Author Archives: Antoinette Sarpong

About Antoinette Sarpong

Antoinette Sarpong was born in Toronto and grew up in Courtice, ON. After living in Burkina Faso for several months during a Canada World Youth exchange, she attended Ryerson University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2005. She then worked as a story producer at CTV’s Canada AM before moving to Osaka, Japan, to teach English and write features for Kansai Scene magazine for five years. A self-confessed travel junkie, Antoinette is thrilled be part of the jhr team. Her journey is coming full circle to Africa, and Ghana, nonetheless, the country from which both her parents hail. She will be stationed in Accra for six months, working as a media rights educational officer at the African University College of Communications where she will be producing a human rights workshop curriculum, and collaborating with AUCC students, staff and local journalists in a variety of ways to promote human rights awareness on campus and in the community.

Water Works

Safe drinking water can be a scarce commodity in Ghana

Last weekend, I found myself standing in a backyard queue, down the road from my house, along with several other Ghanaians in need.

Mild panic set in, as the midday sun bore down on my shoulders, showing no immediate signs of mercy. There was still one more body ahead of me, getting his fill of all the good stuff that this private proprietor could dispense. We were all there, desperate for one thing: water.

I needed a fix – bad. I didn’t think I would make it to evening otherwise.

It’s times like these that remind me where I am.  It’s possible to forget, at times, because my routine is essentially the same on this side of the globe. I get up. I make something resembling a breakfast, brush my teeth, wash my face, take a shower, get dressed, head to work, leave, enjoy some activities that I’ve deemed amusing or at least essential to my greater well-being, sleep – on a good night, or not sleep – on an even better night, wake up, repeat.

As much as I say I hate routine, I have to admit, my ongoing relationship with it gives me much comfort in this foreign environment. So nothing is a more disturbing wake-up call then the proverbial wrench in said routine. Today, as I turned the kitchen tap, one such wrench appeared – when water did not.

Unfortunately, this is something I’ll have to get used to.

More than nine million people in Ghana have no access to safe drinking water. In Accra, it’s estimated that only one quarter of the residents receive a continuous water supply and the situation is even bleaker in urban slums, which are often not even legally recognized as communities by municipal authorities.

Squatters in these forgotten pockets of society, usually have no access to water facilities of any kind. In rural areas, people are often forced to walk painfully long distances, with cumbersome and heavy jugs and buckets, seeking water for their domestic needs. Considering water, a basic human need, constitutes about 70 percent of the human body and upon reflection, about 70 percent of my morning routine alone, these numbers are upsetting.

They’re also quite surprising because Ghana is a country full of water resources, with the Volta river system basin covering a majority of the nation. So why are Ghanaians crying over every drop of spilt water?

According to Jesse Kofi Danku, Head of Programs at international NGO Water Aid, there are several reasons for recent water shortages, aside from seasonal climate changes.

“First of all, there’s been a population explosion within the last few years,” says Danku. “The (water) distribution system that was created in urban centres like Accra, wasn’t designed to deal with this demand, which has affected the pressure.”

Ghana’s water system has two sectors, the community water sector, which deals with rural communities and small towns, and the urban water sector, which is comprised of the about 87 cities and towns where the state water utility, Ghana Water Company Limited owns and manages water supply. Since the 1990s, private distributors have also gotten in on the hydraulic hawking, with private citizens, like the one filling my 25-litre jug, buying their own tanks and selling water, often at inflated prices. This practice, says Danku, along with illegal tapping, also contributes to the water shortages.

A polytank owned by a private citizen in Accra

“There are instances where private tank operators use high-powered pumps to divert water flow, which creates artificial shortages, thereby increasing their profits.”

Yet, after walking past a small river, where citizens were scooping up drinking water, a few feet away from a man bathing and another defecating, paying $0.45 CAD for two full jugs of liquid gold, seemed a far better alternative.

Many of Ghana’s problems with preventative diseases, such as polio and guinea worm (a disease, of which, Ghana ranks second worldwide, behind Sudan) could be prevented with provisions of safe water and the simple promotion of safe hygiene practices.

It’s a frustrating scenario. It left a really bad taste in my mouth–one that I wish I could simply wash away with a cold glass of water, if I only had one to spare.

The Name Game

Cape Coast Castle - a gateway for millions of slaves during the Atlantic slave trade

I’m a little embarrassed to make a somewhat private realization, a very public confession. I’m 28-years-old, and I just learned how to pronounce my name.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I’ve had 28 years to master my moniker.

I suppose, in retrospect, as a child just trying to come to grips with the English language and get a proper grip of a pencil, my French-derived first name, with all ten of its letters, probably seemed quite formidable. Fortunately, I got it down.

I even learned some French along the way. While I was familiarizing myself with Canada’s two tongues, I neglected to properly learn my Ghanaian parents’ native language, Twi. I also got accustomed to the butchering of my surname at roll calls and walk-in clinics.

The “ping pong” rhyme that I used to use to help people pronounce my family name, gave a voice to a ‘g’ that should otherwise have remained silent. That one little ‘g,’ it turns out, made one big difference. In Ghana, a Sarpong by any other name just isn’t the same. It’s your past and your present. It identifies your family, your ancestry, and like my Ashanti surname, your tribe.

Names can also denote personality, or at least the high hopes of parents who go with common adjectives like bright, or divine. Names may even pay homage to people, places or things that have had a great influence in one’s family, as a man named Gospel, whom I met over the weekend in Cape Coast, can testify to. “My parents are 100 percent Christian,” said Gospel, who, just moments prior, had been spreading the good word, asking girls at the Oasis Beach Resort if they “wanted to fork.”

An offer, to which, his female sun worshipping audience quickly declined, albeit, with playful chuckles. That’s the power the gospel, I guess.

In Ghana, even the names have soul. Children are given additional names corresponding to the day of the week on which they’re born. So I am Sunday child, full of grace, also full of generosity, according to my “soul name,” Akosua.  Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, shares the “Kofi” name with all Ghanaian males born on a Friday. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, is named so for being born on a Saturday, and as Nkrumah signifies, he was the ninth child born in his line.

I myself was standing in a line last weekend, at Cape Coast Castle when I realized just how powerful a name really is.

Our tour guide, whose name I can’t recall – an irony that is not lost on me – had just taken us inside a dimly-lit cell. Thousands of African men and women spent their final days in these degrading holes during the Atlantic slave trade, awaiting ships to dock at a surprisingly stunning castle, appropriately referred to as “heaven above, hell below” by our guide. Sold slaves were branded with their “owner’s” initials and released from their dark, damp, urine and feces-soaked hole, often exposed to natural light for the first time in countless weeks.

This often resulted in slaves losing their full range of sight, along with what remained of their dignity. Standing in front of the famous “Door of no Return,” where slaves would board ships for the new world, our guide pointed out that they would also be stripped of their former name. In spite of all the unspeakable horror that would permeate through the stone if the walls could talk, this was truly disturbing.

With my back turned to a history that’s hard to forget, the Ghanaian guard I said bye to on the way out, brought me back to the present.

“Hey,” he yelled. “What’s your name?”

“Antoinette,” I replied.

“What’s your other name?” asked the guard, seemingly unsatisfied with my answer.

“Akosua,” I said, pausing. “Sarpong,” I added, without any hesitation.

Valuable life lessons often come from unlikely sources

Politricks

Valuable life lessons often come from unlikely sources

It’s 9am on a Thursday at the African University College of Communication. I’m sitting at my desk on the third floor, in complete darkness and complete silence. Three hundred some odd students are away, presumably studying for exams, and we’re experiencing yet another power outage.

I’m thinking about a conversation I had earlier in the morning, with Kwame, the young, dread-locked cabbie who drove me to work. I usually try to save cedis (the local currency) by taking the tro-tro, which is the cheap minibus, frequently packed with commuters like sardines in a rusted tin. However, on this fateful morning, a lengthy flirtation with my snooze button led me to a taxi stand and the following words of wisdom from my driver: “My sista, all we need is love.”

Kwame’s words instantly broke my hypnotic trance. I’ve often found that some of the most interesting conversations, in any city, come courtesy of taxi drivers. After all, who knows a city more than the people who make their living chauffeuring characters from all walks of life around it? It was the unsolicited depth of Kwame’s comment, about 10 minutes into a rather silent ride that intrigued me and prompted my equally deep reply: “Ah.…What?”

Well, deep for 8 a.m.

“Sista,” says Kwame, as he shifted his glance from the side window to the windshield, “things are not working well. It’s a backwards country. You can even hear it on the radio.”

Proof came shortly thereafter, in the form of a fired-up caller on a radio show that I suddenly realized had been on the entire time. Funny, how you can tune things out when you don’t understand the language. The topic on Peace FM, a station known for sympathizing with the opposition, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), was the mismanagement of Ghana’s economy by the ruling New Democratic Congress (NDC).

Conversations like this take place on a daily basis in the press here in Ghana, whether it be on the radio, TV or in print. Political appetites are high and the Ghanaian media’s main bread and butter for their front page is politics, or “politricks,” as it’s referred to by my coworkers around the office.

Media houses often align themselves squarely on one side of the political fence–blatantly so, in fact. Libel-esque mudslinging is common and though Ghanaians may be somewhat divided politically, most can agree that their government should be held accountable for their nation’s progress, or lack thereof. Political apathy is not an option here. Everyone has an opinion.

Cabbie Kwame was no exception.

“I drive around all day,” says Kwame pointing out the windshield. “The streets are not even clean. The youth are frustrated in the city. There are no jobs for them so they turn to crime. The institutions are not working and the politicians,” adds Kwame, pausing to make a scoffing sound,  “they lie.”

“So what’s the solution?” I ask, offering a curious ear, as the notebook I pulled out a moment earlier overflowed with all the cab confessions I could immortalize in ink.

“We must forget NPP and NDC,” says Kwame. “Even amongst ourselves, we are divided. This nation belongs to all of us. We must work together, my sista. One love.”

Around 9:10, as I thought about Kwame’s words on love and politricks one more time, the lights finally went on in my office.

Chatting with two young boys from Niger, in Accra

Great Expectations

Chatting with two young boys from Niger, in Accra

My father insisted that I pack an iron. I thought he’d totally lost the plot. My bag was already overweight, so I ditched it at the airport in Toronto. I also attempted to leave behind as many of my preconceived notions of “Africa” as I could before embarking on my six-month adventure as a media rights educational intern at The African University College of Communication in Accra, Ghana. I had my work cut out for me though. Both my parents are Ghanaian, and I lived in Burkina Faso for several months when I was 18 during an exchange program with Canada World Youth, so I already had some mental montages of Africa playing in head.

I managed to catch a few Zs on the plane but the twenty-some odd hours of travel left me feeling like a walking zombie by the time I reached Accra’s Kotoka airport. After clearing immigration and customs, jhr reps were waiting to take me and the four other interns to our hotel. My jetlag subsided as a new medley of humidity, humanity and horns greeted me in the midst of one of the darkest evenings I can recall experiencing, just after supper time.

I hadn’t even left the airport yet and I had already experienced the world-renowned friendliness of the Ghanaian people. Bright white smiles set against startlingly beautiful ebony skin, a marriage proposal from an airport attendant, and loud “akwaabas,” making me feel most “welcome” indeed in the Twi language. Being Ghanaian-Canadian, I was curious about how I would be received and the high expectations that people—myself included—would have of me to be able to assimilate. I did get some curious looks from people who addressed me in Twi, not knowing where I was from until I spoke, from which point my North American inflection meant the jig was seriously up. But as I discovered within the days that followed, while dodging Accra’s death-defying traffic, the people I met along the way were incredibly friendly. They were also ready and willing to re-acquaint me with my own culture, in impeccably stylish, bold and crisp prints. It’s mind-blowing that less than a month ago, I was living in Osaka, Japan, teaching English at a high school and writing for a magazine. I had been surrounded by towering concrete for nearly five years, in a culture where everything is automatic, fast-paced, painstakingly punctual and every craving can be curbed by dropping a few coins in a vending machine.

Compare Accra, by contrast, with a surprising level of rich looking colonial architecture in one area, alongside open sewers and shanty towns in another, and I realized how far along the cultural spectrum I had actually traveled. Time is much looser here, presenting an interesting work environment for a journalist, when you are meant to meet someone at 1p.m. and they call you at 1:35 saying they’re “on their way.” While I can certainly embrace the slower pace of life, nothing I could have packed in my suitcase could really prepare me for the next six months, aside from my own optimism and open mind. Well, perhaps, in retrospect, as I unfolded my wrinkled work attire from my suitcase, that bloody iron.