A five-year-old girl grasps the arms of pedestrians walking past Obra Spot at Kwame Nkrumah Circle, as her eight-year-old brother wanders nearby, stretching out his arms to passers-by and gesturing for people to feed him. Both children plead for alms while their father, wrapped in Muslim garb, sits on a cardboard plank on the sidewalk and looks on.
A similar scene occurs near Kaneshie Market where ten-year-old “Amina” lunges onto passengers inside a loading trotro and begs for money to “buy food at a chop.” The Zongo resident trails the packed vehicle as it drives away, hugging its windows for a few minutes before giving up.
In front of Accra Mall, a group of six children, some standing barefoot on the pavement, tackle the traffic entering the mall parking lot and solicit drivers for money.
These children, identified by their fair-colored skin and sidewalk status as beggars, are part of a Saharan sub-culture of migrants from Niger living in Ghana. Their ranks can be seen in Osu, Ashaiman, Circle, Kaneshie and Zongo weaving through traffic and washing car windows, begging for anything pedestrians or drivers may throw their way. Some speak a few words of English; others speak a little French; many say they live in Zongo with their parents who normally stay home while they beg.
Brahimin Mohammed (sp.), the 27-year-old father of the two children begging in Circle, migrated to Ghana four months ago because of the lack of work and food in his home country, he says. In Niger, some people are able to go to school and work, but not many. Mohammed has never attended school and is unable to read or write, so the correct spelling of his name is unclear. He speaks some French and says that he thinks it’s okay his children beg on the streets because they go to school. “I’m confident that since they go to school, they’ll get a job,” he says. He did not say which school the children attend.
Mohammed resides in Zongo with Aisha, the mother of his children, in a house with running water and no electricity. His children beg on Circle’s streets, usually from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. but he says their situation in Ghana is still better than in Niger. “We can eat and we can wash ourselves here.”
When he can afford it, his dream is to return to Niger, buy some sheep, live as a shepherd, and teach his children about their culture. “Begging is not enough to get the money to go back to Niger,” he says. He would like to work, but he doesn’t say what he is doing to get a job.
The United Nations Refugee Agency’s website defines migrants as people who “choose to move in order to improve their future prospects of themselves and their families.” Mohammed and many Nigerien migrants begging on Accra’s street definitely fall in this category. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking last in the United Nations Human Development Index. Its rainfall varies, and when it is insufficient, the republic has difficulty feeding its population and must rely on food aid, according to the United States Department of State. With a rapidly growing population and the consequent competition for natural resources, the lifestyles of agriculturalists and livestock herders, people like Mohammed, are increasingly threatened.
It is possible for migrants from Niger to make a living in Ghana so that they can return to their home country, according to Edward Baffoe-Bonnie, Senior Public Relations Inspector at the Ghana Immigration Service. “When a migrant comes to Ghana to work, the best thing is to get a registration and work permit,” he says. “If he registered, it would be more possible for him to gain enough money to return [to Niger].”
To get a work permit, Mohammed will need to fill out a registration application, he will need a police report from his home country, a medical report, a resume, an educational and professional certificate, as well as a list of documents depending on whether he is applying with a company, a non-governmental agency; whether he is applying with his spouse, with ministries, departments and agencies or with a school. A registration permit costs GH200 for non-ECOWAS foreign nationals. Mohammed can’t read or write so all of the above will be very difficult. His lack of an educational certificate exempts him from the process automatically.
For his children to attend a Ghanaian school they will also “need registration and a letter of admission from the school,” Baffoe-Bonnie says. “[The immigration service] will need a letter of receipt of the school fees paid and the school will apply on behalf of the children.” Getting the school fees needed for an education will be difficult for Mohammed, since his children beg to earn money for food.
In 2008, about 700 thousand migrants arrived in Ghana, according to the Immigration Service 2008 Survey. The immigration service does not know the number of migrants in the country from Niger. The Niger Embasssy is currently launching a pilot project to calculate this high number, according to its spokesperson.
Some locals regard the Saharan migrants from Niger begging on the street with contempt while others sympathize with their plight.
“If you want to give someone money, then give it to the sick,” a man urged this reporter while forcibly grabbing the arm of a migrant child, pushing him to the ground near a group of adults wearing Muslim robes and sitting on the sand by Obra Spot. “Why don’t you people work?” he shouted, causing passers-by to gather at the site.
Ade Morris, 18, witnessed the scene. “I see that it’s unfair for these things to happen in our country,” he says. “I think that if assistance was there it could help [the migrants]. The government should give help to them. I know that these people can’t speak our language and can’t work. But always there will be beggars in every country even America. You can’t judge. You’re not God.”
Twenty seven-year-old Abraham Jibrel, a fashion designer in Accra, agreed. “We are all human beings,” he says. “Something can happen in Ghana tomorrow, so maybe Niger will host us in their country. We are all Africans and West Africans too. When I see other people from other countries in Ghana I want to accommodate them.”
French translator, Arnaud Chauvel contributed to this story.