Monday, 10 June 2013


What connects mobile phone credit, 500 ml sachets of purified water, and a framed hologram of Christ on the cross? Answer – they can all be bought on the streets of Accra. Along with bush meat. And fried plantain chips. And huge maps of Ghana. And Chinese-made neck massagers. And sliced papaya. And self-help books, bottles of fresh coconut water, new windscreen wiper blades, frozen yoghurts…

The capital’s street traders, known as ‘hawkers’, sell these myriad items at every set of traffic lights and traffic jam that slows cars down long enough for a transaction. Sometimes only just long enough; a hawker running alongside a car, one hand collecting change through the window, is a common sight.

Chasing cars isn’t the only hazard the hawkers face. They must dodge quickly out of the way when the traffic starts moving: not easy with an overflowing basket of oranges balanced on your head. And spending 12 hours a day amid the city’s vehicle fumes can’t be healthy.

Several women, men and children trade at the end of my road in the suburb of East Legon. While buying phone credit one morning, I asked the seller, John Abatey, how much he earns. “I get four cedis (about £1.30) for every 100 cedis of credit I sell. Most days, I sell around 500 cedis.”

My surprise at such a meagre living must have shown, as he quickly explained that this was a good living. “The water sellers earn much less,” he told me proudly. Water sells for 10 pesawas per sachet (around £0.03), with a seller making 1 or 2 pesewas per sale. Buying one always leaves me with mixed feelings: the empty sachets are one of the mains culprits in Accra’s wave of plastic pollution, but there’s no denying that they are instantly refreshing on a scorching day.

How much longer John and co. can stay there remains to be seen. The Accra Municipal Authority is stepping up efforts to clear the streets of hawkers. Their stated aim is to clear the streets to reduce congestion; the suspicion among the hawkers is that the authorities see them as an untidy blot in a rapidly modernizing city.

If they do disappear, I will miss them. Not least because of the convenience they offer: I know I don’t have far to walk whenever I need phone credit. Or some grilled maize. Or a box of Man Utd tissues. Or a carved wooden mask, a dead rat, a school lunchbox, a slice of watermelon, a game of Scrabble…

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