Red Cross mothers clean up Accra’s Big Gutter

Published: 28 March 2003 0:00 CET

Jessica Barry in Accra

At eight o'clock every morning, a band of hardy women from a Red Cross Mothers' Club living in a shanty area of the Ghanian capital, Accra, put on their wellington boots, pick up wooden handled rakes and set off for a nearby waterway known locally as the Big Gutter.

They spend the next two hours ankle-deep in fetid, stinking black water raking up rubbish, stacking it on the canal's steep banks, and carting it off by the armful to the nearest dump.

They have followed this routine for the past five years. Their efforts are a labour of love for which they do not get paid. What pushes them to do this work day after day is a concern for the health of their families, and for that of the tens of thousands of residents of the Nima slum through which the Big Gutter swirls.

"You cannot imagine how awful the stench used to be," says Christiana Mensah, a young mother. "You couldn't stand near the ditch for more than five minutes without getting asphyxiated."

"The mosquitos gave all our children malaria," adds a grandmother, Grace Adamalley.

The smell is still bad. To the casual observer, the women's undertaking seems a thankless task, given the amount of rubbish that accumulates each day after they have finished their cleaning, and the cascades of waste material that has found a permanent home on the banks of the mile-long canal.

But the cleaners insist that they are making a difference, and their conviction is backed up by their neighbours.

"The women are doing a wonderful job" says one old man, whose family has been living in a tumbledown house overlooking the Big Gutter since before Ghana won independence from Britain in 1957. "We couldn't even sit outside in our yard in the olden days." he adds, as his wife nods in agreement.

It was Rahinah Issaka, a social worker and Red Cross volunteer, who dreamt up the idea of getting 50 of her friends in the Mothers' Club to tackle Big Gutter's rubbish problem.

None of them needed much persuading. All were aware of the health hazard the stinking canal represented. However, the project almost came to nought for lack of money to buy boots and tools. By scraping together a little cash from their own resources, the women paid a local smith to fashion them a few rakes. A delegation from the Nigerian Red Cross, whilst on a visit to their colleagues in Accra, donated several pairs of stout wellington boots. The women were all set to go.

In a world where clean water and proper sanitation are a prerequisite for a healthy life, the slum neighbourhood of Nima Maamobi, to give the place its full name, loses out on every count. The badly ventilated ramshackle dwellings are closely packed, raw sewage trickles down the narrow dirt lanes, and barefoot children run about blithely in the dirt as idle youths play ping-pong and bar football.

Many households are without running water, so the children are sent out with 200 cedis (about four US cents) and a bucket to buy it from neighbours or friends who are connected to the mains.

For all its desperate poverty, Nima Maamobi is vibrantly alive. There are metal workshops and bread stalls, front-parlour hairdressers and numerous kiosks selling plastic knick-knacks and more essential goods such as batteries, soap, and tinned food. There are both Christian and Koranic schools, for many of Nima's residents are from the mainly Muslim Tamale region of northern Ghana.

Medical services, however, are rudimentary, making the work of the Mothers' Club members, with its emphasis on reducing health risks, even more crucial.

Despite the women's years of effort people still dump their rubbish in the canal. Night patrols have been set up to stop litterbugs dropping trash into the watercourse under cover of darkness. Anyone caught doing so is hauled off to the local authorities and reprimanded.

The mothers, all of whom are Red Cross volunteers and have received some basic health awareness training, go from door to door to talk about environmental protection, sanitation and other health matters.

Little by little their persistence is paying off. But their cleaning work would be much easier if they could get better tools. "Apart from gloves, what we need most are wheelbarrows," says Grace, as she eases off her wellingtons at the end of a morning's work. "That would make it less of a struggle to get the rubbish to the dump after we pick it up."

Environmentalists, humanitarian agencies and others who took part in the recent 3rd World Water Forum in Japan, would do well to spare a thought for Grace, Christiana and their stalwart colleagues. When asked if they had any message for the conference participants, the women replied without hesitation: "Tell them man needs clean water. Without clean water you can't survive."

Nima's Big Gutter has a long way to go before fish could live in it, but at least a start has been made to make it clean. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part of all.

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