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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Urbanization of Africa

Air Date: Week of

Cindy Shiner reports from Accra, Ghana with its population of three million and another million residents expected over the next few years. In Accra, efforts are being made to welcome rural migrants in order to stabilize the city's population base.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Just about everywhere in the less developed world, people think that they can find a better life in the cities. So they leave the countryside, even though the cities may not be ready for them. Africa is a leader in this trend. Rapidly growing populations in urban areas are taxing governments and societies to the limit and beyond. Accra, the capitol of the West African nation of Ghana, is a prime example. It's home to 3 million people and in the next 7 years another million more are expected to settle there. As you might imagine, overcrowding is profoundly affecting the lives of Accra's citizens and the city's environment, but there is a ray of hope. As Cindy Shiner reports, efforts are underway not to stem the flow of immigrants but to use them as a base to create a more stable society.

(Bustling sounds, voices and traffic)

SHINER: This low-lying swamp area of Accra is known as Kukumba Market. It's also a neighborhood of shanties no larger than the average-sized living room. Each houses up to 15 people. Dirty water, garbage, flies, and wood chips from furniture craftsmen cover the ground. In the middle are 3 islands, blue, green, and red buildings. They're daycare centers for the infants of street girls. Children, most of them visibly malnourished, sleep on the open concrete in the afternoon heat. Some are half dressed; others have no clothes at all. Girls who immigrated here from the countryside who are hardly able to care for themselves have little to provide their babies.

(A baby cries; a woman shouts)

SHINER: And where do they get the provisions to be able to take care of the children? Are they provided by mothers, or who provides for them?

WOMAN: They sometimes leave money or food to the care of the minder of the babies. It is not everybody who is able to afford this. Those that have, the others go without leaving anything for the babies.

SHINER: And so what do they do? How do they feed them?

WOMAN: Some don't eat the whole of the day till their mother returns from the market.

(Crying children)

SHINER: This is the new Africa. Burgeoning cities unable to assimilate new immigrants from the countryside. More than 40% of the continent's population will live in cities by the year 2000, almost twice the percentage of 1970. And yet the continent's leaders and the rest of the world haven't caught up with the change. Nicola Shepherd is an urban aid worker with the United Nation's Children's Fund.

SHEPHERD: There seems to be a belief in Africa in general that poverty is still in the rural areas. But yet people are coming to the cities; this is the most rapidly urbanizing continent right now. And with people coming to the cities there needs to be a shift.

SHINER: Independence came late to Africa compared to the rest of the world. By the 1960s most other countries had broken with their colonial rulers. That's why urbanization is being felt so heavily across the continent now. Most attention in the past had been aimed at alleviating suffering in the rural areas through agricultural development projects. The economic focus now is on industrialization. But tackling the many problems of the resulting urbanization isn't easy. Improving infrastructure is costly and doesn't always eradicate the problems of overcrowding. Accra mayor Natnuno Amartafeo.

AMARTAFEO: Most often, we find that with the rapid increase in the size of the city we are forced to provide as a basic amenities, like roads without drainage, because it costs. It adds at least 50% more to the cost of a road if we are to build drainage. So we figure okay, we'll build the road and then come back later on and do the drainage.

SHINER: But the result of a lack of drainage is chronic flooding, which affects impoverished settlements in low-lying areas the most. Shanties are deluged. Dumping grounds are submerged, increasing the spread of disease. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes have ample pools and blocked sewers in which to breed. In a recent 3-year period malaria accounted for at least 40% of visits at outpatient facilities. Immigrants from the rural areas make their homes on the cheapest and often most unhealthy land they can find. Some people have moved into converted public toilets. There is incessant traffic congestion with the proliferation of private taxis and buses. Despite the problems newcomers arrive daily.

(Construction sounds)

SHINER: The government has attempted to make rural areas more attractive by building roads and installing electricity, hoping this would stem an urban influx. Ironically says mayor Natnuno Amartafeo, it's only made the problem worse.

AMARTAFEO: There are all kinds of ways that people gain access to the news on radio, they watch television when it gets to them. And all they see is wonderful city pictures. And why should they stay in the rural areas when they can see every night, you know, young men and women in fancy cars and bright clothes walking down wonderfully lit streets? Which is Accra. So they all want to come down here.

(A rooster crows)

SHINER: Most newcomers hawk petty items on the street, sell produce in markets, or shine shoes. The vision of a better life lured Cula Nuo from his village Bigro in eastern Ghana to Accra when he was 19.

NUO: [Speaks in dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Well he's saying that in Bigro where he was, when people travel from Bigro and come from Accra the kind of reports they bring back to Bigro in his home town indicated that there was a lot of money, there was a lot of employment, a lot of good things. So that really excited most of them, the young men, to also come and taste of these goodies.

SHINER: But ever since Cula Nuo came he's been struggling to make ends meet.

(Hammering sounds)

SHINER: Only now, after 7 years, he's becoming skilled in metalworks. About 15 young men receive training at the metalworks shop with the assistance of a local non-governmental organization known as Sancosad. It's one of a growing number of groups across Africa that encourages grassroots efforts at reducing the cycle of poverty that urbanization often breeds.

WOMAN: How will you know when the discussion goes on?

MAN: (That is what...)

SHINER: Here, Sancosad trains community residents how to more effectively communicate with one another to address the problems and needs of their neighborhoods. There's a trend across the continent to promote self-sufficiency among communities. Maxwell Videaco is a project coordinator with Sancosad.

VIDEACO: We're looking at the whole area of micro-enterprise development, where we are trying to see how people could turn around kind of little sums of money in their meso-kind of activities that they are doing with the ultimate aim of seeing whether we could establish a community development bank, the communities who have asked us to credit their loans that improve themselves.

SHINER: The hope is that this will stimulate a development cycle, better income leading to better education, again leading to better jobs. And a wealthier population, it's hoped, will have a low birthrate, which will ease the burden on cities. Meanwhile, the city government is also struggling to find a way to get ahead of the game. It just received its first direct loan from the World Bank. Most of the money will be used for infrastructure projects run by local private enterprises. But the government is worried that the development this brings won't be spread evenly throughout the population.

VIDEACO: We're trying to create an indigenous entrepreneurial class that can deliver privatization. At the same time, we have to be mindful of the fact that we are also creating a whole class of people who are beyond the ability to pay for the privatized facilities. It's a hell of a dilemma; we're struggling with it.

(Busting sounds, voices singing)

SHINER: Most of Accra's residents can't afford to pay for services. They're the ones living in shantytowns making less than $300 a year. But it's the more affluent population that village dwellers are thinking of when they leave for Accra. And up to a million more are expected to come over the next 4 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Cindy Shiner reporting.



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