Behind gates, Ghanaians discover a new way of living
TEMA, Ghana (Reuters) - In pastel-coloured houses flanked by tidy strips of lawn, Ghana's emerging middle class is discovering a way of living tailored for those who seek privacy, security and a ready-made community -- behind gates.
The rise in so-called gated communities reflects not only a growing affluence among some in this West African state, but a trend for urban Africans to live in smaller family units away from the gaze -- and financial demands -- of the extended family.
"I love the community because it is quiet," Norman Williams, a 42-year-old sales and marketing manager, said of the Devtraco Courts project in Tema, 16 miles (25 km) east of the capital Accra, where he purchased a house 10 months ago.
"You have your privacy and live with people you can relate to. It's not like you have shoemakers or people that are far below your social strata," said Williams, who lives with his wife, an insurance company employee, and their three children.
While crime is Ghana is no worse than in many African countries, Williams has no doubt about the main reason he moved there -- the 24-hour watch provided by on-site security guards.
"I lived in an area called Sakumono where there were squatters," Willams said. "Too many squatters breed criminality, and there were stray animals and street pets."
The last year has been a heady one for the Ghanaian economy. The start of commercial oil production in December 2010 will help propel economic growth to around 14 percent this year, one of the highest rates in the world.
While poverty remains ever-present, a statistical revision of the size of the domestic economy last year secured Ghana the status of "lower-middle-income" nation, allowing it to join the ranks of countries such as Morocco or Macedonia.
NEW PROFESSIONAL CLASS
Amazingly for a country which is the world's second largest producer of cocoa, the services sector now accounts for the bulk of gross domestic product with a 51.4 percent share last year.
Godwin Arku, assistant professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario, has plotted the rise of Ghana's gated communities since the early 2000s and links much of the growth to the emergence of a well-paid professional class, particularly in banking.
"Most of them are educated university graduates and some of them have been to school abroad," Arku said. "Their overall lifestyle is different and they have access to technology, cars, and houses."
The Ghana Real Estate Developers Association estimates there are least 24 housing estates in development in Accra and the Greater Accra region, of which Tema is part, ranging from 400-house estates to smaller projects of 12-20 houses.
While some are snapped up as investments by non-resident Ghanaians, developers say they want to attract a middle-class buyer with two-bedroom houses on sale for as little as $35,000.
For some of the customers, it is not just about acquiring a house but buying into a tailored community and new lifestyle.
Anthony Safo, director of Corporate Affairs and Marketing for Devtraco Estates, said construction would start there early next year on a dedicated shopping mall, a school from nursery through to junior high school and a police station.
"They will also build a recreation facility and a church, so that somebody could live in the community and not have to leave the community," he said of a project which will be the first of its kind.
"The Ghanaian traditional family is an extended family set-up ... The gated communities and the kind of unit that we put up are more geared towards a nuclear family."
DOING IT FOR THE CHILDREN
Such a shift is potentially revolutionary. In Africa, where welfare state provision is weak and formal employment scarce, extended families with dozens of members often rely on one or two wage-earners for income and even a roof over their heads.
"In the gated community where I live, I hardly see extended family units," said Williams.
"So living here, financial responsibility is minimised and social responsibility towards them is also minimised and you are free to visit them and they are free to visit you."
While that could allow the new middle-class to flourish as they feel free to use their income to buy private education for their children, better healthcare or new cars, many are still ill-at-ease about embracing Western-style individualism.
James Ejorna, 31, who runs his IT services business from home, began renting a house in Devtraco Courts almost a year ago to get more privacy and security.
"One thing that bothers me a lot about living in this neighbourhood is that everybody is confined in his house," he admitted.
"You don't socialize. It's like 'hello' and then you walk away. But where I grew up, a different woman living in another house could hit you for doing something wrong. That cordiality doesn't exist in this particular community."
Ejorna's wife Justina feels the same way, but thinks living in a gated housing community will help her discipline their two young boys aged five and two.
"I don't like it, but I have to do it for some time until my children grow up," she said.
"In some communities you see smokers and ruffian guys, but in this place everybody's children are disciplined ... This is a place you could bring up a child to be somebody."
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