Accra, like any other capital city in the world, experiences high levels of rural-to-urban migration, where hundreds of able-bodied young people abandon their rustic lives and flock daily to the big city in search of the proverbial greener pastures. In a country where thousands of university graduates sometimes wait several years before landing any kind of job, the young rural dwellers arrive in Accra only to discover that the notion of honey and milk flowing freely on the streets is as real as a Congolese ceasefire.
But it seems the migrants’ levels of expectation do not match their levels of qualification, as many of them only have basic education—the relatively less unfortunate ones are those that managed to complete junior high school. Even the latter discover that the odds are against them, as university graduates and other tertiary degree-holding individuals are sometimes willing to do jobs that are somewhat beneath their educational qualifications. But that is what happens when the pace at which a country’s educational system churns out ‘qualified’ individuals far outruns that at which at which new jobs and opportunities are created to absorb the exponentially increasing potential workforce.
To make ends meet, majority of the young migrants usually end up on the streets—literally—where they engage in selling all types of merchandise in the midst of moving traffic. As dangerous as it sounds, the practice is so common that every major street in the city has hundreds of youth skipping between cars, trying to draw the vehicles occupants’ attentions to their wares, many times successfully.
A variety of items are sold by the hawkers, with chilled sachet water arguably being the bestseller—and this makes practical sense considering the sweltering weather conditions in Accra, which is worsened by the snail pace traffic. Other things sold include food items such as fried plantain chips and Ghana’s Golden Tree chocolate. Cell phone reload cards are also very popular on the streets, and their sellers receive decent commissions on sales made. Newspapers, bubble gums, local sculpture, stationery, car accessories such as air refresheners and car stickers can also be bought in traffic. I swear I once saw a baby monkey being offered for sale on the street. During the last elections in Ghana, political party paraphernalia were the hawkers’ item of choice, as they tried to cash in on the election fever.
From a business perspective I think street hawkers in Accra have found commercial validation in the saying that “If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain.” Many families in Ghana do the bulk of their weekly household shopping on Saturdays; however, as the week proceeds, some realize they did not buy everything they needed, and this reason is perhaps the business logic of street hawkers, who exploit the slow-moving traffic to display their items. In addition, many working class individuals in Ghana simply do not find time to shop for petty items, because they are too tired (after a long day at work) to spend an extra hour or more walking the aisles of supermarkets; the street sellers are all too willing to do the walking for them—except in their case the supermarket aisles are replaced by dangerous narrow spaces between car lanes.
The debate on why hawkers are allowed to sell in the middle of the streets pops up every now and then. The Accra Metropolitan Authority (AMA), the body that is essentially empowered to keep general sanity in the city (whatever that means), argues that there is sufficient space in the actual markets to accommodate all the hawkers. The AMA has in the past embarked on several raids to rid the streets of the hawkers, but like a spring obeying Hooke’s Law of elasticity, the sellers come right back. There is also a political dimension to this street hawking issue. Because the tens of thousands of hawkers make up a formidable voting bloc, governments appear reluctant to take any decisive action to permanently curb the practice for fear of reprisal during elections. (The street hawkers have actually explicitly said that they will massively vote against any government that ejects them. Some politicians take these threats seriously because the hawking issue is not peculiar to only Accra: many other cities and towns experience it, though in varying degrees.)
Some people believe that street hawking will never end in the country. They contend that as long as there are unskilled individuals who have no other sources of income, these people would invariably turn to peddling petty items. In short, as long as the demand for these goods is fueled by individuals that do not mind buying in the middle of traffic, the hawkers will be there to supply. So if you are caught in rush-hour traffic in Accra, do not be surprised or feel threatened when someone shoves some Wrigley’s PK bubble gum into your face and says “Madam, buy some for me.”