Tamale sits on the important trading route connection between Accra and Burkina Faso. It serves as regional hub and is the fastest growing city in West Africa, with migrants settling in the city from the entire region. As we approach the city, it shimmers before us on Ghana’s dry savanna. On our way into the city centre, we pass a vast sprawl of neighbourhoods and slums.
We’re visiting a group of people we’ve met on our previous trips to Tamale. We find them sitting on the side of the road. After greeting them and accepting their invitation to have coffee with them, we start talking to Fuseini (40 years).
*Fuseini is a fictitious character and does not exist in real life. He is a constructed persona based on SNV’s research into the life of the urban poor. His life is used as an example to highlight the struggles many real people in the urban context deal with on a daily basis.
Fuseini is married and has two children. They live in a house in the Moshie Zongo slum that starts just behind the commercial buildings and café’s next to the road where we sit. He and his wife have lived in the same compound since they have been together. It used to be surrounded by a small plot of land that they farmed, “but the city grew and grew and in a matter of years it swallowed all our land.” Like most, Fuseini and his family had no official land titles, so there was no way to stop their land from being taken and being built on. Now their house is part of the every expanding city. “I plant crops, such as maize, beans, groundnuts, along the waste water drains and alleyways. The food that I grow makes us sick sometimes, as I have to grow my plants in these unsanitary places. I know I should plant my crop in different places, but it’s all we have left.”
“I use fertiliser to boost yields, but it’s very different from before. We used to be able to live off our land, by selling parts of our harvests, but that is no longer possible. We buy food from the markets and we both do other work to increase our income. Fuseini’s wife has a stand as a street vendor, selling fruits and vegetables. During the harvesting and planting season, Fuseini himself travels to farms outside the city to work as a day labourer. “I travel to the farms areas and go around to look for work. If I’m lucky I can stay in one place, but most of the time we go with a group of people from one farm to the next one. Nothing is certain, but during the high season, the work is good and I can earn a decent income.”
One of the main roads going into Tamale
“In the low season, like now, there is no much work on the farms. So on most days, I meet with my friends and we play cards in the street. On other days, we have social engagements. My entire family, clan and my friends are here in Tamale. We spend a lot of money and time on social gatherings like funerals and weddings, but we also get much in return.” How so, we inquire “Here, someone will always take care of us if we are in need. My family will help us out if one of us sick and we can borrow money if needed for example and the city is very safe. And because people know each other, there is not much crime. ”
We ask Fuseini what his main concerns for the future are. “I’m worried most about the growing city and what that means for me and my family. People keep moving into our area and every year there is less space to grow food. Making sure that there is enough food will get harder and we’ll have to buy more food on the markets. We’ll have to adapt and find ways to earn more money. They only take young, entrepreneurial people who come to the city from other places. Hopefully, in a few years, my children can get some work here in Tamale or on the farms, to help out with our income. It would improve our situation. Sadly, we can’t afford to continue our children’s education beyond primary school but I’m sure they will find a way to make their future.”
With these worries, would it not be better to move to the country side and start a new farm there, we propose. “We would have to move very far from the city to make sure our farm does not get swallowed up again by the city, but then we would be without our support systems, we would be outsiders. Here in Tamale, we are protected. No. Despite all the difficulties, the best chances for me and my children are in the city.” With that clear answer, we say goodbye to him and his friends.