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Opinions Thu, 15 Oct 2009

Survival in Sodom and Gomorrah

There is a way in which focusing on the demolition of slums can clog our ears to the cries of its people. Sometimes, all it takes is to listen with our hearts and our feet.

Issifu Alhassan came to Accra ten years ago from Tamale. At the time, his name had been cancelled from the books of the Business Secondary School when he failed to show up after vacation on account of financial difficulties. He was in SS 3.

In Accra, he did many jobs; in Lion Security, as a labourer in a construction firm and later in scraps. “We normally go round to houses and fitting shops. Where there are metals that they have no use for, we buy from the owner and then sell. I started with what you might call a loan from secondary buyers of scrap who also guaranteed to buy whatever I brought from my rounds. Income is however irregular and unreliable with the possibility of one spending for over three months buying and collecting scrap with no one to also buy it from you. Other times, daily income may range from GHC 2 to GHC100.”

The buyers at the Konkomba market subsequently gather in bulk the machine and car parts, engine blocks and heavy metals and take them to Tema where they are processed into iron rods.

Family & Social Life Issifu and his wife, a Christian and a Moslem respectively, were divorced 3 years ago due to religious differences. They have a 4 year old boy who is currently in Tamale. “I don’t remit them as often as I would have liked. Last month however, I was able to send my boy some clothes and washing soap”, he added.

Issifu also shared how “As a Christian, it is a matter of great concern to me that for three years now, I have not been in church. I now find myself so over whelmed by life’s circumstances that I don’t seem to even make the time to worship God the way I know I should. Sometimes, I wonder what it would take to go to a Bible School or if the requirements would automatically disqualify me.”

Conflict Confronted with his personal perception and/or involvement in the conflicts often associated with Sodom and Gomorrah, Issifu explained that “I don’t involve my self in these things having given myself to Christ. Sometimes, I trace the root of these conflicts to peoples’ inability to give practical expression to their religious beliefs and also to the intemperate language that people of different political persuasions use in addressing each other in this community.”

Security Issifu has a philosophical approach to security. Bearing no ill will against any man, he fears no evil will befall him. Secondly, he prefers not to involve himself in matters of partisan politics and chieftaincy issues. Of course, the police patrols embarked upon in the immediate aftermath of the violence have helped to calm things down significantly.

He however finds the criminal tag placed on residents most painful and unfair.

“The point is that when the people of Accra describe those of us living in Konkomba Market as criminals, they betray their ignorance about what goes on here. I concede that we used to have our fair share of criminals here but this is no longer the case. I recall one man whose strategy was to rob from other armed robbers living here. Of course these other armed robbers ganged up against him and later killed him. All these criminals are no more.”

Demolishing Sodom and Gomorrah Issifu’s first major challenge is with the name given to this place-Sodom and Gomorrah. “I genuinely don’t like it”, he reveals. People who know the meaning and the punishment that God meted out to this sinful city will appreciate its negative connotations. But Issifu is not surprised because of his belief that in labeling residents as criminals and in “calling our home Sodom and Gomorrah, the people of Accra are in effect saying that they do not have faith in the people living in the Konkomba Market. But we are citizens too. We are part of Ghana and we are not criminals. We are not criminals at all.”

He is appalled that when the AMA Chief Alfred Vanderpuye announced his intentions to demolish this place, people capitalized on the opportunity to insult residents forgetting that no matter how low ones’ position is in life; “you have your personal dignity. We are being termed as animals or so.”

When the matter came up for discussion three weeks ago on Metro TV’s Good Evening Ghana, the AMA Chief Executive allegedly had similar insulting comments for residents. Issifu insists that all human beings have some land that belongs to them. Additionally, he is quick to point out that while people may migrate because of poor socioeconomic opportunities, this does not change the fact that they too have some land somewhere.

“I once heard Vice President Mahama congratulating the people of Accra for hosting the national capital. That is the way it should be because I also think it is an honor to host the national capital for which they should feel proud.”

Aftermath of demolition Seriously speaking, Issifu Alhassan doesn’t foresee this market being demolished without consequences for the country. “Infact I heard someone say categorically that should the AMA demolish the Konkonba Market, he will visit immediate reprisal attacks on a Ga woman currently living in Lamankara in Tamale.”

Clearly, he also foresees untold violence, suffering and deaths. So many people will die while securing their property from demolition. Personally he doesn’t consider himself to own any appreciable property which is why if even he has to walk to Tamale, then that is what it is going to be. “You know what the white man says? No condition is permanent!” he philosophizes.

The option of resettling residents in a place with schools and hospitals is a good one. He quickly reminds of the AMA Chief’s words- “that he has no money to compensate anybody. And since there is no compensation, I do not see how you can be talking of a better place. There is not going to be any better place.”

Political Deception Issifu is amazed at the promises made to uplift their circumstances by politicians seeking votes. It disappoints him that it is the same people disturbing residents in this manner. “As I sit here now, I owe my neighbor GHC 20 which I borrowed yesterday in the hope of repaying today. I made no money however on my scraps rounds. How do I pay my debts and find additional money to transport my things to Tamale? I don’t think we are happy.”

“Am I a refugee? What am I? What should I call myself? I think in Ghana, we have never seen home grown refugees apart from Liberians in Budumbura. Some of ask ourselves everyday how we can accommodate Liberians but can’t accommodate ourselves? I think Ghana will see refugees when they demolish the Konkomba Market.”

AMA’s consultation on demolition policy Bluntly put, Issifu sees no consultative process going on. What they have seen instead are local government officials and a Regional Minister proclaiming that Sodom and Gomorrah must go! Some journalists allegedly asked AMA Chief Vanderpuye if it is not Konkomba that voted him into power? His response that when you vote in somebody, your expectation is for the person to come and do good elicits a sharp retort from Issifu, “How can you destroy my chances and property and still say that you are doing good?”

Issifu and friends point out to me that this is not military rule. They cannot understand why the AMA Boss cannot understand for example how structures spring up rapidly after fire guts the Market. This sweeping generalization they consider erroneous with the conclusion that everyone here has a lot of money. He reveals how he for example has had to sell off his second room because of economic hardship. Interestingly, one chief in the Konkonba Market at a meeting of leaders is reported to have recalled “that we were previously much respected” with Issifu concluding that “frankly speaking, this AMA boss Alfred Vanderpuye and the Regional Minister, in the manner in which they have spoken about our sanitation problems and the so-called poor behaviour of our people here in Konkomba Market, have spoilt our name too much.”

Solutions Issifu recognizes the need for improved healthcare and sanitation services. The only problem in his view is the unavailability of adequate toilet facilities. They are also aware of the AMA’s preference for a “man hole” as opposed to defecation in open spaces. Subsequently, every toilet owner is required to have a manhole. Since then, some toilet owners have dug manholes in compliance. In the past, using the toilet cost 5p but because of the presence of manholes, this has been increased to 10p.

Residents who are taken ill seek healthcare at Odawna Clinic, Ussher Maternity and Ussher Polyclinic. Additionally he mentioned the schools, churches and mosques in the Konkomba Market all aimed at providing people with some spiritual and material comfort.

In all this however, Issifu Alhassan has one overriding concern, “What is important to me is for the authorities to recognize us as human beings and as Ghanaians. We are not foreigners, or are we?”

Future He spells out his two future options finally, “If I can go to a Bible School, I will do so. If I cannot, then I will return to the North and cater for my child and see what plans God has for us. That is my decision.”

Sodzi Sodzi-Tettey

Columnist: Sodzi-Tettey, Sodzi