By Ayuel Maluak
“One day you’re 17 and planning for someday…” goes a cliché from a hit T.V series from my high school days called “One Tree Hill”. I pondered on a decade wondering how much changed since then. From those evenings spent in a cyber café, to whole days learning and then working, hard learnt lessons and little joys that wrinkle your chin. From an age-old question of preference, Coffee or tea? I found a new fondness for evening tea under an even calmer breeze with a conversation matching the mood. Coffee sometimes feels like a lifeline on hectic mornings. When I was 17 I had my first taste of adventure, getting my passport and going home to my grandmother’s house for Christmas.
Reminiscing on places I called home, I remember it has been a life on rent. Paying for property rights per month, sometimes paying forward two or three months, was always personal plan to clear other fees like school fees before they are due. I came to Ghana over a year ago and have months’ worth of rent already paid up. The housing system I found demanded 2 years’ worth of rent upfront before start of negotiations. A standard form contract signed after paying the requisite fees reminds of a commitment, I live amongst families. Laughter often fills my new abode, children playing outside. My presence no longer intimidates the children as they play around me whenever I step out.
The notion of family, as I know it, greatly differs from the Ghanaian experience. Spread across various countries, many South Sudanese families call different places home. Living with three generations, my landlady, her daughters and the grandchildren, I felt like an intruder at first. The journey that led me to Ghana had in many ways come too soon, I had renewed my passport a week before I left Juba for a TOEFL exam in Kenya. I had left my cozy Job as a reporter and Editor thinking I would return to it after a brief stay with family. The admission letter to a prestigious institution in Ghana changed all my plans as I started rethinking for the remainder of 2017.
Adversity build character, or so goes the adage. The first few weeks of my stay in Ghana was in Hotel rooms as I tried to figure out my way around. I had made several calls to housing agents looking for a property to rent. A distinction must be made however, between housing agencies in charge of property development, management and rent collection and the informal housing agents who identify properties to rent. I came to understand the difference after contacting one such agents to show me a property to rent. The first main challenge was the language barrier between me and the landlady. Using the agent as an intermediary meant that he was also a translator and most times I couldn’t understand what he was saying. The landlord also referred to him as my agent, which in turn meant I had to pay for his services. He ended up taking part of the rent and disappearing.
While the housing market in Ghana has had the demand for 2 years’ worth of rent as a long-standing practice, for a foreigner it poses the greatest challenge to the amount of money which you can scrounge together within a given period of time. Equally tasking is the agents demand for a percentage of the rent as his working fees. My first month in Ghana was the most tasking of my entire stay, my mind was racing constantly as I tried to figure out; what to eat, how to travel across town, recreational activities after a long day, and how to rest in an unfilled house. It’s expensive buying furniture after all. Most of my rooms were empty and the bathroom was basic, to say the least. I could only dream of a custom glass shower or a large ceramic bathtub, like I’d seen online. The first thing I bought was a mattress then a bed, there in came the first difference as the carpenter showed me how to latch my new bed into position. On the first night I slept on it I was restless, the bed creaked under my weight. I thought consistently of how much sturdier a nut and bolt bed felt, comparing the bed I left behind in East Africa to the one I found on my journey west. The bed broke by the end of the month and I had to look for a carpenter to help fix it.
The next thing I wanted was a wardrobe. Taking the opportunity to ask if the carpenter knew where I could get one, or at least if he could make me one. That evening we drew up the design and I eagerly waited for its delivery. He promised that it could be done within a week. Weeks turned into months, the laundry piled up and was washed and ironed only to be put back into my suitcase. Hectic days spent learning to settle in to my new environment, meant I had never really settled on those fleeting days as deadlines drew closer. Sometimes I would go out looking for the carpenter only to be told he had just left on a job in a different part of town. The game of cat and mouse finally took its toll as I demanded the refund of my money. I found him busy at work installing shelves in a shop while there was no visage of my dresser anywhere in his workshop. I was furious.
The porch which was to operate as my kitchen was a mess, I had not figured out how to do waste management with the excess polythene bags. Every purchase I made meant I had polythene bag. Cooking also meant that I had biodegradable waste to dispose of. With the alternating schedule of going to school in the evening and reading, cleaning and commuting during the day, I felt the strain of putting my house in order. I left Nairobi as a plastic bag ban came into effect, I was perplexed to how well the policy was working. In Health communications and Development Communications class we often discussed advocacy methods on how to tackle such problems. Each household is responsible for their waste management and most days I was having difficulty with mine. The Bawler comes at dawn as the melodious tune of an ice cream truck from American movies reverberates in the area. Groggy from sleep it’s hard to distinguish its distance nor direction and eventually you miss it all together.
The thought of being asked for rent again somewhat dissuaded me from making any hasty decision. I moved things around in my house thinking about new configurations that would make it look nicer. When the wardrobe finally arrived after months and everything started falling into place. I contemplated asking for a kitchen cabinet which I’d seen the carpenter making but changed my mind when I remembered how frustrating it is following up constantly. There’s this phrase that I learnt from a food vendor I like, ‘separating the men from the boys’. In many ways it’s about the economic capacity of each individual, but somehow, I translated it to experience learning instead to recognize my own privilege. I had until then complained and contemplated the differences in housing between Juba, Accra and Nairobi/Eldoret, in a way becoming contemptuous and ungrateful to the family that welcomed me. As I learnt to distinguish Ga from Twi, I also gained an understanding of how Community ownership of land works in Ghana.
Whenever I felt crowded out in my own thoughts I walked to the seaside. Brushing against my skin, the breeze near my ears gives an illusion of motion when I close my eyes. Standing on the rocky coastline of Next Door resort I felt unburdened. For months I had come here but hardly ever noticed the crabs that inhabit the rocks. I stared out to sea lost in deep thought when I noticed a stirring under one rock. The ocean’s wave lurches forward and crashes into the rocks gushing into the air. The crabs cling and crawl impervious to the sea. I wanted to take pictures of them but my movement sent them scampering back under the rocks. Certainly, the magnificence of the crab’s shell and underside had caught me off-guard; the red claws and the purplish tinge on its underside for a moment showed as one crab pushed itself off a rock. Clasping the other crab’s leg, the tussle begins with the bigger one dominating. I was more interested in the differences of the colors on their shells than size.
Culture has always been at the heart of every interaction. I knew so little about the Ghanaian people outside of the daily interactions I had with school mates and neighbors. Maya Angelou in ‘All God’s children need traveling shoes’ discusses her journey to Ghana where she stayed at the YMCA. She gives the most apt description of the West African breeze; “intimate and shy, licking the hair, sweeping through cotton dresses with unseemly intimacy, then disappearing into the utter blackness“. I had until then missed out on enjoying my stay in Accra. Thinking of the work I left behind and new opportunities which awaited after attaining a master’s degree had left me feeling discontent. I was yearning for a new sight to replenish my already weary spirit. Sitting in the evening breeze amongst friends, I heard their excitement for the next few months. That is when I learnt about the Homowo festivals.
A friend I’d met in Nungua informed me of the start of the Homowo celebrations in Nungua. The Kpelejo was supposed to start that evening as I went to the beachside. The music playing on the loudspeakers for the final hours as the ban on drumming was about to come into effect. By evening an eerie silence hung in the air. The Nungua’s festival was preceded by a football match as preparations were underway for the rituals to be performed. Arriving well ahead of the scheduled time for the ceremony I visited some of the shrines in the area taking pictures of the drawings on the walls side. Sitting outside their houses, the Nungua residents lined the streets waiting patiently for the time when the ceremony would start. Performing for the crowd near the Nungua Chief’s residence were drummers. The rites began when the bell was struck. The music systems stopped playing songs with bass as they were replaced with traditional songs in a capella.
On the next day the ceremony of pulling the old man from the sea at Coco Beach started mid-morning. Dressed in white, the procession made its way to the centre of the beach lining up around where the ceremony was to be performed. Holding hoes and cutlasses, the men dug holes and chatted away as they waited for the master of ceremony to arrive. On this day there was to be pouring of libations. The rite itself involved the men standing in two lines crossing cutlasses above their heads. At first, they held it above their heads intersecting in the middle of the two queues. Then they walked in their queues to the ocean dragging the cutlasses in the sand. When their feet touched the water the raced back up the sandy beach to where the holes were dug repeating this several times.
Central to the Homowo festival is the connection between the Ga community to their ancestors. The history of the Ga in Accra is celebrated in the Homowo festivals as they recount their migration and conflict with the original inhabitants of the land. A great hunger befell the Ga after the conflict, or so goes the story. The Ga community is a fishing and farming community. Celebrated every year, the Ga communities commemorate their traditional leadership of chiefs. This was highlighted by the centrality of the performances at the Teshie Homowo celebrations held in September. All the performances were done around a small round about within the view of the chiefs. Running around singing songs around Teshie Maame (Township), the streets were crowded with all manner of dressing, even cross dressing.
In between the two Ga Festivals of Nungua and Teshie was a multi-cultural event, Chale Wote. Chale wote translates to Friend Let’s go, is a yearly festival celebrated in Jamestown Accra. Police Barricades on John Atta Mills Street cordoned off the artsy street as throngs of people made their way down the street carnival. Performances for that weekend included dancers, a concert, art installations and various acrobats. The streets came to life as music blasted from various loud speakers with popular Ghanaian musicians. The event has over the years become a cultural attraction as various artists either diaspora or local vied for positions to showcase their talents. Ussher Fort opened up its doors to the public as it curated displays of history with a haunting performance of the slave trade. In other rooms were art installations such as one by a British Ghanaian artist.
Celebrations of art and culture provide a much-needed respite from the dreary city life of commuting between work, school and home. With this new enthusiasm I ventured to know more about how the average Ghanaian lived. Ghana’s housing system is market based, research conducted by Movenpick in 2017 ranked Ghana as the most expensive place to live in Africa, ranked equally as Italy in Europe. In most cities segregation by economic status is common, however, discussions on radio about the Containerization of neighborhoods across Accra due to economic hardship caught my attention. My favorite food vendor was operating from one such container, he also had to pay 2 years’ worth of rent for the property where his shop is.
The 2 years’ rent is not always the prerequisite for housing in Accra, as I later learnt. Various landlords have their own negotiations with tenants on payments of rent ranging from monthly to 6 months or 2 years. Either way, there are some people who lived outside of this domain of renting whole properties. Living in Shacks, some of Accra’s poorest population build their own homes on other people’s properties paying monthly as low as 20 cedis to maintain the structure according to one person I talked to. Discussions are currently underway on remodeling Accra into a modern city, I wonder how it will affect the poor population with informal housing. Previous attempts by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly led to the demolition of unathorised structures in February 2018. Whether this remodeling is political rhetoric or involving demolitions remains to be seen. Evidently, there is a great need to reform the housing market in Ghana to cater to its poorer populations.
(Images: Ayuel Maluak)
Th writer is a South Sudanese lawyer/journalist currently living in Ghana. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.