Where there's smoke...
Ghanaian firefighter Sam Sowah Oblejumah with one of his station’s ageing fire trucks. Photo by Sarah-Jane Steele.
By Sarah-Jane Steele
“When there is a fire, we follow our nose and we find it."
That’s how firefighter Sam Sowah Oblejumah explains how Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) firefighters respond to emergency calls in Accra. I’m shocked.
I grew up in a household with a fireman father. A father who grounded me if I burnt candles in my room. A father who doused our campfires not once but thrice on summer holidays. A father who couldn’t sleep at night when he didn’t get to a fire in time to save a house. I can only imagine how he’d feel knowing an entire city block burnt down on his watch, something firefighters in Accra face regularly.
Firefighters here are starved for resources to assist them with the bush, home and market fires they’re called to extinguish. While some people dismiss the fire department as lazy, most GNFS firefighters are determined to do their jobs well, but cannot secure the support they need from the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) to do so.
“It’s a problem,” Oblejumah says in his raspy voice. I resist asking if his voice has been altered from inhaling too much smoke—you’re lucky if you get a gas mask to battle fires here.
Throughout Ghana, villages and cities are dotted with fires burning unabated. Piles of hot garbage steam on the roadside in sewer gutters, silently hissing as plastic and other waste sizzle. Many houses in Accra, especially in the slums, are made of combustible material—wood, cardboard or grass—making it easy for these roadside bonfires to extend beyond the city’s gutters.
“I joined the GNFS because I wanted to save the lives of people in slums,” Oblejumah says. He doesn’t always get his way. “City planners do not enforce building laws here; you can burn where you want to burn and build with whatever materials you can fashion a house with.”
And the slum dwellers aren’t to blame, according to him. “It’s not their fault they need to build with old wood that sparks easily, it’s not their fault they cook with open fires. They have nothing, and fire is what keeps them alive.”
Accra’s slums are not designed with proper city blocks, instead they are made up of scattered piecemeal constructions, so reaching fires becomes nearly impossible. "We can’t get to the people who need it most with our trucks,” Oblejumah says. The AMA doesn’t require houses to have proper addresses either, the result of weak legislation, and so fire trucks are forced to navigate the labyrinths of the slums, often resulting in lost lives. “Someone will call 192,” he says, referring to the emergency number. “They’ll say, ‘there’s a fire next to the post office’ and they’ll simply tell us to wait until we see or smell smoke.”
And what they face if they finally do reach a fire poses another barrier: “Imagine trying to squeeze a huge fire truck down a lane no wider than this office,” he laments, standing in a 600-square-foot space that is about as narrow as a walk-in closet. “It’s impossible. As a result, the city burns from time to time.”
Oblejumah says he can’t do his job without proper financial support from the AMA. “They are the ones to blame,” he says. “The only time we receive monetary assistance from them is when a prominent government building burns.”
He may be right. The AMA suddenly became quite generous, handing over resources from the United Kingdom, America and India, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Accra burned down last year. They promised 30 new trucks along with $50 million USD. (Though neither has come through yet. Oblejumah and his colleagues at Accra’s seven other fire stations are still waiting for the promised resources.)
Nonetheless, Oblejumah is proud of his department. They have a sizeable intake of female firefighters, 30 this year, and have recently garnered recognition for their impressive road rescue operations. The number of lives saved this year has earned GNFS an award from the World Rescue Organization in the U.K.
As we chat, Oblejumah walks me through the truck bay. He does a single jumping jack in front of an archaic truck, one of the few functioning in Accra. It's an old Betsy of a thing, and he looks a bit ashamed of it, though his dedication persists.
“We are firefighters, if we have to, we’ll follow our nose to protect human lives,” he repeats. “The rest is up to the powers that be. Now take a photo of me I front of this nice truck.”
I oblige, and think of how good my father had it.