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Ghanaians in the diaspora often return home and watch in awe how things are done in the country they left behind decades ago. They do so because many things haven’t changed from the days of our grandparents and they seem very different from the way things are done in their countries of abode.

Ghanaians in the diaspora often return home and watch in awe how things are done in the country they left behind decades ago. They do so because many things haven’t changed from the days of our grandparents and they seem very different from the way things are done in their countries of abode.

Whining by returnees is therefore common and often annoys their fellow Ghanaians. The writer is one such returnee and he will be writing missives in this column and try to offer suggestions for how things should be done to reflect standard practice in the 21st century.

Sanitation in Ghana

Perhaps the most unsightly thing everywhere in Ghana is the filth, coupled with the putrid smell in the streets and neighbourhoods resulting from indiscriminate littering, dumping of rubbish and, most repugnant of all, “free range” defecation by animals and human beings. This is not only in the cities and big towns but also in small towns and villages. In effect, the problem affects the whole country. Rubbish in the gutters, on the roadside, in our rivers, at the beach, in the bushes ... the filth is everywhere.

Before I left Ghana decades ago, almost every village and town I knew had a public toilet and also a landfill area on the outskirts to keep the flies away and diseases in check. Local government was in charge of public sanitation and people respected their civic responsibilities.

In many of the cities and big town there were areas set aside for community services such as public toilets, baths and rubbish skips, which were removed regularly by the local council when full. I remember gutters were cleaned regularly by Kumasi Municipal Council workers every morning to free the flow of waste water. Even when we went to the farm in the bush my grandma would insist that we bury our faeces deep in the ground. In Europe people have to collect their dog poo and dispose of it appropriately.

So it is a big shock that in Ghana today human beings do “free range”, sometimes even in public view. Ghana falls into the last seven of all countries practising open defecation. Fifteen per cent of the population has no access to a toilet. How did we get to where we are now?

I refuse to accept the belief among some people that we are naturally dirty. Some people surely are culturally insensitive to filth and still practise “free range” at the beaches but I believe they are a small minority. In my observation, most people guilty of creating filth do so simply for lack of disposal facilities.

The great urban drift

Demographically, Ghana has changed significantly. Our cities and towns and communities are all choked with people migrating from the rural areas. The sleeping places for these people are the street, shopfronts, uncompleted houses (termed “hotels”), container shops, kiosks, market stalls. They will tell you that is what is available by way of accommodation in the urban areas in order to make a living selling at the traffic lights, in the markets and so on.

There is nothing in the rural areas and so when you complete junior high school, the next move is to migrate to the towns and cities. It is known that about 20 per cent of Accra’s population are homeless, and comparable figures apply to our other big towns and cities. Ghana suffers from the usual “third world” problem of underdevelopment and uneven development, so people move without choice to the developed areas: that is to say, the cities.

To make things worse the population of Ghana has grown fivefold since independence and is still growing fast. Evidence of this can be seen in the growing size of towns and cities and the stagnation and deteriorating structures of our smaller towns and villages. It is as if the whole country is drifting to the cities.

Human beings, as living things, will always accumulate rubbish and make filth wherever we go. It is up to the metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies (MMDAs) to live up to their responsibilities as stated in the Local Government (Amendment) Act 1993 (Act 462). After all, the greater the population, the more revenue you can collect.

Yet district assemblies have failed everywhere across the country. They have abandoned their powers and cannot even collect the revenue due them, to the extent that contracts for collection of rubbish are awarded by central government officials sitting in Accra who do not know the nature of the rubbish and how it is generated in the districts.

I shall talk about the grotesque failure of district assemblies in Ghana another time. In my opinion, most of the problems this country has with sanitation, health, town planning et al are as a result of the failure of local government.

Make an orderly environment

The main tasks in keeping streets and houses clear of rubbish are:

1. Having a disciplined and cultured people putting litter and rubbish where it is easiest to remove later. This is usually a street bin, house bin, lorry station bin, market bin or market big skip.

2. REGULARLY emptying the bins, skips and other holding containers and TRANSPORTING the rubbish to somewhere far from residential areas for health reasons.

3. The latter is usually a landfill site or incinerator or a recycling and processing centre.

I have observed that the government or the MMDAs or whoever is in charge of rubbish in the country (in many places this is not clear) are failing on all three points above. Walking the streets of our cities and towns and villages you see no bins, no skips, “no border”, “no landfill sites” and no public toilets. In the few places where one can see any, they are filled to overflowing and full of rotting material, and haven’t been removed for long time.

It is only in the past six months or so that I have seen wheelie bins in some streets of central Accra and even these I hear they are being stolen by people for their personal use. It is also obvious that people are not cultured and disciplined enough to put their litter and rubbish into bins. The usual practice is to drop it anywhere for it to be swept away later.

This used to be the practice five decades ago and it is still the case. The difference is that in those years past the rubbish was swept away regularly, but that is not the case now. Some district assemblies have started charging people for dropping litter and rubbish in the streets. The big question worth asking is: “WHERE ARE THE BINS AND SKIPS TO PUT THE RUBBISH IN?”

The roughly 20 per cent homeless in Accra and those in poor areas not capable of paying for a private service have no choice but to leave their refuse anywhere they can find. The 1992 republican constitution places responsibility for clearing refuse wholly on the district and municipal assemblies. They must provide bins, remove rubbish regularly and dispose of waste appropriately.