Inside the Hidden Gated Community

In the second part of a three-part investigative piece, SELASE KOVE-SEYRAM reports that a gated community hidden in the heart of Accra houses over 100 child prostitutes who work by the Accra railway line by night.

ACCRA — Most Ghanaians may be familiar with Tuobodom – a town in the country’s Brong Ahafo Region – which received extensive media attention in 2005, when a newly-released song stirred controversy about the town’s history. But only a tiny proportion of the country’s population might have ever heard of another Tuobodom located in the heart of Accra. Even the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, responsible for the development of the capital city, concedes that it has “no idea” where this place is.

By the Chisco Bus Terminal, which is directly opposite the Neoplan Bus Station at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a semi-tarred road connects pedestrians to the main Ringroad extension. To get to Tuobodom, take the semi-tarred road and go past the cluster of kiosks which serve as brothels behind the main railway line. Move ahead till you get to the newly-built Odaw Railway station on your right. To your left, a signboard to a chapel reads: “APOSTOLIC DIVINE CHURCH OF GHANA, NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS”. The chapel shares a wall withTuobodom. From this distance, a sea of tin roofs is visible behind the high walls. Two metal gates keep it hidden from public view. The structures within are mainly shacks built from plywood. A surveyor estimates the land size as “more than two acres”.

An investigation for The New Crusading GUIDE — which included visits to brothels, and settlements where child prostitutes live, interviews with brothel owners, teenage prostitutes and neighbors, examination of city records and months of observation — found:

1. Tuobodom is the name of a gated community located within the capital city of Accra.

2. The community is home to a group of underage sex workers, those you’ll find standing by the Accra railway line at night.

3. They live here by day, mostly with pimps whom they call ‘husbands’.

4. Some of the girls get pregnant, give birth and raise their kids in the same community.

5. A man, known among residents as “Rasta”, is the landlord who sells plots of land to willing buyers. These buyers build wooden shacks which they rent out to those who can afford.

6. Records at the Lands Commission show that the plot of land, owned by government, is designated as an industrial area; unfit as a residential settlement area.

7. Savvy brothel owners by the Accra railway line have acquired parts of the land from “Rasta” and started operating new brothels on the plot.

To the East, the stagnated Korle lagoon creates a wedge between the Kwame Nkrumah circle hawkers market and Tuobodom. This side of the settlement offers an expansive view of Accra – from the iconic GCB tower to the human and vehicular traffic on the main Ringroad extension. A large public bathhouse sits here. It was built by a businessman who charges residents per bath.

Pay As You Go

A boy holds a joint in Tuobodom as another looks-on.

A boy holds a joint in Tuobodom as another looks-on.

A boy holds a joint in Tuobodom as another looks onTo live in this community, you first need to speak with Rasta, a young man who until mid-November 2013 kept a long dreadlocked hair. Depending on your budget, Rasta would either sell you a piece of land to build your own shack or introduce you to a renter. A piece of land – the size of a parking space for a salon car – goes for 900 cedis ($350). The amount can be paid in three installments, but a minimum of one-third of the total sum is required. For those who cannot afford a land, rooms are rented for 7 cedis (about $3) daily.

Rasta lives here. His shack is big and yellow, one of the very first structures you see once you pass through Tuobodom’s main gate. It has a bar, with a flourishing liquor business and a pool table for the guys who often visit him. He also owns two bigger shacks – each with four rooms – which he rents out.

It is unclear whether Rasta has any rightful ownership to the Tuobodom community, but his influence as the landlord is evident. Depending on whom you asked, Rasta is a benevolent guy taking in people who have nowhere else to go—or a smart slumlord who has taken advantage of a vacant land for his own financial gain.

Emmanuel Ansa, a coffee vendor who lives in Tuobodom, explains why questioning Rasta’s authority is pointless: “I don’t care if he owns it or not. He was the one who gave us a place to stay when the AMA (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) sacked us from the railway line.”

The Hand of a Mayor

Kids born in Tubodom play in its alleysOn the morning of Thursday January 19, 2013, residents of an informal settlement

Kids born in Tubodom play in its alleys.

Kids born in Tubodom play in its alleys.

in Accra woke up to heavy sounds of bulldozers pulling down their homes. Televised videos and stories carried by news outlets on the demolition showed some residents scrambling for their properties in the debris. Others reportedly stoned security officers supervising the demolition exercise. The string of settlements pulled down was in an area called ECOMOG.

A few days before that Thursday, fire had gutted part of the area, posing danger to a cluster of high tension electricity transmitters there. It provided a valid excuse for the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), which had until then faced stiff opposition over plans to demolish the place.

“We had reports that there were criminal activities taking place there,” explained Numo Blafo, Public Relations Officer of the AMA. “But there had been no political will to make these things possible.” He cited opposition from “members of the ruling party, but not directly from government”.

Contrary to his expectations, the taskforce which carried the demolition left a portion of the area untouched. It is today the network of brothels behind the main railway line.

The New Wave

Nana Badu, popularly known as “Too Short” for his height, is one of early residents to settle at the area demolished by the AMA. He operates a snooker board by the railway tracks. A native of Juabeng in the Eastern Region of Ghana, Too-short has been living along the railway tracks since the late 90s.

He has been part of the growth of the settlement and freely talks of his experiences. He recalls how he settled in by “paying” the “railway master” for a space to build his first shack. His first neighbors were migrants from other regions and cities from Ghana’s neighboring countries; those who had nowhere to stay in Accra. The land by the tracks, with its proximity to the center of the city’s business activities, became home.

He lost his shack on the day of the demolition. Together with some owners of the estimated 1000 structures pulled down that day, he went in search of a new home.

“Tuobodom is only one of the places that people went,” he said. He knows by name, the neighbors who moved to the gated community days following the demolition. There’s “Skido, Ernest, Ruth, Mawuena and Yaa”, but they’re just a handful of the people who have come to populate Tuobodom.

‘Crime Shifts Geographically’

A new liquor store opens in Tuobodom.

A new liquor store opens in Tuobodom.

A new liquor store opens in TuobodomPutting the demolition of slums as a way for controlling crime in context, Ken Attafuah, Criminologist and Human Rights lawyer noted “whenever you chase [prostitutes] from one locality, you only disperse them and they congregate in another place. The society in general comes to the realization that the problem has only shifted geographically”.

Environmental criminologists focus on the factors of context that can influence criminal activity. Under this, the geography of crime indicates the shifting nature of crime and criminality based on the changing nature of fortunes between the privileged and the marginalized. This explains why crimes such as prostitution and brothel keeping move away from the city center to other parts of town as society prospers. It makes a case for why demolitions do not eradicate nor stop criminal activity.

Certain areas of Accra will harbor crime because so many poor and marginalized people with few other choices live there. Old Fadama, Kokomba Market and the Accra-Tema rail tracks near Circle are a classic example of this. If you demolish these places, those people don’t disappear, and their need to commit crimes to survive doesn’t go away, they just move on to the next place. This is why demolitions don’t eradicate or stop crime.

While noting that prostitution might not be completely eradicated, he stressed the need for systemic changes in education and social structures to tackle the problem of child prostitution. “It is futile to control [prostitution] without first controlling the factors that are implicated in its general rise”, he says.

For now, a window seems to be broken, emboldening the players in this industry to cash in as fast as they can.

The story was first published by The New Crusading GUIDE.