Following the example of Christ, who “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming as a human being” (Phil 2:6-7), St Francis embraced and shared the life of the poor and wrotein his first Rule that “the friars must rejoice when they live among people considered of little value and looked down upon, among the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wavside”, Following this invitation of 5t Francis I asked the late Fr Emilio Gallo, at that time the Custos of the Franciscan Conventuals in Ghana, the permission to live in the slum of Korle Dudor . , Agbogbloshie. He granted it and then accompanied me to the late Most Rev. Dominic Andoh, then archbishop of Accra, who gave his approvai and blessing. On July 15, 2002, feast of 5t Bonaventure, the Franciscan presence in the City of God was born: I started to live there alone, renting a shack from a Nigerian lady but with the hope of having in future a community of friars living there.
The aim was:
• To live a life of penance and conversion;
• To discover the poor Christ in marginalized brothers and sisters, in order to serve him and to become conformed to him;
• To live the gift of brotherhood with the people living there, being subjected to ali for God’s sake;
• To share the Word of God, to accompany the poor in their process of integrai liberation, and to make them feel a Iiving part of the church.
2. KORLE DUDOR
Usually slums are situated in the periphery of cities; but Korle Dudor is situated in the centre of the city, both considered as physical space, you walk a few minutes and you reach the commerciai and administrative heart of Accra, Parliament, Supreme Court, the great buildings and skyscrapers, and as sodal space, the nearby market of Agbogbloshie is probably the piace more frequented of Accra. The slum is on the Korle lagoon, from which it gets his name, Korle Dudor (‘the washing basin of Korle’); this is the official name used by the authority, but the slum is known more as ‘Old Fadama’ (the name Fadama is a Hausa word for marsh, ‘Old’ is because former settlers were relocated (by Kwame Nkrumah government?) to a new area that got the name New Fadama (in the Okai Koi North District); another name used frequently ;5 ‘Konkomba Market’, after the Limann government gave perrnission to the Konkombas to start a yam market in the area. The slum is a/so cal/ed, but on/y by people who don’t /ive there, ‘Sodo m and Gornorrah’: it is a name that weighs down on the inhabitants. The slum has always been seen as a den for crimina/s and prostitutes, but the reality is that the great majority of people are good people simp/y trying to come out from the claws of the poverty of their villages. They live on the humblest jobs and are the first to suffer under the tyranny and the violence of criminality. But it is always so easy to give a bad name to the poor. So it was a great joy when Most Rev. Charles Palmer-Buckle, the Archbishop of Accra, on his first vìslt te our piace walking around and seeing the poverty of the area but more the presence of God in the children, women and men living here he saìd: “It is not right to cali this piace Sodom and Gomorrah, we shall cali it the ‘City of God’. And this is our name.
Officially the population is estimated ataround 50,000 people, but 100,000 seems a more realistic estimate; they are crowded in some 15,000 shacks, which cover an area of around half krn’. People live at the mercy of rain, the draìnage system is practically not existent, and fire, every year the slum experiences 15-20 fire outbreaks. There is not much violence in Korle Dudor, and it is a great blessing; I think that the fact of being at the centre of the city helps a lot, people are not segregated, they are part of the social life, and there is work, humble, despised, but work. There are people from ali part of Ghana, especially from the North, the poorest area, and from bordering states; it is a Babel of languages and cultures, but they live together with fair mutuai understanding. The piace looks like an anthill, at every hour of the day or the night something is going ono The majority are young people, working especially in two fields: in the various markets and street of Centrai Accra as hawkers and porters (there are probably more than 10,000 kayaye in the slurn), and in metal scraps recycling. The latter work boasts of a business chain started by the scraps collectors who comb the whole of Accra with their pushing truck (walking even 40-50 km a day) looking for metal scraps; these will be sold to others who will separate what can be re-utilised, and according to their usefulness will end or with spare parts dealers, or with people who will transform them in coal-pots, head-pans, ovens, house or garden tools, ete. What cannot be re-utilised goes to Tema foundries to be melted to a new life. Unfortunately this creates a lot of air, water, and soil pollution, especially with e-waste and the burning of scraps to get copper.
When I entered the slum it was a moment of tension, the government had just announced the demolition of the slum and the forced eviction of its inhabitants, then matter landed in court and judgment was given in favour of the government with the permission of carry on the forced eviction. This has never become a reality and the government converted it into a pian offering an alternative settlement to the population, first at Adwen Kotoku, then at Amasaman. I felt really welcomed in the slum, even with the puzzling and questioning about my reasons of being there, and with the possible answers (drugs, prostitution, etc.); I was spending my time walking through the slum, visiting people, especially the sick, ready to enter into dialogue and friendship.
3. PEACE ADULT SCHOOL (PAS)
On the request from few Konkomba youth who wanted to be helped in getting basic education, in 2003 we started some night classes, with the help of 5amuel, at that time living in the area and studying at 5t Aquinas. Many people have never been to school and there is a great desire to learn to read and write, and to have some basic knowledge of English. We started sitting in the evenings at a pito bar; then with increasing attendance we looked for a better piace. A fitter offered us an empty space near his workshop where in December 2003 we built a wooden structure. We started to have classes from Monday to Friday from 7.30pm to 9.30pm with few youth, many embarrassed at sitting on a school bench at their age; sometimes friends passing by were teasing thern, at the point that in the beginning students were asking us to have classes, notwithstanding the heat, with windows and doors closed. In a short time the school got the respect of people and embarrassment gave way to pride. Far the teaching we got the help of some educated people living in the slurn, most of them students in secondary or tertiary institutions. During the day the school was used by students for personal or group studies. Very soon our structure was not able to accommodate ali our students and at the end of 2004 we had to extend the school building with a second floor, stili wooden, on top of the first. 5eeing the need to be there fu” time, in summer 2006 I moved from the room I was renting to stay in the school. In September 2006 the school was burned down; the fire started in a shack ar ound 100m Ir om our piace, but lack of water and disorganization made the fire spread to more than hundred shacks, among them our school. We rebuild at the end of the year, stili with wood, adding one more room after the agreement with a neighbour sharing wall with the school to rebuild his two rooms and getting in exchange the permission to put a second floor on top of his rooms, and using one of them for three years. In 2008 we added a new room, buying the workshop of the fitter who had given the land in the beginning. On the 22nd of December, 2009, the school was razed down to the ground again by a fire outbreak that started around 400m from the school and spread vastly to reach our school, reducing to ashes more than 2,000 structures. In January 2010 we started rebuilding with a lot of help from people of the City of God and from other parts of Accra and at the end of the following month the school was reopened fully. This time as ali our neighbours we rebuilt in blocks, but with only one floor, so with less space and rooms more uncomfortable for the heat and poor ventilation.
At the moment the school offers six classes at primary level and basic computer literacy. It is not easy to attend classes after a day full of toil and sweat, overcaming the temptation far easy rest and enjoinment that the slum offers, but every evening around 60/70 young people attend (there were more with the former structure); the teachers are from the slum, they get a monthly bonus, paid mostly through the daily fees collected from the students. Sornetirnes volunteers from our parishes of Accra help in the teaching, like Nana Peprah, who started the computer programme. I feel that to give the possibility of basic education is to give the grace to grow in self-esteem and in the dignity of children of God. More than 3,000 students have passed through the school, some for years and some for just few days. They belong to different tribes (we have counted more than 80) and religious groups; classes are also moments of fraternity and friendship. The students themselves suggested the name “Peace” for the school. The school is also an opportunity for human and skill formation. Outside classes the school is used by students of primary, secondary or tertiary level for private studies.
4. PEACE FIRE VOLUNTEERS
Among the big problems of the City of God is the recurrence of fire outbreaks. Thanks to a donation from the group of the Fire-fighters Volunteers from the town of Tres, Italy we were equipped with a small portable water-pomp; we had our ‘baptism of fire’ one night in 2008 when we put off a fire-outbreak in our neighbourhood. At the end of 2008 we started a group of fire fighters volunteers, with a core group of our students, but trying to involve more and more people from the whole community. Mr Niiquaye, from the Ghana National Fire Service, has made himself available to help us for the training of volunteers and for educating and mobilizing the community far fire prevention and fire fighting; we meet and train every fortnight on Sunday afternoon. We helped put out twelve fire outbreaks, half of them supporting the Fire Service personnel, as a kind of first aid while waiting for the GHFS, the other half we put them out single-handedly. A painful moment was on 22nd December 2009 when our school, and so our ‘Fire Station’, got burned down. The fire started around 12:30pm around 400m from the school, almost near to the lagoon; we went there with our fire fighting machine to help. The Ghana Fire Service came quickly to help, and after a long battle we thought that the fire was under control, not knowing that pushed by the strong breeze it was moving just in the direction of the area of our school. When finally we got to know, we ran back only to see the fire around the school; we tried to stop it. we were able to do it, but just after the school got completely burnt. The day after a delegation from a mosque that we saved from the fire came to thank us and they met our piace in ashes.
Since 2008 we have trained more than 100 people, but because of the high mobility of the area, al the moment very tew of them are stililiving here and we have found difficult lo get new volunteers; our service is well appreciated by the community, ready to dap hands far US, but so mean in offering voluntary service. We have just received a second portable pomp machine and some equipment, we have approached OFADA (Old Fadama Development Association), an association of leaders of the community, to build a second group of fire fighters in a different area of the slum, so as to be present in different parts of the slum, 50 as to be nearer to the site of possible fire outbreaks and to try to involve the community.
5. PEACE CRAFT
Young girls are among the most vulnerable in the City of God, and we telt that skill training could offer an opportunity for capacity building. In 2007 we started a pilot project with few girls and in 2008 we announced our offer of training in beads weaving (making rosaries, key holders, bracelets, bangles … ). The first day saw a memorable fight among the girls, between sex workers and non, both wanting to be the sole beneficiaries of the project; going ahead the target for the training became pregnant girls and girls with babies, people vulnerable because of the difficulty to find a daily income. Going on we felt the need to continue adding more human and management formation and skill training in other areas, and getting more helpers; Henrietta, a volunteer from St Francis of Assisi Rectorate, Awoshie-Anyaa, after completed the University managed the project for one year (2011). Sr Eugenia Paidoo, HHCJ, with the help of Sr Justine first and now Sr Jacinta, has been coming to meet the girls and offer counselling and human formation; last year the nurses who volunteered for our Health Programme also helped in offering counselling and health service. The duration of the training varies according to the situation of the girls, the average is one year; but, as for ali our activities, there is a great mobility. The timetable is Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 3.00pm. The students get a daily bonus on every item they produce, but the school saves what is above 4.00GHC as a capital for the trainee given on completion of the course. The revenue of the project is the selling of the items produced. And more and more people are helping in procuring market. In this, since 2012, a great help has been offered by Teresians International.
6. PEACE KIDS
For a long ti me we didn’t have any specific programme for children, even though there was a great need for it; children kept coming to the school, mainly for group studies; we tried to help them, also through the assistance of some catholic youth, but without a constant programme. In March 2011 Sr Eileen Mc Grath, FMM, who was involved in education in the Vendi Diocese and has been transferred to Accra, offered her service for the education of the children of the City of God. She has done a great job combing the area getting in contact with children not going to school and their parentsjguardians, and then running classes for them with the aim of preparing them for the insertion in the formai education, with the help of local teachers. With thanksgiving we are seeing the first fruits of their work, with 18 children inserted in the formai education and many more coming. Classes start at 9.00am and dose at 2.00pm. From 4:00pm to 6:00pm we offer the possibility of studies to school children; one of our volunteers, Rudolphe, now in formation with the Redemptorists. put good foundations to this programme. at the moment we make available and sponsor one teacher. With 2013 Bro Joseph Contessi, OFMConv, has started to come with Nicholas, a volunteer trom St Francis of Assisi Rectorate, to come and help in arganizing a programme far children.
7. PEACE HEALTH COMMUNllY PROCRAMME
Health care is another need of the area, many times the health system is approached only as the last solution. We have promoted the NHIS, since 2008 once or twice a year we invite officers from the scheme to our school to present the scheme and to register people. We contribute a little in bearing the cost; some needy people were sponsored entirely by uso In 2010 we started health education with some talk on health issues to our night students, especially with the help of a catholic nurse, Joyce. From February 2011 she also volunteered to come every Friday for a programme of counselling and basic treatment; in 2012 another nurse, Gifty, has started her presence other two days a week. We need to strengthen the programme through more publicity and presence in the community and more links with institutions outside (e.g. government institutions and programmes, CHAG … ).
On the 15th of Aprii 2013 I handed over the project of the City of God to Fr Subash, Missionary of Charity. It is a moment of grace and growth having new people involved in the ministry of the City of God, carrying on the work and bringing in new ideas and new gifts. I thank God that the Archbishop of Accra and many people in the Archdiocese, prlests.jeligious and lay people and my franciscan brothers, carry in the heart the City of God and its people. A piace considered at the margins of society is becoming through the work of the Spirit part of the Body of Christ, where he shares his healing Word; it is becoming the City of God.