Two Young Bulsa Men in Accra
Jet-lagged, and the sound of the plane’s engine still reverberating in my ears, I stand in front of the gate of my brother’s house waiting for Sofo to pick me up for a short trip to the city, from where we would visit Apanka and his family at their home in La Paz, an Accra suburb. Sofo Ali-Akpajiak and Francis Apanka are two close friends of mine. We’ve been friends since childhood.
I hope Sofo is not stuck in the chronic Accra traffic jams, the morning ones especially. It is an hour longer than the expected time of his arrival. To ease the
Ayitiyam Atibil (black shirt) and Kojo Adiinaam on their motor-bike
waiting, my view starts scanning the neighborhood more closely than before, taking in the cinematic morning scenes playing around me; from street hawkers balancing pots of kenkey (corn meal) and trays of bread on their heads to pedestrians on their way to work, and vehicles meandering and jostling through potholes.
It is a Friday in July 2014 in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, where 57 years ago on 6th March 1957 President Kwame Nkrumah declared, “Ghana, our beloved country is free forever!” I wish I could feel the optimism of that day in today’s Ghana. I wish it would rekindle with the power of audacity of hope and dedication to true nation-building in a country now paralyzed by the cancer of corruption, deeply divided by partisan politicking, where cities are drowning in filth, and the display of wealth and the signs of poverty and suffering walk hand in hand. The horrible roads and the madness displayed in traffic by most users: cars, trucks, buses, motorists as well as pedestrians are but some of the many retrogressive aspects of national life that have turned the dream into a nightmare. And these civil anomalies are even more conspicuous when one judges them through the lenses of a Ghanaian like me who lives in Germany, where streets are cleaned and mopped as if they were living rooms and indiscipline in traffic is the rare exception! It is clear to me that the comparison is not altogether right. Nevertheless, I often wish I could implant aspects of my naturalized country’s economic and, partly, social advancement in my country of birth. Is what I see in Ghana the vision Nkrumah had for the Black Star of Africa? Ayi Kwei Armah’s beautiful ones have a gargantuan task to accomplish when they ever come into this life!
I do not stay in Accra longer than necessary each time I am in Ghana, preferring the rural setting of my native Bulsaland in the Upper East Region; the lush rainy season savannah vegetation and open country that welcome the visitor is a treasure to the eye. Living in the city, in a big German city, has not succeeded in chasing the country boy out of me in all the three decades that I have been here. I have remained the village boy who, some forty-five years ago, would join the shepherd children in Gbedema in their daily rounds grazing cattle in the bush in the rainy season. Walking through the morning dew at sunrise; hearing the moos of cows; meeting a young adult returning from the surrounding bush with “kpatiok” lumps of clay containing white ants to feed his chicks, are scenes of my childhood that I reminisce about with nostalgia, sweet memories that have not faded away in the bustling city life of Hamburg.
As a first point of arrival by air from abroad, Accra is unavoidable. Ghana’s only international airport, Kotoka, (and I think the name of the soldier who ousted Nkrumah is inappropriate as name for an airport that partly has the handprints of the first president of the Republic of Ghana) is in Accra. The few days I spend in the capital usually go into meeting my friends. So I am looking forward to Sofo’s arrival, and to sharing company with him and Francis later in the day on the first day of my 2014 summer holidays in the land of my birth!
My reverie is interrupted by the sound of a motorbike which pulls up in front of the house. The two young riders pack it on the pavement, the shorter one greets me in English while his companion nods a good morning and the two then proceed to do what seems to be a routine job; cleaning and clearing weeds in the garden and courtyard of the house. They are fully concentrated on their tasks. While I observe them at work I ponder over their lives and those of the many young men and women slithering their way from vehicle to vehicle in the city’s heavy traffic displaying and advertising all sorts of imported goods, soliciting buyers, the little earnings they make being their only source of income and livelihood.
When the two young men finish their work, the difference in the yard and garden of the house before and after their arrival is obvious; the place is very clean, and I am impressed. I start a casual conversation with one of them, the one who greeted me in English. I want to know which part of Ghana they come from, if they do such jobs for a living, how much they earn, where they live and related matters. The dialogue starts in English and is mainly with the shorter one, but when he tells me they are from Kanjarga, a village in the new Bulsa South District, we switch to Buli.
Sofo arrives and before we leave I extend a sheet of paper to my main interlocutor. His name is Kojo Adiinaam. I ask him to write down his name and telephone number so that I can contact them. I want to meet and talk to them again and know more about their lives in Accra before returning to Germany at the end of my four-week visit. Adiinaam hesitates a moment and then writes his name and telephone number for me. It is obvious that writing is difficult for him. His handwriting could have been that of a child who is learning to write. Noticing the difficulty I have reading his writing, Adiinaam tells me he cannot write well, and that he has never been to school. Hmm! His spoken English is relatively fluent though. How come he has never been to school? I wanted to know, and our second meeting would give me the answer and the details of the lives of the two young men in Accra, details that I want them to share with me, and you (with their permission), as a reader of this journal!
Adiinaam’s and Ayitiyam’s stories are our collective story as Bulsa! If some of us had not been lucky and privileged to be sent to school and made use of the chance, we could also have been in their situation, and there are many more young men and women out there in the streets of Accra with the same story. What can we do as Bulsa to minimize rural-urban migration, help young people to come out of the maze of the bleak future staring most of them in the face in the prime of their lives?
On our way into the city we are caught up in traffic and Sofo decides to buy boiled groundnuts from one of the many street hawkers winding their way through vehicles looking for buyers. It’s unbelievable what they offer; dog chains, umbrellas, art works, and food items. I’m surprised when Sofo addresses a young woman selling groundnuts in Buli, N nong, nye fi sungkpaamu mag te mu. (Darling, can you give me some groundnuts). I ask if he knows her. Laughing, he says no, and adds that the probability that a seller of groundnuts is Bulsa is about 99%. “Young Bulsa women in Accra have a monopoly over the sale of groundnuts, just as the Dagomba have a monopoly over load carting”, he concludes, and laughing, he reminds me, “You are in Ghana, not Germany!”
When I get the chance to get into conversation with the Adiinaam and Ayitiyam on my return from Buluk some three weeks later, I am taken aback by the details of the lives, the daily hardship they face in the city even though their predicament isn’t completely new to me.
I have had to swallow the bitter pills of migrant life at some stages in my in life. The post 31st December 1981 coup in Ghana made me experience some of the worse forms of hardship I have had to face in my young adult life and as an urban dweller. During my national service years at Presbyterian Secondary School (Presec), Legon, Accra, there were times when I could not afford trotro fare and had to walk long distances in the scorching sun to destinations in the city. Worse was the lack of food and essential commodities which forced low-income earners and poor people to start queuing up for kenkey as early as 4 am. The demand for kenkey, one of the cheapest meals the poor could afford at the time, was so high that one had to wake up as early as 4 am to queue for it at the kenkey seller’s house or kiosk. If one was lucky, and after hours in the queue you got a few balls of kenkey, and if luck was against you, it would be sold out before it was your turn to be served. Milk, sugar, oil, rice, meat and similar items virtually disappeared from my kitchen. I remember having porridge without sugar for breakfast on several occasions, or kenkey with only ground pepper, tomatoes, salt and onions. Fish was part of the meal only around pay days. And having a decent square meal was like being treated to a royal banquet!
In the diaspora I have also experienced the unpleasant sides of migration. During my early years in Germany as a young student without a scholarship or any form of welfare benefit from the state, I lived in a one-room garden house with a makeshift toilet and bath behind it. I had to gather my wood (from a nearby forest) to heat the room in winter. I earned the money for my living expenses doing odd jobs; picking fruit in cold halls at the Bremen harbour, doing paper rounds at dawn, cleaning homes and helping to renovate them; clearing congested basements, removing tiles and paper from walls, wall papering and painting walls and so on. Worse than these tiring jobs was the constant feeling of nostalgia and loneliness. For anyone growing up in an extended family and open communal environment, loneliness is a terrible feeling, and tortures spirit and mind.
But unlike Adiinaam and Ayitiyam, I had enough to eat and was covered by a good health as well. Above all, I had a weapon that helped me cope with my situation, made the hardship lighter and endurable, a weapon the two young men and many unskilled young Bulsa migrants in Accra don’t possess: I could read and write, was pursuing further education and viewed my situation optimistically as temporary.
Kojo Adiinaam says he is twenty-three but is not sure about his real age. He was born in Atebubu where his father had been working as a watchman. Before reaching school-going age his father died and his mother relocated with her son to their home village, Kanjarga. Our people say that when misfortune knocks on your door and you inform him you have no mat for him for the night, he would tell you not to bother about that because he remembered to bring his own mat. Adiinaam’s mother also died a few years after returning to Buluk, and the boy came under the custody of his grandmother, a frail widow who could hardly fend for herself least to take care of a grandson. Both grandmother and grandson depended on the extended family for support. The boy became a shepherd. His only warm meal of the day was the evening TZ, which also became his breakfast the next morning if any was left over (satali), otherwise he survived on millet flour (zom) and handfuls of groundnuts or whatever he got in the bush while grazing the cattle.
In 2002, at the age of twelve, he decided to “escape” to the south, Accra. In the city he managed to locate a distant female relative who hosted him for three years. Fortunately she was a food seller, so he could get to eat, helping her out with preparing the meals in return. But the older he got he realised he needed to get a job and earn his own livelihood. At 15 he started working as a cleaner and garden boy in the homes of rich people. His monthly income amounted to GHS 100 (approximately $30). Of this amount he would give his “sister” GHS 40 as his contribution to the rent and meals while still helping her in her food business whenever he could; washing the cooking pots, cleaning and running errands for her. It was touching to hear him reveal that he remitted GHS 20 of his meagre earnings to his grandmother every month, sending her a few second-hand skirts and headscarves from time to time. He doesn’t miss home so much and is happy to be pulling his own bootstraps, but the thought of his grandmother’s situation depresses him quite often, knowing how hard things are for her.
He has been living on his own, working both as a part-time ward cleaner at 37 Military Hospital and a messenger for a local company since 2012. He does night shift at the hospital, from 6 pm to 5 am, cleaning blood and clearing waste as well as helping patients during the night. When he closes from the hospital job, he goes home to sleep till 8 am and then continues to the messenger job from 9 am to 4 pm. At 6 pm he starts his job at the hospital again. Sunday is his only free day. His total monthly earnings amount to GHS 700, GHS 200 as a ward cleaner and GHS 500 as a messenger. Adiinaam sees this as a big improvement in his situation. He has not only been able to put money aside and bought himself a second-hand motorbike, but has also has increased his remittance to his grandmother from GHS 20 to between GHS 50. A breakdown of his monthly fixed expenses, as he provided me with the details, is as follows: remittance to his grandmother = GHS 50, rent = GHS 45, electricity bill = GHS 25, water bill = GHS 30, GHS 120 goes into petrol for his bike, without which he says he would be helpless, and GHS 200 for food. He does not cook at home. His work schedule does not allow it, so he eats outside. He spends GHS 6 on the two meals he eats a day, and each meal, mostly banku, kenkey or waakye (rice and beans) and a sachet of pure water, costs GHS 3. He has his first meal towards mid-day and the second meal late in the afternoon, before going to the hospital job at 5 pm. When hungry in the interim periods, he buys something “small”, and whatever that is, he is careful not to spend more than GHS 1. He buys new clothes and shoes only when he really needs them. The few shirts and pairs of trousers and shoes he has can last him many months, he says, and laughing, he asks rhetorically, “Where do I even wear new clothes to?” He would like to go to social gatherings like weddings and funerals but is usually so tired on Sundays that all he needs is rest. When I asked him what he intends doing with the GHS 200 he saves each month, he told me that his dream is to be able to build his own concrete block rooms in the village, as well as invest in “business”, trading in whatever would allow him to earn a decent living.
Adiinaam’s dream of a better future is often clouded by thoughts of his grandmother being taken ill and having no one to take care of her the way he would to. And he is not always sure that money he sends home from his meagre savings for her to be taken care of on such occasions is really used to benefit her. He himself is covered in health insurance by 37 Military Hospital, and that partly explains why he still works there despite the long working hours and little pay. Another reason is the prospect of eventually getting a permanent work contract at the hospital. To him that would be a win at the lottery. In that case his wages would not only go up but the fear of unemployment would finally be banished from his mind.
Another tormenting fear of his is the likelihood of his motorbike breaking down. Apart from having to buy expensive spare parts (and the last time he had to replace a part, it cost him GHS 200!), it would be difficult getting to work. By motorbike, it is faster to get to work and back home for the rest he always needs, especially after the night shift at the hospital.
Adiinaam has another dream. He wants to take adult literacy classes and learn to read and write properly. His inability to read and write often has him being denied jobs that require these skills. Being able to speak some English alone is not enough for him. His plan is to quit the messenger job when 37 Military Hospital gives him a permanent contract and then invest the extra time in a literacy course.
Given his present circumstances marriage and starting a family are not in his short-term plans. “I cannot take care of a family at the moment, but I am still young and have time, so marriage can wait.”
In elections he has always voted for the NDC (“kaleini”). He thinks the NDC helps workers and poor people. As to how the NDC government has helped him as a worker and a poor young man, Adiinaam laughs and says his living conditions have not seen any significant change since the NDC came to power, but he will still vote for the NDC in the next elections because it is “my party.”
Adiinaam’s companion, Ayitiyam, says he is twenty-eight years old, but is also not very sure about his age. He has never been to school, and can neither read nor write. He does not speak a word of English, or any other Ghanaian language apart from Buli. He has always been a farmer, paying regular visits to the capital in the dry season to look for work when there was little to do in Buluk. He would return home at the beginning of each rainy season. That annual migratory pattern changed in 2013 when he decided to stay in Accra after his last visit. According to him, the crop harvest in Buluk in 2012 was particularly bad and that discouraged him from returning home to continue farming. Even before that he had always fallen ill and couldn’t work throughout the rainy season. On such occasions he depended on his father and younger brother to help cultivate his fields. He always felt bad and it hurt his sense of pride having to have his father and younger brother supporting him when he should be the one, as elder son, supporting them. It also happened that whenever he was in Accra, he never became ill so he thought it was better to remain there, find a job and try fulfilling his duty of supporting his parents and his wife and child, as expected of an adult senior son. His father didn’t object to his son’s decision but gave it his blessing, promising that he would take care of his daughter in-law and grandson in his son’s absence. The two have since joined him in Accra.
Their living conditions in the city are very hard, the young man told me. On the average, he earns about 300 GHS each month doing various odds jobs, from loading goods in the market to helping at construction sites. The more regular of these is the job as a night security guard; watching over electric cables, especially during power cuts, known as dumsor in Ghana. Thieves love them because they bring in quick money, he says. There is a high demand for copper on the black market. The security guard job is a very dangerous one, as the thieves are often armed and would not hesitate to kill anyone trying to prevent them from getting their booty. So when on duty Ayitiyam has to be extra vigilant as the lights can suddenly go off and the armed cable thieves strike any moment. In the last six months the thieves have struck a number of times. He has also witnessed a few incidents where a thief gets caught up in the overhead cables and is practically roasted alive when the lights suddenly return while he was trying to cut them. Despite the risk he faces and the gruesome emotional trauma of watching a human burning alive, he still keeps the job. It brings in GHS 250 each month.
His wife supplements the family earnings selling boiled groundnuts, carrying their little daughter on the back during her rounds in the streets of Accra. On rainy days she has to stay at home with the baby and that means not earning anything at all on such days. They live in a rented room in Nima. The house has neither water nor toilet facilities. They buy about four buckets of water each day for six pesewas a bucket for bathing, drinking and cooking, and a four more each week to wash their clothing and bed-sheets. They pay GHS 40 for the room each month, and electricity takes GHS 20. Unlike Kojo, Ayitiyam cannot afford a motorbike and therefore has to walk to wherever he can get a job. If it’s far or on rainy days, he is forced to take a trotro paying a total of GHS 2.80 in and out. He takes Mondays off to stay to look after their daughter so that his wife can do more rounds selling her groundnuts. The money they have left after paying their fixed monthly costs goes into feeding. Banku and TZ with okro (gumbo) soup and fish or ground tomatoes, onions, pepper and fish are the meals they can afford. When they earn extra money, they are able to afford rice, yam and some meat. Despite everything, the two still manage to remit money home from time to time. Ayitiyam is dissatisfied with his situation but sees no better option than stick on at the moment. He hopes things will improve and he will get more jobs and earn more money. If things don’t improve, he will be forced to return home and continue his life as a subsistence farmer.
My conversation with the two young men and the things they revealed about their lives in the city keep revisiting my mind. Rural-urban migration isn’t a new phenomenon in Ghana. When I was growing up I used to observe the sudden disappearance of young men from the village, and remarks like “wa chali cheng ka sagi” (He has ran to the bush, meaning southern Ghana, the big cities, Kumasi and Accra mostly). Some would return and go back to farming after a few years in the city. Others remained there when they got more regular jobs. Visiting Buluk is only possible once in a blue moon, and returning to resettle there becomes more and more difficult each year as they get alienated from rural life after protracted stay in the city.
It is clear that the phenomenon of rural-urban migration will continue for as long as young people are unable to get jobs in the rural areas. Successive governments have been helpless in the face of the problem, as the presence of the multitude of young people trying to make a living in the streets of Accra testifies.
Ghana’s system of education seems to be one of the causes of the problem; its inability so far to find the right balance between general literary education and equipping young people with more practical vocation skills that can enable them to find jobs more easily when they leave school. And the cities are full of not only illiterate young men but school drop-outs and school leavers looking for jobs.
Improving agricultural infrastructures to include better and innovative farming methods; constructing more dams and irrigation facilities that will allow all-year farming (and Buluk has many fertile valleys for farming food crops like rice and maize in Wiesi and Gbedembilisi in particular) are some measures that could keep the youth in the rural areas, Buluk in our case.
I guess the experts in the area of migration among our readers have better suggestions as to how rural-urban migration can be reduced.
I will continue to keep in touch with Adiinaam and Ayitiyam; link up with them in Accra during my annual visits to Ghana, monitor their “careers”, in the hope that their living conditions will improve and their modest dreams will come true.
If anyone reading this article is in a position to help the two young men find more stable jobs, please contact them on the following telephone number: 054 173 5983 (Kojo Adiinaam) or link up with our journal.