Author Archives: Farah Momen

The school chaplain, mathematics teacher, and some science students of Prempeh College.

No faith in science: a Homo sapien rights issue?

Evolution is accepted by 97 percent of scientists in the United States but by only 61 percent of the public, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2011 poll approximates that 14 percent of Canadians think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. In 2007, The Council of Europe adopted a resolution on the dangers of creationism: it “is worried about the possible ill-effect of the spread of creationist ideas within our education systems and about the consequences for our democracies. If we are not careful, creationism could become a threat to human rights.”

Africa is noticeably not playing a huge role in this discussion.

Ghana Education Services includes basic evolution in its biology syllabus for senior high schools. However, there is sparse data on public opinion.

Information from other countries indicates males with higher levels of education are the demographic most likely to accept evolution. With this in mind, I headed to Prempeh College, a prestigious all-boys school in Kumasi: they have produced the highest number of doctors in Ghana. Alumni include prominent professors, engineers, politicians and former President Kufuor.

The school chaplain, some science students and a mathematics teacher at Prempeh College.

“Everybody has the right to acquire whatever knowledge [they desire]… it makes the students more dynamic, having received from the religious point of view and then learned from the secular point of view, then the student can make an informed decision,” said Reverend Adomako, the school chaplain and government teacher.

Admittedly surprised by his liberal stance, I proposed a scenario to him: what if one of his students rejected Christian creationism?

“Me, as a minister who knows the right thing, I must use whatever knowledge which I have in order to convince student to change their mind… with reason. So it is up to me to prove that his or her view on that subject is wrong.”

Despite his firm belief in the Bible, he supports teaching both evolution and creationism. Eugene, 18, a hopeful surgeon, disagrees.

“We should be learning only creationism, because there’s only one truth. You can’t blend the two together.”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to answer the evolution question. Evolution is in contrast to what the Bible teaches: it says nothing was created out of love, but by chance,” added Richie, 18.

I raised the possibility that God created the mechanism of evolution, an idea that is increasingly popular in the West.

“The Christians who are embracing evolution… they’re getting it all wrong. They don’t know their Bible very well… if they want, we the Africans can teach the Bible to them,” offered John Danquah, a mathematics teacher.

“According to the Big Bang theory, the universe started at a mathematical point. That is nonsense… The Bible makes it clear it was God who created heaven and earth – science will never have any explanation for that,” he continued.

The conversation kept returning to the limits of science. Even if the origin of the earth is not known in full detail, is it possible for science to uncover it?

“It’s impossible. If it becomes possible for them to find out, they are getting to spirits, and science does not deal with spirit matters,” said Emmanuel, 17, aspiring engineer. “I believe religion more than science.”

As I interviewed the students, the Reverend and Danquah both made it clear that my efforts were futile because all the students agree with them.

They had a point, to some degree: approximately 63 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, and most Muslims believe in creationism as well. It is taught in Sunday schools, primary schools, and junior high schools. Most people I spoke with at Prempeh College gave me identical responses. Who would disagree with something so widely accepted as truth?

Manu, 18, an aspiring astrophysicist.

“I’ve learned that the world came into being through particles coming together and human beings evolving from unicellular organisms and progressing further to become who we are now… I do believe it. With evolution, we are able to learn more about living organisms.”

Like most devout Christians in the world, most Ghanaians believe in creationism. However, such a belief is an anomaly within the international scientific community, and it could be an indictment on the future of the nation’s scientific progress – it doesn’t have to be, Manu insists.

“Science and religion are not enemies. There are just some things that science is slow to understand, so religion [helps us] wait. Be patient, get knowledge, understand things.”

Matilda sitting outside the Hare Krishna temple in Emina, Kumasi.

Searching for the man with biscuits

“This man continued giving us biscuits and bananas every day for close to two weeks. So it’s like he used that way to drag so many people. And we loved the man, so every day he [saw] us there singing and dancing, chanting “Hare Krishna” until he left my village and he told us he was going back to India.”

ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness): they base their teachings on ancient texts of Hinduism (traditional scriptures such as the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita). I’ve seen them on the streets of Montreal and New York chanting “Hare Krishna!” George Harrison was a member, and the mantras are heard in some of his music. This was, until recently, the extent of my knowledge about the movement.

On July 7, ISKCON celebrated Lord Jagannath’s Ratha Yatra. Hundreds of believers from all around West Africa met in Kumasi to honor deities, pray, feed the hungry and show the public their interpretation of ancient traditions as defined by their leader, the late Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Matilda is one of these believers. She hails from Nigeria, which has a similar religious demography to Ghana (Christian and Muslim majorities). Hare Krishna missionaries visited her village when she was ten years old.

Matilda sitting outside the Hare Krishna temple in Emina, Kumasi.

As she cheerfully told me about her search for the man with biscuits, my ears perked: is that a human rights abuse? Children are a vulnerable class, and this man lured her in with baked goods. However, dancing and sharing food can be a means of expressing Hare Krishna values.

After that man left, she found another member of the movement who welcomed her to the temple. When Matilda told her Christian family that she wanted to join the Hare Krishna, she faced resistance.

“I told my mother, she got mad. ‘If you go to that place again, I will stop taking you to school. In fact, you will no longer stay with me in this house, I will chase you away,’” she recollected. My ears perked again: is that a human rights abuse? Everyone should be able to practice religion with freedom and mobility.

Eventually, her mother accepted her beliefs. Matilda finished school, became a journalist and is now dedicated devotee.

“I’m more free in the Hare Krishna movement,” she said. “Even right now, if I go to Church, I won’t be free there… I don’t want to criticize or condemn, but I won’t be free there.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I initially set out to understand religious minority experiences (which I will do in a longer documentary form) with the expectation that they are subjugated by some members of the Christian and Muslim majorities. In my four days with the Hare Krishna devotees, I spoke to members, gurus and other spiritual leaders. I saw firsthand that religious rights aren’t black and white; even calling it a gray area is an oversimplification.

It is the same conundrum posed by religious schools and missionaries: what begins as an expression of human rights can sometimes violate the very principles that protect it, and it is difficult – but important – to define the boundary, particularly in secular states.

So where do we draw the line? I don’t know. I don’t expect to answer this question. If anything, I will likely have more questions, but an open discourse is critical to preventing human rights abuses.

I do have one answer: she never did find the man with biscuits. She is, however, continuing his work. As they chanted and danced through the streets, Matilda told me it brought back happy memories of the mystery man.

Matilda reminiscing at the Ratha Yatra Festival on July 7.

 

Photo by Ohemeng Tawiah of Luv FM.

This land is your land, this land is my land


Some men wore fitted suits. Others were dressed in traditional kente clothing. The event started an hour and a half after its scheduled time.

The press conference I attended embodied the relationship between traditional customs and modern, democratic values – as well as the potential conflict between these structures. Many Ghanaians defend chief authorities, though their power has diminished over time. What happens when they meet with formal government structures? Ideally, they merge to incorporate tribal leadership and a mandate of democratic justice.

Or sometimes, they form an impetuous decision-making process that leaves a nomadic group with nowhere to go.

The Fulani are an ethnic group – a small minority in Ghana – dispersed throughout Western Africa. They are mainly nomadic pastoralists, though some lead sedentary lives and have integral roles in cattle management.

The Paramount Chief, Nana Akuoko Sarpong, had granted a fifty year lease to some Fulani herdsmen in 2006. The government can override these leases. The current system of land titling combines chiefdom authority and the British colonial practice of registering deeds.

Cattle population grew unmanageable for herdsmen and animals began escaping the allotted property. Local farmers sprayed their crops with pesticides, angering the Fulani.

“Land has traditionally been controlled according to the unique conditions pertaining to pastoral communities, which have given rise to their concept of communal property rights,” explains a report on pastoralist rights by the UNHCR. “In contrast, the Western concept of personal rights over property, which has been adopted by all states in the region, is an individual right.”

Tensions grew between these two forces, resulting in violence. There were burnt farmlands, destroyed crops, 15 cases of murder last year and one report of rape. Some crimes were committed by Agogo community members, but the Fulani are considered to be the instigators.

Demonstrations within the community effectively called for government action, a promising display of civilian power.

The regional court issued an order to “flush out all the cattle” and effectively, the Fulani people. To execute this, a committee – REGSEC – was established. They were supposed to complete an evacuation plan by February 7.

Photo by Ohemeng Tawiah of Luv FM.

“…The Committee accomplished its task; except that it took thirteen, instead of the two weeks originally assigned to submit its Report,” Alex Dary, a member of the committee read aloud.

In February, the herdsmen were given an ultimatum: they had until April 30th to vacate the area. They didn’t.

“The failure to voluntarily vacate within the stipulated timeframe will invite forceful eviction by the security,” he continued. The press conference was wrapping up. Chiefs and regional government officials were getting prepared to sign paperwork when a question from the press was taken: when will this forceful eviction take place?

They hadn’t thought about it.

They took a five minute break to decide the time frame of an evacuation plan. Ashanti Regional Minister Dr Kwaku Agyeman Mensah returned; security personnel will be on standby to flush out the cattle and herdsmen if they do not evacuate by July 21.

Perhaps Ghana can successfully maintain its cultural roots and still operate by fair, democratic principles. However, the fact that justice has been administered by holding an entire group accountable for crimes – rather than individuals – indicates there may be room for progress.

The report mentions ‘the inability of the cattle owners and herdsmen to indicate where else they will relocate since no community is prepared to tolerate them.”

Where do they go from here? The committee hasn’t decided.

Road from Jacobu to Abuakwa - Photo by Luv FM.

“The Road Not Taken”: maternal mortality in rural Ghana

My colleague and I took a two hour journey to a village outside of Kumasi to conduct interviews for his documentary on maternal mortality in the Ashanti region; we stopped at a hospital in Jacobu where the matron pointed us in the right direction.

“It’s only thirty minutes from here,” she kindly informed us.

An otherwise smooth journey began to change: potholes, ridges, unintentional speed bumps. The final thirty minute stretch felt like hours, and not just for me. My colleague, Kwabena Ampratwum, had traveled to many rural areas on similar roads but few were as rough as this.

At last, we pulled into the village of Abuakwa. Until two years ago, most pregnancies there were managed by traditional birth attendants – TBAs – who were usually untrained; then the Abuakwa Health Center opened.

Maternal mortality is seemingly low in the village: since 2010, we were told that one resident died of pregnancy complications. While this statistic sounds promising, it unfortunately does not reflect the grim reality of maternal health in the area.

The Ashanti region had 253 maternal deaths in 2011, the highest recorded in Ghana. 154 of these deaths occurred at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. Last month alone, KATH had 17 maternal deaths – including the one from Abuakwa.

Many of KATH’s cases are referrals from villages outside of Kumasi. By the time patients reach the facility, it is often too late. Part of the solution is having smoother, more efficient roads and access to vehicles. The Abuakwa Health Center does not have a car or ambulance so they depend on surrounding villages.

“The bias towards large-scale transport still exists in national governments and donor agencies, and is reflected in terms of budgets, personnel and professional training,” found a recent study from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology.

We spoke to Vida, a midwife at the center. “It becomes so difficult. Sometimes we have to send a motorbike from this town to the next village, which is almost an hour, before we can get a car to transport our clients.”

“Two weeks ago, we had a lady who was delayed in the second stage of labour,” the head nurse of the Health Center told us. “We referred her at 1 pm… we were waiting for a car, making calls… the car got here at around 5.”

They put her in a stretcher headed toward St. Peter’s Catholic Hospital in Jacobu, the first referral point. In addition to the pain of being in labour for four hours, she was taken on a turbulent route that can induce other complications for her and the child. Approximately forty minutes later, she reached Jacobu.

“The uterus could no longer contract. The lady started bleeding, so Jacobu had to refer her to Komfo Anokye,” the nurse continued.

She was then taken for an hour-long journey to Kumasi. The roads are paved but the traffic is often congested. Even when the roads are wide open, the trip is long enough to worsen critical conditions. She arrived at the hospital over six hours after her complications began.

Sadly, her story ended there.

There were multiple moments throughout the story where her life could have been saved. Inadequate resources, poor communication, and lack of personnel all likely played a role. Transportation is a particularly troubling factor, and addressing it will require a heavy reallocation of funding towards rural development.

Road from Jacobu to Abuakwa - Photo by Luv FM.

The politics of being gay

On my first day of work, I was asked how I felt about having a gay president.

The question was referring to President Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage; my reaction was some combination of nervous laughter, discomfort, denial and correction. It was the first of many conversations about Ghanaians’ attitudes toward homosexuality, which would unequivocally be deemed homophobic in North America.

It is getting close to election time here. The 2008 election had a high voter turnout – 72.91%, compared to the United States’ 56.8%. Mills’ peaceful victory was considered a redeeming display of African constitutional democracy after the corrupt elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Does a high turnout and lack of military coup during elections translate to a fair democratic state? The Constitution claims to have a commitment to “the principle of universal adult suffrage” and “the protection and preservation of fundamental human rights and freedoms.”

There are various documented ramifications of being gay in Ghana. On May 21, Joy FM aired a documentary called “The Gay Next Door” which explores the gay community in Jamestown, Accra. After the recent discovery of a “lesbian party”, gay men and women were beaten, threatened and bullied. Police officers stood by, and when victims went to police headquarters seeking justice, they were refused.

“All these gay people who are making noise are doing so because there is no law that says that it is criminal. Parliament should look at that if possible,” one listener chimed in.

The broadcaster agreed. “If the majority of people feel that it is something that is wrong and it should be criminalized, you ask your lawmakers to amend the criminal code and add it to the sexual offenses act.”

Supporting gay rights in Ghana is political suicide. Official statements against homosexuality have been made by people at local and national levels of government. In 2011, the Western Regional Minister called for the arrest of gays, and President Mills has dismissed international pressures to legalize gay rights on multiple occasions.

“Ghanaian society frowns upon homosexuality and everybody has been telling us that democracy means governance for the people, by the people in the interest of the people,” President Mills commented.

On June 4, NPP Youth Organiser in the Ashanti Region, Collins Randy Amankwa, called for a harsher statement from Mills: “Ghanaians must open their eyes wide because our president may surprise us all just like Obama did to the Americans. He went there several times to seek for help before Obama made that declaration. What if he is given a huge assistance just so he will declare our support and recognition for homosexuality?”

Regardless of the religious and cultural contexts, publicly denouncing a faction of the constituency is a way to alienate certain citizens from the political process, and I wonder if this violates Ghana’s democratic principles.

In a background note published by the UN, Diana Ayton-Shenker addresses the potential conflict between human rights and cultural diversity. “The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right.”

Ghana will see a different political climate in fifty years – the same amount of time that made President Obama’s election possible. In Ghana’s relatively new democracy, I ask a question that few nations can answer affirmatively: is it possible for a publicly gay person to be elected to office?

My colleague – the staunch opponent of legalizing homosexuality who asked me the opening question – thinks it is possible.

“I’m sure, with time. The younger generation is more liberal than the previous one. In the next fifty years, we may not have a gay president, but we will have a community that generally accepts gay rights.”

 

Ciao Kumasi!

Before arriving in Ghana two weeks ago, I was told to prepare myself for the shock: there will be harsh exhaust fumes, deafening noises, unbearable heat. The transition, in these aspects, has been gentle so far.

My senses were not overwhelmed until May 26th – the premiere of the first circus in Kumasi.

Il Florilegi is an award-winning Italian circus that tours the world and will be in Ghana for six months. It recently wrapped up in Accra and will be in Kumasi for two weeks, followed by shows in Takoradi.

I received two free tickets from Luv FM, the radio station at which I will be working for the next ten weeks. A friend and I headed over to the Centre for National Culture for the big opening. Having never been to a circus before, my friend was excited to see if it mirrored what he saw on television. Having been to multiple circuses, I braced myself for the screams of hyper children.

It was a standard circus with jugglers, trapeze acts, clowns, as well as animal acts – snakes, tigers, and a kangaroo – that have become less common in circuses due to animal rights laws in many countries. Ghana has no laws regarding animal treatment or protection; alternatively, Canada has strong animal welfare laws. In Ontario, animal abusers can face jail terms of up to two years and fines of up to $60,000.

Children, adults, expatriates and locals all cheered as performers joked, danced, and leapt through the air in bright, glittery costumes. The sounds of laughter and techno music filled the tent, likely reaching the ears of many admirers outside the Centre. Crowds of ticketless people – mostly children – surrounded the gate to get a glimpse of the circus.

Most people left the two hour show with smiles on their faces, as did I. However, I could not help but notice some irony in the event: the Centre for National Culture, formerly the Kumasi Cultural Centre, was founded by Dr. Alexander Atta Yaw Kyerematen who believed that Ghana was being engulfed by foreign cultures. The Centre opened in 1956, honoring Ghanaian culture through historical museums, crafts, zoos, theatre, dance.

The Cultural Centre, once designated for practices that teach and glorify traditional Ghanaian practices such as kente cloth making and kete drumming, was showcasing an American woman dancing to Britney Spears’ “Circus”, an Italian man demonstrating his control over four large tigers, and an awkward, lone kangaroo.

International events are more common in Accra (Bow Wow and Keri Hilson were performing at the Accra International Conference Centre that same night); they are infrequent in Kumasi, a city that heavily values Ashanti history and customs.

It will be interesting to see if this is a sign of increasing international influence in Kumasi, a city that blends traditionalism, modernity, royalty and democracy.