A former dust track

by Salifu Abdul-Rahaman

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

It’s not long ago that the Fufulso-Sawla Road, which connects the cities of Fufulso and Sawla in Northern Ghana, was notorious among locals. The cars that navigated the 150 kilometre gravel track regularly broke down and the people wore masks to cover their nostrils and mouths from the clouds of dust generated by vehicles that plied ahead.

Residents like Sule Osman remember this time all too well: “In the past, if you asked someone to travel on the road, it was like you were punishing them in hell,” he said. And the economy suffered from the deterioration if the Fufuslo-Sawla Road as well. Since the stretch linked the three northern economic centres, namely Tamale, Damongo and Wa, the state of the road determined the state of the region and the local people.

For quite some time, farmers in the area were stuck in perpetual poverty with limited Road access to markets. That meant foodstuff went rotten on the farms. At the same time, teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers were reluctant to live in the communities along the road. As a result, there was a lack of adequate schools and a reliable energy supply, maternal mortality was highest in the region and the Guinea worm, a water-borne disease, was prevalent.

Today, much of this is inconceivable for someone traveling along the new Fufuslo-Sawla Road. Along its sides, the “kibe biche”, local hawkers and traders, sell their goods and at the junctions at Fufulso, Damongo and Sawla and traffic jams are now common. Even at night women and girls take advantage of the new street lights to sell fried yam and fish, eggs, khebbab (roasted meat), ice water, canned and bottled beverages.

The remarkable transformation has been possible thanks to a 150 million euro grant, made available to the Government of Ghana in 2013 by the African Development Bank for the rehabilitation of national infrastructure. Besides the restoration of the “central corridor”, linking of the port city with Tamale and Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, most of the money was used to revive the Fufulso-Sawla Road. But instead of channeling most of the money into road work, the government used it to also modernize the social infrastructure of the adjoining communities.

In communities like Fufuslo, Sawla, Kojope and Damongo there is now not only a modern road, but also new hospitals and schools. In the Savannah region, for example, local hospital staff is relieved that locals finally get better health care: “With new solar-powered fridges, we are now able to store essential vaccines and other medical consumables”, a community health nurse says. And the life of the local kids has changed as well. Whereas in the past they had to be taught outside, in what many refer to as “schools under trees”, there are now a couple of new school-buildings. Sule Osman, who also lives in the Savannah region, has noticed the change as well: “When you pass through the road, you see a beautiful school, a beautiful clinic, a beautiful market shed, portable water and electricity,” he enthused.

Travel time between Fufulso and Sawla has been cut from about five hours to less than two hours by the modernization of the street. Major corporations such as Unilever, Guinness Ghana and Fan Milk, which are based in the cities of Accra and Kumasi, can now transport their products for the first time along the Fufulso-Sawla route. Food such as yam and cereals is now delivered from the north of the country to the southern regions of Ghana and the Sahel without complications. According to an assessment report by the Ghana Highway Authority, the government’s implementing agency, the modernization of the road has “transformed the lives of communities and provided basic services including access to clean drinking water, quality service for health and education.”

In spite of the undeniable successes of the project, this assessment of the Ghanaian government authority cannot be left completely unchallenged. While it is true that the region has profited greatly from the opening of the new Fufulso-Sawla Road, the expansion of the road has also led to problematic and unexpected consequences.

One negative side effect of the new link includes a spike in accidents. Many see the newly built stretch as an invitation to speed. At the same time, the Fufulso-Sawla Road has also become the site of an increasing amount of armed robberies. Lately, the Ghanaian police have therefore upped their presence in the region. And apart from that, many people in the region are doubtful about the future of the former gravel road – for example the mayor of the West Gonja District, Saeed Muhazu Jibril, who recently expressed concern that only three years after the completion of the project, the stretch between Damongo and Sawla is already deteriorating again.

And indeed it remains to be seen what the future holds for the Fufulso-Sawla Road. Shoddy work and ineffective governmental supervision as well as wasteful spending have a long history in Ghana when it comes to the construction of public infrastructural projects. But even if the renovated stretch will decay once more into gravel and dust, for now, Northern Ghanaians are rejoicing about the road that transformed their lives. 

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