Speak Magazine

Field Notes

Nowhere to go but the gutter

By: John Van Dusen

ACCRA, GHANA – The sound of a flushing toilet is as rare as a quiet morning in some parts of Accra.

On a weekend trip through James Town, one of first areas to be colonized in the city, I find myself on a pier overlooking the ocean. It’s home to a number of fishermen untangling their nets as their boats float in the distance.

A man disappears below the dock. He pokes his head out and snaps his fingers. Another man hands him some torn up newspaper and he slinks back down.

Later I learn he was relieving himself. Right into the ocean. Right into the same water he fishes, the same fish that end up on dinner plates across the city.

Public defecation is common in Accra. Take a 20 minute stroll and you’re bound to pass a few with their backs turned to traffic, urinating into one of the city’s many open sewers.

Last month the municipal government’s rent control agency in Accra encouraged tenants to sue landlords who don’t provide toilet facilities in their homes. The government is concerned the unsanitary conditions are a breeding ground for a number of diseases.

Earlier this month at the United Nations General Assembly, President John Mahama acknowledged the country is lagging behind in its Millennium Development Goals in improving water quality and sanitation.

Francis Mawule is the chairman at Water International Africa, an NGO working to provide safe, clean drinking water across the continent.

“When you talk about water you can’t put sanitation aside,” he said, adding open defecation is frequent and a problem his organization is working to stem.

“The open defecation also affects the water in that area and you hear about cholera breaking out in that area,” Mawule said. “It’s very difficult for people in the city to get safe water to drink.”

Even though there have been several awareness campaigns to encourage landlords to provide toilet facilities, most landlords have ignored it.

While out speaking with landlords and tenants in James Town with a local reporter, two issues kept cropping up.

There was no space for a toilet and no money to build one.

The city has public number of public toilets for use for a small fee. The closest one to the dock is a 15 -minute walk, making other options, like the side of the rode or the ocean, a much easier option.

While out covering the story with the reporter we spoke to a number of residents of James Town. The tenants live in close quarters. The majority of units are family homes where up to three-dozen people will live, all without a toilet.

The idea of suing a landlord is wave off as one tenant comments, “Why would I sue my family?”

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