Growing up, answering the question “Where do you live?” was a tough one to crack. I have elaborated on this conundrum before but repeating it again and again is a favorite pastime for me sometimes. At least when I look at it all in retrospection. The answer I usually gave was a long and circuitous one that took me from mentioning the neighborhood that abutted mine in the answer I gave or hyphenating the actual place I lived with another community as my answer.
“I live around North Legon, a few minutes away from the hospital” or “I live at Madina-Zongo”. It was never a straight forward “I live in Zongo” answer. Even though the aforementioned two were not entirely inaccurate, something belied my answer. It was an uninformed sense of apprehension whenever I mentioned the name of my community, knowing it was sure to generate some silly response. The type that usually was of the nature “You do not look and sound like a Zongo Boy”. Or the kind of response that came in the form of a snort or arched brows communicating disrespect.
Zongo, a generic name for communities largely populated by Muslims and people of Northern descent have existed in Ghana’s geography well before Independence. The history of it is something found in bits and pieces in spaces inhabited by kola nut chewing old folks but the lore abounds. However, the modern day stories of Zongos are not mystifying, even in the least sense of it.
They are some of the most diverse places in Ghana. Originally Muslim dominated, Zongos are fast becoming melting pots, especially in urban centers. The low cost of living makes it a desirable stop for families moving into cities for greener pastures. Crescents of mosques share airspace with crosses and churches. Muslim kids sit next to Johns and Marthas in school and meals cooked on Eid easily find its way into Christian homes. Minus a few skirmishes over land tenure which is common all around the country, a form of kumbaya exists between all these two groups.
All these do not answer the question of why I felt timid answering an otherwise harmless “where do you live”. You see, Zongos have over the years been tagged as places of squalid conditions and penury. The image drawn up of Zongos is not the same as that of emaciated kids in Darfur. It is a relatively more benign yet still worrying picture of open drains, largely unplanned residential areas, untarred roads, high dropout and illiteracy rates as well as poverty and unemployment. It was a bit difficult associating with all this.
As I came of age, I took pleasure in identifying as someone from Zongo. I found it in the enterprising young men earning a living by either making the most fashionable caftans or working their way up the corporate ladder at multinational telecos. The badge of honor could be gleaned from mothers who prioritized the education of their children despite their 6 to 6 schedules in the market or the back office of a financial firm. It was in the kubolor (itinerant) who enjoyed mango hunting barefooted but still made top grades at the end of the academic term.
The beauty is inherent in the personal stories you hear sitting at “bases” but it cannot always be seen on the streets and corners of the community. I struggle to find it as a result of structural and systemic discrimination. If anything, it is a result of self-inflicted harm. As formal education began to set root in Ghana, it is reported that Muslims wary of the possibility of missionaries converting their kids into Christianity opted to keep them away from school. That largely meant that Zongo representation at the table for the slicing of the national cake was inadequate. Years of neglect ensued and what we see today is probably the direct product of that. It is hard to put a finger on a particular explanation but this theorizing is an alternative rationalization.
To cure these ills, the new government of Ghana has exercised its executive powers and created a portfolio to be run by a “Minister of Inner City and Zongo Development”. The specifics are yet to be fashioned out but the rancor is already loud. This is against the backdrop of the now defunct “Zongo Employment and Entrepreneurial Development” program, an initiative with a fancy name but very little to show in deliverables. From the get go, the focus of the program was not the kind that sees communities catapulting to greater heights. From hairdressing to vulcanizing, the program only perpetuated the notion that, the skill set of the Zongos was crude and basic.
On the surface of it, this new portfolio is definitely one worthy of all applause if you do have the Zongos at heart. More importantly, it appreciates the need to cast a wider net to cover all inner cities and not just the Zongos, in this drive to “…Transform lives.” In theory, it presents itself as a vehicle to administer government’s developmental plans to overhaul previously neglected communities which have borne the brunt of apathetical governance over the years. It is equally tempting to see this as an extension of the ever increasing red lines of governance. It can be presented as a bureaucratic avenue carved out to appease loyalists of the new president.
Regardless of how you view it, the essence of this new portfolio would be best assessed on its ability to either maintain or improve the status quo of the Zongos and other areas marked as inner cities. If four years from now, a student from the Zongos finds herself struggling to answer the simple “Where do you live” question like I did when I was in my early teens, then the portfolio would have failed to achieve anything substantial.
This portfolio should not be about attending naming ceremonies and awure (wedding) every Sunday. It should not be exclusively focused on training teeming young adults in tailoring and perming of hair. And neither should it be about doling out money arbitrarily to every mayafi cladded mother who comes crying for help or helping imams and party loyalists to go on the hajj pilgrimage.
Developing the Zongos should be about yearning to level the playing field which historically was tilted by earlier generations. The targets should be expanding access to educational opportunities by instituting scholarship schemes that ensures needy, brilliant or willing students get a chance at good education all the way through to the tertiary level. It should be about improving sewer infrastructure while covering the gaping gutters dotting several Zongos around the country. It should be zooming its lenses on identifying 21st century skills, both soft and hard, that need to be developed. From teaching coding to communication skills, the Minister of Inner City and Zongo Development should not take us back to the days of ZEED where hair dryers and relaxing creams were seen as tools for large scale empowerment.
Development is a holistic concept that encapsulates both infrastructural improvement and social enhancement. Unless we see some measure physical evidence of socioeconomic progress in every Zongo and every overcrowded and underserved precinct of Accra, Kumasi, Takoradi, Cape Coast, Tamale and Koforidua, this portfolio would just be another job for the boys!