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Opinions of Monday, 22 June 2020

Columnist: Henry Adobor

Deliver us oh Lord!

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The idea that cleanliness is a gateway to health, and more importantly spirituality, is as old as the world itself. References to the importance of cleanliness may be found in Babylonian texts, underscoring how ancient and far back the tradition of cleanliness goes. The saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is a reflection of this emphasis on keeping our bodies, and by extension our environment clean.

To say Accra, and most of our cities and larger towns are dirty would be an understatement. Over the years, governments have completely neglected this serious health problem and the looming ecological disaster. Our rivers and seas are being chocked with rubber and plastic, dumped, not by some evil spirit at night, but by ourselves.

Sadly, you see people selling food, and other exposed fruits and vegetables, next to chocked gutters breaming with billions of bacteria. These are not just my observations. Many people have previously commented on this issue.
We must act, not just complain and talk about it. The time for talking is long past. My purpose presently is to offer some suggestions.

The fact that there is a whole portfolio, a Minister for Sanitation, is an indictment of our careless attitude towards cleanliness. It is also a tacit acknowledgment of the urgent need to act. We might as well scrap both the Sanitation and Environmental ministries unless they wake up to their responsibilities.

Filth is not just an eyesore, it reflects badly on us as a nation in the eyes of visitors to the country. We need clean cities and towns if we are serious about inviting immigrants to settle in Ghana. More importantly, fifth breeds disease. A desire to make Accra and our cities and towns clean would lead to nothing unless individuals assume personal responsibility. We cannot wait for the government to clean the cities and towns.

You may live in Trasaaco or some fancy part of town, but just think a moment about where the food you are eating tonight came from. Where the ingredients came from, the markets they came from and you realize there is no escaping a lack of proper sanitation and cleanliness everywhere including the markets.

Growing up, one of the first chores every young person learned in the village was to help sweep their compound. Getting up early to do this was not always fun for us children, but parents required it, and kids did it without question. I believe the same thing happened (s) in most villages.

People who failed to sweep their compounds or weed around their houses were levied a fine by the Chief’s enforcer. I still vaguely remember the dread that overcame the village when people heard that the “Tangas” people were coming (“Tangas” is a corruption of the word Town Council). Therefore, there is a history of personal responsibility for cleanliness starting from the villages.

We need that same kind of personal responsibility more now than ever before if we are to make any progress on this social, health, and ecological issue.
Remember that somebody put every polythene bag you see in a gutter around the city of Accra there. All the paper and garbage you see anywhere was thrown somewhere before it found its final resting place in the gutter. It would, therefore, seem fair, and right that the first place to start would be individual responsibility.

There is a need for greater civic education on this issue. Municipal and Metropolitan Authorities need to educate people first, and then crack the whip. I am sure there are laws on the books against indiscriminate dumping of refuse, but as usual, no one respects the law in Ghana because there is never any enforcement.

Of course, the authorities must provide more secure and durable public garbage bins. We can encourage companies to adopt streets in the cities and bigger towns. Once adopted, a company would help purchase the garbage bins for that street.

The technology for public bins has matured. There are now solar bins that would crush the garbage and reduce volume. It is also easier now to use receptacles that can be secured against theft. Cameras can be mounted close to the bins to catch those who would dump unauthorized garbage in them or attempt to steal them.

I suggest recyclable materials should have separate, clearly labeled bins. All this would be money worth spending. After all, there is a direct correlation between garbage and certain kinds of epidemics such as cholera.

Property owners must be responsible for the spaces in front, and around their properties. Take Spintex Road in Accra as an example. Storefronts are lining the whole of this road from the Accra Mall to the Teshie-Nungua junction and people can often be found selling in front of some of the shops lining the street. This same situation applies to most of the streets in the cities.

Of course, someone owns every building on this road. Those who own the property must be fined when gutters in front of their property are chocked and strewn with garbage. The Municipal authorities must enforce this. If we hold individuals responsible, I bet there will be results.

I suggest that the fines rise substantially after the first and second violations. Funds collected must go into a special fund to help clean up the rest of the city. The AMA must first go street by street. It should give property owners a certain amount of time and warning to clean the gutters in front and around their property and maintain that level of cleanliness, always.

At the same time, the AMA must rise to its responsibility and provide trucks to carry away the garbage and silt removed. It is almost comical to see people clean gutters, leave the refuse beside the gutter only for it to be swept by the wind inside the same gutters. This responsibility to provide a truck should be a one-time thing. Subsequently, each property owner should be on their own. Failure to keep it clean of course should attract heavy fines.

In collective spaces such as markets, the AMA should liaise with the leaders in the markets to enforce cleanliness. The same sense of accountability to clean the selling space of each trader must be imposed.

We must begin to call attention to those who litter. We must start policing each other. When you see someone drop a polythene bag somewhere, remind him or her to pick it up. Tell them it is the law and good for everyone.

Churches have a role to play here too. Churches have a moral responsibility to be stewards of the environment and must, therefore, help keep our environment clean by educating their flock. I suspect Christ would be unhappy with filth and garbage. Pastors and religious leaders must preach the gospel of cleanliness to their flock. Oh, may I suggest the title of the sermon that day be “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness.” Just my humble suggestion.

The government must have the moral courage to ban plastic bags. They are a curse upon the land, to paraphrase scriptures here. The tendency for the government to recoil from making hard choices is one of the causes of most of our problems. The mark of a true leader is the moral courage to make tough choices.

The alternative to an outright ban on polythene bags is to allow biodegradable ones. Not my preferred choice, but it may be something we can leave with. I was living in Abu Dhabi when the government decided that only biodegradable bags would be used. There was some civic education, a date was set and without fail, every shop was using only the biodegradable bags. We call that respect for laws.

Supermarkets and other larger stores must encourage shoppers to purchase reusable bags. After all, it used to be our mothers went to the market with pans and baskets. I am not saying we can do that everywhere today but the idea is to encourage people to bring their bags to shop. This will go some ways to reducing the amount of polythene we discard daily.

It is shocking to see new, open gutters being constructed today in our big cities. Some of these gutters are as deep as the Grand Canyon. Besides the fact that they pose dangers to pedestrians, open gutters simply invite garbage. It does not take long for an open gutter to be full of garbage, polythene.

Once chocked, these gutters are unable to serve as drainage outlets, one reason we may be seeing increasing flooding in the cities. I always wonder if our civil engineers are watching the open gutters too. It certainly cannot be impossible currently to have closed gutters.

Finally a prayer: Dear God, would it hurt anything if I ask you to deliver Ghana from the filth, garbage, and all the flooding, and diseases they bring upon us? I hope that is not too much to ask. On second thought, I would rather not ask for that now. I just remembered that “heaven helps those who help themselves.”