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Opinions of Sunday, 29 April 2007

Columnist: Tabi, Kingsley Owusu

Zongos and Development - A Critical Appraisal.

As we aspire to make the leap to become a quasi-developed nation, one of the chains hanging around our neck and dragging us down is the existence of slums. I don?t know how many people in Ghana live in slums, but a staggering one billion people worldwide currently live in slums, according to a United Nations (UN) report ? ?the Slum Challenge.? Without radical changes, the number could double in 30 years. The UN says by 2050, there could be as many as 3.5 billion slum dwellers, out of a total global urban population of about six billion; and a sizeable proportion of this figure could be Ghanaians.

Most countries in the developing world have Slums. These are normally densely populated areas of sub-standard housing, usually in a city, characterized by unsanitary conditions and social disorganization. There are several definitions for the word.

A slum is defined, according to UN Habitat, as ?a place of residence lacking one or more of five things: durable housing, sufficient living area, access to improved water, access to sanitation and secure tenure.?

This UN definition lacks punch and papers over the cracks of open gutters, high crime rate, and drug and alcohol abuse (among others), while dealing partially with the security of tenure.

Webster?s Dictionary defines a slum as: ?an overcrowded and squalid district of a city or town usually inhabited by the very poor? characterized by high rates of poverty and unemployment? and is breeding a centre for many social problems such as crime, drugs, alcoholism, and is also a breeding centre for disease??.

In Ghana a slum is usually called Zongo. It may have a different name like, Mallam or Kao Kudi but it is still a Zongo. I am not aware of how the word crept into the Ghanaian lingo, but I know that Zongo is a market town in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), lying on the south bank of the Oubangui River, across from Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR). It has nothing to do with slum. Yet, in Ghana today, many if not all Zongos are slums. So how have slums emerged in Ghana? Apparently, the whole idea began in Europe and for answers, perhaps we need to look at the European, particularly the British experience. Great Britain was once a great big slum. The masses lived in great squalor. Slums were everywhere. London had the biggest slums. Rapid industrialisation in the 19th-century was accompanied by rapid population growth and the concentration of working-class people in overcrowded, poorly built housing neighbourhoods. Colonisation brought prosperity and prosperity brought in a huge effort to improve the lot of the people and clean up of the cities. That is when the unemployed and slum dwellers were pushed to newly developing industrial hubs of Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Colonisation led to further extension of establishing feeder industries in the colonies. The generation of commercial and industrial activity needed cheap labour in the cities. The cheap labour required came in the form of rural, usually poorly educated people who came to work in the factories and as sanitation and domestic workers.

Gradually the industries in the colonies prospered, and some of the colonies began to have access to wealth and education. With education, the African middle class began to emerge and they pushed for independence. Ghana became the first African country to achieve independence. After Ghana?s independence in 1957 many more rural dwellers were encouraged to come to cities and work. Ghana also attracted a lot of migrants from the sub-region. People, who migrated to the cities and found work, brought their cousins and rest of the families with them. Unable to find affordable housing - and crippled by low income and high birth rate - they decided to build their own shelters. First, one shelter was built, then two and then two thousand and then, on and on. Successive governments provided electricity and drinking water, and some politicians looked at Zongos as vote banks. They turned a blind eye; hence slums took a bit of a permanent shape. More slums developed as more population moved to the cities. By mid sixties Accra, Kumasi, Koforidua, and all other large cities were dotted with slums or Zongos. Very poor people live in slums, but they are not the only ones. Presently, fairly well to do people also reside there. They are either offsprings of the slum dwellers that found education and subsequently occupations, or new arrivals who cannot afford to live anywhere else. Some dwellers have prospered but are unable to find affordable housing. They have therefore continued to live in the Zongo. It is not unusual in the dirtiest of slums, where misery prevails, to find: TV sets, refrigerators, radios and the most up to date music systems. Some Zongos have very rich residents. Yet, the squalor and filth, the deprivation and crime, and the unemployment and disease remain. Danger In modern terms, the Zongo is an eyesore; like an ugly, pussing wart on the lips of a potentially beautiful woman. If it is not removed, it could eventually drive away possible suitors and leave her confused, bitter and twisted. The danger for us is that if we allow Zongos to flourish, we might never achieve the development we crave. Rather, we stand to create a tiered society where sections are going to feel disaffected and alienated and bitter. If we allow this to fester without tackling and eradicating it, we would be nurturing a breeding ground for all sorts of crime, diseases, and lawlessness. But most important of all, slum dwellers are also human beings and should be treated as such. They also contribute significantly to the cities and to the country. The poor people of the slums do all the odd jobs in the cities. It is inhuman to allow fellow human beings to live in such squalid conditions. So how can we tackle the slum problem? For answers, again we can look at the developed world. Legislation The problem of the slum has not been tackled in Africa as it was in Europe and America. England passed the first legislation for building low-income housing to certain minimum standards in 1851; laws for slum clearance were first enacted in 1868. In the U.S., slum development coincided with the arrival of large numbers of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; laws concerning adequate ventilation, fire protection, and sanitation in urban housing were passed in the late 1800s. In the 20th century government and private organizations built low-income housing and appropriated funds for urban renewal and offered low-interest home loans as a means of combating the development of slums. This shows that the clean and orderly streets we see in the western countries are not by accident. The various governments have had to tackle the problem, adopting a variety of measures, including the use of legislation. By the same token, our government could pass laws to make the building of homes meet some minimum legal requirements. Such a law would set the trend for the beginning of the end of slum dwelling. Having well laid out houses which have the basic amenities and are accessible to police, ambulance and the fire service ect., is a pre-requisite to building a developed, law-abiding society. Government Initiatives It is a well known fact that slum dwellers see the police as an extension of the system that condemns them to poverty. Slums, in several cities around the world, are no-go areas for the law enforcement agencies. The same can be said of our country. The authorities might be aware that illegal activities, including the possession of guns, and drug taking are rife in these areas. Yet, they are not willing to go in there and enforce the law for fear that it might provide a vent for the slum dwellers collective frustration and explode into a full scale riot. A way round this problem has been ?inclusion?. In many countries therefore, more responsible and capable people from the slums have been drafted in as part of the solution. In Britain, there are police Community Support Officers who have been drafted from the local communities, to support the work of local police forces and provide a visible and reassuring presence on the streets. They are from similar backgrounds and have a basic commonality. They are trusted more in dangerous dark alleys inhabited by those disaffected by the system. This has removed old tensions and all sections of society are accessible; no longer alienated and disaffected. Gentrification The Government could try and encourage re-generation through Private Public Partnership PPP investment in deprived and run-down areas. This means the government could form a partnership with organizations and individuals to provide affordable planned housing to replace the slums, while some of the land could be set aside for future development of plush homes or factories which will attract the middle classes to move to such areas. Attracting the middle classes and encouraging them to move to inner city areas is known as gentrification.

I think that these aspirations including encouraging the middle classes to live in such areas offer a potential for a renaissance agenda to produce inequitable results in neighbourhoods through this system of gentrification.

If the government is committed to encouraging the revitalisation of our towns and cities in a socially just vision of development, then private sector investment should be encouraged in the most deprived areas through tax relief and subsidies.


One area of journalism that really fascinates me is muckraking or investigative reporting to you and I. ??and it does not always mean hiding a tape or camera and recording what has been said or done by an ageing party chairman. It also means going undercover and bringing out real stories that directly impact on peoples lives. As an illustration of the above point a Brazilian journalist, Tim Lopes from the Brazilian TV station Rede Globo went undercover in a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to make a film about organised crime. He managed to film three reports on three separate occasions, but he decided to return a fourth time to try to get better, clearer footage. Unfortunately, he was exposed and taken to an area high in the favela; unofficial graveyard containing the remains of hundreds of victims of gang murders and reprisal killings. In a horrific episode he was subjected to some of the most sickening torture imaginable, before his body was dismembered and burnt in an old tyre. A colleague of Lopes', bravely returned, also undercover, to investigate the circumstances surrounding his murder, and was told by witnesses of how even members of the gang were so revolted they tried to leave the scene, only to be dragged back by their leader and forced to watch, in some perverse display of bravado, presumably designed to harden their hearts. When Police eventually combed the area, only the serial number on a fragment of his camera identified the remains there as Lopes'. In a comment after his death, his widow said that she liked to think that, in cutting up his body, the killers had only managed to spread his courage and integrity. It was an exhilarating moment, and one that illustrates perfectly just how we should demand honest journalism.

I am not saying our journalists should undertake dangerous investigations. However, we should be brave enough to expose some of the darker aspects of our society in order to prick the conscience of the nation and encourage a collective desire to right some of the current anomalies in our midst. I would be damned if a single reporter has reported on the activities of an armed gang through under cover work. Nobody really knows much about our armed robbers, except that they are now operating with impunity all over the country. The living conditions and the activities that go on in Zongos need to be reported so that the rest of us can see how denigrating it is for the residents. Ministers, pressure groups, students, social scientists; all members of society should be made to develop a conscience through media exposure.


Zongos hinder development because the nature of the settlements hinder the establishment of an effective and efficient administrative system. We need a system which will identify almost every citizen in the country. This is the path to equality, accountability and responsibility. We are able to properly allocate resources and track their progress or the lack of it. By the same token we can establish an effective and efficient tax system to deal with the problem of ?black economy?.

At present, a sizable chunk of the population do not pay taxes, and who can blame them. Almost all self employed artisans, hawkers, market traders, trotro drivers, taxi drivers, self-styled ?portfolio? businessmen... (the list is endless) avoid paying tax. The government needs the money from taxation to fund development projects, so why is this not happening? One of the reasons is that we cannot even tell where people live and what they do to survive.

Further, a lot of the utilities used in the slums are used illegally. People are tapping electricity and water illegally and we have no effective ways of making them pay for the services. The meter reader is encouraged by this haphazard system, so he can go to a house and demand money in return to turning a blind eye to any illegal tapping. It could be electricity or water; the two are cousins on the amenity family tree. Surely, this cannot be allowed to go on because if it does, we cannot even hope to scratch at the feet of development, let alone become developed.

Development and civilisation are bedfellows. We are a civilised nation and most of us are law abiding and crave development. Despite all the problems we have had, we have managed to forge a sense of unity. As our democracy gains momentum, we would need real economic development to sustain it. We must therefore begin to look at some of the issues that are likely to stall our drive towards economic development to encourage national debate on them. Such informed debates have the potential to yield solutions that might be acceptable to the majority of our people. This would in turn generate the peaceful atmosphere required to boost economic development and thereby sustain our democracy.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.