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Mentoring media managers in South Sudan: starting conversations, finding solutions

By: Ron Waksman

Six days is just long enough to absorb the initial shock of arriving in Africa, an experience that is an all-out assault on all of your senses. My 22-hour journey ended when my Ethiopian Airlines Q400 bounced hard then settled on a crumbling runway that would likely be closed to air traffic anywhere else in the world. I stepped off the Bombardier-made plane that delivered me from Addis Ababa and inhaled a breath of 41 degree Celsius air. Exhausted and completely out of my element, I did what most of the passengers on my flight did, blindly follow other people who seemed to know their way across the chaotic ramp.

Jets at Juba Airport (Ron Waksman/JHR)

In Juba, the planes are parked like they used to be parked on game nights in the lot across from Maple Leaf Gardens, no one leaves until the guy blocking you decides to leave. I confess to being an aviation geek. If they made an air freshener or a cologne that smelled like jet fuel I’d buy it. Which is why I almost got whiplash on my way to the terminal after I spotted a dozen or so incredible Soviet-era heavy-lift cargo aircraft that I’ve only ever seen in pictures on the internet. They only fly in Africa where the climate helps preserve them and emissions standards are well, shall we say, more relaxed.

I was warned weeks before I left that people in South Sudan don’t like having their picture taken. That apparently goes double for soldiers and security officials. As I stared at these cold war era relics, I reflexively raised my camera and pointed it in the direction of the nearest Ilyushin-76. All I could think about was showing the pictures to my eldest son who is in training to become a commercial pilot.

Six days is one of JHR’s shorter ‘missions’ to Africa, but after clicking the shutter just a couple of times I came this close to becoming the first JHR trainer to arrive and be deported in under four minutes.  A 7-foot tall security officer came up behind me and yanked me backward by the camera strap so hard I almost fell to the ground. In broken English, with angrily contorted facial expressions and a death grip on my camera strap he fully intended to take my camera away. The journalist in me took over as I regained my footing and got into a tug of war with the security giant as he barked demands to know who gave me permission to take pictures. I muttered something about being an aviation enthusiast just trying to take pictures of rare Russian aircraft. For some reason that was lost on him.

Just then, the jet lag, oppressive heat and adrenaline released control of my senses long enough for me to have an ‘aha’ moment. It occurred to me that not every one of these vintage Russian cargo jets was toting powdered milk and flour, some of them, without registrations, were likely hauling weapons. In South Sudan everyone has access to an AK-47, including traffic cops.

Lucky for me, a U.N. peacekeeper from Uganda came to my rescue. The Ugandans are responsible for perimeter security at the airport. The soldier defused the situation by telling the South Sudanese security officer that I would happily erase all the images I shot, so there was no need to take the camera away. At least I think that’s what he said, because just then the security officer released his grip on the camera strap. DSLR cameras have electronic menus you call up on the LED screen in back of the camera. I brought up the menu for erasing images and showed the security officer that I had put the cursor right over the ‘erase all images’ function. Funny thing about DSLR cameras, it’s not enough to move the cursor, you also have to press enter. Thankfully, I was able to capture at least a couple of the rare Soviet aircraft to show to my son when I got home.

After I got past security on the ramp, my next stop was the Ebola testing table where I waited for 15 minutes to fill out a declaration that I didn’t come into contact with Ebola on my way from Toronto. It’s a funny thing, if you wait in the blazing hot sun for 15-20 minutes just about everyone will register a fever when they stick a thermometer in your ear.

I was met at the airport by Grant McDonald, the JHR rep on the ground in Juba. Grant is the right guy for the job. Cool as a cucumber and connected to everyone, he greeted me and arranged for a driver to meet us outside the terminal. I was so relieved that my bags actually made it from Toronto through Addis Ababa and to Juba that I didn’t mind the 30 minute wait for the driver. Grant understood what arriving in Juba must feel like to a white middle-aged guy from suburban Toronto. He put me at ease right away handing me a local cell phone so I could call home and let my family know that I hadn’t been eaten by a hyena. For many people, going to see The Lion King is the extent of their African experience. I was no different.

Everyone in Juba knows and respects Grant, from the Canadian ambassador to the local stringers and NGO representatives. Grant organized the two-day JHR event and I believe almost everyone showed up as a result of the great work he’s been doing there. I couldn’t have asked for a better host, organizer and fixer. He even arranged for some sightseeing, with very little photography, and made sure I brought home some real African souvenirs. BTW, you can transport tribal spears in your checked baggage.

Challenging roads in Juba, South Sudan. (Robin Pierro/JHR)

South Sudan – the world’s newest country – lags far behind most of Africa in economic development, human rights, the establishment of legitimate government institutions, a transparent judiciary and the emergence of a free press. Infrastructure is almost non-existent. The roads were among the most challenging dirt tracks I had ever seen. Very few are paved and the ones that are have to be evacuated when the President drives by.  Most roads in Juba are just reddish brown dust with embedded rocks, boulders or potholes holes that require drivers to move over to the other side of the street to get by or drive carefully over the obstacles. Vehicle suspensions need to be replaced often.

There is no power grid, you either have a diesel generator or you have no power. There are periods when the generators are shut down, like over the lunch hour. There is no system of delivering drinking water to the citizens. That’s why one of the first things you notice when you move around Juba, the capital city, is that the country is literally knee deep in light blue plastic water bottles. This is by no means an exaggeration, they are everywhere. Think of Tim Horton’s cups and other fast food litter multiplied a thousand times. Bottled water is the only water people have to drink unless they collect rainwater in rooftop tanks.

Diesel exhaust hangs heavy in the air, a situation exacerbated by the generators, large trucks and thousands of three seat mini-bikes that weave and dodge their way through traffic. On my final morning in Juba I was visiting a radio station for a couple of hours, when my driver didn’t show up to take me back to Logali House where I was staying. I was so afraid of missing my flight that I suspended all good sense and accepted a ride on one of these crazy motor bikes driven by a complete stranger. It was 5 minutes of sheer terror and easily one of the dumbest things I have ever done.

There is something in South Sudan that makes all the other conditions I’ve described tolerable, and that is the warmth and optimism of the South Sudanese people.

Ron Waksman in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

Ron Waksman at the Juba Telegraph. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

In South Sudan everyone shakes hands, a common and polite greeting everywhere in the world. But you notice almost immediately that handshakes in Juba linger just a couple of seconds longer than the North American or European comfort zones allow. In South Sudan, a handshake is not just a formality when people greet each other for the first time. Even people who know each other shake hands warmly when they meet again. The handshake is always accompanied by a welcoming smile and eye contact that engages you. After a couple of days in Juba, I also started to linger when I shook hands. People are genuinely interested in who you are and where you come from.

My JHR mission was different in a number of ways. Instead of the great work JHR staff do in training local journalists to do their jobs more effectively through various techniques and strategies, I was in South Sudan to work specifically with more senior media managers including publishers and managing editors. This was the first time senior media managers were assembled by JHR for this kind of training. Based on the discussions and ideas that came out of the two-day sessions, I hope JHR will continue along this path if for no other reason than to get all these senior people into one room on a regular basis to discuss solutions to common issues.

There are a multitude of seminars and training programs offered by media agencies from around the world in South Sudan. My focus on day-one was to reinforce important journalistic principles that are absolutely necessary for the development of democratic institutions and good governance. We spent some time discussing who in society journalists are supposed to represent. The concept of reporting news in the ‘public interest’ has not really taken hold yet in a country where most citizens don’t give much thought to a free press that is supposed to represent their views and hold those in power accountable. There is even a segment of society in South Sudan that takes the government’s position that any criticism at all of ministers and officials is tantamount to treason and not in the interest of peace. It’s almost as if the media exists to defend public interest, without the public really being aware of it.

Ron Waksman teaching media managers seminar, Juba - photo credit Grant McDonald

Ron Waksman teaching the media managers seminar in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

I’m very fond of saying that a journalistic principle is not really a principle unless it’s tested every so often. As a basis for discussion, I provided all the media managers with copies of the Global News Journalistic Principles and Practices. I wanted to be very careful about coming across as the ‘Great White Hunter’, there to teach ‘primitive’ South Sudanese journalists about how we do things in Canada.

I learned that while western nations occasionally invoke journalistic standards to address ethical problems, my South Sudanese colleagues live these challenges daily. For them, journalistic independence isn’t an intellectual exercise, it means successfully making it through another broadcast day or publishing another edition of the paper. Instead of lecturing, I felt it was my place to moderate a discussion whereby all the media managers felt assured they were in a safe place where they could honestly express their feelings and frustrations.

Those frustrations had to do with the dedication and commitment of their own journalists, suppression by the government and the sometimes overbearing ideologies of the aid agencies and NGOs that fund them. For much of the discussion the group talked to each other, sharing their experiences and offering solutions. Sometimes there just weren’t any solutions to be had and members of the group just appreciated the opportunity to vent. In listening to their back and forth discussions, it became apparent that for the most part each media outlet was fighting the same battles on their own. The discussion turned to the need for a ‘college’ of journalists that would represent the media industry as whole on common issues. This college would govern journalists in South Sudan by requiring educational/training standards to become a journalist, bestowing official press credentials and serve as a dispute resolution body to handle complaints from the public and government officials. An umbrella organization could also offer ‘safety in numbers’ so that individual media organizations would feel empowered and supported when the government threatened them with reprisals.

Media Managers Seminar, Juba. (Ron Waksman/JHR)

This college of journalists could also be helpful in setting out a new strategy to shift the funding model from individual journalism projects to the overall sustainability of the media industry in South Sudan. In two days of seminars we also looked at whether current media models that operate in South Sudan are sustainable over the long term. One of my observations early on was that the dozens of individual media projects underway in South Sudan may be hurting the industry there as a whole by fragmenting available funding. There are, in my opinion, too many individual journalism projects operating in South Sudan funded by the good intentions of aid and non-governmental organizations. There are too many newspapers, radio stations and TV stations operating in South Sudan as individual journalism projects. These outlets have little autonomy, unable to determine how funding dollars are spent, especially when the money originates with ideologically-driven aid agencies and NGOs. These ideals, and in some cases political agendas, do not necessarily support the goal of overall media sustainability for the future.

One of the important issues I addressed with media managers was whether they would like to have a greater say in determining where and how to invest funding dollars in their own organizations to build them as sustainable businesses. The obvious question was what happens when funding dollars for individual projects run out? Difficult decisions will have to be made in South Sudan about which projects and media outlets have a reasonable chance at succeeding as stand-alone businesses if and when funding dries up, which it inevitably does. That’s why more self-determination in where to invest available funding is so important. It was clear early on that advertising is not likely to be a sustainable model for media in South Sudan. The primary advertiser currently is the government, not commercial businesses. In a country where the government has shut down radio stations for even mild criticism, giving the same officials more economic leverage creates a clear conflict.

South Sudanese medi managers with Ron Waksman (center) after the training workshop. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

One of the strategies we discussed was a ‘media tax’ that would be levied on any and all communications companies licensed to operate in South Sudan. This would include wireless operators, who could also be required to provide push notification and text messaging services as another channel for reaching the audience with news and information. The ‘media tax’ remains an unlikely scenario because there is little motivation for the government to levy such a tax to assist media organizations critical of government services and ministers, more reason to reassess whether the funding given to individual media projects would be better spent on improving the overall sustainability of the media industry.

I thought that one of the most interesting ideas to come from our discussions was the importance of media training, not just for journalists but for government officials.

Ron Waksman and Ambassador Nick Coghlan in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

Ron Waksman and Nick Coghlan, Canadian Ambassador to South Sudan, in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

In South Sudan, Ministers often contradict each other and even the president because there is no consistent messaging. This creates confusion among the population as to who is in charge and leads to policy decisions that create chaos. Government officials would benefit from media training that would teach them why it’s in their best interest to speak with the media instead of avoiding them entirely or retaliating when they are criticized.

If the government had a more sophisticated communications apparatus the flow of information to the public would vastly improve and create more engagement in the political and democratic process. JHR could play a very useful role in educating and training the government on proper communications practice.

Thanks JHR for a life-changing experience. It was an honour and a privilege to work with Grant and the rest of the journalists and managers who attended our seminars.

Ron Waksman is the Director, Online News & Current Affairs, Editorial Standards & Practices at Global News. He travelled to JHR’s program in South Sudan as part of a partnership between JHR and  Global News, with support from Shaw Media.

JHR’s program in South Sudan is generously supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund

 

Rhyming for Rights in Ottawa

JHR’s university chapters are an important part of our mission to make everyone aware of their rights. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a dedicated group of students keep human rights in headlines by hosting great events for students and community members alike.

Emily Fearon takes the stage at JHR Carleton's Rhyme for Rights event. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

Emily Fearon takes the stage at JHR Carleton’s Rhyme for Rights event. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

Until last recently, I was a spoken word poetry virgin. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Spoken word and I had hung-out a bit before, and it was fun, but nothing serious. However, on October 15th, the beginning of a beautiful and hopefully long term relationship blossomed between us.

Journalists for Human Rights Carleton Student Chapter put on their second annual Rhymes for Rights spoken word event. The spoken word night was a fundraiser for JHR’s journalism training in South Sudan. The goal is to help strengthen media in South Sudan so they can report on local and national news. This is just one of many projects JHR runs, and student chapters, like the one at Carleton, support.

The talent on display came from Carleton students and local poets, each exhibiting an awe-inspiring presentation. Many of the poems were centred on love. There were frank conversations about sex, marriage, broken relationships, unrequited love, and even a love poem written about winter. These balanced nicely with the equally passionate poems about human rights issues. Some of the presenters decried racism, poverty, and apathy, and others called for social justice, a renewed interest in women’s rights, and self-confidence. You were hard pressed to find someone in attendance that night who wasn’t moved by at least one poet’s words.

Poet Brandon Wint performs at Rhymes for Rights. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

Poet Brandon Wint performs at Rhymes for Rights. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

The overarching message of the night came from both Kathryn Sheppard and Brandon Wint, the featured speakers. Kathryn had worked at the JHR Head Office in Toronto and on JHR projects overseas. Though she no longer works for JHR, she still spoke proudly of the journalists she met and worked with during her time with the organization. Kathryn believes vehemently in responsible journalism, which entails journalists reporting responsibly, but also extends to journalists holding those in power accountable. The story Kathryn shared was of a foreign government who declared that the stories written by JHR-trained journalists made them work harder. The journalists put pressure on the government and saw their work make a difference in their country. Seeing results like this encourage us and remind us why we do what we do.

Brandon Wint is an acclaimed Ottawa poet who has travelled across the country with his spoken word, teaches poetry writing, and loves cookies. He shared some of his work at Rhymes for Rights, and the audience loved it. Though not a journalist, Brandon declared that the best journalism is motivated by love. Indeed, he shared his life perspective that everything is for and about love. And there’s something to that.

We need to keep storytelling alive, be it through poetry or through journalism or through our love stories.

-By Emily Fearon for JHR Carleton

From refugee camp to radio studio: Onen Walter’s path to human rights media

Onen Walter was not interested in journalism when he was younger. Living in a refugee camp for a decade can make it difficult to plan for the future – let alone a successful one.

Onen Walter and Grant Macdonald, JHR’s team in South Sudan.

Onen was born in 1980 in Pajok, a community in the east corner of South Sudan near the border of Uganda. When he was just three-years-old, the country spiraled into a brutal civil war with the Sudanese government fighting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and Onen’s happy life changed forever.

As the fighting spread across the country, Onen and his family left their town to find safety. Sometimes they crossed the border to Uganda – four days walk from their home. Life was difficult and dangerous.

Onen had learned to be very independent, but when he was fourteen had to grow up even faster. Trapped in a rebel stronghold and unable to escape, Onen was separated from his family.  Isolated and alone, he had to fend for himself as he tried to find his younger brother. After two years on his own, doing his best to avoid the fighting, Onen found safety at a refugee camp in Uganda. To his great joy, he found his younger brother living safely in the camp. The small family was reunited.

Over the next ten years, Onen did whatever kind of work he could to survive, “life wasn’t easy,” he explained. Many days he would spend hours making charcoal and selling it to support himself and his brother.

A change

In 2005, after more than twenty years of fighting, a peace deal was signed in Sudan. In 2011, South Sudan became an independent country.  The next year, Onen returned home, determined to make a new life in his country.

Onen Walter prepares for a JHR training workshop.

Onen Walter prepares for a JHR training workshop.

Onen’s first goal was to get educated. He joined the Free International University of Moldova in 2008, majoring in Ecological Studies. But his studies were cut short when the State Government expelled the university from the country.

Angry at the closure, and with no answers from the government, Onen, and some of his friends decided they needed to do something about it – to become a voice for the voiceless.

Onen’s first introduction to journalism was a course at the Multi-Media Training Center in South Sudan’s captial city  Juba. He learned the basics of radio production from veteran journalists at Juba Radio and he was a natural. Onen had found his calling.

After his training, Onen started working at South Sudan Radio as an Announcer. He also reported for South Sudan TV.  Four years later, Onen became Acting News Editor for 88.4 City FM and eventually became an International Correspondent with Radio France International (RFI) in South Sudan. Onen considers his move to journalism “a blessing.”

Onen is now 34 years-old and a seasoned journalism professional. He is the newest member of JHR’s team and he is using his expertise give back to the media community by to training his South Sudanese journalism colleagues in strong human rights reporting. Onen’s work represents the beginning of the larger ripple effect of JHR training. His training today will reverberate throughout his country for years to come in the form of strong, balanced journalism and upholding human rights.

Reflections from JHR’s first year in Tanzania

In February 2013, we launched JHR’s first program in Tanzania. A year later, JHR Trainer Rosella Chibambo reflects on the impact for students at Saint Augustine University.

This is JHR’s first year at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania, and the university’s journalism program is widely regarded as one of the country’s best.

Located in Tanzania’s Lake Zone region, a hot spot for human rights abuses in the country, SAUT offers students the opportunity to study journalism in a place in regular need of quality human rights reporting.

Members of the Mwanza, Tanzania JHR Student Chapter set up a film shot.

Members of the Mwanza, Tanzania JHR Student Chapter set up a film shot.

JHR’s work at SAUT began with a series of human rights reporting workshops attended by male and female students in almost equal numbers. The students were particularly interested in women and children’s rights, as well as press freedom issues.

In collaboration with the journalism department, local NGOs and media organizations, fellow JHR trainer Roohi Sahajpal, and I are planning a media forum on violence against women. We hope this event will encourage students and local media to look more critically at the impact their reporting has on Tanzanian women and their families.

With the help of SAUT’s Legal and Human Rights centre, I have been further developing human rights curriculum begun by my predecessor, Ashley Koen. The journalism department is currently working to implement a new human rights reporting certificate program at SAUT. Even though it will take well over a year to bring this project to life, staff and students have expressed a sincere desire to strengthen SAUT’s reputation for producing quality human rights reporters. One of my most devoted students, Kamilo Albira, has been working tirelessly over the last few months, to develop an English language human rights radio program to be broadcast on the campus station. This will be the only English program broadcast by the station and will appeal to students coming from outside Tanzania, as well as local students. JHR’s program in Tanzania is generously supported by 

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Mamas know best: an organization in Ghana profits with fair trade

Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Gloria Amanful of Global Mamas working on an order. Ashley Terry, Global News

Gloria Amanful of Global Mamas working on an order. Ashley Terry, Global News

ACCRA & CAPE COAST, Ghana – The Bangladesh factory collapse has forced Canadians to look at their closets a little more closely.

The discovery of Joe Fresh garments in the rubble has also brought renewed calls from NGOs and labour groups to improve conditions for garment workers in the developing world.

Currently, there is no existing fair trade certification program in North America for apparel, only for commodities.

“It started with coffee, then chocolate, sugar… But it’s so expensive for businesses to go through certification so it falls on the producer’s shoulders,” said Carrie Hawthorne, former board member of the Fair Trade Federation, a non-profit based in Washington, DC.

Fair trade screening does exist for apparel, but is entirely voluntary. Expenses to remain “fair trade” increase production costs, putting companies at a competitive disadvantage to those not operating at the same standards.

The only incentive is to appeal to the small market of fair trade consumers. This incentive isn’t enough, for most.

“Can you really keep up with Walmart?” asks Hawthorne, who is now working for a fair trade organization in Ghana called Global Mamas.

This organization might be an exception to the rule. It is a Ghanaian-based clothing company with a formula to trade fairly and make a profit.

“The model that Global Mamas is setting up is to be large scale,” says Hawthorne.

The women involved essentially own their own businesses – each “Mama” is responsible for managing her own finances and hiring help if needed.

This approach means the company is dealing one-on-one with Ghanaian entrepreneurs rather than a company in Bangladesh, for example.

Women are employed in seven different locations in Ghana. The organization provides raw materials and orders for batiking, sewing, bead-making, assembling, weaving and soap-making.

Gloria Amanful, a seamstress in Cape Coast, has been working with Global Mamas for the past nine months. She is saving money to buy land, and is now thinking of buying a knitting machine to expand her business.

Amanful says she is gaining confidence in herself through her work. “Global Mamas has helped me by giving me something for my children and my family,” she said.

It’s something that Global Mamas co-founder Renae Adam said is an advantage of working with women.

“You can be assured they’re going to invest their money in their family,” she said. “Women are definitely the best investment for the betterment of an entire community.”

“They even start employing other women,” said Adam.

Mary Koomson is proof: since she started taking on contracts with the organization, she’s been able to purchase her own plot of land, pay for her niece and nephews to attend school, hired two workers and one apprentice, and is now thinking of expanding her business.

“I want to open a store to make my new things in,” she said.

 

Koomson batiking an order for Global Mamas. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Koomson batiking an order for Global Mamas. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

 

Koomson lives in Cape Coast, and has been working with Global Mamas for five years. She does “batiking,” an ancient process of stamping and dyeing fabric that has been practiced in Ghana for generations.

She said she has benefited from training provided by Global Mamas on fair trade, how to manage your business and how to save money.

The organization was founded in 2003 with six apparel producers in Ghana. It now has over 600 producers and is building a fair trade campus in Ashaiman, just outside of Accra.

Global Mamas hit the $1-million sales mark for the first time in 2012. Adam said that the organization is getting requests from all over the world to establish organizations there, but that Global Mamas will stay in Ghana until, she said, “we’ve helped Ghana to its extent.”

But the Global Mamas model is proving to be a success, according to Adam, in more ways than numbers.

“I think [the fair trade] approach is so amazing to be able to empower people in the workplace. It’s the opposite of what you read about China and other parts of the world.”

Going out in style: Fantasy coffin-makers of Teshie

Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Hello Design Coffin Works display room in Teshie, Ghana. Ashley Terry, Global News

Hello Design Coffin Works display room in Teshie, Ghana. Ashley Terry, Global News

TESHIE, Ghana – Style is a major part of life in Ghana, so much so that Ghanaians take it to the grave.

In Ga culture, coffins are customized to represent the character or the occupation of the person who has passed away.

Families spare no expense in sending their loved ones to the beyond in an airplane, a chicken, a boot, or some other object that held meaning in their life.

Coffins can cost upwards of 2500 Ghanaian cedis (CAN$1250), or more than six times the annual income of the average Ghanaian.

“Death is a very big celebration here because we think when… [the person is] gone, we need to celebrate him for what he was representing in his community,” says Eric Adjetey Anang, a coffin maker in the Accra suburb Teshie.

Like many of the other coffin designers in Teshie, Anang is in the family business. His grandfather Seth Kane Kwei began building custom coffins, or “fantasy coffins,” as they have come to be known, in the 1950s.

Now, Anang owns the Kane Kwei Carpentry Works on a coastal road east of Accra. From this small workshop comes coffins that have been featured worldwide in museums, festivals and commercials.

Anang has just returned from Milan design week, where he displayed some of his work, including a giant Campari bottle.

Carpenters at his workshop in Teshie are busily building 24 pieces to send to Denmark for the Images Festival in August.

He even has a piece on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto – a fish – brought in by curator Sylvia Forni.

“We create it out of the mind,” says Anang when explaining how he plans his designs. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

“We create it out of the mind,” says Anang when explaining how he plans his designs. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Just down the road, coffin competitor Daniel Mensah is building a lion.

A local leader who was courageous and brave has passed away, and his family has asked Mensah to build a coffin to match.

Mensah and his apprentice are shaping the head of the lion-shaped coffin out of wood, and carefully attaching the pieces to the rounded body on another table.

This is one of thousands of coffins that Mensah has created in his 13 years in the profession. He is a mixture of artist and craftsman, shaving pieces off the lion’s head with ease.

“Sometimes you can draw if before,” says Mensah, explaining how he plans his designs. Other times he just starts building, he says.

Linus Mensah, sitting nearby, boasts about the recent works of art his brother has created.

He shows pictures of his former creations: a soccer boot, a hammer, a gun, a ship, a chicken, a camcorder, a stereo, a mobile phone.

“Last was a policeman,” Linus says.

 

Daniel Mensah shows the policeman coffin he made for 2500 cedis (CAN$1250). (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Daniel Mensah shows the policeman coffin he made for 2500 cedis (CAN$1250). (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Daniel says the policeman coffin cost 2500 Ghanaian cedis. Some of the other coffins in the workshop cost between 1000 and 1800 cedis.

“People spend the money because of paying their last respects to their family,” says Samuel Afotey, one of Mensah’s competitors a few minutes down the road.

Coffin-making is Atofey’s family business as well. “I started when I was very young,” he says, explaining that his father, Paa Willie, taught him the tools of the trade.

Afotey has been building coffins for 20 years. He even has designs for what he wants his own coffin to look like, but is keeping them a secret.

For more pictures, go to the original article on Global’s site and scroll to the bottom.

Housing project brings water, sanitation to Amui Dzor slum

Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

The Amui Dzor slum, in Ashaiman, near Tema, Greater Accra. Ashley Terry, Global News

The Amui Dzor slum, in Ashaiman, near Tema, Greater Accra. Ashley Terry, Global News

ACCRA, Ghana – The Amui Dzor housing project towers over the rest of the Ashaiman slum.

The three-storey building houses 31 families, who each pay 75 Ghana cedis (CDN$38) a month for a room.

They have access to bathrooms, showers and kitchens. It is a vastly different lifestyle than those living in the surrounding neighbourhood.

The other slum dwellers of Amui Dzor, near Tema in Greater Accra, live in makeshift wooden homes with no bathrooms or water.

“Looking at the situation, people live in wooden structures, and we thought it has a lot of challenges, drainage issues, fire…” said Halid Alhassan, who manages the commercial toilet attached to the housing project.

In light of these issues, the community agreed to the creation of the housing project in 2009, in collaboration with the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor and the People’s Dialogue on Human Settlement.

The Amui Dzor housing project. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

The Amui Dzor housing project. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

“The house has been given as a loan and they’re supposed to pay in [a] period of ten years,” said Alhassan, referring to the fact that after paying the 75 cedis a month for the room, the occupants will own their small space outright after a decade.

The housing project is a bright spot surrounded by a bleak slum: children play in piles of garbage on the edge of the neighbourhood. Malaria and cholera are rampant. Residents burn their garbage because they can’t pay to have it collected.

Yakubu Akarim moved out of the slum, but still has a business there as a repairman. “A lot of things are happening [that are] really bad, we don’t like it,” he said of his former home, through a translator from his native Twi.

Akarim cites sanitation as one of the major issues. He said people can’t afford to have their trash collected, and that people end up burning it.

Yakubu Akarim. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Yakubu Akarim. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

When asked whether others would want to move out of the slum as he did, Akarim said, “People don’t want to leave, they need the government to give them their 50×50.”

The “50×50” is a reference to land demarcation, or property ownership by people in the slum. “Then they can develop however they want,” he said.

Calls to the Accra Municipal Assembly (AMA) for comment on this story went unanswered at the time of publication, but demarcation of land is being considered by the AMA.

One roadblock is that the land is still owned by the Tema traditional council and the Tema Development Corporation (TDC).

The street outside Akarim’s shop in Amui Dzor. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

The street outside Akarim’s shop in Amui Dzor. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

The AMA has formed a development committee to consider a plan for land demarcation, but wresting control from the current owners has proven difficult.

Tensions between the people of Ashaiman and the TDC go back to 2005, when government and the TDC threatened residents to vacate unauthorized homes or they would be destroyed.

In December 2012, Ashaiman residents threatened to boycott the election if land was not released.

Land ownership remains elusive for the people of the slum, making housing projects like the one in Amui Dzor a viable alternative.

But the housing project is not without its own issues.

“The toilet facilities are not enough,” said project resident Abiba Abdullah, through a translator.

She said that in the mornings, the lineup for the toilets is so long that people end up defecating on themselves or are forced to go outside.

Abiba Abdullah outside the commercial toilets in the Amui Dzor housing project. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Abiba Abdullah outside the commercial toilets in the Amui Dzor housing project. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

The open toilets attract mosquitos, leading to the spread of malaria. Abduallah herself is just getting over her latest bout of the illness.

Another issue, according to Salifu Abdul-Mujeeb of the People’s Dialogue, is mistrust. “People always think you want to take their money,” he said.

Mujeeb said the people of Ashaiman and other slums in Accra are reluctant to move in to project housing that they must pay for, when they live in makeshift slum housing for free.

“People prefer to live in a small room, without water, but at peace,” said his colleague Farouk Braimah.

The original plan for the housing project was much larger, but land negotiation with the Tema chief and the TDC has stalled.

Mujeeb is still optimistic. “There will be a right time for the project to go on,” he said.

Journalists doubt information will soon be free in Ghana

 Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Godfred Boafo. Ashley Terry, Global News

Godfred Boafo. Ashley Terry, Global News

ACCRA – Ghana may soon join a dozen other African countries with access to information legislation.

It has been a long time in the making – the legislation has languished for a decade. But even if it is passed, some Ghanaian journalists don’t believe the law will change a thing.

Philip Kofi Ashon, manager at CitiFM online in Accra (where I am spending three weeks as a trainer for Journalists for Human Rights), thinks the legislation might pass but won’t be enforced.

In his opinion, the government works too slowly to provide the information journalists need to meet reasonable deadlines.

It is a similar refrain heard by journalists in Canada. Global News requests access to information from the government frequently, but rarely gets a prompt reply.

Often our requests are rejected or the agency asks for an exorbitant amount of money. When we do get information, at times it comes in thousands of sheets of paper.

Press Freedom Index

The annual Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranks freedom journalists have in various countries, and the effort made by governments to ensure press freedom.

In the 2013 edition released in early April, Canada is 20th and Ghana places 30th, but Canada dropped 10 spots from the year before, while Ghana rose 11.

Canada now ranks below countries like Niger, Namibia, the Czech Republic and Jamaica (now the Western Hemisphere leader).

The explanation for Canada’s drop was obstruction of journalists during the “Maple Spring” and Bill C-30.

The rising Ghana is generally seen as a model of African press freedom. President John Mahama has expressed support for the freedom of information bill, saying in late March that he has “no fear of the right to information bill… I think parliament should pass it.”

But Hector Boham, president of the Corruption and Fraud Audit Consortium Ghana, is not optimistic, saying, “The bill will not pass because of the lack of political will. The African politician is corrupt to the core and corruption thrives in secrecy.”

But, Boham continues, if “by god’s grace,” the law passes, it will be effective because it will be supported by the courts.

“Investigative journalists will no longer face any impediments as they investigate cases of high level corruption.”

Having the court’s support in obtaining information would be welcome news to Godfred Boafo, sports reporter at CitiFM.

He went to Ghana’s National Sports Authority (NSA) to investigate rumours that funds were misappropriated by the agency during the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique.

Boafo asked to see receipts of expenditure on the Games, but was denied. The NSA said it needed to know why he wanted to see the receipts, and he declined to give details on his potential story.

What ensued after that, he said, was “hell.”

Boafo went to various sports associations in Ghana to get the information, but after they all rejected his request, he took to the radio to press for the creation of an investigative committee.

And that, at least, was successful – a parliamentary committee released a report in March that the speaker of parliament called “damning.”

The National Sports Authority is now being audited by the sports minister, but Boafo still hasn’t received any information.

He says even after the audit, “I still won’t be able to see the documents, I can bet you that.”

Pushing for rights literacy in rural Ghana

 Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Patricia Awuah

Patricia Awuah

Patricia Awuah came to the centre of her village on Wednesday and learned about her rights.

The 11-year-old Ghanaian student from Ngleshie-Amanfrom, a village in Kasoa west of Accra, heard music blaring nearby from five giant speakers. She came with her classmates to see what was happening.

It turned out to be a program by the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC), a non-profit organization that educates Ghanaians about rights issues and advocates when there are potential violations. Wednesday’s theme was gender-based violence.

Men, women and children also followed the music, leading them to the tents set up in the centre. The crowd watched as the HRAC group performed skits and answered questions.

Women in rural Ghana face barriers in accessing justice – a gap in education means they might not know they are being victimized, and if they do, what to do about it.

HRAC’s Samuel Azumah Nelson finished up a dramatic skit and took the microphone to speak directly to the audience.

He asks anyone who may be a victim of what they saw in the demonstrations (sexual harassment, abuse, unwanted pregnancy), “Report it, and make sure it will be dealt with.”

Having it “dealt with” can be an even bigger hurdle – especially in marital conflicts, where women don’t have the resources to use legal means.

“In Ghanaian culture, so many women are scared to report their husbands. Most of these women don’t work and are dependent on their husbands,” says Jemilla Ariori, the organization’s legal and projects officer.

Ariori was one of three legal advisors on hand Wednesday to speak individually with anyone who needed advice.

Her colleague, lawyer Adwoa Yeboah Boateng, says that not only are they dependent, but they may not know their options. “They might not even know they can go to the court,” she says.

“That’s why we are here, to say ‘you can do something about it.’”

Ellen intends to do something about her situation (Ellen is not her real name, she asked for a pseudonym to be used).

The 54-year-old woman says her husband of 25 years left her to marry another woman and is harassing her to leave her marital home. What is worse, he took her three children away.

According to her, he didn’t want to pay to take care of them. Instead, he left one with his mother and two with his sister. The two children with his sister, aged 14 and 10, were sent to an orphanage school in another town.

The other, 18 years old, has finished school but is now being sent on errands for his grandmother. Ellen says she sees him occasionally, but that he looks thin and sick.

“[My husband] wants to make me suffer,” she says in her native Ga, through a translator.

Ellen also wants what she feels is hers – the property she owned herself when she entered the marriage. According to the law, spouses split property obtained during the marriage 50/50.

Anything obtained before or after should belong to the person who acquired it. But in practice, the woman is often powerless to enforce it.

With help from the HRAC, Ellen will now be able to fight for her children and property in court if the matter is not solved through mediation.

Calls to the Awutu Senya district overseeing Kasoa, and calls to Ghana’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, went unanswered at the time of this posting.

This post was originally written April 18, 2013. To see a gallery of photos of the HRAC’s performance, visit Global News.

The trauma of war

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

liberia-civil-war

An October 2011 file photo of Monrovia locals, casualties of the long civil war, awaiting the results of the presidential election in Liberia. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

As my time here in Liberia comes to a close, some of my most profound experiences have been chance encounters with strangers who tell of the unhealed wounds in this post-conflict society.

That’s what happened during my ride across Monrovia with Sam Brown.

Though I have been working with the Liberian Broadcasting Service (LBS) since last week, Sam and I had not crossed paths. He’s an Operations Officer–a behind-the-scenes logistics guy.

Sam gave me a ride back from LBS to my apartment on the other side of town when my regular driver “forgot” to pick me up.

(And no, that’s not the first time that happened to me).

I’d like to thank that driver for being a no-show. Sam taught me something about Liberia I would not have otherwise learned in my short time here.

Amid choking city traffic I struck up a conversation, asking him how long he had worked at LBS.

“Two years,” he said, holding up two fingers.

“And what did you do before?” I asked.

Sam told me he worked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Created in 2005, it was tasked with investigating the horrific human rights violations during more than 20 years of civil war.

Like his current role, he was the logistics guy. He coordinated trips for investigators to Liberia’s rural areas – where the TRC found the most ruthless crimes against humanity were inflicted on villagers by rebel groups.

Sam got deeply involved – travelling to the communities to sit in on hearings where the most unimaginable terror was recounted.

Over the course of several years, Sam told me the commission heard from some 17,000 victims, witnesses and others. It named notorious warlords who should be brought to justice.

Though the TRC report was released in 2009, it gathers dust on political shelves. It is controversial, as it includes Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, among some 50 politicians recommended to be barred from public office for their support of perpetrators of the brutal conflicts from the 1980s until 2003.

When the TRC’s recommendation about politicians was challenged at the Supreme Court in 2011, it was declared unconstitutional due to lack of due process.

As we drove across town, Sam recounted some of the horrific things he heard during those hearings. He watched victims sob on the stand. It made him sick. He says he carries psychological scars from that period.

When I sat down for dinner later, I couldn’t get the images out of my own head.

Sam believes the lack of justice since the war ended is the cause of a lot of anxiety and anger among Liberians. He says this country is on the cusp of another crisis if faith in the system is not restored.

You see examples in the street of how people don’t trust the authorities to deliver justice. A friend of mine encountered an intruder last week, and after chasing him out of the apartment with her roommate, he was confronted by a mob outside the compound. Angry members of the community were ready to beat him up for trying to steal.

He escaped unscathed.

People have so little confidence in a corrupt police force, they would rather take matters into their own hands.

It really illustrates that this country is still on edge.

The child soldiers and warlords may be gone from the streets. Fear has subsided. Everyday life carries on.

But deep down inside, most everyone I meet still carries the trauma of war.