By Sharon Benzoni
Accra – Kantamanto’s back in business. Just three months ago, a field of rubble was all that remained of the large, beloved market that deals primarily in secondhand clothes imported from the U.S., Europe and China. The market, a confusing labyrinth of stalls, had been leveled by fires and government demolition trucks. The air of mourning was palpable; livelihoods had been destroyed overnight and no one could be certain of their futures.
"Yen ko village," one woman had shrugged two months ago when I asked what she would do if the market was not re-opened. What those words mean – "_we’ll go to the village_" – would be tantamount to falling back on the scarce resources of their already overstretched rural families. It’s a last resort, an admission of defeat.
Now, though, Kantamanto is again a maze of commerce. Wooden structures – simple tables with frames to display their best wares – are lined up in long rows. Red umbrellas shade the traders with patches of shadow on the uneven ground. Whereas two months ago, I could walk in a relatively straight line to the far wall, picking my way through the rubble, I’m now confused, as usual, by the endless rows. Never has being lost felt so comforting.
Eric Kwesi, a young trader I met in May who had been standing on the empty ground where his shop had once existed, is also back in business. This week, I wandered the rows looking for him; eventually he called out to me, "My friend!" He was standing in front of a few piles of Dickies. He and ten other men, he says, pooled their resources to pay for a long table on which they now display their wares. "Everyone got the place where they were before," he says, gesturing toward the rest of the market. It seems to me a remarkable feat that 15,000 traders were able to nearly perfectly re-create the vast market as it was before.
According to Eric, the importers with whom he has longstanding relationships have given him more goods to sell on credit. He will slowly pay back his creditor for these and the goods he lost in the fire. But he and his fellow traders are still living on borrowed time, a fact they haven’t forgotten. Their fates rest in the hands of policymakers.
The Kantamanto disaster has caused a firestorm of controversy, especially as more fires in markets in both Accra and Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, have fueled conspiracy theories. The local government, the Accra Metropolitan Authority, was forced to back down from its proposed takeover of Kantamanto, as the national Ministry of Transit and Roads was found to have claim to the land. The city proposed building the railway station that the land had been allotted for years before, despite the 50-year lease it signed with the traders, who collectively pay 30,000 Ghana cedis per year for the land, according to Eban Ofori, Vice Chairman of the Kantamanto Traders Association.
Some supported this idea, arguing that Ghana needs a functional rail system more than it needs Kantamanto, pointing out that traders could relocate elsewhere in the city. And proposals for an "ultramodern shopping complex" met with approval from some who feel that markets like Kantamanto are unsanitary, disorganized and unappealing, a pimple on Accra’s fresh face. Others championed the traders’ cause. The good news is that public debate seems to be occurring, and that the traders’ voices, though not always dominant, have not been totally drowned out as they’d feared.
Ofori says that the traders he represents have agreed in principle to the idea of building a modern market. "But we are saying we can do it ourselves," he says. "We have money, we have banks and other people who can help us." This desire for D.I.Y. is born from a wish to forestall the corruption and exclusion they fear from a government-led project. "I have about four proposals on my desk," he tells me, from private sector companies interested in working with them. Eric, whose energy and optimism seem to reflect the renewed hopes of the informal traders, says, "I’m happy I’m here. As time goes on I wish everything would be normal, if they would only give us a chance to stay here."
Meanwhile, he says, some tangible private and public sector support has materialized. Nana Oye Lithur’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection has pledged financial grants for female traders to get back on their feet. Microfinance institutions and NGOs have offered small loans and grants. When I asked him about the traders’ activities in the market despite no official sanction, he said, "Life is like that. You need to plan… Women have been selling to get their daily bread. That’s life. And it’s good."
Ofori points out that the impact of Kantamanto’s collapse has affected the entire country. "We can’t buy as much," he says. Importers have been left with bales of unsold goods. Kantamanto also generates income in the foreign nations they import from, he says. "If goods are not coming, it affects everyone. It’s not Ghana that is losing, it’s the whole world."
Sharon Benzoni – Informal City Dialogues