The Quest for Cleanliness in Ghana

Osu, Accra’s commercial hub, is often called the “Times Square of Accra.” As a hub of activity and nightlife, it’s an apt label, but it also resonates in a few other ways —as a hub of poor sanitation and noise.  Instead of being pickpocketed, a night on town in Osu brings the more pressing danger of falling in an open gutter. Taking a tumble in one of Accra’s gutters could be lethal with the possibility of exposure to a variety of vermin and diseases.

Despite the beautiful leafy Cantonments avenues or stately mansions of East Legon, Accra is one of the dirtiest cities in Africa. In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ranked Ghana the fourth most unsanitary country in Africa and the second dirtiest out of 15 West African countries. More recently, the WHO declared Ghana the 7th dirtiest country in the world. 

Following the floods of June 2015, the city’s beaches were littered with trash. Residents living on the Accra shore will recognize the regular sight of people squatting on the beach to relieve themselves. From dawn to dusk, men urinate on the roadside in plain view of traffic. I, myself, had the extremely unfortunate (and somewhat traumatic experience) of witnessing someone defecate in front of me on a city street.  

Not only does poor sanitation affect health, but it also affects the national economy. Aside from obvious effects on tourism, poor sanitation reduces Ghana’s capacity to export goods. Products made in Ghana often find it difficult to enter EU markets because of a failure to meet minimum quality assurance standards and requirements. Many Ghanaian exports are frequently labeled as “unsanitary” or “uncompetitive.” With a high import-export ratio, Ghanaian citizens – quite literally  – suffer the price. Unable to export their own goods and forced to import many commodities, the cost of living in Accra is quickly rising while local salaries are unable to keep pace.

An article written by staff at Brand Ghana, a non-partisan organization established under the Atta Mills administration, notes the following:

Charity, they say, begins at home and cleanliness is next to godliness. While public officials fail in discharging their duties, the evolving Ghanaian drop-as-you-go attitude has exasperated the already nauseating level of dirt in the city. We seem to lose all sense of the virtue of keeping our surroundings clean as we litter the streets without a wince. The sense of community and self-help spirit has given way to an I-don’t-care spirit. This problem goes beyond the unavailability of trash cans. We simply lack the mind-set of carrying our trash along till we find the next receptacle.

A visit to the University of Ghana Campus for example is enough to buttress this point. Students who are expected to know better about the implications of unsanitary conditions drop litter anywhere even in the full glare of available trash cans. We throw rubbish anywhere, turn around and make all the noise that someone needed to clean up Accra. Really? Truly, the core problem of our dirty and unkempt city environment is behavioural constraints. We cannot run away from this under any pretexts.

With these conditions, it is no surprise that Ghana has experienced cholera outbreaks roughly every 5 years since the 1970s. In 2014, Ghana experienced its severest cholera epidemic in three decades, registering 28,975 cases and 243 deaths. In 2015, over 6,000 cases have been reported. Cholera is an easily preventable disease if proper sanitation practices are observed.

Since November 2014, the first Saturday of every month in Ghana has been marked as National Sanitation Day, but this call to action (in my view) appears to be poorly respected. Ghana could learn from the example of The Gambia and Rwanda where respect for sanitation is viewed as a civic duty.

In The Gambia, the government has established the practice of “Set Settal” (also known as “Clean the Nation”).  Each Saturday, between 9am and 1pm, all activities are halted as people are encouraged to clean trash around their compounds and public areas. Set Settal is taken so seriously that you cannot drive between 9am – 1pm without risking arrest. Originally a monthly event, Set Settal is now bi-monthly.

Rwanda is a notoriously clean African country. Kigali, its capital, is regularly ranked as “Africa’s cleanest city.” To those who have visited the Land of a Thousands Hills, the label should come as no surprise. Enter Kigali airport with a plastic bag and you’ll soon find yourself slapped with a nasty fine; plastic bags are banned across the country. Rwandans practice “Umuganda,” which roughly translates to “working together." Since the 1990s, Rwandan citizens have participated in Umuganda on the last Saturday of every month when they come together to clean and maintain the community. Activities include everything from basic cleaning to weeding and planting as well as building structures like homes and bridges. During the Umuganda hours, circulation of traffic is stopped for non-essential movement. Close to 80 percent of Rwandans take part in monthly community work.

That being said, environmental cleanliness is admittedly the joint responsibility of government and citizens. On the government-side, poor sanitation is partially due to low levels of access to toilet facilities. Across Ghana, access to toilets has only risen from 6 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2013. According to Julis Debrah, former Minister for Local Government and Rural Development, 5 percent of urban dwellers in Ghana patronize public toilets and a whopping 23 percent of the population defecates in the open.

Slow progress is being made to improve access to toilet facilities. In April 2015, the World Bank signed a $4.85 million grant agreement with the Ghana government to provide sustainable toilet facilities in low-income areas of Greater Accra. However, aside from the mere provision of public toilets, the government must enforce residential permits mandating that houses and apartments have washroom facilities. In effort to squeeze a few more cedis from tenants, many landlords have converted household toilets into bedrooms. Such practices cannot continue — building regulations must be enforced and existing units converted to adhere to common standards. Moreover, the nation must address its waste management woes, stemming from poor collection practices and the shrinking available to safe landfill sites. Further reading on Ghana’s waste management triumphs and woes via the Pulitzer Center.

As a country that calls itself the “Gateway to Africa, “ Ghana must take the lead in leading Africa into a century of better sanitation and healthcare.

Akinyi Ochieng1 Comment