When you enter Kissehman for the first time, walking along the dusty, bumpy dirt paths, you feel like wandering through a rural community somewhere in Ghana’s vast countryside. You’ll pass by little brick buildings with aluminum roofs, simple wooden huts and numerous little stalls selling everything from fried yam, grilled fish and fresh fruit to toilet paper and drinking water.
People are sitting in front of their houses, chatting, eating or washing their clothes which they hang up on clothes lines between their houses – you never know if you have intruded into someone’s private yard or if you’re still on a public path. Everywhere you’ll see chicken walking around freely and a few street cats and dogs are dozing lazily in the hot afternoon sun.
Here and there people have made a fire to burn the rubbish. There’s electricity (although power cuts are frequent), but no running water – people have to fetch water from a nearby tap or well. After only a few minutes of walking you’ll be covered by the reddish dust that the harmattan coming from the Sahara during the dry season whirls up.
One asphalt street – always crowded with cars, taxis, bikes and people walking along the sides – passes through Kissehman and the surrounding neighborhoods, connecting the suburbs with the centre of Accra.
Kissehman is what people would call a slum, located in the North at the outskirts of Accra. Even though some of the houses are bigger than others and their inhabitants can seemingly afford a nicer lifestyle, the majority of the people living here struggle to make ends meet. The unemployment rate is high and women as well as kids have to generate additional income by selling food in the street – many kids attending lessons at our school go to work right after their class.
Family planning and methods of contraception are mostly unknown of, therefore many families have to support seven, eight or nine kids and teenage pregnancy is high. Many kids don’t go to school as their parents can’t afford to pay for it.
Yet concentrating on the poverty is a very limiting way of looking at it. Live in Kissehman is tough – but that’s just part of the story. If you dare a closer look, you’ll see how multifaceted, spirited and enjoyable life in Kissehman can be at times – and you’ll find that this place offers a lot that has been lost in our individualistic, consumerist lifestyles and anonymous cities.
Kissehman is not only an impoverished neighborhood, it is also a place where children play happily in the streets, where people follow their ambitions, passions and dreams, where they know their neighbors and help others who are in need. Generosity and sharing are considered extremely important and people you have just met will invite you to eat with them or buy you a drink although they clearly don’t have a lot of money to spend.
In the evening hours, the air is filled with a vibrant joyfulness and music is everywhere: in street restaurants (so called chop bars) they usually play the latest hiplife songs (a mix of Ghanaian highlife and American hiphop) while you’ll hear gospel when you’re approaching one of the numerous churches around. Basically everyone here is a good singer, dancer or drummer and you’ll notice – people literally dance and sing wherever they are.
Living in Kissehman means to do without many of the luxuries and comforts most people in the Northern hemisphere enjoy. But this simplicity seems to be much more natural than our artificial, sterile life in anonymous cities where machines are working for us and food comes processed and packaged from the shelves of supermarkets. In Kissehman you know where the resources you’re using daily come from – so you’d never waste them.
You’re also much closer to nature than life in a big city can ever be: In the morning, you’ll be waking up at sunrise about 6 am to the sound of crowing cocks. Chicken, goats and even cows roam around freely – a herd of skinny cows frequently crosses the school compound and you better don’t stay in their way. Every evening when the sun goes down, thousands of bats are flying across the darkening sky. They go all the way to Kumasi, a distance of about 2oo kilometers, to feed and only return early in the morning. A river close to our school provides enough water for coconut palms and mango and banana trees to grow between the houses and along the river – you can literally just pick the fruits and enjoy the fresh taste.
I don’t mean to idealize a place that is deprived of basic necessities other people have access to. Of course there are huge problems that have to be seen in the context of global injustice and it is more than understandable that young people seek a way to escape poverty and to be able to offer their kids an easier life. Yet deprivation is not the only feature characterizing people’s life here – it’s also joyfulness, generosity and a more natural, sustainable lifestyle.