Author Archives: Jessica McDiarmid

About Jessica McDiarmid

Jessica McDiarmid graduated from the University of King's College in 2007. Prior to joining jhr, she worked in various news outlets, including the Hamilton Spectator and the Canadian Press. She has also had numerous other occupations, including waitress, aquarist, receptionist and kindergarten classroom assistant. She is stationed in Accra, Ghana.

Freetown workers protest after six months without salaries

Poindexter Sama

More than 100 city workers gathered outside Freetown's council to demand their salaries. It's been six months since city workers were paid. (Photo by: Poindexter Sama)

Story by: Jessica McDiarmid & Poindexter Sama

Annie Kargbo has spent the last 18 years sweeping the streets of Freetown, earning up to 100,000 Leones (about $22) per month. She used that to buy items to sell, which made her a little more money; enough, at least, to keep her grandson in school and some food in their bellies.

But she hasn’t been paid for the last six months. She’s one of about 600 employees of the city council of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city, that haven’t received salaries for half a year.

Meanwhile, the city mayor and eight other officials are in court facing corruption charges. The prosecution says high-ranking municipal staff misappropriated public money, allegations that have not yet been proven in court.

Government in Sierra Leone often fails to pay salaries, leading to frequent labor unrest, disruption of services – and corruption. Payment of bribes for everything from a report card in school to passage through a police checkpoint remains a nearly daily occurrence for many Sierra Leoneans. Teachers, police, health workers and other public servants often cite low, or unpaid, salaries as a reason for corruption.

Kargbo’s grandson Samuel has been kicked out of school because she can’t pay the Le 40,000 (less than $10) in fees for him. She has resorted to begging to get money for food and basic necessities.

Kargbo and some 100 other city workers protested earlier this month in front of city council, calling for immediate payment of salary arrears. Demonstrators shouted and argued with police, who were on hand to quell the crowd, while others hovered on the peripheries quietly. City council workers inside the office compound watched from balconies and stairwells.

The protest broke out after a morning meeting called to inform staff that the city was working on getting money to pay them.

‘We go everyday to work,’ said Memanatu Kargbo, a market keeper. ‘They just say wait, wait, wait. I just want to work, to eat, to feel fine.’

Saidu Bangura said his children no longer respect him, since he’s not bringing home money or food, and his wife suspects he’s spending money elsewhere, as a result of not being paid. A father of two, he’s resorted to begging loans from neighbours to pay his children’s school fees.

‘There’s no peace in the house,’ said Bangura. ‘It’s breaking us.’
John Conteh, acting chief administrator of the city, called the salary backlog ‘unfortunate.’

‘It’s not a good situation,’ said Conteh, who was parachuted in to cover while the former administrator faces corruption charges along with the mayor. ‘We don’t like the situation. (The workers) have needs and financial commitments.’

He said the national government has promised a Le 2 billion ($500,000) bailout, to cover salary arrears as well as the city’s other debts, including amounts owing to banks and contractors.

‘I don’t really know how they came to accrue this much indebtedness,’ said Conteh. ‘We are doing our best, but maybe our best isn’t good enough for the workers, and it’s unfortunate it’s been so long. But we are fighting to make this a thing of the past.’

Conteh said workers should receive some money within a couple weeks. Meanwhile, the corruption case against the mayor, administrator and other city officials is before the courts.

Poindexter Sama, 27, is a parliamentary reporter for
Awoko newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has worked with
Journalists for Human Rights since April 2011.

The Street Boys of Freetown

They sleep under the wharf that reaches out over the Atlantic Ocean or beneath the rickety market stalls in the city centre. At night, on Rawdon Street in a district called “PZ”, rows of coughing bodies plaster the uneven stoops.

There are an estimated 2,000 boys living on the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city. It’s a rough life. They are often sick and hungry; many report frequent beatings at the hands of older boys and police officers. And there’s not much in the way of help, from government or elsewhere.

A 12-year-old with faraway eyes, wringing his hands behind his head, says he sleeps under the pillars of the dock near Freetown’s city hall near a stream of garbage and sewage that spews into the sea.

“I’m not afraid, because there are many of us,” he says. “But sometimes I cannot sleep because the place is dark and cold.”

The boy ran away from home when he was 10, after years of beating at the hands of an uncle. To return would be to face more abuse.

He does odd jobs for market women in exchange for perhaps 1,000 Leones (less than 25 cents) or a bowl of food. Many evenings, he goes to a bus run by a local NGO that parks downtown and provides food, games, counseling and medical attention for street children.

The NGO, Don Bosco Fambul, also runs a rehabilitation program for street boys, housing about 60 at a time for 10 months, getting them healthy, back in school, and, hopefully, reunited with their families or in the care of a foster home.

A 2010 survey of street children by Don Bosco put hunger as the top reason children fled their homes, with about 45 per cent citing empty bellies as the trigger to their leaving. About 30 per cent of children said physical or psychological violence caused them to move.

Nearly 90 per cent of street boys polled are from outside Freetown – the country’s only large city – and three-quarters are from outside the region where Freetown is located.

Most the boys are a long, long way from home.

Three quarters of boys under 12 said they had suffered unwanted sexual acts by older street boys. Nearly a third of street boys surveyed reported violence at the hands of police. All said they were afraid of the police.

A 14-year-old boy now living at Don Bosco’s shelter said police officers came around at night several times a week, extorting money.

“If they want, they beat us or if you don’t want him to beat you, all that you have gathered all day, you give it to him,” says the boy, showing pink scars along his forearms that he said are from police officers throwing bits of burning plastic bags on sleeping street children.

Another 14-year-old still on the streets said he’d experienced the same thing – having burning plastic flicked onto him by police officers and by older boys.

“When the police come, we have two choices: either you pay or they beat you. They ask you which you rather.”

A number of calls to a police spokesperson requesting an interview were unsuccessful.

According to the Don Bosco report, 10 police officers who attended a meeting day with street children apologized and confirmed they were aware of the complaints about police.

“On the other hand they also asked for understanding for the way they acted by referring to their bad salaries and pointing out that children had no business on the streets at night,” says the report.

“Two policemen reported that at night they had tried to make clear to the children that they were to return to their families and go to school. One policeman recommended to the children to report his violent colleagues to the police. This was met with loud laughter by the children.

Amnesty International’s 2011 country profile for Sierra Leone noted that, “Few government programmes adequately addressed the continuing special needs of war-affected children and young people… Street children were vulnerable to a wide range of abuses, with little or no protection.”

Out on the streets, an adolescent boy scuffs the gravel of a vacant lot with his heel and scratches his scarred right arm over and over and over.

He doesn’t know how old he is; he’s been collecting scrap metal, snatching purses, scrounging, for about five years.

“I want to go home,” he pleaded.

Fighting for survival: Liberia’s ex-combatants in Cote d’Ivoire

Gabriel Swen, 25, fought in wars in Liberia and neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire. After disarming in 1997, poverty drove him back to fighting

Once, Gabriel Swen was a regional warrior.

He fought in his country, Liberia, for years, first picking up a gun at the age of 7 after losing his family in the West African nation’s 14-year civil war. He handed in his weapons to the UN in 1997 in exchange for some training in shoe repair, but after failing to find a means of survival without a gun, he took up fighting again the following year.

In 2001, Swen was part of a mercenary army that crossed Liberia’s eastern border to francophone Cote d’Ivoire following a January coup attempt on the then-newly elected president Laurent Gbagbo. Swen fought not for pay, but for the spoils of war, until he was seriously wounded in a car crash and returned to Liberia.

The phenomenon of regional warriors in West Africa is rearing its head again today, as Cote d’Ivoire hovers on the brink of civil war.

Thousands of combatants roam this fragile region from conflict to conflict, fighting as a means to survive in some of the poorest nations on earth, where peace without proper reintegration has brought not happiness but rather a life of idle deprivation for some former fighters, many of whom were coerced to take up arms as children.

According to numerous reports, Cote d’Ivoire’s death squads are linked to the security forces of Gbagbo, who is refusing to cede power to the internationally recognized winner of the country’s November 2010 election, Alassane Ouattara.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has confirmed that mercenaries, including former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to “target certain groups in the population” during the current crisis that has left more than 200 dead.

The risk to regional stability posed by disenchanted and impoverished former fighters in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and surrounding countries is widely recognized by the United Nations and international bodies, as well as national governments.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) noted as recently as June 2010 its concern about an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Liberian fighters in western Cote d’Ivoire.

At various times since the Liberian civil war ended in 2003, UNMIL has responded to reports of ex-combatants congregating along the borders with Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in hopes of getting picked up by a commander heading to conflicts elsewhere.

Over the last six weeks, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has repeatedly called on her country’s ex-combatants not to get involved in violence next door.

But the failure to provide the tens of thousands of ex-combatants throughout the region with viable alternative livelihoods continues to fuel regional instability and mercenary activity.

Nya D. Twayen Jr., assistant minister for youth services with the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sport, calls the country’s thousands of street youths, many of whom are ex-combatants, the greatest threat to stability in the fragile post-war country.

“They are vulnerable. You give them five dollars and give them an AK-47 and say shoot… they’d shoot,” says Twayen. “As long as a portion of them still remain depressed and down and wayward, they will wage war on others.”

In a 2005 report dubbed “Youth, Poverty and Blood: The Lethal Legacy of West Africa’s Regional Warriors,” Human Rights Watch wrote that regional warriors identified poverty and hopelessness as motivators for them to risk dying in subsequent armed conflicts.

“They described being deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival, a reality not lost on the recruiters,” the report reads.

“Many described their broken dreams and how, given the dire economic conditions within the region, going to war was their best option for economic survival.”

Swen retired from a decade of fighting before he was 18 years old. Now repairing shoes on the streets of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Swen says he wouldn’t want to go back to war. But eight years of peace haven’t got him anywhere. He still has no job and can’t afford to eat most days; he says he’s haunted by memories and holds little hope for the future.

“I need help to stop thinking,” he says. “I think about the war that happened, I feel bad.”

If a truck rolled up and offered him a couple bucks and some food to return to a frontline somewhere, he says with a shrug, he might go.

“The future? I do not have no hope for it.”

On the road in Sierra Leone

The sky was just beginning to lighten as the roar of a motorcycle drew near.

Moments later, there was a light tap at the door.

“He’s here,” said the young man who runs a guesthouse in the diamond-studded eastern Sierra Leonean town of Kenema.

Out on the street, motorcycle driver Abraham Bungara balanced my bag on the handlebars, rammed a helmet on my head, and we sped off on a 140-kilometre journey to the Liberian border.

A minute later, we rolled up to a police checkpoint.

Several men sat in a mud hut next to a line of strings knotted together to form the roadblock.

Moo de bodee,” said Bungara.

“Huh?”

Moo de bodee,” he said. “Off.”

He was speaking Krio, a Sierra Leonean dialect comprised of buccaneer-style English with lots of local flavour that originated with people freed from slavery in Jamaica, who settled in Freetown in the 19th century.

We clambered off the bike and Bungara disappeared into the hut, where he shook hands with the police officer before the string was lowered and we roared off.

Paying bribes to get around is a necessity in some West African countries where authorities supplement low salaries—that may never be paid—with a system of informal taxation, collecting “tokens” from citizens for services such as road travel, primary education, and treatment in public hospitals.

It means free public services to people, the majority of whom live in extreme poverty, are free only on paper.

We tore along the gravel road, knees kissing the dirt on the corners, the sun rising over the dense forest.

Soon, we reached another checkpoint.

Bungara went into the hut with a policeman in a tired blue uniform too large for his skinny frame. A woman in a bright orange tank top and jeans approached and introduced herself as Alice.

“Can I see your documentation?” she asked.

“What documentation is that?”

“Just your documentation,” she said.

I held up my passport.

“What organization do you work for?” I asked her.

“INTERPOL.”

Bungara finished ponying up the bribe money with a smile and a handshake and we were on our way again.

At the next road block and the next, we repeated the process. Each roadblock cost 4,000 or 5,000 Leones, the equivalent to about $1 CAD. Over the 140-kilometre trip, we passed through six or seven of them.

If you refuse to pay, you would be detained, said Bungara.

“But you haven’t done anything wrong or illegal.”

“They’ll still detain you,” he said.

“And then what?”

He shrugged.

“You’re detained.”

“So you pay?”

He smiled. “So you pay.”

Between Heaven and Hell

A monument in downtown Monrovia, Liberia. The country is rebuilding itself after a 14-year civil war

A young man wearing camouflage shorts lowers his sunglasses down over his eyes from their perch atop unkempt braids, eyeing me up and down as I stand in a throng of young men on the outskirts of Monrovia.

“Welcome to hell,” he says.

Then he melts back into the crowd of mainly ex-combatants eager to tell a white journalist about what life is like in Liberia.

Seven years have passed in this small West African nation since the guns finally fell silent after a gruesome 14-year civil war that claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 people.

The pieces are slowly, fitfully, being put back together. Looking out across the lush hillsides teeming with tropical forest and down the long, serene beaches, it’s not hard to believe this place will one day be a paradise.

Turn the other way and you are faced with stark reminders of the long, brutal war that was fought here, and lives on in the memories of the people who have come home.

Those memories are omnipresent, in the stories people tell you, in the scars on the landscape, in the haunted faces you find yourself looking into, wondering, what have your eyes seen?

Outside the airport where crowds wait for arrivals holding up signs emblazoned with NGO logos, UN jeeps idling nearby, a young man sells cellphone credit, referred to as “scratch.”

He says he returned from Ghana’s Buduburam refugee camp four months ago. All he wants now, he tells me, as we stand on the asphalt in sweltering heat, is to get out of Liberia.

But there are no jobs, he says, and no opportunities.

“It’s hard here, man, hard. Look at me. I’m selling scratch,” he says. “Can you take me back to Ghana?”

The hour-long drive into Monrovia from the airfield betrays little of Liberia’s troubled past. A flawless highway rolls over hills dotted with palm and mango trees, past thatched bus stops and villages of fresh-painted cottages. It’s a beautiful country, far more developed than I expected, in total defiance of my preconceptions of what a “post-conflict” country would look like.

Upon entering Monrovia, on a dirt soccer pitch alongside the road, young men are playing soccer. Some are on crutches, missing limbs, or pushing themselves in wheelchairs. Many are former child soldiers, falling into a strange category of being both victims of the war, and perpetrators of it.

I spent my first evening in Monrovia at a restaurant on the beach, sitting beneath pristine palm trees while nearby, a couple of people swam as the sun set in a brilliant riot of colour. Joggers huffed by through the clean, white sand and the smartly dressed waiters offered flawless service. It was like heaven on earth.

Then someone asked how close we were to the site of the execution of Liberia’s president and 27 other government officials, who were tied to poles and shot on a beach in 1980.

Strolling through downtown, impressive new buildings stand proudly beside blown out walls pocked with bullet holes. Atop a hill overlooking Monrovia, a palace is being restored to former glory, complete with a swimming pool, domed ceilings and gazebos. Just outside the security fence erected around the renovations, a group of youth are hard at work in the piles of discarded concrete. They’re chipping off the cement with a hammer to get the metal rods out, which they’ll be able to sell for a pittance.

I ask them why they’re busting stone when they should be in school. They holler and laugh, exchanging quick words in “Liberian English” that I can’t understand. Then the smallest boy says, “No parents no more. We gotta eat, lady.”

On Broad Street, one of downtown’s main drags, stands a monument to the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention, a globe with the words, “Even wars have limits,” written in red, block letters underneath.

On a nearby bench facing the monument, a young Liberian man sits chain-smoking, telling his story, of how his father was taken from the house and killed, the body left on the street, of how his mother fled with five young children in tow, of the almost unspeakable brutality they saw on the month-long walk from Monrovia to a refugee camp in over the border in Cote d’Ivoire.

We sit looking for a time at the words and he smiles wryly.

“Ah,” he says, leaning back and stretching. “Liberia, man.”

It’s not heaven, it’s not hell, but somewhere in between.

Buses and Bushes: a Journey from Kumasi to Accra

It was just after 6 p.m. when I arrived at the station.

The sun was sinking in the sky as I lugged my bag across the dusty lot in Kumasi, in Ghana’s Ashanti region, where buses leave for the capital, Accra.

“Craw, craw, craw, ten cedi,” I heard over the din, which means “Accra” in bus travel-speak. That bus wasn’t a terribly healthy looking creature but I handed over my money. A man who smelled rather pungently of alcohol whisked my bag from my dubious hands and tossed it in the underbelly of the bus beside sacks of bananas, chickens tied in bundles by their feet, and other regular bags.

I had figured out a schedule for my return to Accra. I’d go to the station around 5 p.m. The bus would leave by 6 p.m. Given the length of the trip and probable levels of traffic, I would arrive in Accra no later than 11 p.m., at which time I could go home, sleep, and be back at work early the next morning.

No sweat.

Buses do not leave on a set schedule. Rather, they will trundle out of hodgepodge stations when full. How long does that take? There is no telling.

The bus was – if you engaged a little wishful thinking – one-third full when I climbed aboard.

“Hello, I would like to be friends, what is your phone number please?” said the first man who slid into the seat beside me. He would be the first of four who wanted so badly to go to my country that, apparently, they’d even put up with me as a wife to get there. All were politely rebuffed.

The fifth man who sat down offered me a church pamphlet, and wordlessly began to read his own.

“Craw, craw, craw, ten cedi,” the driver called, and the sky faded to black and the chickens wriggled and clucked in the belly of the bus.

“Wanna bet when we’ll get to Accra?” I asked my silent seatmate.

The digital clock at the front of the bus read 7:02. He looked forward and back at the people filling (with a little wishful thinking) half the bus.

“Maybe by 12 at night,” he said.

“Craw, craw, craw, ten cedi,” the driver called, while the chickens wriggled and clucked in the belly of the bus.

“Now what time do you think?” I asked my seatmate.

The digital clock read 7:57. He looked forward and back at the people filling (with a little wishful thinking) 60 per cent of the bus. “Maybe by 1 in the morning,” he said.

“Now what time do you think?” I asked my seatmate.

The digital clock read 8:53. He looked forward and back. There were only three seats still empty.

“Maybe still by 1 in the morning,” he said.

The driver’s mate brought some bags out from the belly of the bus. There was my bag and a bundle of chickens there in the aisle. One, perhaps two, were dead.

We left after 9 p.m.

The bus trundled through the night for four hours. There are no bathroom breaks and the chickens clucked and smelled a little foul. A few people felt quite uncomfortable as we thumped and bumped over the last stretch of potholes before Accra.

Then a gunshot went off.

Or rather, what sounded like a gun shot. It was actually a tire blowing up.

It was 1:35 a.m.

We found a suitable place to pull over, sheltered behind a tractor trailer that was stuck in the ditch. Everyone piled out of the bus (except the chickens) and milled around. It was very dark in the middle of the forest. Grass higher than my head lined the roadway, dark and impenetrable against the paltry flashlight on my cell phone as I searched for a place to pee in the woods.

The place I found was not very good. Within seconds, a flashlight illuminated my rear and I heard peels of laughter from the direction of the tractor trailer.

In my haste to cover up, there was a mix-up between my trousers and my underwear regarding which goes on the outside. At last we boarded the bus again.

My silent seatmate pointed out the confusion between my garments and politely looked away, using his church pamphlet as a shield while I rectified the situation.

No chickens moved as we drove back to Accra.

It was 3:17 a.m. when I arrived home.

Ladi Tangla gave birth to twins after trying to walk to a nearby hospital. The only road into her village, Anwiam, is owned by a mining company that won't let commercial vehicles like taxis enter, even in cases of medical emergency.

Poverty under a gold mine

Ladi Tangla gave birth to twins after trying to walk to a nearby hospital. The only road into her village, Anwiam, is owned by a mining company that won't let commercial vehicles like taxis enter, even in cases of medical emergency.

Children play in the ruins of homes in Anwiam, a village near Obuasi in Ghana's Ashanti Region, where blasting at a nearby mine has destroyed dozens of homes.

“You are now encroaching,” says Eric Adjei.

“Eh?” I say. “On what?”

We were walking down a road in Obuasi, a mining town of about 250,000 in Ghana’s Ashanti Region, before hopping a gutter and starting up a well-trodden trail under a canopy of palm trees.

“On their land,” says Adjei, a Ghanaian journalist-turned-mining activist.

“So what happens if they catch us?”

He shrugs and starts to walk again.

“I was seeing what your reaction would be,” he says. “It’s not much.”

AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) has the rights to much of the land in and around Obuasi, including the road we’re walking on.

As we climb up the path, we come to another road, paved and winding past large, luxurious houses. All around us are green hills that fade off into the horizon under the rumbling clouds overhead.

An arch over the entrance to the town reads, “Welcome to Obuasi, the Golden City.” Mine shafts are interspersed with shops and homes on the rough-paved streets. The AGA name is plastered everywhere.

Millions of dollars worth of gold — 381,000 ounces — have been pulled from these hills, refined and moulded and polished into rings and earrings, chains and statues and watches. But here, in the communities that have born the brunt of the extraction and production of what some call the world’s dirtiest mineral, no one has gold watches.

In Anwiam, a community of about 500 directly below the mine, few have solid homes. None have safe drinking water. Most don’t have a livelihood. They live in the shadow of the mine.

The community has begged AGA for years to be resettled, anywhere far, far away from a mine, to no avail. They say the company won’t move them because its operation is scarcely active now and not bringing in enough money. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, AGA generated $3.8 billion USD in profits last year.

And while the roar of the mine has died down, its effects have not.

“In Obuasi, we are dealing with legacy issues,” says Adjei. “Most of the existing laws were not in place before.”

Adjei works for the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), a non-governmental organization that promotes human rights in communities where mines operate.

He has lived in Obuasi all his life. He completed secondary school here and studied at the Ghana Institute of Journalism in Accra before returning home to take a job as a reporter at a local radio station.

He wanted to do stories about the plight of people affected by mining operations and the human rights abuses taking place. But at the radio station in town, “you didn’t fight the mine,” he says.

“There was a saying, AGC is Obuasi, Obuasi is AGC,” he says, referring to the previous name of the company. “If you were writing any story that’s at variance with the status quo, it became very difficult for you.”

After being threatened with “sacking” a handful of times, Adjei looked elsewhere to air his stories. He began producing them and then sending them outside Obuasi to friends and acquaintances at stations in other parts of the country, hoping they would air there.

He met WACAM Executive Director Daniel Owusu-Koranteng through his work as a reporter, and eventually went to work as the assistant to the WACAM officer in Obuasi, who happens to be the news director from the radio station.

Most residents used to be farmers before handing their land over to the mine. Now, with few skills and no education, they resort to petty trading, menial labour, eking out gardens beside the village dumpsite—and illegal mining.

“If you take away their source of living, you are killing them,” says Adjei. “It leads to TB, to street kids, to galamsey, you name it.”

Referred to as galamsey, illegal mining is a tough trade; floods and disasters have killed hundreds of illegal miners in Ghana in the last couple years and scuffles with company security forces have led to beatings, illegal detainment and alleged deaths.

But, as Adjei tells me, people like those of Anwiam are desperate.

After talking with villagers, we make our way toward a steep trail that cuts up the side of the hill toward the spray of dark gray shale that towers overhead.

From a mining road high above the village, you can see the sprinkle of rough huts, crumbled time and again by blasting and patched together with whatever material could be scrounged up. Beyond stretches the town of Obuasi proper.

“Do you know how to run?” Adjei asks.

“Are we encroaching again?”

“Yeah, we are.”

Holding a City Ransom

Abu Smith overlooks the valley at Agyemankata near Accra, Ghana, where a World Bank-funded landfill project is threatening his home.

Daniel Addo Adjare says the community will resist any attempts to build a landfill site at Agyemankata.

The villagers don’t want to talk to Ghanaian journalists. “Africans, Ghanaians, no!” said Abu Smith, shaking his head in disgust and setting off again across the side of a long, lush valley.

“They don’t care, they don’t do anything,” I hear him saying, the words drifting back as he races down the road that leads to his school as if he had springs in his skinny ankles that stick out from his too-short trousers.

“I knew you were a white lady, that’s why I said you could come.”

Smith is angry. He’s not happy I showed up at the wrong junction at the wrong time in Kwabenya, a community on the northern edge of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. He’s not happy I showed up with a Ghanaian colleague, who—evidently with good reason—had insisted I call to set up this meeting with the village firebrand.

But most of all, he is angry the government wants to build a garbage dump on his house.

The proposed landfill site at Agyemankata, a suburb of Kwabenya, has been in the works since the late 1980s. Its gestation period has grown ever-longer as the project hit snag after snag, with technical issues, funding issues, and a long war of attrition between the local community and the government.

The site covers 365 acres in a valley surrounded by green hills that roll out from the city, echoing with the ringing of hammers in the quarries that dot the area, where the stone crackers crack stones under the watchful eyes of foremen who sleep under thatch lean-tos. Stone-cracking is about the only job to be had in Agyemankata.

The hillsides echo, too, with the sound of drills and saws and cement mixers, and bricks sit piled by roadsides across the valley.

People are building houses.

The government took over the land in January 2007, using its powers of “executive instrument” that allow property to be seized for public interest. It was about that same time that the project sponsor, the World Bank, ordered Ghana to get things underway or risk losing the millions offered up for the landfill.

The Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) says 89 landowners filed claims for compensation in 2007 during the window of time applications were being accepted, as per the law.

Community activists, however, argue that many residents didn’t know their land was being seized and never filed for compensation. Even those who saw the scattered signs posted around the valley and in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest daily, couldn’t necessarily read them.

Anyone who missed that window of opportunity in 2007 is out of luck, according to the AMA.

AMA program officer Daniel Aidoo, who oversees the Kwabenya project, says there were no structures in the valley when the government took over the land. There may have been several that lacked building permits, he relents, and for those, the owners would be compensated. Three years later, no one has received any compensation.

And yet, in 2007, buildings across the valley were slapped with red paint ordering the occupants to remove the structures within 10 days, signed off by the National Security Authority. Most residents wouldn’t—or, without compensation money, couldn’t—leave.

The fierce agitation from the community over the years has resulted in violence numerous times. Most government departments won’t go there anymore, out of fear.

But regardless, Aidoo says the project is going ahead.

“Landfill has to be done,” says Aidoo. “The AMA is of the view that a few people cannot hold to ransom the entire city… It’s about the public interest.”

Currently, the garbage from more than three million people in Accra is dumped at various sites on the edges of the city, forming fields of waste that stretch out for kilometres.

If the community resists when the time comes to start work on the landfill, Aidoo says flatly, “State security will handle it.”

Meanwhile in Kwabenya, more people keep moving in, building grand homes with vaulted ceilings and wraparound balconies overlooking the valley. And many, like Smith, say they’ll never move.

Daniel Addo Adjare is a 65-year-old retired aircraft engineer who supports a family of 15 in two buildings on a hillside overlooking the proposed landfill. He says he saved for a decade to buy his land here.

“You can’t take it from me, I’ve paid for it,” says Adjare. “I used all my money, I bought this land. I can’t go anywhere.”

A military man for decades, Adjare prefers to stand in the shade under a tree in his yard where a long row of white underwear sways on a clothesline.

If they come, the community will resist, he says, as several elderly men around him nod in agreement.

“There will be trouble, a lot of trouble, because we will have to resist it.”

Smith, a banker turned pineapple farmer who now runs a school for about 200 students in Agyemankata, emerges from his house carrying a stack of papers that he has to peer around to see where he’s walking. It is every piece of correspondence between the community and local government, national government and international governing bodies.

There are newspaper clippings, too, but Smith says he’s given up on all of them—the politicians, the bureaucrats, the journalists. None of them really care, he says.

But he gets a spark of delight in his eye when he tells stories of the villagers going through the valley at night, removing all the pilings and surveyors’ lines put in place during the day. He’s taken trips to the police station a handful of times over the years, suspected of mischief and troublemaking.

“Look, look, would you put garbage there?” he asks, gesturing across the valley. “It’s just like they are coming to put an atomic bomb here, bang! Does the government want civil war?”

‘This is Africa:’ Fighting Corrupt Journalism

“Journalism is in profound crisis.”

A pall hung in the air over the Ghana Journalists Association’s annual awards night on August 21 as the first speaker of the night delivered a stern address that both vaunted the lofty heights to which journalists should aspire, and damned the unethical, corrupt practices that are driving the profession into the muck.

Aidan White, Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, led the parade of men who used their time at the podium to address the night’s theme, “Unethical Journalism and Corruption in the Media: A Danger to Democracy.”

“We in journalism have to set the highest possible standard of accountability and transparency,” he said. “If your journalists are corrupt, your democracy is fatally flawed.”

While 33 journalists received coveted accolades celebrating their work, deemed by the judges to exemplify the best of Ghanaian journalism, the night’s focus leaned heavily on what is wrong in the profession in this country.

And, as speaker after speaker pointed out, there is a lot wrong.

The GJA’s code of ethics sets out, in its 17 articles, a comprehensive list of ethical guidelines “to ensure that members adhere to the highest ethical standards, professional competence and good behaviour.”

“As the fourth estate of the realm, the public expects the Media to play their watchdog role. They should do this with a high sense of responsibility without infringing on the rights of individuals and society in general.”

The problem, however, is that it’s not followed.

Information Minister John Tia, a former journalist, bemoaned many common practices in Ghanaian media: photos of dead bodies on front pages under sensational headlines, misrepresentations of fact, blatant political bias–and corruption.

He may be the information minister now, responsible for disseminating the government line on matters, but pick up a newspaper in Ghana any day of the week and you will see examples of the issues to which he refers. Talk to the reporters behind the news and you will hear story after story about the corruption so deeply woven into the profession.

Journalists accept money, sometimes referred to as “T&T” or “soli,” to attend press conferences and events, ostensibly to cover transportation costs. The practice has become so routine that an oft-cited challenge of small-scale NGOs without the resources to pay reporters to attend — and treat them to lavish lunches while they’re there — is that they don’t have the means to get publicity, regardless of the value of work they’re doing.

There is a reason politicians and bureaucrats will try to press cash into the hand of a reporter to kill a story or present it in a certain light — reporters take it.

But not all of them. There are many journalists in Ghana who are highly ethical, fiercely passionate — and deeply concerned. Some, too, are simply defeated. Time and time again, I am told that this is just the way it is.

“This is Africa,” they say with a wry shake of the head. The Ghana Journalists Association is, obviously, thankfully, not taking that approach, in choosing to confront ethical issues head-on.

Corruption in the media is something of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Journalists in Ghana are hideously underpaid, earning perhaps a couple hundred dollars per month, despite the four years of post-secondary schooling many have completed. With families to support, children to put through school, it’s not hard to see the allure of an envelope containing more than a month’s salary, to simply warp a story a little.

Nor is it beyond comprehension that editors and publishers to toss aside the GJA code of ethics and publish bodies dangling from nooses and screaming, false headlines on their front pages, in the interest of selling papers and staying afloat in Ghana’s saturated media market.

“We are all aware that sensationalism sells the newspapers and brings in the bucks,” said Brett Goshen, the head of Ghana’s largest mobile phone company, which sponsored the awards night.

“But at what cost?”

The cost of unethical, corrupt journalism, speaker after speaker argued, could be Ghana’s hard-won democracy.

Smoke and Culture Shock on the Side of the Road

These are some definitions of culture shock:

Culture shock refers to the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, confusing, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown culture such as one may encounter in a foreign country.

Culture Shock is an American travel show hosted by Shenax Treasurywala on the Travel Channel.

Culture Shock was an anarcho-punk/ska punk band formed in Warminster, Wiltshire, England, in 1986 by Dick Lucas, previously of the Subhumans.

They tell you about it in training.

You will move to a foreign land. You will have a “honeymoon,” during which everything will seem shiny and exciting. You will be riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave through exotic, unknown lands, marvelling at the sights, the smells, the sounds, of your brave new world.

Then your surfboard will disintegrate, you’ll get dragged under a nasty wave and smashed to a million pieces against rocks coated in sharp, poisonous barnacles deep under the stinking, disease-infested sea, never to be seen or heard from again.

That may be an exaggeration. But at some stage, you’ll probably feel disoriented, anxious, depressed and frustrated, and maybe have anarcho/ska-punk song stuck in your head while you’re trying to sleep.

They tell you people deal with it in different ways. Some get mad, some get sad, some drink too much, some sleep too much, some stop talking. They tell you to stay positive. Remember, this too shall pass.

I arrived in Ghana on July 3 after a frantic month of quitting jobs, saying goodbyes, giving away most my belongings, sitting through a hectic eight days of training in Toronto whilst living in a stink-infested hostel on Spadina Avenue and spending two or three sleepless days traversing half the globe.

I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. I was drunk on Africa-love.

If you were to steal my journal and read entries from the first couple weeks of July, you would find embarrassingly corny passages like this:

“La Beach. Mist kind of floats over the wet sand jam-packed with shiny bodies doing acrobatics, riding horses dressed in Ghanaian flags, swimming, dancing. In the distance, the lines of fishermen pulling in their nets….Colours, smells, sounds, all foreign, all different, and so, so wonderful.”

“Everyone touches all the time. You sit cuddled up with strangers on the trotro and they sweat all over you and people hold your hand and it’s wonderful.”

“A playground for the senses, a T.V. blasting the World Cup game, three versions of “Waving Flag” playing at once, sewers and goats and garbage and tilapia grilling and fresh Star beer. It’s (you guessed it) wonderful.”

When I re-read this stuff a month later, I throw up, make a note to get a thesaurus and look up ‘wonderful,’ and then laugh. And laugh.

My first weeks in Accra were spent in a veritable orgasm of wonderment, revelling in all that was bright and new. A burble of languages, mysterious words in Twi and Ga singing out over the fruit stands and African clothing bursting with colour, the generosity and warmth of Ghanaians, who will invite you to eat and cook and drink with them, telling you as you walk down a strange street, “You are welcome.”

The landscape was breathtaking, the green hills dotted with palms and mango trees, the long white beaches with the surf crashing endlessly against them.

The inconveniences were charming — the 50-km tro-tro ride that takes four hours on a seat that collapses at every turn, falling into an open sewer, going five days with no running water, hours upon hours spent waiting for things that may or may not ever happen, getting violently ill seemingly every second time you eat, having throngs of children run over to touch your skin and hair. It’s all just so, so wonderful!

It is ridiculous to think, during this heady time of glee, that you might ever find anything bad about this place.

But if you flip a couple dozen pages through the stolen journal, the first line of every entry for days is this:

“I am tired.”

Suddenly, you find yourself irascibly irritated when you want to be somewhere and must sit for half an hour waiting for the tro-tro to fill up with people. You really wish you could just have a bloody shower instead of trying to bathe in a couple litres of water from a cracked bucket. You must practice meditation so as not to throttle someone who says they’re coming in a minute, and leaves you waiting for three hours. You can hardly choke out another “Hi!” when a group of men guzzling beer by the roadside start yelling “Obruni! Obruni!” at you and following you down the street.

It gets to you.

Over the course of about a week, I found myself getting more and more grouchy.

Then came a Wednesday when I spent hours in the office waiting for someone who was on the way, to be there in minutes. When the colleague showed up, he said he would be going for lunch. I smiled.

Then I went for a walk, to cool off in the 35-degree heat.

Despite efforts to refrain from smoking (which, unlike many African countries, is frowned upon in Ghana), I bought a package of Pall Malls and set about stomping down the road, chain-smoking, looking for some positive thoughts.

“Hey obruni!” came the usual call.

The man was striding toward me. I looked at him, unable to muster any sort of reaction.

“What is that in your hand? Don’t you know that smoking is illegal in Ghana? You should go to jail! A woman, smoking! You are an abomination.”

“It’s illegal?” I think I said.

“Go to jail!” he yelled, flapping his arms for emphasis.

It hit me like a wild tide of heartbreak, coming from my chest, funnelling into my throat, and straight out my eyeballs.

I started bawling.

The man looked frightened.

“I. Am. Having. A. Bad. Day. And. I. Just. Want. To. Smoke. One. Cigarette,” I think I said.

“I was joking, I was joking,” he said, patting my back nervously while I tried, unsuccessfully, to close the floodgates on my face. He ushered me to a concrete block and sat down beside me.

“Sit here, rest,” he said. “Are you hurt? I was joking, I was only joking, you will not go to jail. You can smoke anywhere in Ghana. This is a free country. Smoke all you want. Here, want more cigarettes? Smoke!”

Laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, while snot and tears continued to sketch in the layer of red dust coating my face, I kept telling him I was just having a bad day, and he kept apologizing for making me cry. Passersby looked on quizzically.

Eventually, I regained control of my eyeballs and he got most the snot off my face. As I stood to take my leave, he asked if we would ever see one another again. I shrugged.

“But I want to marry you,” he said.

“You’re crazy,” I told him. He raised his eyebrows at me.

“I’m crazy?”

We both began to laugh again, and I walked away.

The tide of unpleasantness came in and then, after some extra sleep, a few lengthy emails to old friends, and some snot left on the side of the road, it went out, leaving in its wake something in the middle of the two extremes experienced in the first weeks here.

I ran into my roadside friend again yesterday.

“Hey, crazy obruni, I see you’re still a chimney!” he called out, striding over to usher me to a concrete fence to sit.

We sat again for a short time on the side of the road and we laughed as I explained the reasons I was not a suitable candidate for marriage, but assured him there were others who would come along.

“You can just hassle obrunis about smoking. It’s a good way to meet them,” I told him.

He chortled.

“No, no, no. You people are crazy.”