Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

The trekking refugees from the North

Poku Adaa

The irony of humanity's existence, the paradox of our struggle for unity and cooperation. Our correspondent POKU ADAA reports on the influx of refugees from drought stricken sahelian countries against the backdrop of the expulsion of Ghana's own nationals from neighbouring countries.
At first it seemed funny seeing the streets of Accra besieged by the lean, from the North-out faces of strangers North actually, refugees who have escaped the effects of drought and severe hunger in their far-away countries of origin viz Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Ethiopia, etc, and have trekked down to Ghana where they hope to make their lives better and more comfortable.

From their initial congregation in Accra, they have now spread widely to all parts of the country and can be found roaming in provincial cities and towns. Now the influx of these 'strangers' and their presence in the streets and on the highways is pathetic and highly depressing. And in the streets, at lorry parks and sports stadia, they beg for money to survive. To them begging for alms when one is in need is a Koranic prescription which they find normal. It is the tiny ones, three-year-olds to ten-year-olds and the teenage girls who are aggressive in their tactics to demand money.

They will grip your skirt or trouser and will stick to you like a leech until you part with some money.

It is their stubborn persistence, often bordering on annoyance in soliciting for money and their superb ability to pick up and use local dialect phrases that is winning them the war of survival. "Owura, me sere wo, kye me sika!" "Papa, okom de me, ma me sika", "meye mmobo fa sika bra," etc. etc. The women are adept in evoking sympathy, through various postures. A woman will often exhibit a lean malnourished baby pulling at deflated breast, while the tiny kids will be clutching their tummies. The men on the other hand stay in the background and wait to shepherd their begging flocks to any available shelter bus stops, mosques, farmsteads, market stalls, etc, etc, when the day's begging is over.

Altogether there are about 4,000 refugees from the Sahelian countries in the country at the moment. This was disclosed by Warrant Officer Salifu Amankwa, an official of the Accra City Council. He revealed that there are Local Authority plans to integrate the able-bodied among them into farm- ing and trade apprenticeships such as shoe repair and tailoring. The Accra City Council, he said, has acquired a plot of the Accra plains near Nsawam to enable some of the refugees to begin the "serious business of life itself".

In parts of the shanty (slum) districts of Accra such as Nima, Pig Farm, Medina, etc the refugees are reported to be housing in dinghy quarters up to between 30-60 per a 'household'. Measles, whooping cough and other diseases are decimating the children according to recently published medical reports from major hospitals in Accra.

Initially, Ghanaians welcomed them with open arms and they assumed attention and prominence over local beggars although the public, looked upon with an admixture of contempt and sympathy, most probably because few Ghanaians could look such apparent long-suffering in the face. The euphoria of hospitality is fast vaporising and tolerance of the ordinary man towards these refugees is now at low ebb. What is noticeable is that their young women - and very beautiful women they are even in their tattered garbs - are not promiscuous.

It is said that many a womaniser who had attempted to woo them into their homes with money have had their money thrown at them.

Right now they are at the mercy of the church and state charitable institutions which are doing their best to cope. Several organisations within the Catholic church are constantly clothing, feeding, sheltering and maintaining groups of the refugees scattered all over the country. The Catholic weekly, the STANDARD, in a recent issue viewed the feeding of moslems by christian organisations as a noble effort to build the bridges of moslem-christian rapprochement and dialogue to create a peaceful co- existence and fraternal cooperation and to wipe out the century-old animosity between these two great religions of the world".

Still, there does not seem to be an end to the influx of these refugees. They are arriving in their thousands daily which has resulted in the people calling on the central government to take action. Following the protests by the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) to "curtail the eyesores on our streets", the Ministry of Interior has promised to institute regular immigration checks to stem the tide of the flood. The Ministry of Social Welfare has called on Ghanaians to show their usual compassionate spirit and tolerate the refugees. Government action so far has been forthcoming from an appeal for international assistance to deal with the influx.

In fact, it is on record that the Head of State J. J. Rawlings himself has appealed to every Ghanaian home and family to accept one family of refugees. His appeal has so far yielded no response.

The fact of the matter is that the refugees have shown no noticeable inclination to work for their living when it appears to them that they can make more begging than sweating on a farm. Again, the possible use of skills such as cattle rearing which some of them may possess is being under-utilised because government has taken no concrete steps to rehabilitate them.

The recent expulsion of thousands of Ghanaians from Nigeria and other West African countries which resulted in the death of scores of Ghanaians have created a negative attitude to these refugees. Said one "Agege Returnee" at Kumasi: "When we go to other people's countries they beat us, steal our property and drive us out like goats. Why should we accept other people into our midst? At least we worked for our living while we were there". It is a typical feeling that is bound to increase as the days go by and as the refugees keep on hoping that government will allow them to stay here (in Ghana) for good.

Meanwhile, several charitable organisations keep donating towards the programme. They include the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, World Vision International, National Mobilisation Committee, Seventh Day Adventist Mission and the Ahmadiyya Movement.

talking drums 1985-08-12 Ghana's former vice-president speaks from exile