Hawkers and Street Traders, I salute you

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The streets of Ghana, just like most developing countries, are crowded with hawkers and street vendors, working day and night doing their best to survive by making a living, no matter how meagre.

Hawkers are often viewed by Ghanaians with great contempt and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly have instigated and tried to enforce many banning and clean up campaigns over the years. The campaigns are harsh, goods are seized and people fined, but they don’t last and the hawkers always return. The hawkers need to work this way as the cost of renting even the smallest of shops is prohibitive and so necessity forces their hand. In a country like Ghana where jobs are few and people are many, with no government support available, a days trading can be the difference between eating and feeding a family and not.

The life of a street hawker is tough. They stand for hours on end, on the side of the road, on median strips and footpaths, and when traffic stops at the lights, they walk up and down between the vehicles, their wares balancing atop of their heads in various boxes, bags and tubs, announcing what they are selling and waiting for customers to purchase. Hot, dusty, heavily polluted in some areas, and working to the point of exhaustion, the average hawker may make a profit of 5-6 Ghana Cedis a day (about $2-$3 AUD)

It’s actually quite a convenient method of purchasing for commuters as traffic is heavy and slow and you can basically buy anything you need without fighting for parking and having to leave the car. Ice cream, water, fresh coconuts, soft drinks, bread, pies, fruit, electronics, toilet paper, books, CDs, DVDs, mobile phone credit, car accessories and even dog leashes are just a few of the items you can get while sitting in traffic. I got used to it when we lived here and found it quite handy.

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I love this vanilla ice cream, you bite the corner off and suck it out, it’s soft, creamy and tasty.

One of the big problems with street hawking is that it’s very dangerous. When a customer calls out from a car for their item, the hawker runs across to the window of the vehicle, takes the vessel off their head and gets what the buyer is looking for. In my case yesterday I wanted my favourite vanilla ice cream, which was at the bottom of the container under the chocolate and strawberry. This can take a few seconds, then there’s the exchange of money which usually requires change from the hawker. Most of the time as you begin to take off, the hawker has to run alongside the car in order to either receive money or give change, leaving their wares on the side of the road or running with it on their head. Several times we’ve had to move along with the traffic and simply throw the money out the window for them. Traffic here defies description and I won’t even bother trying, apart from stating that we’ve had well travelled visitors from many countries who could not believe what they were experiencing, and with what should be a quick fifteen minute trip taking between 1-2 hours in some cases, when traffic moves, it’s simply not an option to stay still.

Then there are the street traders. They set up roadside stalls everywhere the eye can see, selling similar items, but much more, they line every single main road and these roadside stalls are where a lot of people also buy their food, served in multiple plastic bags to take home and eat. The street traders sell almost everything including oranges, tomatoes, bras, shoes, mobile phones, watches, jewellery, you name it – it’s there on the side of the road.

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To the right of the road as far as you can see, are the street vendors, selling everything from mobile phones  and watches to bras, jeans and shoes.

Eternally optimistic, the traders set up shop in the wee hours of the morning and work long hours in the searing heat, constantly flicking rags to dust and polish their goods, doing their best to prevent the extreme weather from damaging them in order to fetch the best price possible. It is a really hard gig, with thousands upon thousands of roadside stalls everywhere, to stand out and make a few Cedis.

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We had a long drive of several hours from the airport to our accommodation yesterday, largely due to traffic congestion, so I took the opportunity to take photos for the first time. When you are living here, it becomes part of your daily life, but as I’ve been away for four years, seeing it through fresh eyes was quite a different experience.

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I have enormous admiration and respect for these hard working people who are doing their best against the odds, under the most difficult of circumstances. I’m not religious but the saying “there but for the grace of God go I” comes to mind.

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