The exodus: Street children in Ghana

Ghanaian street boy (© Eric Beauchemin)

It’s estimated that there are at least 30,000 children living on the streets of Ghana. Eric Beauchemin has visited the country several times. Most recently he spent four months with a non-governmental organisation carrying out a study for a local non-governmental organisation, with the support of UNICEF, into why children are leaving their villages and heading to Ghana’s cities. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: July 2, 1999


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Exodus – The Growing migration of Ghana’s children from the rural areas to the cities”.

Street children are not really counted in Ghana, but we estimate that there are at least 30.000 in the streets of Ghana

I think it is a serious problem. Children go onto the streets because they want to survive. No child that is well protected and well fed and well cared for will go onto the streets.

Throughout the developing world, more and more children are moving from the hinterland to the streets of the big cities. The West African nation of Ghana is no exception – despite impressive growth rates of 7% per year, political and social stability, and a vision…Vision 2020, the government’s official policy to turn the West African nation into a middle-income nation by the year two-thousand-twenty. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, there are 30-thousand children living on the streets of Ghana’s cities. Half of them are in the capital Accra. 5 years ago, I went to Accra to report on street children. I spent only a few days there, not enough time to gain the children’s confidence or to get a clear understanding of the reasons behind the growing numbers of street children. Since then, Ghana’s street child population has swelled, but local charities and UNICEF have been having trouble convincing donors of the seriousness of the problem and its implications for society in Ghana…and in many other countries in the developing world. I returned to Ghana in December. Together with two researchers from CAS, Catholic Action for Street Children, a local non-governmental organisation run by a Dutch priest, I spent the past four months looking into reasons behind the exodus…and getting to know why more are children are heading to the cities.

My name is Ayempoya. 17 years. I came to the city two years ago because if you stay upcountry, you become a useless person. Over there, there’s nothing to do, except taking the cattle out to graze. My father kept on telling me that I had to take the cows out. That’s why I dropped out of school. I couldn’t do that AND go to school.

My name is Stephanie. EB: How old are you, Stephanie? 17. EB: How long have you been living on the streets.? About 1.5 years. EB: Why did you come to Accra? Because of the way my stepmother was treating me. She sometimes, she doesn’t give us food. She sometimes beats us, insults us.  That’s why.

My name…Dominic Edison. I’m 18 years old. EB: You’re working in Accra as a shoeshine. How long have you been doing that? I started when I was 16 years old. EB: Why did you go to Accra? OK, I went at the time that I finished the school. My father say he can’t continue me again. So I was fighting to get some money to work and some occupation to date. That’s why I went to Accra. EB: Before you went, did you know other boys who had gone to Accra? Yes, I knew some people. EB: That’s why you went to Accra? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

EB: When you decided to come, what happened? How did you make the journey here? I ran away. I saved up about 30-thousand cedis, EB: that’s 12 dollars and I spent 10-thousand to get to the city. What happened was that one day, around lunch time, I told my father I was going into town to get some clothes altered. I took my father’s bike, and one of my little brothers came along with me. When we got to town, I bought a bus ticket, and I told my brother to take the bike back home. I knew that by the time he got back to our house, it would be too late. I’d be gone. EB: And did you only bring the clothes that you had on you? I only had three shirts. That’s the excuse I gave my fathered to go into town. EB: And when you left, how did you feel? Were you full of expectation? Were you afraid, how did you feel? When I left, I knew God was there. I mean anything can happen, but I believed that it was going to be OK because I believe in God. I didn’t know anyone here. I just came with God.

EB: How did you come to Accra? I take train. I boarded a train, that was Saturday evening, and I did not pay for the fare. Then I reached here on Sunday, reached Accra on Sunday 3 p.m. Yeah. EB: Did you have any money? Yes, I was having 3000 cedis with me.EB: So what did you do? What did you do when you arrived? I bought. I was hungry, then I bought food. 500 from the money. So it’s left 2.500. I used 500 cedis to buy polythene bag. Then I sell it, and I get a profit of 200 cedis.EB: So that’s what you were doing every day, selling bags? Yeah. But now, I sell ice water. I can get about 2000 or 3000 profit.

EB: So you’ve been here for a year. What do you do? I work as a porter. In the beginning, people hardly give you anything. Sometimes you carry things. You should get 2000 cedis, that’s a little less than a dollar, but people will only give you 100 cedis. You try to bargain with them, but you simply have to accept what customers give you. If you don’t, they’ll never hire you again. But the next time, they’ll pay you 1000 to carry the same load. That’s how I started getting regular customers.

EB: How much do you earn on average every day? Sometimes I get 5 or 6-thousand, or about 2 to 2-and-a-half dollars, sometimes 10.000 cedis, and on some days nothing at all. I try to save money every day in a susu EB: an informal bank so if I don’t earn anything for a couple of days, I can get some money. Some of my friends don’t save anything, and if they don’t get work for two or three days, they’re in real trouble.

EB: And what’s life like in Accra? Is it difficult? Yes, it’s difficult. The work is hard. If you don’t do hard, if you didn’t fight, you can’t get money, to buy the thing or to do anything. That’s why I say it’s difficult. EB: How much do you earn a day? 5000, 3000, 4000. EB: And how much do you spend a day for food? 1000. EB: And to sleep? 500. EB: Where do you sleep? Oh, I’m sleeping in somebody house. EB: So you pay every day to be able to sleep there? Yes. EB: So you save 2000 or 3000 a day. I’m keeping 3000. I will give it to somebody. That person will keep it for me.

We stay at the railways and we sleep there too on the streets. In the beginning, I was afraid, but there was a lot of people there, so I feel like sleeping with them. Yeah. So, now I am not afraid. I even sleep alone on the streets. EB: Do you have a mat or do you simply lie down on the street? We have a mat. All of us have a mat. We buy a mat. And then in the morning, we give it to one person to keep it. So in the evening, we will give him money and collect it back. EB: Are you harassed by men or adults? No. EB: You’ve never been beaten up or anything? They sometimes beat us and so on. Maybe if you have money, maybe some one is older than me, then if I’m having money, he’ll beat me and collect it and so on. So sometimes, we hide our money before we go and sleep. Like we can even put the money under a stone. Then we go and sleep. So in the morning, we wake up and take the money.

EB: How much have you managed to save? 200-thousand EB: a little over 80 dollars. I’d have a lot more, but I’ve been robbed many times. Like yesterday, I had 14-thousand cedis in my back pocket. I was unloading some cassava, and one of the guys I was working with must have stolen it.

EB: Can you tell me about your living conditions? Where do you sleep? Where do you spend your leisure time? I don’t want to waste time. After work, I rest a little, and then I go out and sell some small things like biscuits, soap, batteries and things like that. Then I go get something to eat.

EB: Where do you sleep? Down there at Kayitia. It’s the main bus station. There’s a little kiosk there. When the people close the kiosk for the day, I go sleep there. EB: How much do you pay for that? I don’t have to pay a cent because on Sundays, I clean the kiosk for them.

EB: What do your parents think of the fact that you left for Accra? They say good. EB: Why? My parents not having money to give it to me. So that’s what I’m fighting for my own. They’ll be happy. EB: When you decided to go to Accra, did you tell your parents or did you go? I will tell my parents. EB: And what did they say? They didn’t say anything. They say I can go.

The approval given by the parents of Dominic, the shoeshine boy, is tacit. Families in Ghana’s hinterland tend to be large – 6 to (8?) children – and too many parents are just struggling to keep their heads above water, unable to reconcile the need for large families and the other traditions which have bond villages throughout the country with modernity, urbanization, and the dream of breaking out of the unending cycle of growing poverty. Mallam Issaku Abdulrakemani-Imam is the head of one of these households. He comes from the Moslem-dominated north of Ghana. He’s the son of the local chief imam. Even though he’s only 47, he has 4 wives …and 25 children. School fees last year cost him 500.000 cedis, that’s over 200 dollars – in a country where the average annual income is ?? As his wives prepared dinner, he talked to me about his four daughters who’ve left for the big city and about the impact the exodus is having on village life.

Farming is seasonal here. We used to need farmhands, but not anymore because of the changes in the climate. There’s no other work here. So, during the dry season, more and more children, especially girls, are heading South in search of work. Four of my daughters have left, even though I was against it. They had no choice: there’s no work here. When the land started becoming less fertile, people started leaving…adults and children. Before, it wasn’t like this: girls and women never left the village. But more and more girls have been leaving for Accra. One of my sons was supposed to marry a girl from here, but when I went to inquire about her a couple of days ago, I was told that she had left to work in the city as a kayayoo, a head porter.

EB; Many of the girls who go to Accra become pregnant and come back to the village with a child. Has that happened in your family? One of my daughters came back with a child. I don’t know who the father is. But the baby is a human being. I can’t just abandon him. But it’s a huge burden for me. EB: Did you talk to your daughter about this? Yes, I even cursed her and told her that if she went to Accra, I hoped she’d  get run over a car. I spent a lot of time talking to my daughter when she brought the child back here. This calmed her down and she spent three months here. She went back to the city with a man who’s offered to take her hand in marriage. EB: Do you notice that when the children come back from Accra that they’ve changed, that they’re different? You can tell that they’ve been in the city. Girls wear short dresses. That’s not the way we do things here. Girls also have different hairdos. They have fair skin, are fat and look like life has treated them well. Everyone wants to join them in the city. But, they don’t respect us, the village elders, any more. They don’t bow to us. They believe they have the right to stand up on their own two feet. I would say that only 3 out of 10 children who come back to the village have good moral values. Most come back with diseases and different lifestyles. They are promiscuous. All of this is causing problems in the community.

The social consequences of the growing numbers of street children are becoming apparent in more and more communities in Ghana. Many parents and officials describe the exodus as a “catastrophe” and a “cancer”. Children are fleeing the rural areas because of the lack of opportunities, because the education system is too expensive…and it doesn’t offer any future either, because there are no jobs in the hinterland, except farming, and hardly anyone wants to become a farmer. But Imelda Amadu, the deputy director of Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare, in charge of child rights and protection, believes that parental negligence, abuse, and most of all poverty, are behind the growing exodus.

Parents hope that if the children go out there, they make some money to augment the family income. It may be very, very minimal. And if you understand the kind of risk that those children have to go through to make that small money, then you wonder whether it is actually worth it. Some parents send their children out there on the streets to go and make money. And I call them irresponsible parents of course because no matter what, they should try to keep their children at home or in school.

All too many parents shrug their shoulders or simply throw up their hands in despair. But, Mrs Amadu and the government believe there is no place for complacency or indifference, given the growing numbers of children trying to eke out a future on the streets of Ghana’s cities. The problem has to be tackled at the grassroots, she says. The Children’s Act, adopted earlier in this year, is proof that Ghana – which was the first signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – is serious about protecting its future.

We have the Children’s Act in place. And very soon parents will have to sit down and say, hey, if I don’t take care of my child, I am liable to prosecution. I could be sent to court. In itself, it is going to check the influx of street children. Parents will sit up to their responsibilities. They will be more responsible towards their family. Because if you don’t, we will send you to court. And nobody wants to go to court, not just for stealing but for neglecting your own children. I think in our African society, it’s enough of a disgrace to any family. And they will want to try to avoid that.

Hopefully, the Children’s Act will also help deal with an even more serious aspect of the street child phenomenon: child servitude or slavery. Growing numbers of rural parents are giving their young children to urban women who promise that they’ll educate and train them.

There are women on the street who I have located who goes to villages, pick girls, young as 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 years old.

Joyce Kulevo is a social worker who has come across all too many cases of child servitude…UN-enese for slavery.

They bring them to the city. They make them sell ice water on a daily basis and they are kept at particular places, and they are made to sell and bring the required money. They are fed once or twice a day. Like I know a woman. She had about 12 girls of that age. She had a boy. That’s her son who sits at the gate of their structure. He’s supposed to make sure that girls who go out to sell, bring the required money on a daily basis. So, like a gallon. A girl carries a gallon of water. They know the number of cups that she is supposed to sell out of the gallon. So when she comes back, if she is supposed to bring 350, and she brings 300, she is beaten for that for that reason, or she’ll be punished and not take her lunch or supper. So she keeps them within her structure. She has a TV there. So in the evening, after the day’s work, they’re not supposed to go out anywhere. So they’re supposed to stay indoors and watch the TV.

Joyce got in touch with this woman, or madam as they are called in Ghana, at the Accra railway station. During the day, it is a typical African market and an open-air restaurant, a place to rest and hustle, to beg and ?? At night, it becomes the bedroom of hundreds of adults and children. On an early weekday afternoon, Joyce and I met one of these child slaves. Her name was Esanam. She was 15.

I see it as slavery and child exploitation at the same time. Because when the girls are brought there, they are not permitted to do anything at their own. They are not supposed to do anything that they want by themselves. They are supposed to go strictly according to their minders or their madam’s instructions. They are not given that free chance of movement. They are kept strictly. And I see it as exploitation because nothing is given them apart from the food that is given them on a daily basis.

Slavery, exploitation, parental negligence and abuse, the breakdown of the traditions, the serious shortcomings of the education system, the lack of family planning and jobs, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the way it is reflected on television in Ghana – and throughout the developing world… they are all factors leading children to flee the interior for the cities, in search of money and a better life.

EB: How much money do you want to get before you stop this? You can’t set yourself a target because you’ll never reach it. I have decided to leave in two weeks from now, after the Ramadan. It doesn’t really matter how much I have. EB: Where will you go? Bolga. EB: What will you do there? I’ll go and work for the tomato company. I need to save some more money. After that, I’m planning to help my father out for a while, but I want to come back to the city. I’ll be leaving soon because if you stay here for too long, you get used to the city lifestyle. You want to buy Combat shoes, jeans and things like that, and you end up spending all your money. That’s why I want to go back after the Ramadan. EB: But what is your long-term goal? I will go work up north for a while and come back to the city. Everything depends on what happens. I don’t know. Only God knows. EB: But I mean, you don’t want to continue carrying goods for the rest of your life. What do you want to do afterwards? I have already started up a small business, selling batteries, biscuits and other essential commodities. So it depends on how things go. When it starts turning a profit, I’ll stop working as a porter and start up a small business. I don’t mind living on the streets. I don’t earn much, but even if I didn’t like it here, what would I do? Where would I go? I mean, I have no choice. As long as I earn enough to eat and do all the other essential things, it’s OK.

“The Exodus” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Robert Meeder. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.

With the backing of UNICEF and a local NGO – the Catholic Action for Street Children (CAS) – Eric prepared the following 95-page report:  The Exodus – the growing migration of children from Ghana’s rural area to the urban centres.