Requiem for a Chop Stall

There is a neighborhood in central Accra called Osu. It’s very popular among expatriates due to a proliferation of Western-style stores — one can get hamburgers, pizza, sushi, Levi’s jean, and home appliances — and high-level businesses. Most of the major mobile phone networks have their headquarters there, and several banks operate major branches in Osu. A lot of hawkers also try to sell cheap, Chinese-made “Ghanaian” arts and crafts. It’s half Obruni-town, half tourist trap, and mostly annoying.

However, near the Koala supermarket on the outer edge of Osu, there used to be a corridor of ad-hoc chop stalls. Instead of going into the “authentic” African restaurant to pay GHC10 for a plate of food and GHC2 for a beer, you could go to the chop stalls to get much better food for about a tenth of that, with infinitely more flavor and a much more interesting experience.

The place used to be like this: you walked into a space no wider than a garage door, and immediately you were surrounded by a thousand vibrant colors of vendors selling handmade batik and tie-dyed cloth. Walk 10 feet, and there are at least 4 people selling fresh-cut pineapple, mangos, bananas, and oranges. Walk another 10 feet, and you’re now surrounded by a million different wonderful, tasty smells, and about as many different types of local food. Delicious banku with groundnut soup and chicken; fufu with light soup and goat meat; jollof rice with fried chicken and salad (think coleslaw); all of it cheap, and all of it delicious. And to top it off, every primary school child in Osu ran and played while their mothers and fathers sold you food and drink. The place was clean, well-kept, and relatively safe, because the people who were there were willing to make it their own.

I say “used to” because as of last Monday, the Accra Metropolitan Authority cleared out that corridor and destroyed 90% of the chop stalls. Not only can you no longer buy really good banku, but now there are a large number of unemployed street vendors who formerly had a steady income with which to support their families. Needless to say, I liked this corridor. I liked it not only because I could get really good jollof rice and fried chicken for GHC2 (nearly impossible on a PCV salary in Accra), but also because it represented for me the way development happens in Ghana and other developing countries. I mean this: If there is no good chop, you get some boards and sheet metal, set up your coal pot, and start cooking. Over time,you get neighbors, and what was formerly a dark, empty, dangerous alley becomes a clean, open, inviting, lively place.

So much of development work is about building infrastructure — roads, utilities, buildings, services — and often, we consider the informal structure that springs up in place of formal, official structures to be a type of malignancy. If it wasn’t officially sanctioned, it must be cleared out in the name of progress. I think that’s the wrong way to go about development. Instead of eradicating the existing infrastructure because it doesn’t meed certain requirements, why not find a way to make it meet the requirements? If the chop sellers are illegally connected to the electrical grid, why not offer them an amnesty period to get connected legally (and safely)? Instead of demolishing and setting back the development of a neighborhood, why not find a way to work with what’s already there?

In any case, I’m back to wandering around Accra in search of good jollof. If anybody knows where Baby Girl Fried Rice and Jollof Special has gone to, please let me know.

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