Author Archives: Laura Bain

About Laura Bain

Laura Bain is no stranger to Journalists for Human Rights (jhr), or Ghana, for that matter. Before kicking off her placement at the African University College of Communications (AUCC), where she will be working with faculty and students to host workshops, develop curriculum and support campus media, Bain spent three months in Ghana last year with jhr as a radio intern in Kumasi. At Kapital FM, Bain helped to produce a weekly human rights radio program called “Know Your Rights.” She worked on stories about the rights of children and sex workers in Ghana, in addition to a piece about the maltreatment of prisoners in the country. Before joining jhr, Bain studied Professional Writing at York University, where she was a columnist for community newspaper, Excaliber and an editor at an arts and literature journal, Existere.

An Unnecessary Death at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital

By Laura Bain and Kwabena Darko Blantyne

Agnes Otoo cried for an entire month when her 37-year-old son Franklin Otoo passed away.

He underwent a routine operation to repair a small hole in his heart on August 17, 2010 at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra. But, Otoo never ended up leaving the hospital.

During his surgery, he had been left without oxygen for 15 minutes, sustaining major brain damage. Nobody in the team of six doctors incubated him, nor attempted to administer CPR.

After being in a comma for 36 days, Otoo passed away on September 23, 2010.

Otoo’s father John Kweku Otoo remembers his son as calm, thoughtful and loved by everyone. He was fondly referred to as ‘Tolo,’ an endearing nickname, by friends and neighbours. He was the second born of five children and Agnes and John’s only son. He was a successful poultry farmer and owned a farm with over 500 chickens in his coastal hometown of Takoradi.

Otoo was diagnosed with his heart condition when he was five. But, it never seemed to bother him until his adult years when he started feeling tired and out of breath.

When his symptoms worsened Otoo’s family took him to the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra and booked him an appointment on August 20th for surgery. Since Korle Bu is one of the most reputable hospitals in Ghana, the Otoos were not worried.

Suddenly, on the morning of August 17th, three days before his scheduled surgery, Otoo received a call from doctors telling him to come in to the hospital for a routine appointment. When he arrived, he was whisked off into surgery unprepared at noon that same day.

His family was as equally caught off-guard. Agnes rushed to the hospital to greet him when he woke up.

She waited until 6 p.m., but nobody came to talk to her or tell her how her son was doing. “It took four days until one of the doctors partially told me what went on,” she says. Doctors explained there had been problems during Otto’s procedure but that he would be fine. But, Otoo wouldn’t wake up.

When Otoo’s middle sister, Evelyn arrived a few days after she tracked down one of the surgeons, Dr. Entsua Mensah, and pressed him to inform her about her brother’s condition. “[The surgery] took three hours because of ‘unseen complications.’ It was supposed to take one hour and they ran out of oxygen for 15 minutes. His body lay there for 15 minutes without oxygen,” she recalls.

His heart was fine, but half his brain was dead. He couldn’t speak or open his eyes. He couldn’t raise his hands. He had to be fed through a tube. He never moved again, until he died. “When I saw my son I wept,” says John.

To make matters worse, the Otoos believed Otoo wasn’t being cared for properly post-surgery. “The doctors and nurses neglected him and didn’t dress his wounds and bathe him,” says Agnes.

Korle Bu personnel recommended they hire a private nurse to take care of him since their own staff was understaffed and overstretched.

So, Vera, Otoo’s youngest sister, a nurse working in the Eastern Region, took over her brother’s care until he passed away.

When Otoo finally died, his family was swiftly asked to cover GHC 1,500 in medical costs since heart surgery is not covered under Ghana’s National Health Insurance Scheme, although they were only charged for the surgery and not any aftercare. They also had to cover the costs of keeping Otoo’s body in the hospital morgue, transporting him to the funeral home and very unexpected funeral arrangements.

The hospital did not offer the Otoos any form of compensation, nor did the doctors take any responsibility for what happened to their son and brother, even though his death appeared as a result of the doctors’ mistakes.

Many people have suggested the Otoos sue the hospital and the doctors on the grounds of medical malpractice and negligence. However, the family has decided against legal action saying they don’t believe it would change anything.

“It’s not going to bring him back and why fight with the government?” says Evelyn, revealing the family has little faith in Ghana’s legal system and assume prominent public figures like doctors would always have preference put on them in court. She regrets not recording her conversations with the doctors.

Agnes and John try to find comfort in their religion and convince themselves that their son’s death is part of God’s plan, maintaining the typical Ghanaian practice of saving face and not placing blame on others.

But as John reflects on his son’s unfortunate case, he can’t help but let his true thoughts about the whole ordeal slip.

“The boy died as a result of the operation,” he says dryly. “That’s all there is to it.”

We attempted to reach representatives from the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital Cardiothoratic Centre several times to no avail. When we spoke to Dr. Lawrence Siriboe, the head surgeon involved in the case, he refused to comment.

Universal Access to Education Not For All in Ghana

Inside the classroom at By His Grace International School

By Dennis Moot and Laura Bain

By His Grace International School is a typical school found in the Accra slum community Old Fadama-a small, shabby building that also acts as a video center, rented for 4 Ghana Cedis a day. The room is dark and very hot. There is no blackboard on the walls and students are sitting on uncomfortable and cramped short wooden benches. There are no washroom facilities.  The surrounding area is hectic and loud. I wonder how a class of pupils could even fit in this room let alone concentrate on lessons.

“The environment is always noisy which makes concentration much difficult. Sometimes we do not hear what the teacher says and, therefore, get confused,” says Salam Fausiatu, the schools’ girls prefect and only class six pupil.

Despite various challenges facing the people of Old Fadama, residents are determined to give their children a good education.  Although they receive no support from the government and the Ghana Education Service (GES) for their schools, the community has managed to build facilities on their own.

I visited the Queens Land Primary School, which enrolls students from a nursery level to primary 5. Walking into the building, its challenges are obvious to spot. The classroom is over-crowded with children. There are only a few chairs and a poor ventilation system. But, with no government funding, such problems are difficult to avoid.

The school generates a little income by charging each pupil GH 23 per school term.  However, Kidiwan George, a teacher who doubles as the Acting Headmaster, says even with reduced fees, many parents still cannot afford to pay. He says it is common for students to be sacked for not paying fees to return to class the next day, wanting to go to school—a clear indication that the children want to learn. “For the sake of the children, they [the teachers] readily accept them”, he said.

Bright Dzila, a community opinion leader, reveals in a long conversation how troubling the education situation in Old Fadama is. What troubles him most is the fact that government authorities write the community off as a slum and refuse to provide the needed development.

“Our children stay under hard conditions to learn and [are] taught courses that are not approved by GES,” he says, “Where lies our future?”

Children enrolled in Old Fadama schools do not learn government standardized curriculum and are taught by teachers who are not properly trained-most having only completed their senior high school level.

In fact, the GES is not even aware that schools in Old Fadama exist at all.  “Honestly, I am hearing this for the first time and I believe every school should be working with GES approved courses,” says Veronica   Jackson, National Activity Coordinator for the Ghana Education Service, in a telephone interview.

According to Dzila, the government of Ghana has never really bothered to look into Old Fadama’s development issues. “The sad thing is that we are only remembered when it is time for elections and the education of the children and the entire community is relegated to the background,” he says.

The Ghanaian government committed to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal education almost a decade ago.  And in its latest education strategic plan in the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy, it outlined a goal of 100 per cent equal access to education for all children. But, unfortunately it appears equal access to education for all Ghanaians does not apply to the citizens of Old Fadama, although 79,000 people live here, representing 13 different tribal groups.

The citizens of Old Fadama are determined to make sure their children receive at least some form of education. They are taking matters into their own hands and stepping in to offer services the government should provide. “Had it not been the intervention of the people, you can imagine the level of literacy in the community,” says Dzila.

Cash for coverage? (Brown envelope journalism in Ghana)

Freddie Blay, Ato Kwamena Dadzie and Prof. Doris Dartey at the Soli Symposium in Accra. Photo by Laura Bain.

By Laura Bain and Jenny Vaughan

It happens every day across the country. An NGO, company or government ministry holds a press conference. The room is filled with reporters who happily consume free refreshments. The building of a new school or the launch of a new anti-corruption taskforce is announced. Journalists jot down notes or record clips.

Then, at the end of the event, reporters crowd at the back of the room. If you’ve never been to one of these events in Ghana, you might think it’s a scrum. But you’d be wrong.

The journalists are gathered to collect envelopes of cash, also called “soli” (short for solidarity) or “T&T” (time and transport)—handed out by event organizers, apparently to pay for the cost of travel to the event. Some reporters insist it doesn’t bias their work. Plus, many say they’re forced to take the cash to supplement paltry salaries. But others maintain there’s no way editorial independence can be maintained after cash has been accepted.

Either way, it’s a practice deeply embedded here and shaping the profession, many say for the worse. Journalistic practices vary from place to place, but international standards do exist. Can you truly be independent as a journalist if you accept money for a story?

It was the focus of a symposium recently organized by Journalists for Human Rights in partnership with the Canadian High Commission in Accra. Jhr invited media heavyweights to talk about how the practice is undermining the profession and to seek solutions.

The panellists included Ato Kwamena Dadzie, news editor at Joy FM, Freddie Blay, publisher of the Daily Guide and former speaker of parliament and Dr. Doris Dartey, a communications specialist and part-time journalist.

“I think soli traps you. It’s demeaning, it’s cheap, it’s unconscionable,” says Dadzie, who insists the practice is undermining professional.

Early in his career Dadzie took soli for stories. He has since changed his tune.  “The more we see journalists running after money, the more we lose our professional dignity,” he says. “Journalism is a profession that requires a lot of sacrifice, but at the end of the day it pays off.”

Now, Joy FM, one of Ghana’s most popular and respected radio stations, has a no soli policy. If Joy reporters are caught taking soli, they’re fired.

Beyond affecting personal mores, the practice is also shaping news values here. Some journalists cover conferences for the envelopes of free cash instead of chasing newsworthy stories, skewing the news agenda—what makes it into the papers is not necessarily the most relevant news of the day, but rather PR stories about the work of event organizers.

Dartey points out that handing out soli is now embedded in public relations officers’ programs (journalists won’t come otherwise, one attendee at the event said) and some have even been known to inflate the number of attendees, pocketing the extra money, says Darety,.

But many reporters are driven to accept the cash in order to put food on the table.

“What do you do if you haven’t gotten paid for six months? Is it wrong to take money for transport to allow you to attend an event?” says Blay. “Every man has his own price.”

He admits he’s not sure where he stands on the issue, but recognizes that if journalists were better paid here, they likely would not accept money from event organizers.

Halifax Ansah-Addo, a Daily Guide reporter, agrees. “Personally, I do not take soli now because I can afford not to take it,” he says. “But how can you justify telling a junior underpaid reporter not to collect soli when he has no money?”

The soli debate is a complex issue with no clear solution. Strong journalism requires strong ethics, though many journalists claim taking soli does not sway their stories.

For Dadzie, the onus lies both with media managers like Blay who control the purse strings and with individual reporters.

“It starts with media houses paying their staff properly,” says Dadzie. He adds that it’s up to journalists to find jobs at institutions that pay well. “If journalists stop taking soli, with time the practice will end.”

AUCC and jhr pair up for human rights doc screening in Accra

The Journalists for Human Rights (jhr) chapter at the African University College of Communications (AUCC) kicked off the second semester with its first event on Friday, March 18th. The chapter, in collaboration with another school group Face Aids, hosted a documentary screening event featuring two films about HIV/AIDS in Ghana and Kenya.

Edem Srem, a reporter from T.V Africa, showed his film “HIV/AIDS cure: Healers or Killers?” and Robin Pierro, a reporter from jhr, shower her film “The Road to Dago” to an audience of 35 AUCC students.

Srem’s film focused on traditional healers in Ghana who claim they can heal people from HIV and AIDS with herbal medicines and prayers, deterring people to seek out proper anti-retroviral treatment.

Pierro’s film was shot in Kenya and highlighted a women’s empowerment group in Dago, Kenya working towards HIV/AIDS education, awareness and support.

After watching both documentaries, the students had a chance to ask Srem and Pierro questions about technical and theoretical aspects of their films. They took full advantage of the opportunity, inquiring about the process of finding interview subjects, how to keep one’s personal biases out of one’s reporting, and how long it took to produce each film, only stopping because of time constraints.

Srem closed the session by sharing some great journalistic advice. He emphasized how important it was for the students (the next generation of Ghana’s journalists) to put in the extra effort to find untold stories that need to be told- particularly in the northern regions of the country. He also highlighted the fact that going to cover conferences is not proper journalism, explaining it is simply a way for big companies to get free advertising and does nothing to help the average Ghanaian.

The AUCC students were exposed to a medium of journalism they are not taught at their school and had a chance to interact with two young and talented documentarians first hand. Many of them are very interested in the field and were inspired by Srem and Pierro’s work.

Scrap dealers and health hazards: Welcome to Korle Lagoon Ghana

Scrap dealers extract valuable metals like silver and copper from burnt electronics in Korle Lagoon, Ghana. The fumes from the burning plastic cause serious health risks, including lung cancer. Photo by Davis Ollennu.

This article originally appeared in Faces of Old Fadama, a magazine produced by students at the African University College of Communications in conjunction with the Daily Guide and Journalists for Human Rights in Accra, Ghana. The project was led by jhr intern Laura Bain.

By Daniel Bannah and Naa Lamley Lamptey Abibat

The sound of tools smashing and crushing metal is deafening. Dozens of young men, covered in dark grease and soot stains, sift through heaps of discarded appliances and pieces of rusted metal scavenging for anything valuable. An unpleasant smell rises from the nearby Korle Lagoon and we choke on thick clouds of smoke blanketing the area. This is the scrap yard at Old Fadama, Accra’s largest slum community.

The informal scrap metal business in Ghana is a relatively profitable venture for many young men from the northern part of the country and neighbouring countries residing in Old Fadama. However, the job comes with massive health risks. And since government authorities consider Old Fadama’s residents illegal citizens of Ghana, they are not protected under national labour laws.

Plastic burns in Accra's Korle Lagoon, a digital dumping ground. Photo by Davis Ollennu.

The nature of scrap dealing is very demanding. Each day scrap dealers walk long distances under the scorching sun to and from shops, homes and landfill sites in search of discarded metal and used electrical gadgets like televisions, computers, microwaves and radios to sell to individuals and business owners.

Groups of scruffy young men huddle around heaps of discarded gadgets, dismantling and extracting metallic components, iron, silver and copper by burning the pieces with fire and strips of worn-out car tires. They inhale dense black smoke without any safety gear, at great risk to their health.

The toxic smoke is not only a dreadful threat to the men who are directly involved in this business, but also poses a serious danger to people within the immediate environment who have nothing to do with scrap business.

The scrap dealers themselves do not seem to be aware of the health hazards they are exposed to in their business. “I’m not sick. I’ve done this for two years,” says James, a scrap worker.

Yusif Anda, a 40-year-old Burkinabe scrap dealer who has been involved in the trade for much longer, explains through a translator that although he is not visibly sick, he often coughs up black phlegm.

Jake, an ex-farmer who has worked in the scrap business for two years, says his doctor advised him to quit his job because continuous exposure to naked flames and toxic fumes could result in fatal respiratory conditions. He says he knows the health risk is unquestionable. His income is hardly better than a tomato farmers’ wage.

All this work is done to benefit large industrial steel companies like Western Steel and Forging Limited in the harbour city of Tema in Accra.

The companies buy the scrap metal for GH¢ 560.00 per tonne, or about $400 CAD. The income is distributed amongst the many men involved in the industry—a salary they wish would be higher considering the risk of their job.

Many of the scrap workers we spoke to could not even identify the companies they sell to because they say their main concern is making money on which to subsist. They also hardly speak nor understand any widely accepted Ghanaian languages, which hinders their right to negotiate fair incomes or protect their rights. They simply collect the scrap metal and collect their payment.

Ghana’s National Employment Policy states its main objectives are to “promote the goal of full employment in national economic and social policy, and to enable all men and women who are available and willing to work, to attain secured and sustainable livelihood through full productive and freely chosen employment and work” and to “Safeguard the basic rights and interests of workers.”

Therefore, it is hard to imagine why anyone would willingly engage in the risky industry of scrap dealing. But, since the government does not recognise Old Fadama’s residents as legal Ghanaian citizens, they do not have access to job training or skill development programmes. So, they are compelled to take up the job.

“We have families to take care of and remit our parents back in the villages, says James. “The government simply does not care about us, but we must survive.”

Opportunity in Organics

Ghana’s investment in organic farming could transform the country’s agriculture sector and improve the country’s economy dramatically.

It’s a common scene among many small-scale farmers in Ghana: men and women working feverishly under the hot sun, mixing cow dung and chemical pesticides into barren soil, harvesting salvageable produce to sell and praying for incipient crops to grow. It’s not like these farmers aren’t trying. It’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a twofold problem. They are working in a relentless climate defined by very high temperatures, inconsistent rainfall, and soils prone to erosion and degradation. Additionally, the agro-education they have inherited is unsustainable – a blend of traditional practices such as bush-burning and modern habits of using pesticides and herbicides are harmful to the environment and not ideal for food production.

[pullquote]Organics are more resilient and have a longer shelf life than chemically-grown food. Since many farmers have a limited knowledge of post-harvest care they lose between 20 and 50 per cent of their yields. Organic plants are nourished naturally, and therefore more robust than conventionally-grown plants.[/pullquote]

Agriculture dominates Ghana’s economy, contributing to 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. But the sector is plagued by erratic weather patterns, low crop yield, low soil fertility, unsustainable agricultural practices, poor quality produce and limited access to market.
Ghana’s agriculture sector is in need of an overhaul. An investment in organic farming could revamp the sector by introducing superior produce that is more resilient, encourages the sustainable use of land, is more nutritious and has a higher market value. Organic agriculture could provide Ghana’s economy with a much-needed boost.
One small organic project farm in Agona Town, west of Cape Coast, could be that boost. The farm, called the Abusua Sustainable Organic Farm (ASOF) project is attempting to tap into the organic industry and convince the country of the benefits in organic farming. Organic farming in Ghana is largely unexplored. Currently, very few people in Ghana are making money from organic farming although organic food and beverages generate almost $51 billion in global sales.

part of the ASOF project’s farmland- cassava is already growing.

Arriving at the Abusua Foundation’s 15-acre plot of farmland I understood why our guide, executive director and founder Simon Tsike-Sossah, chose to wear long pants and sneakers that day. We stepped into a mass of wild, overgrown plants and pushed our way past prickly bushes, tangled vines and aggressive, biting ants. We were enclosed in a fortress of foliage- large glossy leaves, tiny yellow flowers, rich red soil and multiple shades of green. This is this site for ASOF. Here Tsike-Sossah hopes to establish an organic youth-run farm where sustainable farming methods become a profitable business. The founder furthered his childhood knowledge of organic farming techniques with a formal education at the University of Cape Coast. “We want to show you that you can do farming in a better way,” he says.
Organics are more resilient and have a longer shelf life than chemically-grown food. Since many farmers have a limited knowledge of post-harvest care they lose between 20 and 50 per cent of their yields. But, organic plants are nourished naturally and are, therefore more robust than conventionally-grown plants. Organically grown food is also less susceptible to rapid mould, rotting, diseases and pests.
Ghana is typically a hot and dry country. Dry, dusty winds blow through the country and, especially in the north, recurrent drought severely affects agricultural activities. Organically grown plants are more drought tolerant – a benefit as 69 per cent of the country’s land surface is prone to severe erosion. Because chemical fertilizer is soluble, plants are forced to absorb it every time they are exposed to water. When water supplies are limited, chemically fed plants are unable to absorb enough water to reach toxic concentrations and stop growing – a major issue in a country with less than one per cent of its arable land irrigated.

[pullquote]“You are not taught that you can actually make do by not applying pesticides. It’s a feeling of the very old-age practice that what the white man does should be right,” says Tsike-Sossah. “To tell them the opposite, they think it’s not possible.”[/pullquote]

It’s also cheaper – important in a country where 45 per cent of people live in poverty (less than $1 CND per day) and the majority of the country’s farmers are small scale “peasant” farmers, unable to afford expensive pesticides.
Ghana’s produce is not largely sought after on the international market as many farmers’ goods do not meet necessary quality standards in terms of weight, grade and sanitary requirements. But western consumers recognize the greater value of organic produce and are willing to pay high prices for it. In 2009, organics generated $25 billion in North American sales alone.
“If you get your organics certification, it’s a whole goldmine out there,” says Tsike- Sossah, referring to the European and West African market.
The Abusua team plans to get surrounding community members involved and benefitting from the ASOF project. It plans on building a surrounding network of farms, helping other farmers improve their agricultural approaches and techniques. Annie Leff, an Abusua Programs Manager, spent several months researching and speaking with the community famers and found an interest in organics. “Everyone has at least heard of organic farming and knows it is good for the body,” says Leff.
Currently, maize, cassava, yam and rice are the most commonly-produced crops in Ghana. They’re high yielding and relatively easy to grow, but they’re not very nutritious, a problem in a country where 8 per cent of the country’s total population is undernourished.

Simon Tsike-Sossah, founder of the Abusua Foundation, smiling as he looks down at the future location for the ASOF farm

“People eat too many carbohydrates,” says Charles Adams, the Regional Minister of Agriculture in the Upper West Region. “We need to integrate more nutritious crops into the agriculture sector, especially vegetables.” Organically-grown food is higher in mineral content than non-organics. It’s also free of contamination to health-harming fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Healthy plants, mean healthy people.
The Government of Ghana made the environment’s health an agriculture sector priority. However, Ghana’s environmental management rules and regulations are weak. Traditional practices such as using chemical pesticides, bush burning, the process of setting bush and forest ablaze to clear land quickly, and monocropping, growing the same crop year after year on the same land without rotating crops to replenish the soil with essential nutrients, trashes the land causing soil to dry and erode . Leff says this is due to a simple lack of understanding. “People are only thinking of agriculture in the very short term. By slashing and burning and using chemical pesticides they see fast, short-term results.”
Organic farming isn’t catching on because for years farmers have been taught that pesticides are a must for good harvests. “You are not taught that you can actually make do by not applying pesticides. It’s a feeling of the very old-age practice that what the white man does should be right,” says Tsike-Sossah. “To tell them the opposite, they think it’s not possible.” Farmers using organic techniques produce food at a slower rate and in smaller amounts, but end up with superior, healthier and more valuable products.
The Abusua team hopes to have their entire 15-acres cleared in the next two or three years, so they can start growing peppers, tomatoes, cabbages and carrots. But with no government support or funding, they’re relying on the help of community members and volunteers doing all their work by hand. “One of the things we are doing is not only telling people you can do farming in a sustainable way, but showing that you can also make very good money out of it,” says Tsike-Sossah. “You can still wear a suit and do farming if you want to.”
Tsike-Sossah and his team are focused on practicing what they preach. They have started a one-acre experimental garden where a few dedicated people including Stephen, an ASOF farm hand and its first official employee, spend their days tilling the land and planting seeds into well-designed furrows equipped with irrigation trenches. They even dug a 10-foot well that struck water after only four days. However, the Abusua team is strapped for resources. They still need a pumping machine, sprinklers and farming tools. They would also like to dig another well to really get the project off the ground. They believe in the project and the numerous ways organic farming could improve Ghana’s agricultural woes – so they continue dedicating their days to the cause. “As long as we are on the ground cropping with the organic technologies we are espousing, then I’m sure we will be able to influence many people,” says Tsike-Sossah.

The power of youth in Bawku

A road in Bawku in norther Ghana. The town was mired in violence for nearly a decade, until peace was established in 2009

It’s a job Majeed Issah will never forget—seeing patients suffering from gunshot, machete and burn wounds at the Bawky Hospital in Ghana’s upper east region. He was working as an accounts officer during the nearly ten-year conflict between the Kusassi and Mamprusi tribes. Though the conflict ended in 2009, Issah still remembers a disturbing trend: “About 90 per cent of those injured were the youth,” he says.

During the violence, elders were criticized for not showing a serious commitment to ending the conflict. Now, some have hope that young people could be the concrete solution to finding lasting peace in the region.

Issah and I sit chatting in front of the local police station. It’s a bright, sunny day and people smile and greet us as they walk or ride their bicycles past us on the dusty dirt road. It’s hard to imagine that only a few years ago, the cheery town was subjected to a daily 20-hour lockdown in a bid to end the violence.

According to a 2008 Amnesty International report, the fighting was fuelled by issues of chieftaincy, land ownership and political affiliation.

However, the report also points out that the conflict had one particularly disturbing characteristic—the youth were largely involved as both perpetrators and victims.

“In any situation, in any conflict, it’s we the youth they push in front to do the destructions,” says Issah. Now in his late twenties, Issah is one of the founding members of the Bawku Literary Society (BLS), a civil society group committed to educating youth on peacekeeping and ethnic tolerance.

The BLS formed in 2000 at the same time the conflict broke out. They worked in major conflict, or “no-go,” zones reciting poetry and performing plays promoting peace and ethnic tolerance so that even illiterate youth would understand their message. They also began working in schools, organizing more formal education programs like debates and public youth forums, reaching as many students as possible.

Lukman Imoro Sampoko, a member of BLS, lost his younger brother Fatawu in 2009 as a result of the conflict. “We almost lost hope of surviving,” he says.

Sampoko joined BLS, believing that educating unschooled youth on ethnic tolerance was his best weapon. “I thought I could contribute by talking to people who would give me the listening ear to cause a change in the way they think,” he says.

Over the last year, the residents of Bawku have been putting the pieces of their lives back together. People who fled are moving back to the town, the economy is picking up and children are returning to school. But the reintegration process for the youth is not that simple. They’ve been socialized into a culture of violence, according to Patrick Adakudugu, assistant director of the Bawku Municipal Education Office.

“The way the children were exposed to the violent situations, they try to imitate some of these things,” he says, adding that he recently witnessed a child pulling a knife out during a schoolyard tiff.

BLS and other youth-oriented projects struggle to find funding, which is not readily available. Nevertheless, BLS continues to run their programs. They believe that the collective will of the youth to maintain peace is the only way to sustain order in Bawku.

“If the youth say yes, it’s yes. If they say ‘we want peace,’ there will always be peace”, says Isaah.

The price of love

A Ghanaian bride is primped by relatives

You’re bound to come across a wedding in Ghana on a weekly basis. Weddings here are similar to what you’d expect in Canada—a church service, a big white dress, a groom in a sharp suit and a large reception.

This month, I attended a friend’s wedding in Kumasi. I was excited since it was going to be a traditional Muslim service, which I have never witnessed before.

I arrived armed with a new dress and pair of sandals, giddy with excitement.

But, when I saw the groom, Mufty Mohammed, he was stressed, more than the typical day-before-wedding jitters.

“They’ve just demanded an extra 400 cedis ($285 CAD)!” he exclaimed.

“Who did?” I asked.

“The lady’s family. They are squeezing me for  all I’m worth,” he said.

A traditional Muslim wedding can be very expensive for the groom. Beyond covering typical expenses, he has to pay a bride price, a gift in cash to the parents of the wife, and a mahr, a gift of money, possessions or property given to the wife, a compulsory part of an Islamic marriage contract.

In some cases, like Mufty’s, the woman and her parents may request an extremely high mahr. He had to reschedule his wedding date three times as well as sell his car to satisfy the financial demands of his future in-laws.

“It is very annoying,” he says. “Assuming a struggling young man like me, you expect me to pay thousands of cedis to marry your daughter and the relationship doesn’t work out. It’s very psychologically damaging.”

The mahr is typically set according to a prospective husband’s financial situation and should not normally be more than he can easily afford.

But in some cases, overzealous family members negotiate on the bride’s behalf, looking to host a flashy wedding.

“With the advancement of society, the token of bride wealth has become very huge and can result in some heavy debts,” says Osei Piesie Anto, a professor at the Islamic University College in Accra. He admits that some families take advantage of the tradition and consider bride wealth and mahr as a way to get rich quick and end up straining the marriage.

“Now it’s about extravagance—spending money to look good to the public,” says Mufty. “But, if you drain the groom, how can he support the wife?”

A Ghanaian Muslim marriage is considered the union of two families, not only two individuals. The marriage customs allow the in-laws to get heavily involved in all the wedding arrangements and the setting of the bride price and mahr.

“It’s a bond between the two families and it’s very important,” says Anto. If you take my daughter who I’ve put through university, what are you going to give back to me? It’s a token.”

Anto compares the bride price and mahr to the tradition of a man buying a woman an expensive ring to exhibit his commitment. But, he admits the tradition should be polished to make it more modern.

Of course, cultural traditions should be valued and maintained, but culture is fluid and adapts with the times. The idea of two families bound together in the Ghanaian Muslim tradition can ensure a more stable and secure marriage.

According to Mufty, there’s something moderately unromantic about literally putting a price on love.

“All this frustration and anger has been eating away at me,” Mufty laments. “The night your wife is presented to you, the joy is not always there. You think, ‘Is this lady worth all this money?’”

Ghana revisited

The author says revisiting a foreign country is like rereading a book—oddly familiar, but previously unnoticed details linger. Above is Accra'a main road, Oxford Street.

“I like the way you talk to me,” says Brian, one of the many young street hawkers lining Oxford Street, Accra’s main drag, as I turn down his offer to make me a bracelet with my name on it. “You have been here before,” he declared, after hearing me speak with a slight Ghanaian accent.

Brian is right. This is my second time in Ghana and I’m surprised by how natural it feels to be here. I was here last summer for a three month stint in Kumasi, so this time around feels a bit like I’m retracing my footsteps.

It’s a very interesting process to revisit a place you’ve already been, it’s like rereading a book—you know what to expect, but you pick up on details you never noticed before. I do miss the wide-eyed excitement and the shock and terror I felt as a novice visitor to Ghana, but I’m enjoying the cosy way I have already settled into a routine and that I’m already familiar with some of the county’s quirks.

I can navigate the city without a map or the luxury of street signs and names. I enjoy riding tro-tros (a local mode of public transportation) to get around town, though I’m fully aware the vehicles are overcrowded and would likely never pass Canadian safety standards nor emissions tests.

I find myself weaving through the tumultuous traffic like a game of Tetris and leaping over open sewers, pot holes and many other obstacles in the roads with relative ease. I know that streetlights are often more for decoration than illumination and I enjoy the game of chicken I play with drivers on a daily basis—they usually swerve at the last minute in an attempt not to hit you.

I get a kick out of the how amused locals are to hear me answer their questions in Twi (the major local language) or how happy they are that I know my Ghanaian name is Akua (born on Wednesday), that the two main political parties are the NDC and the NPP, that I pronounce “Danquah Circle” (a major transit hub in the city) properly, and have tried and enjoyed many local dishes.

I can negotiate with street vendors and taxi drivers to get a fair price, I know that if someone hisses at me like a snake they are just trying to get my attention and I could swear people yell obruni (white person) at me a lot less often (though this is very debatable).

I have embraced GMT (Ghana Man Time)—I know that ten minutes actually means one hour. I’ve accepted that if somebody tells me they are “not far” that they probably are. And, I’ve realised that most meetings are thought of as tentative.

I realise this sounds like an overly romantic account of the country and I know I’m no Ghana expert. I certainly expect some paramount challenges and days when I’d like to stow myself away on plane back to Canada. I am, after all, only three weeks into my entire six-month stay. Perhaps I am still in the honeymoon phase. Maybe I am, but I’m loving it nonetheless…for now.