Supermarket Accra : As we drove through the city of Accra, it appeared to me as if much of it had become a sort of pedestrian market with goods of all sorts and makes on sale. That is not to say that the streets of the city had ever been free of petty traders and street hawkers. Indeed, street trading has always been a hallmark of life in Accra. What struck me on this visit was the extraordinary dimensions this form of trade had assumed. Traders offering things for sale could be seen virtually everywhere on the street. There were several aspects of the trade. There were the typical street hawkers roaming up and down the streets carrying their wares on their heads, shoulders, arms, hands, backs and what-have-you with the hope of finding buyers for their wares. There were also those who displayed their wares on tables, wooden structures, kiosks as well as other makeshift stands placed on the edges of the roads and streets. Although the street hawkers could be found almost everywhere, they were particularly conspicuous in and around areas prone to traffic congestion such as both sides of the stretch of road bordering busy intersections as well as in and around major transport depots. During the morning and evening rush hours, when the roads tend to be particularly congested, the streets are rarely clear of them as they move between slowly moving cars looking for opportunities to sell their goods direct to the drivers or their passengers. Where traffic is quick moving, they hang around the roadside waiting for the lights to turn red or the police officers directing traffic to signal oncoming traffic to halt. Then they see their chance and pour onto the streets to present their wares to the travellers. Not only adults, including in some cases mothers carrying their babies on their backs, are engaged in the trade: boys and girls, some barely ten years old as well as teens and young adults of both sexes participate in the booming merchandising on the streets of Accra. What wares were on sale? Anything imaginable! In the category foodstuffs one could be offered items such as boiled eggs, freshly baked bread, fried yams, roasted groundnut, bananas, oranges, apples, etc.
The street hawkers seem to have the welfare of travellers as well as pedestrians sweating under the scorching African heat at heart; they offer ice water contained in small plastic bags as well as chilled soft drinks such as Coca Cola, Fanta, Pepsi Cola, Sprite, etc. Those who so wish can also enjoy ice cream from one of several vendors on bikes. Those who cannot make it to the shopping malls can obtain their toilet rolls, soaps of all kinds and makes, shampoos, toothpaste, toothbrush, cosmetics of all kinds and makes, beverages of all kinds and makes— the list is unending—from the hawkers on the street. Other items on offer include arts and crafts, T-Shirts, and fan articles! Talking of fan articles—I was particularly struck by a large poster of Drogba, the Ivorian football star of FC Chelsea Football Club, in a pose with an open mouth and outstretched tongue. “That guy will definitely not be amused to find such an embarrassing pose of himself on sale on the streets of Accra!” I said to myself. Of course, the hawkers had not forgotten the local hero, Michael Essien— also of FC Chelsea fame—in their calculation: there were several posters of him available. I could fill pages upon pages with an account of what confronted me in “Supermarket Accra.” A few spectacular observations and incidents need special mention, however. As we drove through the streets, not long into our stay, we had to slow down due to traffic congestion. The attention of one of us was drawn to a young man aged about 25 standing in the scorching sun by the roadside. He had with him two dogs on chains. One was a young puppy; the other looked as though it was nearly fully grown. The look in their faces betrayed their fear and distress. “What is he doing with those dogs?” said Jonathan. “Selling them,” Joyce replied. “But this is not the place to sell dogs!” said Karen. “Well, in today’s Ghana you can sell anything on the street, provided it is not forbidden,” she explained, smiling. “I can imagine a pet lover being willing to buy a puppy he or she can train, but not one that is already quite old.” “Well, he is hopeful of finding someone interested in them, otherwise he wouldn’t be here,” said Tetteh. “Let’s hope he finds a buyer soon, before they become hungry, lose their temper, and turn their anger on a passerby,” Karen added.
On another occasion we were travelling with Nana, Rita’s uncle, to an appointment. Nana, who knew the way, drove ahead in his Mercedes saloon car while we followed in our bus. As we pulled to a stop at a traffic light a young man carrying apples packed in threes in a plastic bag ran up to Nana’s vehicle. “That young man is very conversant with the rules of his trade,” Rita began. “What do you mean by that?” Karen inquired “He knows occupants of a Mercedes saloon car are likely to be able to afford to spend money on imported apples. On the other hand he considers passengers travelling in a bus, which he has taken for a trotro, are not the kind who would want to spend their money on apples!” This time round, though, he had miscalculated, for David had in the meantime spotted the delicious looking apples and had stretched his arms towards them! We tried to draw the attention of the seller, but to no avail—he had focussed all his attention on the occupants of the saloon car. They on their part did not seem to be at all interested. It was only after Nana had pulled away that he became aware of the gesticulations we had all the time been making in his direction. All of a sudden he hurried towards us. Fortunately no vehicles were behind us so we had time to make the transaction. On yet another occasion, as we returned to the hotel after a sightseeing tour of the city, we decided to purchase some toilet rolls from a hawker who was carrying several bundles, each containing several pieces of the soft tissue. Just before the exchange could be completed, the light turned green. It was a busy street so we couldn’t wait.
The young man seemed to be familiar with the area. “Madam, please wait for me at the bus stop ahead of you!” he screamed and gave us the chase of his life! “We have to honour his efforts,” Rita urged me. “Yes indeed, it would be cold-hearted on our part not to.” I turned left at the T-junction a few metres ahead of us into an even busier street. The young man was right; a bus stop was a few metres ahead of us. I pulled to a stop and waited for him. We did not need to wait for long, for no sooner was the vehicle stationary than he caught up with us. The delight in his face was clearly apparent as we exchanged money for his wares. “That may well be the first sale he has made the whole day!” I remarked. “And probably his last for the day!” Joyce cut in. “That cannot go on forever!” I remarked. “Something has to be done!” “Everyone needs to survive, Doc,” said Joyce. “But that is a waste of potential! So long as this gentleman is young, okay. But he cannot do street hawking all his life. Something indeed needs to be done.” “Well, that is the situation,” said Joyce in a voice bordering on resignation. “It should be addressed.” “By whom?” my niece asked. “By the government of the day, of course! That is what they were voted to do.” “In what way?” “By creating jobs for these young men and women rather than leaving them on the street to sell pictures of Drogba, Essien and Co. That is what the Europeans do. They actively create jobs for their unemployed.” “But they have the means to do so! We are a developing country!” “I do agree with you, Joyce. In that case we should learn to use our scarce resources effectively. I want to explain my point.” As we drove around the city my attention was drawn to the Mercedes limousines of the wealthy. Tetteh told me the limousines were imported just for the “Ghana @50” celebration, to ferry invited dignitaries around. “In my opinion,” I said, “we could have gone for something cheaper. Well, it isn’t too late, is it? Now that the event is over, the government could sell these lavish cars and use the money generated for the benefit of all.” Just then we drove past several young men and women dressed conspicuously in red working gear, out on the open, trimming the lawns bordering the streets. “That is an example of job creation, Doc!” Joyce began. “The government recently recruited several young men and women to plant trees along the streets, to tend the lawns to give the city a facelift and also to contribute to the upkeep of the environment.” “The intention is laudable. In my opinion, however, our first priority should be to produce abundant and cheap food to feed the population. Indeed, our first priority is surely not to plant trees and lawns that will give Accra a facelift but rather to grow enough food to keep the price of food down. “I would thus first and foremost channel the energies of the youth engaged in street hawking into agriculture. They could be encouraged to form co-operative agricultural societies.
The government should provide them with the start-up capital. Not physical cash, however. No. That form of capital will, with all certainty, drain into porous channels! “No, the needed capital should be in the form of land, tractors, water spraying machines, animal feed, young birds, sheep, goats, cattle, etc. The beneficiaries could be given a grace period of, say, five years during which time no repayment would be required. Thereafter they could begin repaying in instalments. That would contribute not only to lower the cost of food, but also offer a viable alternative to these young men and women plying their trade on the streets.” “If only they would be prepared to leave the city for the countryside to do the farming!” “I believe they would.” “I am not very sure, uncle!” “What else do they do when they get to places like Spain?” “Tell me what they do there, uncle.” “They are employed on the farms to harvest tomatoes, lettuce, apples, etc.” “Really?” “What else did you expect?” “I thought they would be employed in factories and shops.” “Not in Spain, young woman. So, if they are prepared to travel all the way to Spain to pick tomatoes, they should be prepared to do so in their own back yard!” “You should make your ideas known to those in authority.” “If only they would listen!” “Well, these days, they seem to care about public opinion.”