CHILDREN OF THE STREET by Kwei Quartey
is a perfect place for murder,” says a character in my novel CHILDREN OF
THE STREET (COTS). Fiction the work may be, but the statement is the
Accra is the capital of Africa’s west coast nation of Ghana, where my
Darko Dawson novels are set. It’s also the place I called home up until
the age of about eighteen. My African American mother and Ghanaian
father were both university lecturers at the University of Ghana, where
life was admittedly privileged and mostly idyllic. After my dad’s death
from pancreatic cancer followed by my brush with Ghana’s military regime
at the time, my mother decided we’d had enough upheaval. With my brother
and me in tow, she moved back to New York, the city of her birth.
Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is with the Criminal Investigations
Department (CID), a section of the Ghana Police Service. In COTS, he’s
after a cunning, ruthless killer who chooses his victims from the tough,
sometimes brutal world of street children. These kids, a growing social
difficulty in many urban areas of Ghana and other developing countries,
range from infants to teenagers. They come from rural areas, yes, but
the newest generation consists of children born in the urban streets.
They are there at the beginning of their lives. From a young age, they
take on menial jobs like sweeping, carrying market produce or luggage,
cleaning out latrines, and selling miscellaneous cheap items on the
street. Waiting for some form of work to come their way, they congregate
in areas of commerce, particularly open marketplaces.
I became interested in the phenomenon of Accra’s street children when I
returned to Ghana in 2008 for the first time in my twenty years of being
away in the States. As I was researching my first novel, WIFE OF THE
GODS (WOTG), I took notice of boys and young men everywhere throughout
the city doggedly pushing four-wheeled carts loaded with scrap metal and
objects sometimes as large as entire car chassis and engine blocks.
They’re called “truck pushers and they tend to be in their late teens to
twenties. Even as I was busy finishing the final drafts of WOTG, I was
thinking about a second novel with Ghana’s street children at its
center. In March 2010, some nine months after the release of WOTG, I was
back in Ghana to explore the world of street children in Accra, the
nation’s largest city. Unlike the research for the first novel, which
was more oblique in some ways, contact with these real kids was readily
available. A number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) facilitated
my access to street kids, giving me the opportunity to hang out with
them, interview them, and visit some of their refuges, Catholic Action
for Street Children being the most prominent of these.
It wasn’t as depressing as I had expected. Children all over the world
are irrepressible regardless of their living conditions. Homeless,
living on less than 65 cents a day, victims of assault, robbery, and in
the case of girls, rape, the Accra street kids I met were boisterous,
good-humored and full of beans. Bearing testament that “child DNA” must
be the same all over the world, these children are crazy about computers
and video games. Where and how did they have access to these? In certain
sections of Accra, you can find small kiosks with video game consoles –
essentially miniature arcades. Sitting in a long row on one or two
wooden benches, the kids crowd into the kiosk to rent video games in
10-minute chunks. Because cash is short, a pair or trio of boys may pool
resources and share one game controller, passing it back and forth to
These are the street children tourists and well-off Ghanaians alike pass
by every day in air-conditioned vehicles either without a thought or
with the thought that these kids are unemployed layabouts. One doesn’t
feel quite that way after having met them. They become all too human,
As you read COTS, you may wonder which of my descriptions are real. The
answer is practically all of them. They are lifted directly from what I
witnessed in Accra, including actual locations and street names. The
street children characters are invented, but they don’t stray that far
from real ones.
The murder in my novel is what is made up. Or is it? I’m not absolutely
sure. Late one night in March 2010, I explored after-hours Accra. We are
talking about midnight, one and two o’clock in the morning. For my
safety, I went with my friend Frank, a detective lance corporal in CID
who knows all the spots.
Apart from clusters of brightly lit areas such as the nightclub hubs,
much of Accra is deeply, impenetrably dark and eerily still. Frank and I
went on foot through the city. At one point, in a cul-de-sac along a
street called Knutsford Avenue, Frank headed off a roughneck who was
approaching us in a menacing manner. Often alone in my travels, I don’t
think I’ve ever been so glad to have someone by my side.
I saw homeless children and adults in the hundreds sleeping on bare
pavement. But there was something else much more chilling that I
noticed: here and there under a bush or tucked into a dark alcove near a
shuttered store or office was the odd person sleeping by him or herself
away from the rest of the pack. That’s when the hair on my neck stood up
and I thought, this is a perfect city for murder. It’s not just the
darkness of Accra’s night. There’s one other fact that will make you
understand why I had this disturbing thought. False urban legend or not,
there is a prevailing belief in Ghana that if you report a murder to the
police, you are likely to be arrested for the crime. Let’s imagine
you’re living in Accra, and you witness a murder being committed. You
call the police, right? Wrong. You’re thinking like an American. Think
like a Ghanaian.
Let’s turn the tables around. Now you are a killer on the hunt in Accra.
You move silently in the still of the night while the city is in
slumber. Like a lion that strikes down a zebra foal straying from the
herd, you can snatch a vulnerable, isolated street kid and get away with
murder. Who’s going to report it? No one cares about some worthless
street child from a godforsaken village.
Objection, your honor. There is one person who cares. His name is
Dawson. Darko Dawson.
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