The "Working in Ghana" Project

Room Cleaner/Shoe Mender

["Bombay" has worked as a general laborer with a government training institute for the past 27 years. In his early fifties, he lives with his wife and five of their nine children in one room in Madina, a suburb of Accra. Bombay has not attended school. To supplement his limited income he has set up a shoe repair service in front of the house where he stays. He also has a small cassava and maize farm outside of town. Bombay spoke with Philip Awekeya in the Gurune language, under the shed where he does shoe repairs.]

When I first got this job I was very happy because in those days there was money in government work. I was paid less than one cedi a day, but I could afford to eat decent meals and drink palm wine or pito (a local alcoholic drink) at the close of each day's work or on Sundays. These days things have changed a million times. Now I cannot afford to take my usual five o'clock or Sunday palm wine or pito.

I leave the house about six in the morning to beat traffic. By seven-thirty I am at my work place. As soon as I arrive I go straight to the porter's lodge to report, so that my name is marked, and to collect the keys for the various offices, bathrooms, bedrooms and the lecture halls.

You may wonder what laborer has to do with keys. Though I am known as a laborer in the institute, I am assigned to cleaning and tidying up the offices and lecture halls. I do not use the pick axe, neither do I use the shovel, as some laborers do. My main tools are the broom, old towel, and hard brush for scrubbing the bath houses. Normally after sweeping I dip an old towel into water, squeeze it out. and use it to dust all my master's office furniture. I also wipe water in the bathrooms. When any of the rooms is infested with cobwebs I use the long brush to get rid of them.

I certainly do not like what I am doing now. It is boring and I never exercise myself. I see it as women's work. I have complained several times to the chief porter of the institute to put me in areas where I could use my physique. For example, I have asked him to change me to the hooking crew (men who cut grass and underbrush with a long knife), which I like because it would make me sweat each day. As a man if you do not do hard work you will become weak early. I do not want that to happen to me; otherwise who will care for my little children? Well, the head porter has reasons for putting me in charge of general cleaning. He tells me I have seniority and therefore need to do light work, and that it would be improper for me to do hooking while the younger ones do the sweeping and tidying of the offices.

Sometimes I get angry and feel like quitting my job. Although I perform my duties, officers sometimes complain to the chief porter that I have not dusted or swept their office properly. Such complaints make me upset because I am twice as old as most of the officers. Yet they have the guts to complain about my work. Because I lack formal education I have to swallow my pride and prepare the offices for them.

Although I am unhappy with the job, I have to keep at it. It is better than doing nothing and certainly better than stealing. I swear that if I ever have another life to live I will not take a laborer's job. It is a foolish business. You do all the odd jobs for your master and get no reward. All that you get is undeserved criticisms. My children will never go into this kind of work. I will do all within my limited means to see them through school so that some day they will have white collar jobs and pay back my sufferings.

My only resting days are Sundays. I do feel happy with one thing: I get off work at about two in the afternoon. From about two to about six in the evening, I am found under this shed carrying out shoe repair work which brings me extra money. Sometimes I go to my small farm near here. These two extra jobs help me earn extra income and foodstuffs. Otherwise I would have suffered.

I relate well to my direct supervisor at the institute, the chief porter. I sometimes work on his farm on Sundays for free. I also bring his shoes and those of his children to this shop to mend and return to him. I do not charge him. All these services help soften his heart towards me, so he usually ignores the officers' complaints that I have not done my work well. I relate well to my fellow laborers. Most of them regard me as their father and give me respect.

If there is anything good about my job, it is the transport provided. Every morning the bus comes around to take me and other workers to work. But as for pay and accommodation, everybody is aware that we laborers are more or less slaves. We do the most menial jobs yet get little pay. And no one ever dreams of housing us or giving us rent allowances so we can hire decent rooms. All there is for me and fellow laborers is perpetual suffering with our families because the pay is woefully inadequate. Just imagine giving me 800 cedis (at that time, about $1.60) a day to care for my six member household!

We laborers belong to an organization called T.U.C. (Trade Union Congress). I do not know what it is about or what it is doing for us. If it is there to save the interest of workers then it is probably helping the big officers and the clerks. As for the laborers, no one cares about us. Everything about us is unthinkably bad. Low pay, no allowance of any kind, yet we do the donkey work in this country simply because our parents failed to send us to school some years back.

Given the low pay and lack of incentives to spur us on to work--except just hang on for a few peanuts--it is not surprising that my family is not too happy with what I am doing. They wish I had a job which could bring in enough money to provide for their needs. They wish I were a butcher or a seller of such things like second-hand clothing instead of being a laborer. Sometimes my wife advises me to quit and go to full time farming in the forest area so that the family could be assured of a sufficient food supply.

I agree with my family and with my wife's suggestion of going into farming. However, I am only beating time to do about three more years with my employers in order to qualify for a pension. Then I will go into farming.

Despite my low status as a laborer, I am known by most people within this locality. Both young and old know me as the shoe repairer. Many people visit this shop with their shoe or sandal problems and are satisfied with my work. No shoe or sandal comes to this shop without receiving proper care. These days some people, especially children, jokingly refer to this shop as the "shoe hospital." I feel very happy with this extra job because it not only helps augment my meager income, it has also helped make me popular within this locality.