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African Urban Life No Guarantee of Good Life

Africans escaping rural poverty, in search of better lives in urban areas, are being forced to live in very difficult conditions. As cities struggle to cope with the influx, the majority are left without water, sanitation or decent shelter. In this VOA story, Efam Dovi looks at the situation in one urban slum in Ghana's capital, Accra, where rural migrants are making the best out of a difficult situation.

Ghana's fastest growing slum, Old Fadama, is known to the Ghanaian public as Sodom and Gomorrah. Many children are running around, teenage boys are gambling, girls are braiding their hair, plastic waste flying all over, litter everywhere, and music exploding from loudspeakers.

This slum serves as home to thousands of rural migrants to Accra. The majority of them, like Vida, came from Northern Ghana, the most deprived part of the country.

She came to the city after dropping out of school a year ago. Now 20, she sells cooked peanuts and hopes to save enough money so she can start proper trading. But she has difficulties raising the deposit.

She says there are frequent fire outbreaks in the area and, whenever that happens, they lose everything and start all over again.

Jennifer could not find a job in her village, after completing junior secondary school. She moved to Accra hoping for a better life.

Jennifer, 22, says she did petty trading for two years to pay for training as hairdresser.

She says she is now able to sustain herself by working in a small salon in the slum. But says she needs capital to start her own salon.

There is hardly any decent basic facility here. Residents buy water, pay to use the toilet, as well as the shower. And, it cost about $3 a month, to share a wooden shack with three others.

Thomas, one of the oldest residents here said, "Our property is our kiosk, now as I'm standing now, I don't have anything, my property is where I am living."

At 27, this is his third slum. He owns three wooden huts, two of which he rents out. Thomas also works as a laborer in the nearby market, off-loading food stuffs from trucks.

But he also sells Indian Herm, an illicit drug, under Ghana's narcotic laws.

Thomas is shredding and wrapping the dried leafs, which he says he smokes as well. He knows he can get caught, but says he has no choice.

He says he has to take care of his two children and says he wants better lives for them. He spoke in pidgin English.

He said, "If I haven't had any business to do there is no way for the children to go to school. If they went to school, I don't have any money to buy. And, all this one, [drugs] while you are asking me about this one, to arrest, it is true, because when you are doing this and somebody came they can arrest you."

"But we know that there is no work for Ghana here that is why we are doing this small, small to look our children," he added.

Ghana, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is experiencing rapid urbanization. Lack of planning is turning even proper settlements into slums.

The West African nation's urban population is predicted to grow to about half the national total by 2025. And, the capital, Accra, is sprawling everywhere.

Experts say it is time the authorities start consolidating the settlements before they get out of hand.

At a recent conference on ways to house West African's urban poor, Anna Tibaijuka, who heads United Nations Habitat - an agency working to secure decent shelter for people - told VOA Africa is experiencing what she calls "premature urbanization."

"When people are pushed out of the land too early into the process of economic transformation, so that you find for example conflicts, civil strife, wars -- this has been a source, actually one of the most singly important source pushing people prematurely out of their rural livelihoods," she commented.

"But also your find failed rural development, really. You find, for example, the African Continent has not been able to put up the infrastructure you need to push agriculture development," she said.

Tibiajuka says Africa needs domestic capital and savings to improve the housing sector. However, she says the continent needs international finance to kick-start the process.

She talks about what she thinks African governments should do.

She said, "We have to build up appropriate institutions, at all levels, to be able to put up mortgage systems, and the most important institution - may be even the most challenging in Africa - will be housing cooperatives, because the people's, their incomes are very low, which means one person on their own they are very weak financially, but once they put their energies together they should be able to move."

"And, I think micro credit has shown how it could stimulate livelihoods, now to move it a step further and go into long term mortgages, mortgages of preferable 30, 40, 50 years," she added.

Tibiajuka also says sorting out Africa's housing and urban infrastructure is key to building a strong economy and reducing poverty.

Sub-Saharan Africa has both the world's highest annual urban and slum growth rates. An estimated 72 percent of urban dwellers live in very difficult conditions.