Author Archives: Atkilt Geleta

About Atkilt Geleta

Born and raised in Ethiopia until he was seven, Atkilt Geleta spent much of his youth traveling—first to Japan, then to Canada, and then to Switzerland, where he lived for six years. He’s now landed in Ghana—for the second time—where he’s working at the Daily Guide newspaper to report on human rights issues. Geleta says he hopes to immerse himself in Ghana’s rich culture and looks forward to exploring the country in search of stories. “Divinely guided” towards journalism, as he puts it, he got his introduction to the field with internships at Eye Weekly andSway Magazine in Toronto. “This opportunity combines my passion for journalism and development work,” he says. “It’s a chance to work with local journalists to shed light on issues that are often marginalized or forgotten about.” Geleta has a degree in Political Science and International Development Studies from the University of Toronto.

Pluralism in Ghana: the Hare Krishna Movement

Nestled in a small village by a pothole riddled road is the gorgeous Hare Krishna Temple of Medie.   Every Sunday, devotees climb the temple stairs bare footed, and sit on thin mats for hours to chant, learn and pray.  Their foreheads are painted with the golden-brown mark of the tilaka, signifying the third eye.  Their shoulders are draped with traditional Indian garb.

It’s a strange site considering the devotees are Ghanaian, and the temple is situated in a sparse village roughly 40 minutes outside of Accra.

The Hare Krishna Society, also referred to as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is global in scope with 400 centres worldwide.

It was established in Ghana in 1981 by two Americans.  For the next decade, a small group of followers resided in a rented premises in Accra.  The following grew and by 1992, they had managed to raise enough funds to buy land in Medie.  By ’96, construction on the temple had finished.

The Temple President and Regional Secretary for West Africa is Srivas Das, an elderly man from a small town in Ghana’s Upper West Region.  He was born into a family of African traditionalists and attended Catholic school, adopting the latter faith as a teenager.  After experiencing various paranormal experiences, he began researching.

“In my childhood I was a bit psychic.  I had the ability to see people who had left the world.  When people died, I’d see their spirit go.  This prompted my interest in spiritual life and the afterlife,” says Das.

After taking interest in the Hare Krishna movement and intensely studying its scriptures, Das became a resident monk in the early Accra temple.  He then trained for a decade in Nigeria, the U.S., India and Ghana before attaining his current post.

He explains how the temple sustains itself.

“Our funding is based on contributions from members, the Indian community and some well-wishers who sympathize with our mission.  They see the effects of our preaching so they step forward to assist us in financing our programs and projects,” says Das.

What was initially a temple is growing into a self-sustaining community.

In 2000, the Society built a primary and middle school adjacent the temple, and recently constructed a clinic with equipment donated by the World Medical Relief in Detroit.  Both are registered with the Ghana Education Service and Ghana Health Service, respectively.

The Society also recently acquired some land to grow its own food and assist deprived neighbors who need support.  With multiple projects at hand, Das stressed their need for assistance.

We are looking for partnership and support, for people to invest or assist in rural education, rural health,” says Das.

Stressing the Society’s global reach, Das explained that the temple recently accepted a number of devotees from Ivory Coast, who fled the country after post-election violence earlier this year.

Das explains, ”They had to send all their children, all their women to this place.  We have not gone to report to government that we have a number of refugees here.  We assist by ourselves and offer the same hospitality to our fellow brothers everywhere.”

Seeking to express his appreciation for the Society’s independence, Das recognizes the freedoms afforded to his community in his native Ghana.

“I can say that we are fortunate to be here, that we don’t have any restrictions” he says.

“Ghana is a free society that allows anybody and everybody to practice what he believes in, that is very good for the progress of the country.”

Afro-Brazilians seek connection to Brazil

The Tabom people in Ghana are descendents of Afro-Brazilian slaves who repatriated to West Africa soon after Brazil gained independence in 1822.

“The first batch arrived in 1835. But we had other batches after them too who started coming, because they made known to their brothers and sister [in Brazil] that they were comfortable here,” explains the current chief of the Taboms, Nii Azumah V.

After arriving, the Tabom assimilated into the Ga tribe in Ghana’s capital Accra and quickly became a part of the social fabric of the city.

The returnees acquired the name Tabom from a local adaptation of the Portuguese greeting es ta bom, or “it is well,” that they used to greet one other.

They have managed to preserve their identity as Brazilian descendants and continue to be viewed as a distinct people whose history differs from other tribes.

The Taboms have made notable contributions to Ghanaian society. Some prominent names include current Chief Justice Georgina Theodora Wood, boxing hall-of-famer and three time world champion Azuma “Professor” Nelson and presidential tailor and national icon Dan Morton.

Now, some are seeking closer ties with Brazil and their distant relatives there, hoping to initiate business ties and periodical cultural get-togethers in both countries.

“We have a very nice connection to the Brazilian government, right from the president,” Chief Azumah explains. “The problem is that we don’t know Brazil, and we have been agitating for the embassy to at least have a gathering with our brethren [there].”

Azuma and the Tabom Council of Elders envision a reunion where prominent descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves from Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Ghana would reunite with their kin in Brazil.

They would use this opportunity to initiate commerce between the two communities on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Azumah stresses that it’s an opportune time to invest in Ghana, and would like the chance to attract his Brazilian relations to consider.

“We have a very good climate for industry. We’re a democracy, we don’t have wars and all those things, so investors should be assured that they will get returns,” he says.

Azuma expressed that he recently appealed to the Brazilian embassy for assistance with the conference, but has yet to get a response.

Luis Fernando Serra, the Brazilian ambassador to Ghana, stressed the embassy’s close ties with the Tabom.  However, he explained that the conference is an issue of finances.

“It depends on sponsors,” he says. “To make feasible an idea of this kind, you need funds.”

Azuma feels the Brazilian government can afford it, and that it will be easy to facilitate since direct flights from Brazil to West Africa will begin soon.

Azuma remains hopeful. “If we are able to reach there and sit down with our brothers and sisters, and financial institutions over there, we will able to convince them to come.”

Ambassador Serra suggests the returnees organize a regional conference in West Africa prior to an international one with the diaspora.

“I think that they should start meeting in one of these four countries and work towards a second edition of this congress in Brazil. We are going to support it,” Serra says. “They are the oldest and most precious link between Brazil and Africa.”

Symposium on Soli: How brown envelope journalism is affecting the profession

On Friday March 25, 2011, Journalists for Human Rights and the Canadian High hosted a symposium on soli, short for solidarity, which is the practice journalists accepting money for time and transportation from event organizers at the end of press conferences. The event featured three guest speakers: communications consultant and journalist, Dr. Doris Dartey, Joy FM’s news editor, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, and Daily Guide publisher, Freddy Blay.

The event brought together journalists from several media houses and organizations.  Following the speakers’ addresses, reporters discussed the ethical implications of soli, the conditions perpetuating the practice and the impact soli is having on the industry.

AGAINST

One side of the argument stressed that journalists were essentially selling their conscience. Soli has become a means of generating significant income. While journalists generally receive small amounts of cash for travel and a meal, people on this side of the argument expressed that some have been able to exploit the practice to get rich. Dr. Dartey pointed out soli has been ingrained into the system to the extent that the Ministry of Information has a percentage of its budget allocated specifically for “T&T” (time and transportation).  Also, it was stated that while the giving of “T&T” was originally well-intended practice meant to assist journalists with their movement to and from press conferences, it has take on the name “solidarity” which has corrupted and blemished the media in Ghana.

Many unaccredited journalists and news agencies enter events throughout the week where they know soli is being handed out.  Accepting soli affects the integrity of journalism. Once a reporter accepts cash, regardless of the intent or amount of money, her/his story is compromised. Soli jeopardizes the quality of reporting in Ghana. It stifles media development by overcrowding the profession with unqualified reporters only interested in soli. Agencies should condemn soli and forbid it at all costs, and devise a means of sufficiently compensating their reporters. Organizations that provide soli should also be prevented from doing so and the practice, along with journalists taking part in it, should be condemned.

Finally, accepting or not accepting soli is a matter of principle and self respect. There is a universal standard of journalism that all journalists should adhere to.

FOR

People on this side argued that the issue of soli is systemic and that journalists taking soli should not be held accountable for the problem. Most media houses do not adequately compensate their reporters or compensate them at all.  Journalists, often with families and dependents, are left to rely on soli to supplement their meagre incomes. At times, it is their only source of income. The cost of traveling to and from stories on a daily basis can quickly accumulate. Even the country’s largest and most popular media companies don’t have the means to give journalists the option to forgo soli. With a large number of young media houses entering the business and many companies struggling to break even, competition is intense. Reporters working for these smaller agencies sacrifice wages for the profession.

Journalists feel it is hypocritical for older or more established members of the industry to condemn the practice and claim a moral high ground when they themselves were accepting soli as young professionals. They feel it is disingenuous for them to have participated in the practice then denounce today’s journalists for doing the same.  Reporters also argued that in perspective, this is not a practice that is only typical of Ghana—it takes place in various underdeveloped and even developed countries in various forms under different names. Lastly, it is part of the culture to exchange a favour for a favour, so if an organization wants to ensure that you have the means to travel back and forth from the office to cover a story, it is only a minor show of support.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

  • Demand higher pay from employers
  • Enter into constructive conversations with media managers
  • Have regular meetings about the issue
  • Don’t take the money, take a principled stance!
  • Make a point of telling event organizers that the practice is fuelling corruption in Ghana and eroding professional ethics
  • Talk to editors about what makes a “story”—a press conference is not a story, only a lead to a story, perhaps.
  • Write articles about it!
  • Encourage media managers to institute a newsroom policy barring the practice (or that demands every journalist has to publish it in their story)
  • Join the Facebook group “Journalists Against Soli”
  • Look at the country’s best journalists—they don’t accept soli
  • We’re not going to end the practice overnight, but all change starts with a discussion. Real change comes about if we continue that dialogue and start acting on our principles

Hiplife in Ghana: a musical mix

Wanlov is one of Ghana's most celebrated hiplife stars, a musical genre that combines western hiphop with local syles. Photo by Atkilt Geleta.

Eyes are squinted toward the stage. Heads bob up and down, bodies flail left and right. The MC alternates between delivering a double-time staccato rhyme and initiating call-and-response invocations with the crowd. Chunky bass drums boom from enormous speakers and arms are raised in a collective overture towards the stage.

The scene is identical to any hip-hop show in North America, only the setting is Busua beach in Ghana’s Western Region, where the Asabaako music festival has drawn an audience of foreigners and locals.

Artists such as Wanlov the Kubolor and Sarkodie occupy the stage singing hiplife, a genre which combines re-imported western genres, namely hip hop, reggae and dancehall—whose origins are wholly African—with local jazzy styles.

The cultural transfer began centuries ago, when traditional African music was transported to the West along with millions of slaves.

Over time, the music of the diaspora evolved with technical advances in music-making, eventually giving birth to popular musical art forms such as soul, reggae and hip hop.

This music, later popularized and mass-produced around the world, has been re-imported into Africa en masse and is being voraciously consumed and recreated by locals.

Wanlov, one of hiplife’s most popular artists who has garnered an international following, asserts that while western genres have found a home in Ghana, artists are lending their unique voice and not simply mimicking.

“It’s dangerous to just take the whole picture and just impose it over here. We have to also tell out story from the grounds here because everywhere is different,” he says.

Artists sing about Ghanaian issues, such as local politics and urban life, in languages like Twi, Ga and pigeon.

And in Ghana, music is everywhere.

In the counry’s capital, weekly reggae parties draw hundreds of people who to soak in Jamaican rhythms. The city’s shops, stands and marketplaces blare reggae and dancehall throughout the day and into the night. And hip hop tunes boom in popular clubs nightly, where revelers sing along enthusiastically.

Wanlov confirms the prevalence of western musical forms in Ghana.

“We didn’t have a music in our youthful times being made by ourselves that carried the vim, the youthful energy, braggadocios kind of thing” says Wanlov, “so we easily identified with the youth in Jamaica, or the ones in America.”

The music is also about empowerment. As blacks in the West endured prolonged institutional racism over the last few centuries, living in marginalized communities rife with social and political issues, the experiences bled into the content of the music. That sentiment remains today.

“When somebody is talking about poverty or police brutality or whatever it is, we can identify easily with it over here” Wanlov confirms.

“That there is universal.”

An illusion of separatness

Mamprusi traders in Bawku discuss the town's longstanding conflict before afternoon prayers

It is the dry season in Ghana, when the northern savanna sheds its vegetation due to a lack of rainfall. It creates a barren, ashy landscape.

Nestled in the northeast corner of Ghana is Bawku, where a longstanding conflict between the Kusasi and Mamprusi tribes has left the municipality wasted and exhausted like the environment that surrounds it.

“We are brothers. We know each other, we can greet each other, eat together. We can do business,” says a Kusasi trader, Umar Ismaila, about the Mamprusi tribe. “But in the heart, it’s not okay.”

One hour later, Bashiru Abdel-Wahab, a Mamprusi, offers conciliatory sentiments about the Kusasis. “We can go out, do business. We believe in peace,” he says. “Only a fool will continue fighting.”

Yet the tribes these men belong to have been engaged in decades of strife with one another. Peace was brokered in April 2010, but some say the stability is tenuous.

Central to the feud is the issue of chieftaincy, with each refusing to recognize the other’s claim to the rightful naba, or chief. The Skin, as the chief’s throne is referred to, remains a highly respected and sacred position.

The conflict is exacerbated by party politics, with the majority of Kusasi affiliated with the ruling NDC party and the Mamprusi supporting the opposition NPP. The parties make overtures addressing the grievances on each side, further entrenching divisions.

Fighting mostly took place in the main town of Bawku and the surrounding villages. Although the exact figures are unknown, sources report thousands of causalities, including some civilians. Today, motorcycles are banned for men because they were used in vigilante attacks.

Speaking to both sides, it’s evident that the stalemate is tentative. Threats of violence are heightened around festival and election time.

A two-minute bike ride and an intersection is all that separates the two tribes in the main town of Bawku.

Although a history of conflict emphasizes the distinctions between the two groups, they are in fact mixed through inter-marriages and share a collective history.

They have the same culture and livelihood—farming, trading and small business activity. Both sides admit that they wouldn’t be able to tell one another apart by appearance.

When pressed about what distinguishes the two, Ismaila is quick to point out the ironies. “They are our uncles. Plenty of them too, they call the Kusasi their uncles,” he says. “If you enter a Kusasi man’s house, you’ll see maybe that his mother is a Mamprusi. Also, a majority of Mamprusi marry Kusasi women. We are one people.”

Still, the series of conflict, often sparked by petty sporadic disagreements between civilians, has overstated the differences.  The cycle of enmity continues.

“The people are resting.” says Ismaila, ominously.  “But unless both sides recognize one chief . . . there will be no solution.”

From ‘Sodom’ to Old Fadama

Victor Nartey stands in front of the burnt down remains of the OFADA office in Accra's largest slum, Old Fadama

A pungent stench invades the nostrils when we step over the unusually wide, overfilled gutter.

“This place is stinky” my colleague remarks. “I’m going to use a whole bar of soap when I wash tonight.”

We enter Old Fadama, one of Accra’s largest slums, popularly referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah for the way in which its 79,000 inhabitants apparently behave—rough, sinister and uncontrollable.

It has been mythologized among Accra’s middle and upper classes. When I told a co-worker I would be there to work on a story, she remarked that it’s “full of violent people, armed robbers, crooks, prostitutes and the unemployed.”

There is a crime element in Old Fadama, but that is only a marginal aspect of the community.  In reality, a majority of the people are industrious and well-organized, building their own homes and running their own businesses.

I’m told multiple times to keep my laptop and camera close to me.  It’s midday.

My colleague and I are whisked around the neighbourhood by Victor Nartey, a task force commander of the Old Fadama Development Association (OFADA), an organization founded by the community to monitor itself.

“There’s no chief or assemblyman here, so we take the risk to control the whole place in case of any problem” says Nartey, standing in front of a dilapidated OFADA office that burned down last month.  “We have big men and chiefs among us, and we are working together with the regional police command for peace, because we are all one here.”

They run trash collection, home rebuilding and sanitation programs. They also work with police to help reprimand the “robbers, crooks and prostitutes” I had been cautioned about—taking initiative to improve their conditions themselves.

Old Fadama is a maze of wooden structures built around narrow, unpaved rough roads. Fires are commonplace here, sparked by faulty electrical lines and cooking fires.

Nartey continues, “When we were here, and our kiosks were burning, we didn’t even have money to buy plywood so we used cardboard to [make] our rooms.  [Within] a small time fires burned. People would say ‘you are behaving like the people in Sodom and Gomorrah.’”

The poverty is obvious. What’s not as apparent is the general perception that these people are sub-human—wretched and expendable.

The stereotypes marginalize the community beyond socio-economic gaps, public data and NGO reports. The average person is unable to empathize with residents of the slum, who have had their identity imposed on them by the larger society.

The poor of Old Fadama are more intelligent and self-aware than one might presume. They are forcibly humbled by their environment yet maintain dignity and self-possession.

“People used to talk against us here, that we are thieves and so and so.  We have the police who live here, navy who live here. We are trying as much as possible to control [the area],” Nartey says, offering us plastic chairs in the temporary OFADA office, a room in the house of a popular lady in the neighbourhood.

It’s the customary scenario with poverty worldwide: the poor are blamed for their circumstances, instead of examining the systems that perpetuate their conditions. And the antidotes to urban slums—housing policy, vocational training centers, mainstream education and income-generating programs—can quickly get as complex as the schemes that produce them. Beneath the cycle of proposals are a people trying conduct their lives and meet their basic needs.

There is another gap—between Old Fadama, which exists in Accra, and Sodom and Gomorrah, in many people’s collective unconsciousness.