keep from falling in. In Agbogbloshie, the streets are more like narrow alleys, so avoiding the (here, particularly disgusting) sewers is especially treacherous. Last night there was a huge rainstorm, and we had to navigate around vast puddles. During the rainy season, which starts later in the spring, parts of Agbogbloshie become completely flooded.
On a regular basis, one hears more about Nima, supposedly the largest slum in Accra. I’m told that by comparison, Nima is a slum for rich people. Many residents own properties elsewhere in Accra and live in Nima for the community and for religious reasons. Residents of Agbogbloshie, like those of Nima, are largely Muslim. They migrated here initially from northern Ghana but in recent years they’ve started to come from all over the country. Based on observation alone, it amazes me that people would come here to take advantage of better economic opportunity. After all, Agbogbloshie is extremely impoverished – but then, subsistence farming is no longer viable in the rural north.
Locals call the slum Sodom and Gomorrah for reasons that became clear as we left. We drove across a bridge that spanned a wide, murky river clogged with trash: Agbogbloshie’s dumping ground. It was a stunning sight. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly, the local governing body, is embarking on an initiative to relocate the entire slum – some 55,000 residents – to the outskirts of the city, to mitigate the environmental cost of sustaining the settlement. What the precise resettlement package will be is up in the air.
The market at Agbogbloshie is the food basket of Accra, a fact which complicates the AMA’s plans to evict all residents. The rich cart in all sorts of food from Ghana’s interior, which slum dwellers buy on credit and re-sell. It is here that vendors, caterers, and owners of eateries buy produce to sell at a premium elsewhere in Accra.
My experience in Ghana so far has been a study in contrasts. It’s surreal that a few nights ago we were throwing back shots of rum at an Irish pub in Osu, or that yesterday we lolled about on the most idyllic tropical beach I’d ever seen and gorged ourselves afterward at a swanky Chinese restaurant. Accra is a sprawling city pieced together of widely varying neighborhoods and districts, and the landscape changes rapidly. Driving back to Legon from Agbogbloshie, we pass through Jamestown, the Ga-speaking neighborhood on the coast. Here, the main industry is fishing. Seconds later we are driving through the city centre, passing the pristine, dignified Supreme Court and mirrored office buildings.
I came to Agbogbloshie because I’m doing an independent research project on an as-yet-undetermined topic relating to urban poverty. Apart from the resettlement process, there are many elements of slum life in Accra that interest me: the nature of rural-to-urban migration; housing and the implications of land titling reform; the informal economic sector; provision of public services; how to make sense of these settlements from an urban planning perspective. I’m told that on the subject of resettlement, there has been much advocacy and little research, which means that I could actually be somewhat useful. I’ve been a bit paralyzed though, by the fact that I have yet to fully hash out my methodology… my guess is that, as with everything else in Ghana, I’ll eventually start to get a feel for things.
I’m still trying to figure out my life: the past few weeks I’ve been visiting schools and orphanages, putting off committing to anything, playing with the idea of looking for an internship, panicking a little bit about whether I actually have the gumption and presence of mind to carry out a research project of this scale. I think it’s time to buckle down and commit to something. On the other hand, I should perhaps try to relinquish the Berkeley-induced mindset that I should always be doing something productive with my time….