Author Archives: Chris Tse

About Chris Tse

Chris Tse is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. The 21-year-old, originally from Coquitlam, BC, is the president of Carleton's JHR chapter. He has extensive experience in print journalism as both a reporter and an editor, and his work has been featured in The Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen, and various magazines and community papers. Aside from print media, Chris also has training in radio and television broadcast journalism, online multimedia, and news blogs. He is an aspiring documentary filmmaker with a short 10-minute doc, "Dreadheads" to his name. In addition to journalism, Chris is also an accomplished spoken word poet. He is the captain of the 2010 Canadian poetry slam national championship team, Capital Slam, and has featured in shows from Vancouver to St. Louis. He will represent Canada at the spoken word world championships in Paris in May. His work has appeared on CBC Radio and CTV, and he is the author of a collection of poetry entitled "An Ode to My Afro", and also has a CD of the same title.

Malaria: not just a disease, but a way of life

It’s the most dangerous killer in West Africa, the top issue on Ghana’s health priority list, and carries a whopping price tag of up to US$ 60 million a year.  Yet for all the apparent hazards attributed to malaria, the disease is still seen in a relatively casual light in Ghana.

One of the first things people had to say when I told them I’d be working as a journalist here was, “Watch out for malaria!”  Also common were “Have fun, but don’t get malaria,” and the ever-popular “Beware of mosquitoes – they carry malaria.”

Malaria, malaria, malaria.  It seems Canadians can’t escape the idea of it, that mysterious exotic disease that mixes flu symptoms with diarrhea and eventually, if left untreated, leads to death.  It’s the Avian Flu, Black Plague, and SARS all rolled into one, that misunderstood medical monster that all hapless Canadians traveling overseas to warm climates should take the greatest pains to avoid contracting.

Before leaving Canada, my doctor told me I’d be traveling to an “extremely high-risk zone,” and urged me to do any or all of three things: purchase the most expensive of malaria medication; double up on mosquito netting for maximum protection; reconsider my trip.

My colleague at Kapital Radio, Muftaw, saw me writing this post and chuckled.  “I like your headline,” he said.  “Malaria, a way of life.  So true.”

I ended up going with the cheapest medication option known as Mefloquine, a medication whose listed side effects read much like the expected effects of LSD – hallucinations, lucid dreaming, and vivid nightmares.  Personally, I’ve never slept better.

As far as mosquito netting goes, well, I do as the locals do.

“I have a mosquito net,” said Muftaw.  “It’s brand new.  I have never used it.  It’s in my wardrobe.”

Mine too sits at the bottom of my rucksack, unpacked, unused, and ultimately, unnecessary.  I sleep in the comfort of basketball shorts, and really, the mosquitoes have largely left me alone.  They rarely venture indoors anyway.

And as for reconsidering my trip?  Well, it’s too late now, but really, for what reason?  We in North America live in such a culture of fear – of recession, of crime, of people, of spiders, of disease – that we’ve limited our opportunities to experience by simply shutting ourselves into protective bubbles.  I took so many precautions just on malaria alone before I got here, only to find that it’s a commonly contracted disease easily treated at the local pharmacy with medicine.

When I asked him how many times he’s had malaria, Muftaw shrugged.

“Too many to count,” he said.  “I thought I had malaria last week but it turned out to be just a viral infection.”

However, I’ve learned not everyone can afford to be so cavalier.  While most cases of malaria are a quick fix in the cities, there are enormous amounts of people, particularly in the north, without access to proper healthcare.

“It’s a problem, the high risk for those in the rural areas where there are no clinics, no hospitals,” said Dr. Joseph Oduro, Deputy Director of Public Health for the Ashanti Region.  “While we have the medicines to treat it, malaria can be very dangerous if you can’t actually access the medicine.”

Aside from the rare fatality, this danger presents itself in malaria’s long list of side effects, which range from anemia to complications during pregnancy.  Treating the disease can also be a heavy financial burden for many families, who all too often turn to traditional medicines as a cheaper, more familiar option.

“Many people claim they have medicines that can cure malaria, but what research has been done?” said Dr. Oduro.  “People take them and then come to the hospital with many complications.  It’s a real challenge here in Ghana… ignorance is high.”

Another problem is those who rely on traditional medicine also go unregistered in government records, therefore skewing national statistics concerning the disease.  A report released by the World Health Organization announced an estimated 3.7 million cases of malaria in Ghana in 2009.  However, that figure is deceivingly low considering how many cases annually go unreported, and consequently, untreated.  Pregnant women and children under five are especially vulnerable, with UNICEF reporting roughly 20,000 malaria-caused fatalities in Ghana among children under five every year.

The numbers are staggering.  And frankly, avoidable.  While there are dozens of government and NGO malaria-specific initiatives at work in Ghana, the fact remains: malaria is killing people in this country.  ITNs (insecticide treated nets) and anti-malarial vaccines are helping, but more can be done.  More needs to be done.

“It’s a serious threat,” said Dr. Oduro.  “Malaria is the commonest cause of morbidity and mortality in Ghana… it’s a matter of concern for us.”

I could stand to be less dismissive about not using my mosquito net.  Reality is, that net could be saving a life right now.

A poster at the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine (KCCR) detailing malaria’s attack cycle

Homosexual rights in Ghana a work in regress?

I’ve been doing this thing on Twitter called the Ghana Heat Check, where I attempt to come up with clever ways of letting my followers know how warm I am finding the Ghanaian weather.  It started out that way, at least.  Nowadays, I’m pretty much acclimatized and actually find the temperatures quite pleasant.  Perhaps the one area where the heat has not died down, however, is the topic of homosexuality.

Much of the Ghanaian mindset regarding homosexuality comes from the country’s deeply religious roots; roughly 95 per cent of Ghanaians identify as Christian or Muslim, two religions that have historically opposed homosexuality.

“It’s not natural,” says Reverend Dr. Steve Asante, vice-chairman of the Ghana Christian Council.  “God created a man to be with a woman, but homosexuality goes against this holy design.”

Alhaji Mohammed Abdul Wahab, Deputy Imam of Kotokoli in the Ashanti Region, echoes his religious counterpart, calling the act of homosexuality “totally haram.”

“These people have lost their humanity,” says Abdul Wahab.  “If they change, God can forgive them.  It they do not, they will go to the fire.”

Daniel Asare Korang, programs manager at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC), says his centre recognizes that Ghana is a religious country, but maintains that doesn’t change anything in respect to rights for homosexuals.  The HRAC is one of Ghana’s only organizations that has taken a strong stance for homosexual rights.

“How about those who don’t believe in any religion,” says Korang.  “Are they also not Ghanaians?  People have rights to believe what they believe… we don’t expect everybody to agree with our opinion, but if you express yours, I can also express mine.”

Hillary Afful is a gay Ghanaian. The 26-year-old Accra native says he knew early on that he was gay, and that he accepted the fact because it was how he was created.

“We’ve tried, we’ve done everything we could, but I can’t change,” says Afful, an HIV counselor with the West African AIDS Foundation.  “This is who I am.”

Rev. Asante, however, isn’t so sure.

“Nobody is created a homosexual, it is a choice,” he says.  “You aren’t born a thief or a murderer.  You choose to do those things, and homosexuals choose to engage in homosexuality.”

This, Afful says, is the same mentality that led his family to cast him from the house over a decade ago.

“Only my younger sister partially understands,” says Afful, who now lives with his friend in Jamestown, Accra.  “Sometimes she visits and she talks to me.  For my mother, I spoke with her the last two months.  But my daddy doesn’t even know how I look like.  We’ve not met since seventeen years now.”

“I tried to make contact but he said to be a homosexual, it’s evil and it damages the image of the family so he wants nothing to do with me.”

Fear of similar rejection is what has kept Jessica Acheampong, a self-described “reformed homosexual,” from telling her family about her past homosexual activity.

“Thank God my family never found out,” says Acheampong, a coordinator affiliated with the African Businesswomen Network.  “I would never tell them.  The way my parents are, and how Christian my mother is – I can’t imagine what they would say.”

Acheampong says the level of condemnation towards homosexuality in Ghana is misplaced.

“Those condemning it have no experience with it,” says Acheampong.  “Are they also without sin?  It’s not worse than any other sin, so why are people saying that gays and lesbians are Satanic?  I don’t get why people consider homosexuality to be so much more evil.”

It’s this heavy condemnation that is starting to take its toll on Afful, who says he finds comfort in going to church but is getting tired of the judgment from people he says are supposed to be his brothers and sisters.

“The pastor was preaching against it and people were laughing and saying all kinds of bullshit and I got quite furious,” says the self-professed Anglican.  “Even if you say it’s evil, you don’t need to condemn it.  Sometimes I ask myself, what are they trying to tell God?  Are they trying to challenge God?  God created every human being in His own image.”

In this vein, Afful says that despite the discrimination he faces every week, he will continue to attend church.

“I’m there to worship my God, so I don’t look at them, I don’t care about what they do, what they say, and all that.  I am just there to worship my God.”

Outside of church, however, Afful says he generally goes to work and then straight home out of concern for his personal safety.

“Even in my community, I can’t walk freely without people insulting me and throwing stones at me,” he says.  “Sometimes people even connive with the police and blackmail us… it’s really difficult here.  It’s like we are in hell.”

Afful said things got so bad a while ago he even tried to leave Ghana, but was denied a visa at immigration.  Applications for asylum also went unheard.   Despite this, he said he would not stop fighting.

“I want to see a time when you can be yourself,” said Afful.  “Even if I don’t get out of Ghana, I just want to be free.”

A typical headline in any of Ghana’s dailies.

Coming from Canada, where homosexuality has currently never enjoyed more acceptance and I have numerous friends who identify as LGBTQ, I was shocked to see how much of an issue it still is in Ghanaian society.  The topic dominates headlines and radio programs, with politicians and religious leaders going head to head against human rights advocates in the debate over whether homosexual Ghanaians should have the same rights as their heterosexual peers.  Consider that it’s a virtual non-issue in Canada, where gay marriage has been legalized and homosexuality is openly celebrated, and you can see how I’ve experienced culture shock.

Child labour on the streets of Ghana: the issue with underaged street vendors

We go to malls for shopping convenience.  A hundred stores within walking distance of each other; you can spend a day at the mall and walk out with virtually anything you want.  The Ghanaian mall is pretty similar, except it takes place at every traffic intersection, and there aren’t really stores as much as countless vendors weaving their way between cars with baskets of anything on their heads.  You can do all your shopping on the way home from work; it’s a beautiful thing.

[pullquote]“Children are supposed to go to school, and then they need to rest. They need time for recreation… they learn from playing.  Where is the time left in the day for the child to go and sell if you are to make sure your child gets all these requirements?”[/pullquote]

That beauty, however, is marred by one significant fact: many of these vendors are young enough to be in primary school.  Kids aged as low as five are in the streets every day, selling wares ranging from water sachets to packs of gum.  When I was five, I was doing a lot of things.  Risking my life darting between trucks that can’t see me while simultaneously missing out on an education was not one of them.

“We’re aware that kids are being made to sell on the streets,” says Mr. Jacob Achulo, Director of Social Welfare for the Ashanti Region.  “Mostly it’s their parents who push them to do it because they are poor and need money to supplement feeding.  This is not right.  If you are not able to look after your children, then you should not bring children into the world.”

Achulo points out that constitutionally, Ghanaian law prohibits anyone from exposing children to physical and moral dangers, both of which he says are prevalent in street vending.

“Children can be knocked down by vehicles or attacked by thieves,” says Achulo.  “The girls can be lured or tricked by men into situations and then sexually abused…We are making our children to do the work of adults.  Children are innocent, they don’t know.  They think every adult is their mommy and daddy.”

Esther Ayariga* is in JHS1 (the equivalent of grade seven in Canada.)  She sells sachet water by the Prempeh II roundabout, making about three cedis ($2 CAD) a day.  Ayariga says she is often propositioned by men from their vehicles.

“They tell me that I’m beautiful or they want to marry me,” says Ayariga.  “Sometimes it worries me.  I told my grandmother but she tells me not to mind them.”

Ayariga says she heads to the roundabout to sell water every day after classes, always for long hours and often in overwhelming heat before returning home.  There, she washes the dishes, cleans the compound where she lives, and does her homework before going to bed.  This type of demanding schedule is another major concern for Social Welfare.

“Children are supposed to go to school, and then they need to rest,” says Achulo.  “They need time for recreation… they learn from playing.  Where is the time left in the day for the child to go and sell if you are to make sure your child gets all these requirements?”

Ayariga says she loves going to school, and hopes to follow the example of her older sister, who is a full-time student in senior high school.  For now, however, Ayariga says she will continue to sell water to help out the family.

“I don’t always rush home from school to sell the water,” she laughs, “but we need the money.”

For Achulo, this is precisely the mentality that his office is trying to fight against.

“All work and no play, your child will become dull…You have decided to choose, instead of the child’s betterment in the future, you have chosen money for today.”

*name changed to protect identity

A child, still in her school uniform, selling sachet water on the streets of Kumasi. PC: Lin Abdul Rahman

Elephants, Crocodiles, Warthogs and More at Mole National Park

One of the highlights of our week off was getting to travel up north to visit Mole National Park, Ghana’s largest wildlife reserve.  Leah and I had a bit of an adventure getting there, a combination of GMT and general misinformation from well-meaning locals about transportation and whatnot, but the travel woes are really all part of the fun, when you look at things in perspective.  In any case, Mole was worth it.  Home to over 90 mammal species and at least 344 bird species, we were taken on a lengthy walking tour through a micro fraction of the park’s most immediate waterholes by Yamoah, our mandatory armed ranger guide.  Here’s a small portion of what we saw.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilMWUP0jCdk

Exploring primary education in northern Ghana

I had the chance to travel north last week and visit some schools in Bolgatanga, including a private academy and some public primaries.  Largely, the perception is schools up north lack funding and government support, and as such are often ill equipped and inadequate to provide quality education to their students.  I wanted to see this for myself.

[pullquote]“Private schools charge fees and can motivate their teachers [with higher pay.]  Ours are assigned by Ministry of Education and aren’t paid much.”[/pullquote]

At Great Victory Academy, I was viewed with suspicion, and the administration didn’t seem overly excited to accommodate me, though they allowed me a quick interview and a few photos.  At Adabase Primary, however, I was treated like a special guest (which, in hindsight, I suppose I was,) and was given freedom to roam around, take pictures, and talk to teachers.  Aside from an obvious bias on my part as to which school I preferred, I found interview subjects from both institutes to be knowledgeable, well spoken, and insightful on the topic of primary education in the northern regions.

Great Victory Academy

“Our students are very excellent,” said Mr. Kris Joseph Akubah, director of Great Victory Academy, one of northern Ghana’s more prestigious primary and junior secondary institutes.  “They are selected through a series of exams to attend this school, but they also need to be able to afford the fees.”

While public primary and junior secondary schools are now fully funded by the government, according to Akubah, private schools receive little to no funding.  This often results in financial hardships for families if they wish to continue sending their children to the elite school.

“Our students get no funding from anywhere,” said Akubah.  “Even if they are geniuses, they don’t receive funding.”

Costs range upwards of 110 cedis (70 CAD) per term for primary school students, and 125 cedis per term for junior secondary students.  This is in addition to uniform costs, school materials, food, and transportation.  Of course, the expenses testify to the product.

“Our teachers are the best of the best,” said Akubah.  “They are not doing national service, they are trained educators.  They don’t have time to do anything else than teach, so they put all their attention into it.”

Students working hard on English in a P5 class at Great Victory Academy

Adabase Primary School

“Our teachers aren’t always motivated,” said Ayishetu Mahama, head mistress of Adabase Primary School.  “Private schools charge fees and can motivate their teachers [with higher pay.]  Ours are assigned by Ministry of Education and aren’t paid much.”

On the other hand, students don’t have to pay as much either.  A capitation grant introduced by the last federal government gives about 3.50 cedis a year to each student for sports and culture subsidies, which actually go a fair way.  The government also provides uniforms and exercise books, though the latter are limited and often students have to resort to writing on any paper they can find.  That being said, public school students still pay for other school materials, exam fees, food, and transportation, all of which add up.  It’s a necessary price to pay for education, but the problem, said Mahama, is most parents don’t see the use of education.

“They don’t see the point,” said Mahama, “and because they don’t see the point, they won’t cooperate.  They won’t feed their kids in the morning, they won’t buy them pencils.  Kids will walk one mile to school and haven’t eaten.  This is not healthy.”

However, Mahama doesn’t lay all the blame with the parents.

“They can’t provide what they don’t have.  The poverty level here is too high.  That’s why we need the government to do more.  They’ve done something, but they need to do more.  These kids need it.”

Usefa, 3, does his drawing on the veranda because there's no paper, and no classroom, for that matter.

Going to school in Bolgatanga

Last week I had the opportunity to travel up north to Tamale, Bawku, and Bolgatanga.  Along the way, I checked out the school situation as I’d been told that the standards and conditions of the educational system up north left something to be desired in comparison to the rest of Ghana.  In truth, what I saw wasn’t all that different from the primary schools I’ve seen in Kumasi and Accra, although the kids made do with less.  See for yourself what a typical school day looks like in Bolgatanga.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_urcgPNXjI

Happy Birthday, Kapital Radio

Friday, July 1, was Canada Day.  It also happened Ghana’s anniversary, known as Republic Day.  But perhaps most importantly, it was Kapital Radio’s 14th anniversary, and we partied like it was 2011 (it is.)  One of the major focuses of the day was putting people on air who generally have no business being on air (for highlights of Leah and I stumbling our way through a newscast, check out her video blog).

Here we have morning show host Kwadwo, along with news editor Erastus and a former Kapital employee whose name I didn’t catch, engaging in some musical mischief while sports editor Ben provides the dancing.  Station manager NBY’s kids wrap things up with their version of a Kapital jingle.   Happy birthday, Kapital Radio.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8UU9VFzhpE

A Christian and a Muslim walk into a bar…: religious harmony in Ghana from a Muslim perspective

[pullquote]“The Qur’an commands us to live next to them, to be kind to them, to do justice to them.  We eat their food and marry their children.  They attend our ceremonies and we attend theirs.  Our children go to Christian schools.”[/pullquote]

In Ghana, there’s no questioning that religion plays a big role in things – it informs political decisions, defines cultural practices, and sets societal standards.  From billboards to taxis, religion is everywhere.  One of my preferred pastimes during the long trek to and from work is to see what kind of religious names cabdrivers have named their cars; so far, some of the best ones include Holy Spirit Makes Me Fast, God’s Chariot, and my personal favourite, Jesus Power.

It is thought that about 68 per cent of Ghanaians are Christians, and at least 25 per cent are Muslims, with higher concentrations of Muslims in the north.  Before we came, I was concerned with how this might affect traveling throughout the country; would Lin be hassled down south because she was a Muslim, and would my Christianity be accepted up north?  I had been keeping up to date with the happenings in Nigeria, the country most often compared to Ghana, where tensions between Muslim rebels and the Christian government have reached deadly levels in the past months.

Then I got to Ghana, and all of my fears were alleviated.  If there were ever a model for peaceful coexistence in a country, I found it in Ghana.  In Canada, conflict between Christianity and Islam, two religions with an uneasy history, is avoided mostly by exactly that: avoidance.  Muslims go to mosque, Christians go to church, and they generally don’t associate too much outside of a professional context.  There isn’t dialogue, there’s no framework in place to encourage religious harmony; religious tolerance is all that’s expected.

Not so in Ghana.  Here, Muslims and Christians live side by side, often in the same compounds, sharing meals, laughs, and as it turns out, family.

“In Ghana here, since we have been born our fathers have lived peacefully with the Christians,” says Alhaji Mohammed Abdul Wahab, Deputy Iman of the Ashanti Region.  “The Qur’an commands us to live next to them, to be kind to them, to do justice to them.  We eat their food and marry their children.  They attend our ceremonies and we attend theirs.  Our children go to Christian schools.”

When I press him about what the Qur’an says about sharing the Muslim faith, something that the Bible is very adamant about for Christianity, Abdul Wahab quotes me a verse from the holy text he has been studying for most of his life.

“There is no compulsory religion,” he says.  “I won’t force you to come on the right path.  It is open, and if you see it, you will come.”

It’s a startlingly refreshing perspective on such a historically volatile issue, one that has been the cause of many global conflicts for centuries.  I decide to poach the elephant in the room, and mention the Crusades, Israel and Palestine, 9/11, threats of Qur’an burnings in Florida, bringing it all home by pointing out the religious blood feud currently taking place a couple of countries over.

Abdul Wahab sighs.

“It’s not a religious conflict,” he says, contradicting everything and anything I’ve ever known about Christian-Muslim tensions.  “If you go down to the roots, you will find other reasons – tribal, ethnic, political.  People just want to mask things with religion, to hide behind it.”

“What is going on in the world, it worries us.  We don’t know what it will bring tomorrow.  But here in Ghana, we will continue to do as God commands.  We will continue to live in brotherhood.”

Imam Abdul Wahab says he considers Christian Ghanaians to be his brothers and sisters. The world could learn a few things.

Charity and M'Adyoa

Mental illness still widely misunderstood in Ghana

This past week was a bit of a learning experience.

I learned that in Ghana, many children with mental disabilities are thought to be ‘water babies,’ or demon-possessed witch children.  I learned that most parents will leave such newborns at orphanages or children’s homes, though occasionally, kids are simply taken into the bush and left to die.  I learned that education about mental disabilities in Ghana is still relatively basic, and I learned that the current state of affairs can only improve if there is an improvement in public awareness.

I also learned that there is hope.  Operation Hand in Hand was started in 1992 by a Dutch doctor named Ineke Bosman as a shelter for mentally disabled orphans.  It’s now a permanent care home to 65 kids and adults and 31 caregivers.  Leah and I had the opportunity to visit and stay overnight at the shelter’s guesthouse in Nkoranza this past weekend, and it gave us a glimpse, albeit fleeting, into the world of 65 people who have been abandoned by their families, but adopted into a new one.  To see more of the Operation Hand in Hand community, check out Leah’s video blog here.

Operation Hand in Hand have seen many mentally disabled children pass through its front gates.

What we saw at Operation Hand in Hand was inspiring, but also a painful reminder of the challenges that still face mentally disabled people in Ghana.

“People are afraid of these children,” said Samuel Beffo, Operation Hand in Hand’s project director.  “When they have children like this, they send them to the hospital and then run away so [hospital authorities] can’t trace the family.”

The kids, who come from all over the country, are affected by a variety of illnesses, most commonly Down’s Syndrome or autism.  Beffo said the majority of cases are sent to Operation Hand in Hand by either the Department of Social Welfare or Health Services.  However, he stresses that merely sending mentally disabled kids to the community is not enough.

“Ghana is not helpful to the mentally handicapped,” said Beffo.  “The government simply [doesn’t] care.  Even the funds we are using to support this place, none come from the Ghanaian government.”

Instead, Beffo said the camp is funded by donations from all over the world, including Germany, Holland, and the United States, and the children are sponsored by “adoptive families” who send about $50 a month.  The kids’ caregivers are comprised of both international and Ghanaian volunteers.

Charity Asabea belongs to the latter group.  The 31-year-old Nkoranza native was originally hired at Operation Hand in Hand in 2003 to be a receptionist.  Asabea admitted that at first, she had reservations about working at a shelter for mentally disabled children.

“Before I came here, I had never seen such a child before,” said Asabea, “but one of my friends told me, ‘Just come and try it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”

Clearly, Asabea liked it, and eight years later, she is still at the shelter, where she is the head hostess and also the caregiver to a child, 16-year-old M’Adyoa.

“She calls me ‘Mommy,” said Asabea of M’Adyoa, who suffers from autism and epilepsy.  “I just call her M’Adyoa.”

When I asked her M’Adyoa’s last name, Asabea smiled.

“Bosman,” she said.  “All the children here are named after Dr. Bosman, because when they came, they were orphans.  Now, they have joined a family.”

Charity and M'Adyoa with big smiles for the camera!

Monkey Business

Leah and I took a little adventure north this past weekend to the peaceful town of Nkoranza, a staging area to get to the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary.  It was a great little getaway, made all the more rewarding that we got to see some Ghanaian wildlife aside from house lizards.  These guys reminded me of multiple Curious Georges swinging from a tree, minus the man in the yellow hat.  See for yourself.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPrO2_Q4YAE