Author Archives: James Munson

About James Munson

Learning the way the world works first-hand drives James Munson's passion for journalism. After graduating from the University of King’s College in 2008, he headed west to Denver to work for the Hill Times, where he finagled a ticket to hear Barack Obama accept the presidential candidacy. His impulse then lead him north to the Yukon News in Whitehorse, where he cut his teeth as an investigative reporter and feature writer. He won the 2010 Ma Murray award in environmental writing for a story about the premier’s hand in suppressing the advice of scientists who recommended protecting the Peel watershed from mining. He also exposed the premier’s negotiations to sell the Yukon’s public power utility in 2009. James and the premier are no longer speaking. His experience in northern Canada has prepared him for the rigours of Tamale in northern Ghana—he thrives on living in a strange places in strange times doing exhilarating work. He’s looking forward to working at Diamond FM where he hopes to focus his work on politics and governance issues.

Does a witch have human rights?

When a young girl was killed in Kasalgu, a tiny village in rural Ghana, no one thought to call the police or hire a lawyer.

Instead they went to the chief.

It’s the dry season in Kasalgu and people here are preparing their crops of maize and yam in yellow fields of sun-stroked earth. And though it’s only a 20 minute drive outside of Tamale, Ghana, the biggest city in the country’s north, people here live by their own traditional rules, honed by time and experience.

To outside eyes, Kasalgu was dealing with a murder. But no one here would call it that. They call it witchcraft.

Because it’s witchcraft, the chief and his elders are in charge. If the village believed it had a murder on its hands (which does happen), the police and the courts would have been called.

These two worlds provide the rules in Kasalgu, and knowing why one trumps the other isn’t clear to outsiders. So Diamond FM reporter Kizito Abagoami and I have come to speak with the chief’s brother to find out what happened.

Around a month ago, two young girls became sick and were sent to a clinic. One of them died. Following the death, a rumour swirled that a woman had poisoned them by putting pesticide in their porridge that day.

A mob formed to catch the now-labelled witch and they forced her from her home. She was flogged and taken to the chief.

The chief asked for evidence from the doctor who treated the girls, and the doctor said they were probably poisoned.

Then, the woman’s daughter, who was the one who prepared the porridge the day the two girls grew sick, confessed that her mother had told her to put pesticide in the food.

The chief considered this evidence, his brother told us.  He decided the appropriate punishment for this witchcraft was banishment, and the woman was sent out of Kasalgu with her youngest child.

Where do human rights fit in this situation – when the institutions that go hand in hand with their protection are not even considered legitimate

Moses in chains

Pastor Serwaa knew two journalists were coming to interview her. God told her before Kizito Abagoami, a Diamond FM reporter, and I arrived.

Sitting in a plastic chair under the shade of an awning, Serwaa looks middle-aged and is dressed plainly in a white gown resembling a nighty. She granted us an interview, which was, to our minds, unannounced. She opens our chat with a quick prayer, and offers us seats in the massive warehouse she calls her church. It’s gilded in gold and silver-coloured metal and can seat around three hundred people. The money to build the church, she says, came from God.

She barely smiles or frowns during our discussion, keeping her face tight and focused when asked questions. Though she speaks English, she answers in her native Twi, the language spoken mostly in southern Ghana. She seems quietly testy during our interview, and midway through she leaves to find a moustachioed policeman, an elder at the church, to oversee the talk.

She’s been working with God for nine years, she says, but it was four years ago that he told her to open this church. He did it in his typically cryptic fashion. He sent her five phone numbers and one of them belonged to the chief of a village on the outskirts of Tamale, the biggest city in Ghana’s north. She jumped on the miracle and soon opened her church right here in the middle of fertile farmland.

Serwaa’s specialty as spiritual leader is healing, though, she admits, the advice often relayed to her from God is to send the sick person to the hospital. She offers two photos of a young woman in a yellow dress. The earlier one has the woman on crutches. The second one has the woman standing upright. She only took three weeks to heal, says Serwaa. The photos (same dress, same place, same time of day) look like they were taken within minutes of each other.

Next she hands us a photo of a woman with a basketball-sized pus-riddled growth on her behind. She passes us the photo without flinching, like it couldn’t possibly be one of the most grotesque things we’ve ever seen. We’re told this woman was also cured at this church, but she was too shy to take any post-healing shots, says Serwaa. Too bad, it would have made great proof.

These patients, or victims, depending on how you look at it, are just strangers to Kizito and I. Our ultimate goal is to speak to a real-live person who could provide a better idea of how Serwaa works. He’s an old friend, 20-year-old Moses Attim, the shy but pleasant former technical assistant for Kizito’s video production company.

When Moses appears in the doorway of the church, he smiles as if it were old times. But his appearance quickly becomes unsettling. He’s wearing a red shirt and slacks, but on his wrist is a dog chain. The loose end is slung around his neck. In his hand he’s carrying a frayed copy of the Bible that has been violently scribbled with a blue pen.

If you can’t already tell, Moses doesn’t suffer from growths or broken ankles. In May this year, it was his brain that began to break up. He started hearing voices and seeing hallucinations.

Sitting on a bench in his fenced-in compound, Moses mumbles his replies to our questions. He was always introverted, but now he can barely say anything in a strong voice unless it has to do with praising God and Christianity.

When Moses began experiencing schizophrenia-like symptoms, his father only waited a week before deciding the pharmaceutical drugs from the psychiatric hospital weren’t helping his son. So he sent him to Serwaa who now guides him through prayers, Bible readings and counselling.

And then there’s the chains. The shocking, cheap-looking chains are wrapped around the wrist of a young man who seemed so normal just a few months ago. Seeing them is not like stepping back in time or in another culture, it’s like stepping into another world, Serwaa’s world.

Moses says the chains are usually tied to something in his room and they’re there to keep him from running away. Serwaa also used to put one on his ankle but he took it off.

He told us he wished the chain on his wrist was off, but he later reneged.

“I feel if (the chain) is here, I will be healed,” he says. “So I feel I should not remove it until the Lord moves to remove it. That is what (Serwaa) is saying herself.”

As Moses walked us around the compound and finally toward Kizito’s motorbike, he carried his chain and his molested Bible along with him everywhere. With a broken mind and a family that didn’t see anything wrong with his treatment, Moses could be here for a long time.

As we shook hands one last time, Moses left me with that haunting smile once again – the one that pretends like it were old times, looking like he’d forgot where he was and what brought him here.

Moses Attim sits inside the compound of Pastor Serwaa's church with Kizito Abagoami, a reporter with Diamond FM

The strange death of Safianu Adam

On the evening of March 29th, a cab driver named Safianu Adam walked into an anti-government riot in Tamale, one of Ghana’s biggest cities.

Not only after he arrived in the riot’s epicentre – a downtown intersection filled with massive tire fires and men wielding weapons – he was killed.

Safianu would be the only person to die

Safianu Adam’s grandmother, Samalatu Yawuza, and his eldest child, Sahada Adam, lost the only breadwinner in their family when Safianu died in a riot in March

in the violence, his body left bleeding on a sidewalk after soldiers arrived to quash the rioting that night.

The odd circumstances surrounding Safianu’s death have led his family to accuse the country’s military of fatally shooting him and the police of aiding in a cover-up.

While the authorities’ silence and lazy investigation of Safianu’s death make it difficult to ever know the truth, their contradictory explanations of what happened have kept suspicions high in Tamale, a volatile region inside of one of Africa’s most stable countries.

Safianu, who was in his early thirties, was a long-distance driver who typically left home before dawn after his early morning prayers, said his family in an interview. He would drive passengers from town to town throughout northern Ghana, making enough money to support his children, sisters, mother and grandmother.

On the night Safianu died, he arrived in Tamale after finishing a gruelling day on the road and decided to join friends to watch an international soccer match in one of the popular satellite TV spots found everywhere along the city’s side streets.

But at some point during the game, Safianu left to go see riots that had erupted in the city’s downtown core, his friends told the family. He walked into one of the most dangerous parts of the riot, an intersection in front of Tamale’s busy central market.

Young men had dragged tires in the middle of intersections and set them alight, blocking traffic into the city. The violence was only directed at property and no one had yet been reported injured when he arrived.

That’s because most people there that night were on the same side. They were Andanis, the majority sect of the region’s largest tribe, who were upset at how the government was handling the trial of 14 men suspected to have murdered their chief nine years ago.

Not long after Safianu arrived in the intersection, a military truck pulled in with soldiers firing their guns in the air. They deployed and began clearing people from the scene so the fires could be eventually extinguished.

Gunshots rang out for the next 20 minutes while people scattered. When it was over, Safianu’s body lay face down on the sidewalk, his blood running down the cement into the nearby gutter. A soldier stood in front of the body while onlookers filled the intersection again.

The family was told by friends that Safianu had been shot by a soldier in the neck. They were also the ones who provided information on his whereabouts that night.

I witnessed the scene at the intersection before and after he died was witnessed during Diamond FM’s coverage of the riots. Diamond FM is Journalists for Human Rights’ media house partner in Tamale.

Those accounts contrast with what the police told Safianu’s family the next day.

His mother, Saratu Adam, received a call from Safianu’s cell phone early the following morning, she said.

The police were on the other line and they told her that Safianu had been cut by a dagger but was still alive. She left for the police station immediately.

At the station, they told her she couldn’t see him because he was undergoing medical treatment. After pleading in vain to see her son, she returned home and a group of male relatives were sent to deal with the police.

By then, the body had been moved to the mortuary. A doctor who was flown from southern Ghana to perform an autopsy found two bullets in Safianu’s body, said Saratu.

She also claims that when the doctor gave them the bill for the autopsy, the family refused to pay, claiming the military had shot their son and they had no responsibility to foot the bill. According to her, someone from the military paid the doctor instead of the family.

Attempts to take the military to court have so far failed, said Saratu. In the meantime, the family is struggling to feed themselves after losing the household’s only breadwinner.

The police have been even more confusing when explaining what happened to the media.

According to news reports the day after the rioting, police said he had been cut by a dagger.

But in an interview several months after the riot, the police admitted that Safianu had been shot.

The night of the rioting, the call that lead police to Safianu’s body indicated someone had been shot, said Chief Inspector Eben Tetteh, the public relations officer for the police in northern Ghana.

After picking up the body, “it was concluded that someone indeed was shot and the body was examined and taken to the Teaching Hospital,” said Tetteh.

He did not know whether the police told Saratu her son had been cut, he said.

There was always the possibility that the victim had been stabbed and that’s why a qualified autopsy doctor was brought in, he said.

In June, Tetteh told the press that a police investigation was still going on. But in a follow-up interview held a month later with Adam’s family, relatives said no one from the police had yet shown up at the family home.

As for the military, they’ve tried their best to remain silent.

Captain Dam Parbi, the public relations officer for the army in northern Ghana, refused comment.

An internal report on the incident was filed and sent to military headquarters in the capital, Accra, he said.

No one from headquarters was available for comment.

The little business people of Bolgatanga

Underage head porters in northern Ghana sell water sachets and fruit on the streets. Others, like the girl above with a barbeque, help to move heavy goods. Photo by Hez Holland.

Street children who hawk goods in Bolgatanga, the capital of Ghana’s Upper East region, have a hierarchy to climb if they want to make money.

At the bottom rung, initiates usually begin by helping people carry heavy goods, especially around the city’s busy bus and taxi station.

They then graduate to selling things like sachets of water, I’m told. But it’s stuff like oranges that bring in bigger profits.

You can usually buy seven or six orange for fifty peswas, which equates roughly to $0.30 CAD, says Azure Akolgo, 13. Then, a vendor can resell three or four oranges for fifty peswas, he adds, which doubles their profit.

Azure and his friends tell me more about the business of selling goods on the street: banding together to help each other out, placing orders with the dealers who travel out of town and the risk of selling perishable food.

It’s all kind of astonishing—you have to remind yourself that these kids are all preteens.

But the crash course in business these children received from spending their childhood on the street is pretty much the only good thing about it. They’re robbed of the horizons school provides and are left in an endless cycle of selling cheap goods.

Aisha Imora, 12, tells me what put her to work in the first place.

“We were not getting food to eat,” she said. “That’s why we decided to go to the streets and see if we could see somebody on the streets carrying heavy things, maybe we can help that person and that person can give us some money so we can eat and feed ourselves.”

She was five at the time, she said. Her father died and her mother also sold goods on the street.

But today, the children I’m speaking to are far away from their usual haunts.

They’re getting their first field trip ever—a tour of the Vea-Gowrie dam and pumping station, which provides water to the northern city Bolgatanga. The trip has been organized by a British child rights NGO, Afrikids.

For kids who have only attended school sporadically, if at all, it’s a stark departure from their normal lives.

And they don’t pass up the opportunity. The dam’s staff are peppered with questions as they head through the wet and noisy pumping station.

Azure, who told me earlier he wanted to become an engineer when he grows up, asks questions you’d expect from a full-time student.

“What happens when water gets in the pump?” he asks, and the pumping expert explains how to prevent water getting into the system.

The kids are all part of a project called “The School of Night Rabbits,” a program that offers night classes twice a week by Afrikids. The children sell goods during the day and go to class at night.

It’s become a stepping stone for children trying to escape the necessity of working on the street.

Azure’s mind is in full bloom during the field trip, proving he has more potential than selling fruit. In a world stratified by wealth, school is often the only ladder that crosses through the hierarchy.

Gadhafi fever hits northern Ghana

Anti-western anger over NATO strikes in Libya has crossed the Sahara and sparked protests in northern Ghana.

Hundreds of people marched in Tamale on last month with placards that read: “We support (Moammar) Gadhafi” and “Stop the War on Islam.”

In the past several months, as rebels groups first protested and then fought Gadhafi’s forces, people in Tamale seemed supportive of the uprising.

In most conversations, Ghanaians had disdain for a man who has ruled Libya for four decades.

But last week’s fervour shows that regional and religious solidarity holds sway in many circles here too.

“The main point is that America, the UK and France, they should not be there,” said Mohammed Omar Sharif, a protest organizer in Tamale.

“They should leave Africa to Africans.”

Muslims are the majority in this region of Ghana. The call to prayer echoes across the city throughout the day and people pray on mats outside their shops in rows.

But the attitude towards non-Muslims is peaceful. Marrying Christians is permitted in some cases and the city’s mosques welcome non-Muslims interested in learning Islamic prayer.

That’s what made last month’s protests so out of the ordinary.They were an uncharacteristic display of suspicion towards the West.

“[The Libyan war] is an attack on Islam,” said Sharif.

The fact that the rebels fighting Gadhafi are Muslims too and that they requested help from the West didn’t faze Sharif; he dismissed them as trouble makers.

“Nobody in the world likes rebels,” he said. “And these are not [the West’s] rebels. So why are they there?”

“They said Gadhafi is killing people. But now that (NATO) is there, they are killing even more people.”

If the Western powers pull out, peace and harmony would surely come, he said.

“Gadhafi’s people, they are more,” he said. “There are more of them. So they should let them be.”

Last month, the New York Times reported that pro-Gadhafi mercenary recruitment groups were popping up in Mali, hoping to go to Libya and join the fight.

But Sharif says he doesn’t know about any Ghanaians crossing the desert to support the dictator.

“I don’t know about that one,” said Sharif. “We are fighting with our prayers to god. As for going over there, we have not sent people there. Not yet.”

Local newspapers report that around 16,000 Ghanaians have returned from Libya since the fighting began.

The repatriated Ghanaians will likely shape opinions here too as they begin telling family and friends about their experiences.

On the same day as the protests, a young man came into the radio station where I’m working, Diamond FM.

He had been working in Libya and just got home, surprising friends who work here.

After a few hugs, the inevitable question came up.

“So are you Benghazi or Gadhafi?” said a co-worker here at Diamond.

“Oh, I’m Gadhafi,” he said.

They share a laugh, which, like the protest itself, shows how healthy Ghana’s democracy is when it comes to political differences.

Meet the chief

A dance competition hosted by a Tamale chief in Ghana's north. Photo by James Munson.

Sitting on a bench inside the chief’s palace, daily life of Tamale’s first family looked pretty routine.

Women cooked on open fires and children chased a chicken around the yard.

But the details tell another story. Instead of thatched hay, most of the roofs are made of shiny tin. The paint job is clean and the entire compound is slightly elevated.

Slowly, the formality of meeting the chief began to dawn on me. I realized I had walked into the inner rings of what held this place together.

The seriousness of it all—which I admire—continued to seep in.

When the chief was ready, we were taken into a room where several men sat on the ground. They faced a television playing a European soccer game.

And on the opposite wall sat the chief, high upon a dark red chair, with his feet on a stool.

We began by speaking through an intermediary, his secretary.

“You have taken us by surprise, showing up like this,” said the secretary.

Oh god, I thought. I’ve offended the chief and now I’m going to be run out of town.

“There are formalities wherever you go in the world.” Now the chief was speaking directly to me. “You must respect them.”

I hadn’t followed the proper chain of command to gain entry and was told to use it from now on. That was fine – the point of all this was to learn.

Then, to my surprise, I was offered an invitation.

“This afternoon, the chief is hosting a dance competition that began during the Damba festival,” said the secretary. “The chief has invited you.”

Just before 3:30, I returned to the palace grounds. Before I had a chance to orient myself, one of the men who marched into the compound earlier that day grabbed my hand.

“Come with me,” he said.

He led me to the rows of seats huddled under a covered roof. Behind, there was an elevated platform, where the chief would sit.

As the dance drew near, many of the revered men of the community began taking seats around me. Most of the crowd sat outside in the sun. I began to feel like a foreign dignitary, representing some strange, white-skinned people from a freezing country far away from here.

A man told me to take pictures so I can share his culture. I confirmed with the secretary, who wore a flowing burgundy smock.

“You are the chief’s personal guest,” he said. “It is permitted.”

The chief’s procession then came out, lead by some of the more august men from the morning. He walked underneath a green and yellow umbrella, and wore dark sunglasses.

He sat on the platform behind me, which had been furnished with a black and gold chair, a green carpet and a stool.

Now all was in place, and the drums began and the dancers came out.

The competitors arrived on the scene in the bravest garb I’ve ever seen. This was the way men were meant to dress, I thought.

They wore giant smocks, puffy pants that look like pantaloons and cowboy boots. For the next several hours, they pleased the crowd with their mastery of the Dagomba people’s traditional dances.

It was dark by the time it was all over. The winning dancer was crowned and the crowd exploded into jubilation as he was given his prize, a brand-new motorcycle.

The day felt like a journey into the city’s soul.

Needless to say, Tamale’s many bars and drinking spots have lost their exotic glean.

Footsoldiers erupt

Ghana's ruling NDC party is being blamed for not supporting "footsoldiers" who contributed to the party's 2009 election campaign

A couple of hours before my first day on the job at Tamale’s Diamond FM, a posse of political activists stormed the station.

They were footsoldiers from the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the governing party in Ghana.

While the term footsoldiers might sound a bit militant to western ears, here it refers to grassroots party volunteers who do the grunt work at election time.

Trouble has been brewing among their ranks in Tamale, the hub of Ghana’s northern region.

They feel cheated and abandoned by the party they helped win power in the last general election in 2008.

They say the party higher-ups aren’t spreading newfound opportunities down to their level, and they’ve begun to take things into their own hands.

In mid-January, they started stealing cars from senior NDC members—cars purchased by the party and then sold to executives through auctions.

On the day I showed up for work, a high-ranking member of NDC was criticizing the thefts on Diamond FM’s morning talk show.

It wasn’t long before the footsoldiers arrived on the scene. They claimed the NDC was lying, and the guest had to be locked in the studio until the police came.

Needless to say, fighting within the party could jeopardize people’s faith in the democratic process by promoting partisanship.

A reporter from Diamond FM and I decided to investigate the issue. We found two very different versions of the supposed “deal” between footsoldiers and the party during election time.

The trio of footsoldiers we interviewed said they were promised many things for their work, chief among them jobs.

But they readily admit they’re not educated and can only do unskilled labour. Any growth in the economy hasn’t come to them, and no programs for people without high school certificates have been put in place.

The regional secretary for the NDC, Alhaji Umar, says because footsoldiers are mostly unskilled labourers, they often can’t be hired by the government once in power.

It’s not clear who should be blamed for the impasse.

On its face, the party shouldn’t be hiring people it can’t help in the future.

Party executives deny their not helping out the footsoldiers or failing to communicate honestly about what to expect after an election.

But as the more educated branch of the party, they have some duty to make sure those who work under them are clear on the rules of engagement.

The party is trying to speak with footsoldiers and explain to them that the fighting hurts the party, said Mr. Umar, the NDC regional secretary.

That might be the best strategy—all the footsoldiers we spoke to said they were diehard NDC members and would never change parties.

And there’s some sign it might be working.

The party has been speaking with frustrated footsoldiers and some seized vehicles have been returned, said Mr. Umar.

But those claims were difficult to verify by the time we wanted to publish the story.

With five months to go here in Tamale, the reporters at Diamond FM and I will try to dig deeper into which side checks out.

Nothing wasted

Kofi Akose repairs and sells used shoes near the Tamale market in northern Ghana

By James Munson

Every day, he sits outside the office on a small concrete stump with his hands wrapped around some old shoe.

Sometimes he’s burning one with a lighter. Other times he’s tying two sections of a shoe together.

Kofi Akose, 28, is one of Tamale’s many cobblers.

“I learned this as a small child and that’s how I started this work,” he says.

His outfit is as small as a business gets. It’s just him, a small bag and a few pairs of shoes. But what’s remarkable about Kofi’s entrepreneurship is that he has a business at all.

In Tamale, in northern Ghana, there are tons of shoe dealers selling new makes—you’d never think there would be much need for cobblers.

But the recycled shoe economy is everywhere here, and it speaks to people’s disdain for wasting things. People will always fix something before throwing it out.

Compare this to Canada, where shoe repair is practically non-existent.

Shoe sellers in Tamale are in that category of near-ubiquitous dealers, not quite as populous as the cell phone credit sellers, but up there with the sunglass vendors and plug-adapter carts.

And Kofi himself is not alone in the cobbling business.There’s at least a dozen in the few streets surrounding the Diamond FM newsroom, where I’m working.

Today Kofi has three pairs on display: a pair of plastic flip flops and two pairs of sandals with blue tartan fabric.

He shows me how he puts a broken shoe back together.

He pulls out a long metal needle with a wooden handle from his bag. He pokes through the plastic sole, pulling a string through it and the tartan fabric on top.

“This and weaving is all the same,” he says.

For the last few days, he’s sat with the same several pairs of shoes in front of him.

But he assures me he does sell. “It’s uncountable,” he says, on the amount of shoes he’s sold.

The evidence of this cultural pull towards reusing things in Ghana is everywhere. People sell old remote controls, old radios and extension cords. Old anything.

The circular economy environmentalists dream about is in full force here.

Last week, a friend of mine travelled with me to Tamale from Accra, the country’s capital.

As we explored the city, one of her shoes began falling apart until finally the straps completely broke away from the soles.

She wore my sandals and went looking for a shoe seller, while I sat on the curb with her tangled sandals at my feet.

Not two seconds later a man came by and offered to fix the shoes with glue.

I declined, knowing a new pair was on its way.

But my friend, having adopted Ghanaian attitudes after six months in the country, was aghast at my refusal.

I’ve asked myself since what reason I had to refuse.

I had none. It was just a knee-jerk reaction based on the habit of throwing out broken things.

This Ghanaian aptitude for recycling is a long way from Whitehorse, Yukon, where I was living before Tamale.

The shared garbage bin used by my neighbours and I was often overflowing with broken furniture and old household appliances.

But because there’s an economy for Kofi’s wares, he recycles. He’s filling a necessity.

And the cultural ambivalence toward material things that comes with losing that necessity hasn’t hit Ghana.

Well, at least it hasn’t hit Kofi.