African News

Ghana: Rough Sanitation

4 May 2006 at 19:31 | 428 views

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, in Accra, looks at the worsening sanitation situation in Ghanaian cities.

Every city has a kind of genetic copy that looks like Bukom, a slum in Accra. This shadow self is the city’s own hypothetical disintegration, the awful promise of what will happen when the worst takes place. Civilization will vanish. Bukom will break through the increasingly filthy Accra or Kumasi at last and awful sanitation will push up through the structures, and the city council and leaders like the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu 11, and Vice President Aliu Mahama will degenerate to an anti-sanitation tribe at war with dirty-minded city dwellers who go hauling filth all around Accra or Kumasi.

The poor urban sanitation, some of which has bounced back as malaria, Ghanaians’ chief killer, contains a few jagged particles of truth. Most Ghanaian cities have come to look dangerously like their anti-selves: mounting filth creating elaborate, permanent reality, people sleeping in the streets, people urinating and defecating anywhere, crime a real threat, debts deepening, revenue inadequate, and services falling apart. As for the city officials battling the worsening sanitation problems, they have been at war with the dirty-minded dwellers since Jerry Rawlings’ no-nonsense military juntas, and have survived with their filthy culture. They have violated Ghanaian cities’ sanitation bylaws, turned a good part of Accra or Kumasi into wastelands. Here African civilization stands still, and people who live as if health doesn’t matter go howling through the cities’ wastelands like mindless primitive tribes.

Watching Accra or Kumasi, thinking about the terrible sanitation situations - the expanding degree of filthy, people throwing garbage anywhere and everywhere, for example - some of the increasingly concerned Ghanaians felt city dwellers have lost their sense of sanitation, in some cases, civility at the growing filth and its implications in Ghanaians’ longevity. The lasting reaction, besides outrage of one kind or another is asking oneself how can a people who initially live a clean life create and live in such horrible filth and its consequent death implications, may have been a sense of being in a mystery, immune to all that is clean, rational, orderly, healthy and godly. In this sense, such gross, offhand, disregard to health defy Ghanaian/African culture, with its moral principles some of which encourages healthy living, seemed unGhanaian or unAfrican enough and disturbing on a fairly deep emotional and moral level.

The increasingly shocking sanitation culture, with bad odour emanating from all around, looks like Ghanaian urban dwellers have become immune to their despicable sanitation environment. This has created a future shock and an odd familiarity with filth: it has some feel of an Ashiaman - a Ghanaian throwback ’migrated’ to unimaginable slums, where life is shortened by filth. The mystery is always this: How can a people who are otherwise normal turn into terrible-sanitation-freaks, some sort of anti-sanitation savages and make them, as officials at the Ghana Health Services say, die mainly from this? Most Ghanaian urban dwellers go about their daily businesses as if they have no serious sanitation and health problems to deal with.

The appalling sanitation makes the ruling National Patriotic Party (NPP)’s much-hyped tourism program looks like child’s play. A Norwegian visitor told me recently in Kumasi that “Ghanaians have to take care of their sanitation before they can talk much about tourism...The beaches are a disgrace with terrible smell from human feces, urine and garbage.”

The question has dimensions that are both social and personal. In Freudian terms, the sanitation bylaws are supposed to perform the function of the superego, policing the filthy id. The Nima slum principle goes to work when the id takes over from the superego and puts on garbage, when dreadful sanitation goes wild. Mega-Cities: Innovations for Urban Life, an NGO, says, “The high population density in Accra has resulted in congestion, overcrowding, substandard housing, inadequate education and health facilities, poor sanitation, and a generally degraded environment. In poor communities and cities like Accra, the worst problems tend to be associated with a lack of adequate water, sanitation, and garbage services.

The 1991 Annual Report on health for Greater Accra Metropolitan Assembly emphasized the twin role of poor environmental conditions and the lack of health knowledge in causing hygiene-related diseases. Solid waste collection is a problem around the home where, according to a recent survey, at least 42% of people practice open storage. The 300,000 tons of solid waste collected per year in Accra alone represent only 60% of waste generated.

A career of confronting dwellers who appear careless about the mounting filth around them frays the nerves. It drives officials such as those at Accra Metropolitan Assembly responsible for sanitizing their surroundings not only crazy but also helpless in the face of ‘uncivilized,’ unco-operating and irresponsible citizens wanting to live in filth - citizens who do not abide by building codes and so their illegal structures not only block most waterways and drains but also have no toilets.

Residents in Accra and its suburbs say more than half of the buildings in the city have no toilets. Put in an unhelpful situation, the filthy urban dwellers prefer their innocence; do not really want to know the mounting filth that is engulfing them and the length sanitation officials go when trying to enforce Ghanaian cities’ bylaws. In this sense, the terms “war on sanitation” and “war on filth” encourage and even demands an all out attack by sanitation officials upon anti-sanitation citizens. In most Ghanaian cities such as Accra and Kumasi, city officials and concerned citizens are fighting an unwinnable war, assuming large social responsibilities that belong more to politicians and the citizens’ civic virtues.

The sanitation troubles are a collective urban problem. An Accra or Kumasi resident’s sanitation judgment, ordinarily sound and self-aware, may defer to the collective judgment of the entire Accra or Kumasi population, where individual civic responsibility gets diffused, scattered among the many. This means it will take a strong, poised character to wade against the currents of citizens who are filthy-minded and mess up their surroundings. A secret of the transformation from filthy group to grimy mob: a few dirty citizens mess up the city, knotting the rope, throwing it over the limb of a tree. The other citizens allow themselves to be carried passively by the dirty group’s purpose. And Accra or Kumasi or Cape Coast becomes engulfed in filth and becomes difficult to clean.

Photo: Accra beach.

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