Imagine a world where, from the slums and shanties of a developing nation, where despots have ruled more than elected representatives, arose a new kind of community led by hawkers and hairdressers.
That is exactly what is happening in Old Fadama, the slum of 34,000 more commonly referred to as "Sodom and Gomorrah,” according to Farouq Braimah, Executive Director for People's Dialogue on Human Settlements.
The residents of Old Fadama have accomplished a lot in the past three years as part of the Ghana Federation of Urban Poor, a community-based, grassroots network.
All of its members live in slums and many are squatters, people whose very existence is often branded 'illegal."
These 'illegal' residents have become a formidable force in Ghana: there are 10-12 groups in each of six regions, with 50-70 members per group, and thousands in Accra. Most of them are women. “Before GHAFUP I had no son or daughter,” explained Mariama Sayibu. “Now I have a thousand and one of each who count on me and come to me for help, because the Federation empowers women as leaders.”
They are the product of a tidal global force toward urbanisation that no government has succeeded in stopping. Each group leads its own charge toward security, land ownership, gaining access to services, improving the infrastructure (access to water, electricity, education, sanitation) in its slum, and advocating for its collective legal rights.
Together, they exchange ideas, techniques, analysis, and skills, pushing them far from the usual biblical imagery attached to them.
One of the primary tactics of the member groups of GHAFUP is micro-savings and lending programs.
“We share risk with micro-finance, which makes for strong relationships,” said Haruna, a Federation member and resident of Old Fadama. “So we develop a bond of trust, and can count on each other to make up shortfalls, build social capital, help each other in difficult times.”
Collectively GHAFUP members have raised more than ¢450 million without a single defaulted loan in three years of operation.
To assist in their advocacy work and debunk their persistently bad image, they have engaged in community mapping, which involves tracking demographic data on residents and businesses of the slums, with support from consultants hired by Government.
In an interview with The Statesman, Mr Braimah noted that while all these activities are driven and implemented by the communities themselves, they are part of an even larger global network called Slum Dwellers International.
“Information sharing and network-building is so critical in the global village that it happens in the business world, in government, in sports, and in religion,” he said. “But one group could not participate, and that group happened to be poor people.”
According to Mr Braimah, SDI has gone beyond the cliché of empowerment by supporting, rather than leading, the initiatives of the poor, and given them the opportunity to visit other slum-dwellers in other nations.
“I was the first person in Ghana to benefit from the exchange,” said Alahassan Fuseini proudly at a weekly meeting for his saving group. “I went on an international exchange to Cambodia, Thailand, and Nepal, and learned about slum dwellers there, and how to interact with government. We have learned important skills such as how to conduct enumeration and self-surveys.”
Such exchanges create more knowledgeable, competent leaders in those communities, who are always on the cutting edge of community development, having learned from the most innovative survivors in the world.
Despite its accomplishments, the image of Old Fadama as hell-on-earth persists, largely due to the pollution and lack of facilities there.
In 1995 it was called “one of the most polluted places on earth” by the International Development Research Center.
With more than 30,000 people squeezed around the banks of a small lagoon, that pollution is no surprise (and with three million Accra residents throwing trash everywhere it's even less of a surprise).
As far back as 1999 the National Democratic Congress was attempting to launch the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project to clean and develop the area around Old Fadama, and according to Dr Thomas Fokuo Agyapong, Director of Modernisation of the Capital City with the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations, $89 million has been spent on the project since that time with little improvement.
Unfortunately for the residents, a proper cleaning and restoration of Korle, which is an important means of storm-water and drainage management, necessitates their removal.
In 2002, the KLERP was presented at the West African Conference on Affordable Housing, which was held in Accra that year. A representative from the UK-based Homeless International and another from SDI were in attendance and decided to investigate.
Their investigation determined that the KLERP lacked adequate planning for the relocation of those 30,000 residents, who had not been consulted on the issue because they were seen as infringing on government land.
They further concluded that there was a need for dialogue with the squatters rather than the use of force.
SDI then helped create PD, which has been backing the work of GHAFUP with fundraising, advocacy, and other administrative support ever since. PD is now funded primarily by the UK's Department of International Development.
According to Mr Braimah, the fact that two successive governments were ready to forcibly relocate so many people without compensation, which would have been the first mass eviction in Ghanaian history, demonstrates that urbanisation and the growth of slums is “a global trend that has caught up to us.”
“Urbanisation is faster than government,” adds Lukman Abdul-Rahim, a Programme Coordinator with PD, who noted that as job-seekers flood to Accra urban poverty continues to rise and the number of houseless explodes. “They squat with relatives to survive and few strategies have been developed to deal with this problem.”
In 2003, the staff of the newborn PD enacted the best strategy they knew for this complex problem. “We created the platform for the two parties to meet and discuss,” Mr Braimah explained.
“People are part of the government, so we said let's see how we can bring them together to talk, to minimise the effects of the relocation. Over time they have met continuously.”
Mr Braimah said that he was encouraged by government's response and progress since dialogue began with residents of Old Fadama.
“At the time we joined this debate the issues were confused and government response was mixed,” he said. “With dialogue the issues became evident, and the response has been very good.”
In particular, Old Fadama residents have had repeated progressive conversations with the Ministries of Local Government, Rural Development & Environment; Tourism & Diasporan Relations; and Water Resources, Works & Housing.
PD is currently reviewing a draft Memorandum of Understanding with SDI and those Ministries relevant to urban slums, which will outline the terms of engagement between Government and slum communities.
Mr Braimah also gives credit to the international community, especially UNHABITAT, which has selected Ghana for a pilot Slum Upgrading Facility project, and Homeless International, for bringing human rights and housing issues to Government's attention.
“Ghana has no urban policy and the GPRSII marked the first time slums were even considered in development,” he said, noting that the international community's support has helped Ghana progress to the point of planning its first urban policy for the near future.
Since that time, Government has submitted its staff, who have participated in government exchanges with South Africa and attended the World Urban Forum in Canada, to international sharing of ideas through SDI.
In The Community
Old Fadama was born in 1979, formed mostly by desperate migrants from the north who came seeking work or to start businesses, and found that the big city offered more costs than wages.
“We came to do business and look for money,” resident Yusuf Idrissu explained, and only with PD have we learned how to save and use money to succeed.”
They built shacks from what they found and made a home on unused land by the Korle Lagoon. The squatter community has grown consistently ever since, with two major spurts during the 1983 famine and a period of intense northern conflict in 1994.
In the face of the derision of Accra residents, the people who live in Old Fadama take pride in their community and enjoy life there despite their many needs.
At successive community meetings, members of GHAFUP who took a sense of pride in their accomplishments, expressed great appreciation for the work of PD, and listed multiple needs.
“We need help with security,” said Kande Zakaria, after another resident remembered the days before GHAFUP, when “the police would come and beat us like dogs.”
There is also a notorious criminal element in the community that moved in to prey on society's most vulnerable.
“We need our own meeting space,” added Amina Sule. At the moment her group rents a video room from one of the community's thousands of entrepreneurs.
“We need to establish a day-care,” said Hawa, the local organiser of the group, adding that training in more diversified skill-sets such as dressmaking and computer technology would help their businesses and thus improve their living standards.
There were more innovative ideas than complaints, and they echoed the usual longing for clean drinking water, sanitation, and most of all, houses.
Ms Zakaria offered simply, “the proof of success will be in the new housing provided.”
That new housing is to be located in Adjin Kotoko, 5 kilometres from Amasaman, according to Dr Agyapong.
As reported by The Statesman in July of last year, 10 million euros was recently secured from the KBC Bank of Belgium to develop coveted infrastructure.
Dr Agyapong estimates that another $229 million is required for the planned relocation and construction, scheduled to begin in April and to be implemented in over 18 months.
According to Mr Braimah, the move is not something to be rushed. “The process is more important than the timing,” he said. “We have to get it right. The goal is not to create another Old Fadama, but to build a whole new community.”
Braimah also rebutted rumours that people are moving to Old Fadama simply to take advantage of the opportunity to be relocated into a home. “No one has complete data on the population,” he said. “But people were moving in there even when they thought they would be forcibly removed. The population growth has been steady since the beginning.”
The process for relocation is a carefully planned one, said Dr Agyapong, involving a consulting group surveying the land and planning the layout, architecture, engineering, and construction of low-cost housing for 50,000.
“By the end of March we will complete the land acquisition and planning process and begin infrastructure development in April with drainage, a health centre, market, security, police, transportation terminals.”
He said that it is essential to relocate the market, the economic base of the community, before moving its residents.
A second phase will commence soon after, allowing for the construction of the housing. “It's not free,” he said; a private sector built unit will cost $5,000, or $10,000 for two rooms. Residents will share communal baths and kitchens. Although the cost is low, some worry that it will remain prohibitive for homeless squatters eking out meagre incomes in the informal sector.
“Our biggest concern is the perception that we are giving something away to people without status, and thus encouraging slum development,” said Dr Agyapong. “But 85 percent of the people in Old Fadama work for their livelihood and their main source of employment is the market.”
He said that relocating the market and the people who live and work there will decongest Accra, through which delivery trucks cart goods for sellers from all over Ghana.
He said that the relocation will finally allow for the rehabilitation of Korle, making it available as a leisure and recreation area, clear space in the city, and create a new township with affordable housing.
“It's not just for Old Fadama,” he said. “People can move there from other slums.”
The grand plans have been approved by three Ministries and the AMA, but are subject to approval in Cabinet.
“The main constraint is finding the money,” he added. “But Government is keen on finding some, and once the project is complete the new town will attract investors to further its development.”
According to Ohene Sarfoh, a housing consultant who is reviewing the work of PD and GHAFUP for the UN, Old Fadama cannot be found on any map.
“It's a symptom of professionals,” he said, “be they bankers or mapmakers, that they do not know how to work with people in slums.”
This is what Federation members are trying to change; by taking the initiative for their own welfare. Through their own well-managed micro-financing schemes, they can save enough to invest in assets and new ventures. That effort builds closer community and inter-community bonds, and there is strength in those numbers.
The government, by all accounts, has done well to listen and respond to the needs of society's most vulnerable people, and has extensively consulted the people of Old Fadama to mind their needs and avoid the human catastrophe of mass forced eviction.
The question remains: will the plan succeed, and what can government do to avoid the creation of more slums in the face of rampant urbanisation?
“Urban challenges are so complex,” says Mr Braimah. “No one group can solve it alone, not government, not local authorities, not NGOs, not communities, not the international community. Only partnerships at all these levels hold the key.”
He urged Government to formalise an urban policy that empowers local government to coordinate all the players involved and determine exactly who plays what role in order to fill the cracks in the urban planning system.
He also stressed that although rural development is essential and should continue, no amount of development in the countryside will prevent flight to the city.
“It doesn't work,” he said. “Our experience here and that of other countries that have tried to eliminate urbanisation through rural development show it doesn't work,” he said.
“We need a balanced approach that focuses on rural and urban development and is non-political and community led, so that no future government can take it away.”