This may be our last chance. Not for the fact that maintaining simple sanitation and hygiene overwhelm us and certainly not because the same place l am going to use as premise is where gutters choke to kill many Ghanaians every rainy season. No! I’m going to go deeper than that.
The last time I was at Dr. Kwame Nkrumah Circle I looked at this Mega-Interchange with a mixed feeling. Let’s just say I was 30 percent happy and 70 percent saddened. I asked myself: is this a classical textbook case of aesthetics appeal, crowd rallying and donor satisfaction in place of social and practical relevance type development or do they really mean business?
Kwame Nkrumah Circle is (or was) one of the most interactive human spaces in Ghana. Children and adults get their used cloths there, an important transport connection hub to many parts of the country; we got second hand shoes, worn-out baggy pants and even our school books from there. It is an integral part of the teenage life of every child that grew up in Accra from post independence to the turn of the millennium. On Independence Day and other public occasions, city authorities would open the fountain in the main Dr. Nkrumah intersection and children will troop there from various parts of Accra cooling off with springing water from the tropical heat and honouring our independence heroes, or celebrating whatever occasion blessed them with opening the fountain on that day. From banks, Trotros to decoration shops to mechanical parts, to office stamp, everything is there. It recently became the Smartphone hub of Ghana; a place where unemployed youth teach themselves latest technology and mobile phone repairs. And now the human interaction in the space would probably be torn apart by a Mega vehicular Interchange.
Some laud the Interchange as a hallmark of development and others feel an inner-city nerve centre like Circle, as it is affectionately and fondly called, may be a bad place for such a huge interchange. It may destroy such a traditional trading hub. There is definitely a case to be made on both sides. However, the disappearance of this beautiful social tradition is also not my concern here because I know Ghanaians are gifted in creating such spaces. Social interaction is in their chromosome.
What I really want to do is to use the space to address the concept of development and how we perceive it.
This space, Circle, is a perfect place to situate this discussion because of its importance as a nerve centre of Accra and as a place where Accrarians and their migrant kin die every rainy season due to government neglect and the fact that the same government is planting a huge vehicular Interchange in the area before dealing with the reason why they die every year, which is a matter of a simple sanitation policy.
As with most western financed and endorsed development projects in Africa, we probably did not ask any socially and practically relevant questions before building it because we have accepted and continue to propagate seriously damaging clichés about ourselves. For example, the notion that African type traditional open human interactive trading signifies underdevelopment and the fact that we can’t feed our children, we want to our societies to look like London and Dubai regardless of health hazards and education gaps. The most we may have done from a practical relevance point of view is to say Circle is congested so let’s build over-passes without thinking what other decongestion possibilities besides building mega Interchanges exist.
The irony is that plastic bags choke us to death at this same place every day and normal tropical rains descend on us as millennial floods and kill us there each rainy season yet our priority is to think of sophisticated tons of steel and concrete vehicular interchange there.
Forcing projects on people for aesthetic reasons, as hallmarks of electioneering tactics, for cheap propaganda, and disregarding the actual relevance knowing that twisted understanding of the concept of development will make the masses embrace it, make African politicians and their benefactors blood tasty sadists who prey on people many of whom are yet to shed off their mental colonial hang-overs. I can imagine people from my father’s village, Akwuapem Tinkom Zongo descending down the Ebuo Tabiri and the Aburi mountains just to come and catch a glimpse of the Interchange, and this translating later into votes for whoever made sure that mega bridge was built even though it has not and will never have any relevance to their lives in their village. Reminiscent of Obama ascending the throne of US Empire, voting for symbolic and aesthetic achievements rather than life changing practical relevance is a behaviour most black people have, but for politicians to take advantage of it in the face of simple sanitation needs, that is just too mean.
This discussion came up while having a drink with friends. I was with the view that it was a bold move in the face of so many rainy season deaths at this same place; that serious deliberation on relevance beyond traffic decongestion was needed. That also, a serious social study in view of its future meaning to the lives of ordinary Ghanaians was probably needed before implementing the project because cities across the world are seeking to be greener, interactive with less cars concrete jungles. A former school friend who has never travelled outside Africa sensitively accused me of wanting to keep Ghana dirty, trashy and underdeveloped so that whenever I have enough of it, I can just jet off to Europe and catch a nice gulp of fresh air. To stay on the topic and not get into his emotional petition, I attributed his accusations to his desperation to leave Ghana, a primary source of which in my view is the economic and leadership vacuum left in the country.
To address this, I feel there is a need to revisit our understanding of development. I feel there is a deep sense of lack of cognitive connection with what is empirically implemented. Most of our development plans are ideas of people outside our realities.
If we take a different context we realise that the issues revolve around the same mental state for all colonised people. Dubai is a place that over the past two decades people have either completely hated or completely fallen in love with depending on their worldview and grasp of the concept of development. Their reasons to either love or hate this futuristic city are connected to this issue.
I worked in Dubai in 2011 and 2012. Since then I devised the categorization of colloquial understanding of human development in two: software and hardware. The hardware is the nice skyscrapers, the sometimes-dangerous adaptations of the earth, nicely mown lawns and beautifully illuminating signs with flashy lights that actually consume more energy than necessary. The software, which I associates with having a somehow functioning system in place, also has to do with the behaviour of the humans in the cities themselves, i.e. how much awareness is involved in how they deal with resources, how far thinking they are in their approach and awareness of the consequences of so much earth exploitation and of what importance human social interaction is for them.
Depending on your understanding of development, you may be wondering why this happened in Dubai. The city was simply built for extravagant high end designer consumer life style, taking luxury cars into consideration and leaving humans interaction out of the planning, and resource waster was common place. I often saw people park their cars with air conditioners running four hours unending.
Now, I agree 50 Degrees Celsius is not fun but a bus stop with 24-hour air conditioning throughout is a bit of an exaggeration. I used to get into discussions with my employers about how building mega cities with just vehicles taken into consideration were a wrong way to go. They would ask me why and I would argue that this was due to the colonised people’s misinterpretation of development; that they have the opportunity to explore other models, go green and promote more human interactive spaces but the pressure of thinking it has to be like in London or New York sits deep, while London and York tries to give up everything to be as interactive as African and Arab societies. They will look at me funny, call me a leftist/nature freak and say things like “just because we pay for your expertise in this small institution doesn’t mean you are qualified to tell us how to develop our country”.
Rich Arab Sheikhs, some of whom beside their disregard for migrants (mostly Africans and south Asians like Philippinos and Pakistanis), often get overwhelmed trying to live their Bedouin desert life in shiny fiftieth floor glass facades. Often, the way they will scream at a migrant worker did not perplex me more than how the government will try to showcase an activity of 50 degrees desert weather in a fully air conditioned mall with shiny Marble floors and mirroring backgrounds, did. It always looks completely unreal.
One day I went to a cultural show of a typical desert life staged right between the expensive world famous and largest classical music choreographed designer fountain and the foot of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Down Town Dubai. The disconnect, out-of-place and surreal picture the event and the background painted, led me to a theory that you can have all the hardware: thus get experts to do the designs but the software, i.e. the way you live in it and interact with it will be so artificial that it paints a really bizarre picture.
The positive for Dubai now is that within the last few years, each time I visited, expensively paved streets are slowly being combined with or are giving way for humanly interactive spaces and beautiful plants. Like Dubai, Ghana is catching mall fever at the expense of small businesses as these malls are being abandoned elsewhere. While Dubai government gets the best for its people, Ghana’s case comes with foreign ownership with pathetic remuneration and slave working conditions for locals. However, both point to cases of serious misconceptions of development, with Dubai having the Petrodollar to correct some of these things.
The relevant question here becomes, do we have to go that way before we realize that development could also simply mean access roads for the smallest village in Ghana, putting a system in place to deal with social ills, harnessing the sun we are blessed with, cultivating more green spaces and sustainable buildings practices rather than indiscriminately copying concrete jungles simply because someone in the West has that?
So what is our model? What do we really want to comprehend when and if the word development is uttered? Do we just want nice glass facades that we can’t even maintain or do we really want to understand it from a conceptual level, and create our own model? I strongly think answering these questions is indispensable to our future development.
On the other hand, some would say, Yebe wo nti yen da? Shouldn’t we live life simply because we would eventually die? That is not and should not be the point here. Rather, the point is if we don’t start deliberating on the African model for everything we do, colonization will always remain an epoch we celebrate rather than a deeply sitting mental oppression we should rid ourselves of.
Good roads and bridges are by all standards and definitions, essentials that will ultimately get us to economic nirvana. But priorities must be straight. Do you want feeder roads that will help solve constant food shortages and price hikes first or mega Interchanges where other simple models such as depopulation, traffic regulation enforcement and creation of employment could easily be solved?
The Ga’s and their immediate neighbours are too few to over populate Accra, which tells you that people are unnecessarily migrating from regions farther away, sadly, including youth who could be in school and young adults who would prefer to farm. But where are the opportunities?
I am not against nice interchanges but there are many ways, in fact long term sustainable ways, to solve Accra vehicular congestion problems, especially at such spaces where we die so often for the sake of lack of proper sanitation. For instance, even if we lower the criteria to the most basic, conservatively speaking, half of the cars on the roads of Ghana may not be roadworthy by any standards, which means proper motor traffic regulation enforcement can reduce the actual reason why we feel we need such mega bridges in our most humanly interactive spaces. It is not fare for anyone to oppose to such a project as it comes with all the good intentions, but it does break a heart to see governments invest so much in such projects without the necessary social and practical relevance studies, and a look at other alternatives in the face so much needs elsewhere.
Moreover, reducing our concepts and definitions of development to what the West in the 20th century thought was the way, only to come and realize that it is a serious abuse of the Earth, enforces the reckless notion that black people/Africans are incapable of making their own decisions except to copy.
Sitting at home in Africa, thinking, defining and implementing our own models and refraining from indiscriminate acceptance of donations and policies by outsiders have never been much needed and important than now. This is the time to revisit our definition of development.