In Accra, urban poverty has a kind face. It’s all very new to me.

Until now I have had neither time nor spirits to write about my wanderings around Accra. Today, all the stars aligned.

On my wanderings, I often see poverty exist right next to immense wealth in this town. This is not unlike Lagos — the city of my teenage years.

We lived in Mafoluku then. Next to the airforce base. It was not a middle-class neighborhood — though people who lived there liked to think otherwise. We were all properly poor with our beat-up Toyotas.

The middle class was in Ikoyi, Omole GRA, and Ikeja GRA. But the problem with poverty often is that it locks us in this fickle buffoonery where we lose interest in what didn’t immediately confirm our delusions. We were poor, and we didn’t want anybody telling us differently.

The thing that is interesting about Accra is that poverty and wealth exist within a practiced balance. I have no high-minded ideas about poverty — its roots or even how to fix it. What I have is a series of observations that I feel compelled to document.

The part of town I live is marketed as East Airport. Rent is crazy, yet merely 500 meters down the road from me is a sprawling ghetto. And, you never feel — as you’d find yourself feeling in Lagos — that these people are out to get you or that they didn’t belong or that you didn’t belong. They live fully in those cardboard shacks and caused no troubles.

It occurred to me just now that anywhere you might be in Accra — even in the heart of its glitziest places such as the Airport City or North Ridge, you are only 500 meters away from a proper ghetto. Yet, I don’t think you ever see the ghettos unless you paused and looked deeply. I certainly didn’t see them till I started riding, slowly through town hoping to get lost. There is no line separating the ghetto from the rest of the development, it seems.

To a pair of unseeking eyes; they are mere places by the wayside.

I have ridden through some tough parts of this town with no immediate desire to run for dear life. The other day in January, I got lost (yass!) and found myself at a dark underbridge around Spintex — a mere 800 meters from Airport Hills. It was ~ 9 PM. I had just ridden through a ghetto. I pulled out my phone to reorient myself when it occurred to me that I could get jumped in this place. But I also knew I wasn’t going to get jumped. Accra doesn’t fill you with the same foreboding that Lagos does.

When I found myself exploring the Obalende underbridge next to my house in Dolphin Estate back in 2018, I could feel eyes glaring questioningly at me from all around. “You are not meant to be here. What are you doing here?”

Everything felt disgusting and hateful.

During the first lockdown in Lagos, my friend sent me a picture of herself with a knife and pepper spray by her headboard. She was sure that when the squatters around her apartment in Ikoyi ran out of food, they’d come for her and the other middle-class warriors in the neighborhood. She was going to be ready. She never had to use any of her weapons, thank God. Yet that’s what it takes to engage with the face of poverty in Lagos.

As I rode through the train tracks today, I found young men smoking on the train bridge straddling the dirt road that leads to my house. They offered smiles and when I waved with one hand; the other hand holding onto my handlebar and dear life — they waved back. Poverty seemed almost like a way of life to aspire to within that laze.

Nobody paid attention to you unless you required as much.

Lagos doesn’t reward you quite as generously. The poor aren’t only poor, they are angry too. They’d smell your middle class from miles away and demand why you have desecrated their altar of wretchedness and why you ought not to be sacrificed where you stood.

One day, I found myself in the backyard of a family here. The husband fed the family goat yam peels. The woman, who I assumed was the wife, sat on the stoop of their small house nursing a baby. It was both sad and beautiful. I asked if there was a path to cross the stream next to their house. I had to wade in the water; the husband offered.

He was kind.

Coda:

I feel I should mention, in case it’s not immediately obvious; this piece doesn’t intend to glamorize poverty. This piece is an attempt at processing my thoughts around what I perceive to be a kind face to poverty that I wasn’t used to seeing.