ACCRA — Ghana has two presidents. The first was elected last December, and is named Nana Akufo-Addo, a 73-year-old British-educated son of a former head of state. The other is Janet Adu, 57, who never studied abroad and has always lived far from the luxuries of the official presidential palace. But she too was elected by popular vote to her mandate of “leader of communities” of the slums in Ghana.

“I was not candidate, but the people insisted,” Adu recalls of her election in 2012.

Since taking up the position, the daily life of Mrs. President has been turned a bit upside down. The only ritual “Auntie” — as everyone calls her — hasn’t disturbed is the Morning Prayer, at 5 a.m., said with her two youngest nephews, Nyarkou and Bright, 10 and 13 years old. The children then go straight to the collective showers, before heading to school by 7 a.m., after which Auntie can move on and start her day.

Adu lives in Ashaiman, one of the 256 slums in and around the Ghanian capital of Accra. Located some 20 kilometers outside the city center, this area made of residences of sheet-metal roofs expanded through the 1960’s alongside the construction of the nearby port of Tema, where some 70% of the country’s commercial trade now passes. Over the years, the slum was filled with people from the countryside looking for work. Renting a room in Ashaiman, where there is still no running water and an archaic sewage system, costs around 40 cédis ($9) a month. A room near the port goes for around 200 cédis ($45).

Arriving in 1987 from a small village in eastern Ghana, Janet and her husband came looking for “greener pastures,” as she explains. He would become a taxi driver, she would open a a small business. Thirty years later, the couple still lives in the same place, but she was risen to lead the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP), part of Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an Indian NGO that has created a network of inhabitants of slums and shantytowns in 34 countries around the world.

“Twenty years ago, informal neighborhoods were ignored by the authorities and were not part of the development plans.” explains Joseph Muturi, SDI coordinator for East and West Africa, who is based in the biggest slum of Kenya. “We had to give them visibility, gather information and put them on a map in order to be taken into account." This innovative process has allowed inhabitants of these marginalized neighborhoods to negotiate with local authorities and establish partnerships to decide priorities of development in terms of energy, potable water, education, and other key services.

The local initiatives always spring up from small groups who organize themselves and gather funds, and then define together the needs of a specific area. In Ghana, most of the 20,000 members of SDI are women. And at the top, coordinating 334 different groups around the country, there is President Adu.

Like the other residents, she has no toilet in her home.

Since her election, “Auntie” is too busy to run her coal business, which has been turned over to her sister-in-law. Presidential title notwithstanding, Adu is like any other inhabitant of Ashaiman, which includes not having toilets at home. But she does manage to pay for the nursing studies of her daughter and the school fees of her nephews. She also was able to expand her house and develop her business.

She’s also no longer renting the shack of wood and sheet metal she was renting when she arrived. Over the years, the volunteer leader and her husband have built two other rooms and a container to stock the coal. To gather the 4000 cédis ($900) she needed for the construction, she sought two loans through the federation she now heads.

A former British colony, Ghana is more stable and more democratic than neighboring countries of East Africa. The poverty rate has dropped from 52% in 1992 to 21% in 2013. Still, authorities have not successfully managed the rapid urbanization. Between 1984 and 2013, the urban population tripled and the urbanization rates rose from 31% to 51%. In the cities, access to basic services such as drinkable water or a sewage system has declined. A UN-Habitat report in 2011 noted that 85% of the households couldn’t afford to have a formal accommodation. The housing shortage is getting worse.

Learning from an Indian example

According to the Ghanaian NGO People’s Dialogue, 60% of the urban population in the Accra region is currently living in slums. The same proportion can be observed is other big cities on the African continent. But Farouk Braimah, director of People’s Dialogue, notices an encouraging signal: at the beginning of 2017, Ghana created an official government ministry dedicated to the question of slums.

Since she was elected, some things about Janet Adu have changed. She’s now one of the few women her age in Ashaiman to speak in English. “Before, I was shy” she adds. “But now, I have no fear to talk to authorities to defend our rights.” She had traveled a lot through Ghana as well as to Kenya, Uganda, China, Colombia, and Brazil. For SDI, it is essential to learn from the experience of others and try to adapt the solutions imagined elsewhere.

Slum on outskirts of Accra, Ghana — Photo: Frans Lanting/Mint Images/ZUMA

In 2011, SDI set out to reproduce an Indian example at Ashaiman, with the inauguration of a building in the Amui Dzor area, the first of the kind in Ghana. Some 30 families are living there. On the ground floor, there are shops, toilets and public showers. The idea came to life after a trip Adu took to Mumbai, and the United Nations Human Settlements Program and the Ghanaian Housing Ministry co-financed the $400,000 necessary for the construction.

Soon people living in the building will become owners, organized in cooperatives. For now, the property hosts a weekly meeting about personal finances, of which Adu is part. Today, they are discussing “mobile money” and banking services by text messages. Adu reassures several older people that they can find younger people to help with the tech.

Back at home, Nyarkou, Adu's niece has turned the courtyard into a kitchen. The young woman would like to be a doctor, but for now, she’s helping her aunt to cook soup and the traditional “banku” dish made with horn and manioc. “Tonight, we won’t have dinner since we are having a good lunch,” Adu says.

After the Evening Prayer, the children go to bed — a simple mat on the floor — and the president of Ghana's slums listens to the radio waiting for her husband to come back home. “He usually has dinner by himself, but sometimes, he wakes me up to serve him,” Adu explains.

Plans are underway for a second building to be built in Amui Dzor, but they still need to find the financing. If they manage, Mrs. President will have running water, toilets and a shower. At home.


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