Author Archives: Megan Ainscow

About Megan Ainscow

Megan Ainscow has longed to do the kind of journalism that can make an impact in communities where the voices of the marginalized need to be heard. Megan lives and breathes media. She worked for three years in FM radio. She has freelanced for several university and weekly community papers. She has interned at Global Television in Montreal. While on exchange in Paris, Megan spent six months working with Peter O’Neil, European Correspondent for Postmedia and following that spent nine months working at a financial newswire in Montreal as a reporter and broadcaster. To satisfy her desire to engage in some kind of human rights advocacy, since November 2009 Megan has been a volunteer on the communications subcommittee for Human Rights Watch. Since beginning her journalism degree at Concordia University in 2004 she has been following Journalists for Human Rights and decided this year the time had come to shake things up and apply for an overseas position. Megan is heading off to Tamale, Ghana located in the remote Northern Region to work at Diamond FM.

Alleged rape by Ghana’s joint military-police remains unsolved

Madam Adija says she was beaten while six months pregnant and as a result her child was born with a birth defect on his skin.

Two years after the military and police allegedly attacked, robbed and raped residents of the town of Nalerigu in northern Ghana the case remains under investigation by the Ghana Police Service.

On November 14, 2009, the community was placed under an illegal curfew by the joint military-police after the murder of a local politician. Ten days later, residents say, the situation spun out of control.

One of the victims said she was at home when military officers entered and began beating and interrogating everyone inside about the recent murder. The officers later cornered her and two other young women in their room.

“They said that we should all lie down. And they said that do we know something? And we said no. And they said that now, whether we like it or not, whether it’s false or we really like it they will rape us,” she said. She was 16 years old at the time and is one of five young women who reported being gang-raped by at gunpoint by officers that night.

The following morning the community reacted. The District Chief Executive picked up the alleged rape victims in his official vehicle and drove them to the hospital where medical reports and samples were taken. Interviews were given to a several national media outlets with footage showing injuries sustained from beatings and damaged property. The local office of Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) wrote a report based on victim testimony. The International Federation of Women’s Lawyers (FIDA) caught wind of the story and released a press statement demanding justice for the people of Nalerigu.

“No court, no anything, up to now, so we don’t know, the case just ended like that, we don’t know. But we can’t do anything, so we are just sitting we don’t know what is going on,” said Mahmoud Fuseini, who claims he was also beaten by the military that night.

When contacted the Ghana Police Service refused to go on record, but offered to give an update on the status of the case: the semen sample taken from one of the girls is still sitting in the National Crime Laboratory and they have yet to receive the results.

“They keep saying ‘we’re investigating’ but if an independent body is investigating than it means a policeman isn’t calling a policeman. If you see the manner in which people have suffered it will tell you that if it goes unheeded, if there is no action that is taken about it, the democracy in Ghana is a mere mockery,” said Sule Salifu Soya, East Mamprusi District Director for CHRAJ who wrote the commission report. Soya says the police should never have been put in charge of the investigation.

FIDA’s Northern regional coordinator, Saratu Mahama, said her office is still considering petitioning Ghanaian Attorney General Martin A. B. K. Amidu.

“We know that Ghana’s military and police are respected not only in Ghana but in the international circles. If such a thing should happen it should not be swept under the carpet,” she said.

On a recent visit to Nalerigu, Mahama said she was met with several inquiries from residents wondering how the case is progressing.

“They feel that the law has failed them, the system has failed them. It looks like somebody somewhere is not listening. So we want the people to listen,” she said.

French sanctions driving Mali’s tourism industry down the drain

Tour guides say Westerners have all but stopped coming to West Africa's premier tourist destination - Mali's Dogon Country.

The debate raged on about Mali. To go or not to go.

West Africa’s tourism hotspot was calling me, but I couldn’t ignore the warnings splashed all over foreign embassy websites. Former colonial master France has declared Mali a “zone rouge” and forbidden its own citizens from entry all together. Stories of kidnappings near the border, like that of Canadian ambassador Robert Fowler by Al Qaida operatives, were enough to strike fear in anyone’s heart.

I reasoned that Mali is a large country and these mishaps were geographically isolated. The less-alarmist Canadian embassy website gave the green light to visit the heavily populated South. I took a deep breathe and rode a painfully long bus ride from Burkina Faso into Ségou, a sleepy town built on the Niger River that boasts impressive French colonial architecture and a thriving music scene.

During the week ahead I discovered a beautiful, hospitable country that has been decimated by travel advisories.

Boubakar Guindo, our able guide through the Dogon country’s spectacular cliffside villages told us the coming months are usually his peak season but for now he only has one trip booked through January. He is growing onions and farming to feed his family in the meantime. Oumar Touré, our charming host in Ségou said his once-popular hotel and contemporary art space over-looking the Niger River is often vacant for days at a time.

The effects on the local population are dire. Mali is one of the poorest countries on the globe ranking 175 of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index. The one thing it has always depended on is big-ticket tourism.

But many in Mali believe that the travel warnings doled out by Western countries are not warranted. In fact, they argue that there is a political motive behind them. According to all local hotel and tour operators we met, the story goes like this:

Up to now Mali has refused to sign an accord with the French government that would allow for Malian immigrants to be paid to voluntarily return to their home country. Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Benin – all former French West African colonies – have signed.  In addition just last month Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Touré repeated he will not grant France’s requests to build military bases on Malian soil. According to locals, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has retaliated by putting up the travel warnings and forbidding all French nationals from entering Mali. England, the United States, Australia and other Western countries followed up with their own warnings against travel in the country. For now, Canada’s travel advisories warn against only the desert North and border areas with Niger and Algeria.

Guindo stressed to us that the areas where kidnappings have taken place have always been off-limits. There are illegal operations running through the desert and the traffickers would like to keep the already unnavigable terrain an even more dangerous place to be. But it is ridiculous to claim there is a risk of kidnapping in the South, he said.

Nothing has ever happened to a tourist in the South,” said Sophie Keita, the Swedish owner of a hotel in Djenne, a city known for it’s stunning giant mud brick mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After the British foreign embassy translated and copy-pasted the travel advisory from France’s website onto their own, Keita wrote an angry letter to the ambassador. “What exactly is your job, then? Is it not to investigate?” she asked him.

Oumar Touré shrugged his shoulders as he told us how Western ambassadors regularly visit his hotel in Ségou, a town which for many of them is off-limits to their own citizens, and ask to hide their SUVs from sight.

As we trekked through Dogon country we were pleasantly greeted at every turn. One elderly woman held my boyfriend’s hand and pleaded with him, “It has been awhile that you haven’t come; you haven’t come in a long time,” she said. We later told Guindo what we had been telling all the forlorn Malians we had met along our journey: “It will change. They can’t keep warning like this forever. Things will get better.”

I hope we’re right.

Ghana’s youth leaders urged to resist inciting violence during 2012 election

Ghana has long been regarded as a beacon of hope in West Africa and the world will be watching in 2012 when it will mark its 20th anniversary of peaceful democratic elections. In the meantime, leaders here are taking steps to ensure youth activists aren’t lured into jeopardizing that landmark.

“(Politicians) say look at you all you have no jobs, when I come to power I will do A, B, C, D for you. Once you do that, it has the potential to incite the youth to engage out of lawlessness during election period, ” said Stephen Azantilow, Regional Director of Ghana’s Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ).

Azantilow chaired a workshop in Tamale in early October where youth leaders from Ghana’s three northern regions were invited to discuss the illegality of accepting money or favours for votes and the importance of integrity and peace during elections. The event was organized by the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition, made up of public, private and civil society groups from across the country.

Calvin Rashid Yahaya, Student Representative Council President at Tamale Polytechnic who participated in the workshop said election violence is a trickle-down effect. Politicians make promises to youth leaders, then those youth leaders in turn gather what are known as foot soldiers – mostly underemployed and illiterate – and pay them small fees to steal ballot boxes and cause other disruptions.

“Most youth they don’t even know what they are about. The law is not available, it’s not made available for them to read. They don’t know why they are fighting. They don’t know why they are lobbying for this person,” he said.

But Kojo Tito Voegborlo, Secretary for the National Commission for Civic Education who also spoke at the event, was quick to challenge him. “There’s a linkage between poverty and some of the ills that go on in the electoral system. But I can also tell you that a large chunk of those who are involved in malpractices are people who are well-to-do. The youth activists who are sitting here, many of them are at least university graduates others Polytechnic, they are well-to-do,” he said.

Here in Northern Region, where tribal violence is not uncommon, political affiliations often run along tribal lines. The 2008 elections saw an outbreak of violence in the region when foot soldiers for the two major political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) clashed at the polling stations. Meanwhile, all over Ghana foot soldiers recruited minors to register and vote in strategic regions, a practice called bussing. Nevertheless, after a tight race NDC leader John Atta Mills was declared victorious, and NPP leader John Kufour stepped down willingly after having served two terms.

Sandra Auther is the Programs Officer for the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition and is organizing these dialogue sessions with youth in trouble spots all over the country.

“Election without peace is chaos. So we’re looking at the fact that with the integrity that they build, they will not give themselves out to people to indulge in things that will destruct the peace of this nation. That at the end of the day, our election goes peacefully and nobody loses their life, we don’t want to be like other countries that we are experiencing around us,” she said.

Yahaya said he fully grasped the meaning of the event, quoting John F. Kennedy’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

“At the end of the day politics is not do or die, it’s not a win or lose affair. When you lose you need to sit down as a team and say – what actually lead to you being at the negative side? It’s about learning. The room for improvement is the best room,” he said.

What to do about Ghana’s witch camps?

Tia, who has been in the Gambaga camp for 30 years and Samson, who runs a one-man project aimed at reintegrating the women into communities.

The hundreds of women and few men who populate the camps sprinkled throughout Ghana’s Northern region have been branded witches by their communities and chased out, sometimes beaten viciously. The finger-pointing often starts in their own home. Most of them do not speak English but only local dialects, and come from the most impoverished, forgotten corners of Ghana. They are often blamed for the kind of unfair and tragic events that occur in every human’s life: the breakout of disease, the death of a child.

Over the years the camps have received negative media attention on a local and international scale, and after a recent visit to the largest camp in Gnani from the Deputy Minister of Women and Children, it is becoming clear the Ghanaian government would like to be seen to be doing something to stop the practice.

But what can be done? Many argue that band-aid solutions like reintegrating the women into their communities or extreme solutions like abolishing the camps do not erode the belief system or stop the problem at its source.

I didn’t realize how deeply engrained the belief in witchcraft was until I made my first of several trips to the camps with Hafiz, an intern from Diamond FM. While sitting on the long, bumpy bus ride I turned to him and suggested we prepare for the interviews. “What are you going to ask them?” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I’m going to ask them how they acquired their witchcraft.”

I tried not to look shocked and said “ok.” I had naively assumed Hafiz wanted to pursue this story because like me he wanted to show the world that these women were in fact innocent old ladies who were being unjustly banished from their homes.

Hafiz believes what Ghanaians across every sector of society do – that witches exist, they walk among us, and can cause great misfortune in the lives of others – so watch your back.

However, when we got there, things took a turn. While Hafiz did ask whether or not they were witches, when he heard “no” every time, I prodded him to begin asking deeper questions. Why do you think you are here? What do you think the government should do for you?

Overall, these old women from poor rural villages did not have many demands. They did not see the Ghanaian government as a major actor in their lives. They just wanted food to eat and to go home.

We later interviewed Seidu Al Hassan, in charge of investigations and public education at the Northern Regional Office of the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), a government body.

“Nationwide people believe in witchcraft. If you monitor your airwaves, if you monitor your TV stations , they are entrenching this belief. They claim to have the powers to exorcize women accused of witchcraft….we try to help, discourage this, and others are entrenching this belief system, thereby justifying the violence that is meted out to the so-called witches,” he said.

However, people can believe whatever they want, he said.

“That is their cup of tea, that is their right. The position of the commission is it is not our duty to know whether witchcraft exists or not. But whatever belief you have, make sure your belief doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights.”

Combatting botched abortions in Northern Ghana

Safia Zakaria works holidays and overtime to treat women coming in with abortion complications

On August 4 a teenage girl walked into Ghana’s Tamale Teaching Hospital (TTH) bleeding from her uterus. She had taken Cytotec, a drug meant for stomach ulcers that can induce abortion. Three hours later she had bled to death.

An average of over 40 women a month have been admitted to TTH with complications from at-home abortions in 2011. Their methods are numerous – some have inserted concoctions into their uterus, others have used broken bottles to try and remove the foetus or some ingest black market drugs. Abortion is a leading cause of maternal death in Ghana.

Safia Zakaria is the principal nurse in the gynaecology ward in the predominantly muslim Northern regional capital. Though at first she often counsels women to keep the child, she has chosen to loosely interpret Ghanaian law and performs abortions with NGO-donated equipment.

“Me in particular, I swore never even to do it, but there are instances that you put yourself in her shoe that you do, just to save life. They bleed and there’s no more blood in them you see only serum, in fact they just die. It’s so painful,” she said.

In Ghana abortion is a criminal offence with practitioners facing a penalty of up to 5 years in prison. The law was liberalized in 1985 making abortion legal if the physical or mental well-being of the pregnant woman is threatened, one of the most liberal policies on the continent. However the practice is frowned upon and many are afraid to seek safe abortion services for fear they will be stigmatized.

The lack of clarity in government policy is a reflection of the ongoing struggle in Ghanaian society – a race towards modernity running up against limited resources and deeply traditional beliefs.

Dr. Husein Zakaria is executive director of CODYAC, an Islamic youth centre in Tamale that seeks to address key issues affecting the lives of young people. He conceded that the young women showing up at TTH need medical care, but does not support offering them abortion services.

“The kind of legalization you are talking about is where everybody can walk to the doctor and say I’m pregnant I don’t want it please just quash it. I think that system is not the best for people like us,” he said.

Dr. Zakaria contends that if the Ghanaian government were to give full-fledged support to abortion, places like Northern region, where the majority of the population is illiterate, would experience mass abortion.

In the meantime, to curb the growing problem of teenage pregnancy his office encourages abstinence, he said, adding they do not promote the use of contraceptives. “Speaking from a religious perspective, we don’t see why we should prescribe mechanisms for people to go into sin,” he said.

However Safia is adamant that the only thing that will reduce the number of suffering young women coming into her ward is more education on the importance of using birth control.

In mid-August a mentoring camp funded by USAID was held in Tamale for 210 teenage girls shuttled in from all over Northern region. I watched as the young girls sat in rows, all with shaven heads as is the tradition for young women in Northern region, attentively listening to an educator beg them to be sensible with sex.

“If you haven’t tasted it before, my dear daughters, don’t taste it. Don’t even make an attempt. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” they replied in unison.

“If you have tasted it before, please, next time you are going to do it look for condom. Don’t do it raw. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

Safia said in the event of an unwanted pregnancy she wants young girls to come see her first before attempting abortion at home.

“There’s no point hiding something and it’s killing you. Anyone shun on them, I ask, are you free? Haven’t you done it before? It’s rather unfortunate that it’s come this way so let’s help them.”

The cynic in me gets a slap in the face

Every once and awhile the generosity of strangers can floor you.

The community of Fishula is a 15-minute drive outside the bustling regional capital of Tamale. Despite the nearby streetlights, restaurants, colleges and swimming pools in Tamale, Fishula’s water comes from a dirty well, there is no electricity and worst of all, an entire generation has not received any formal education.

An elder in Fishula shows Diamond FM's Maxwell Suuk the well they use for drinking water

Politicians in Ghana will often use distance as an excuse for depriving rural villages of basic services but clearly that wouldn’t fly in this case. I travelled to Fishula with a district assembly member and Maxwell Suuk, a reporter at Diamond FM.

When visiting any rural village in Northern Region it is customary to go and visit the chief to pay your respects. He usually lives in one of the larger mud huts and if he is Dagomba – the majority of chiefs in this region are – you enter, squat and clap your hands quickly and gently and say “naa…naa…naa” over and over again.

You inevitably are asked to offer kola. In the not-too-distant past, this actually meant a kola nut exchanged as a symbolic gesture, but with the influx of NGO’s to Northern Ghana and as modern comforts slowly seep their way into villages it usually means cash, especially if you are visibly Western.

I sat quietly on a goatskin waiting to be asked for kola. I huffed and puffed internally – at times I felt like a walking ATM. Pleasantries were exchanged in Dagbani for what seemed like an eternity and as Max tried to wrap things up I could sense he was anticipating the same thing as me.

Suddenly a procession of men entered carrying a heaping bowl of groundnuts, a bag of guinea fowl eggs and a huge duck.  It was a knobby, red, ugly duck that screeched and flapped as it tried to scramble lose from the man’s sturdy grip. I stared in disbelief at Max as it became clear the chief of this incredibly poor community wanted to offer us gifts for coming to hear their plight.

I put up my hands to protest. The district assembly member mumbled under his breath to me:  “you cannot refuse, you will insult him.”

My mind began racing wondering how I was going to carry the struggling duck as effortlessly as this man from Fishula. I couldn’t smile at Max, fearing one of us would burst into laughter.

We thanked him for the gifts and asked the man to carry the duck to our Tamale-bound taxi and stuff it in the hatchback. It squawked and kicked as we laughed the whole way home. I called my Ghanaian host family to tell them I was bringing home a surprise.

The following day my grandmother yelled for me to come outside. She wanted me to come see how well she had roasted my poor friend – here in Ghana animals are rarely recipients of generous treatment.

Monkey business in Northern Ghana

I snapped photos of the setting sun over Ghana’s Mole National Park, not wanting the day to end.  As I turned around I realized I was not alone.   About ten feet away on the path leading to my chalet sat a female baboon staring expectantly at me.  I let out a piercing scream and began pounding on the door.

Irrational reaction?  Maybe.  Conventional wisdom says I should have shown-no-fear and charged, but if you had seen those teeth…

As the sun sets, a baboon relaxes at Mole National Park.

We had spent the day touring what the Bradt Ghana guide calls the “linchpin” of Northern Ghana’s tourist circuit.  Mole National Park is known as one of the cheapest ways in Africa to go on safari, but also an example of failure on the part of government and local communities to capitalize on tourism potential.

The park is served by a bumpy dirt road that takes hours to travel by an unreliable twice-daily bus service from Tamale, the regional capital where I live.  Many locals have lamented to me that if only the government paved the road, more people from the wealthier, more populated South would visit the park.

The only accommodation available is the Mole Motel, built in 1961.  Lack of competition has allowed the motel to charge almost double the standard Ghanaian prices for meals, drinks and rooms despite the basic décor and only periodic running water.  These drawbacks are compensated by a viewing platform metres from the swimming pool that overlooks two popular waterholes often frequented by elephants.

Perhaps most frustrating is that the 4, 480 square kilometre park can only be visited by walking a small area around the hotel or driving along 40 kilometres of road, providing a mere peek at the landscape and its wildlife which includes elephants, hippo, buffalo, primates and several species of antelope and birds.  The lack of surveillance has also created a haven for poachers – during our short time we heard the sound of gunfire come from the park.

That’s not to say we had no encounters with the animals nor that our time was a waste.  Our foot safari had barely left the information centre that morning when we witnessed four male elephants gracefully lope within a few feet of us as if we weren’t even there.

The baboons, however, were very much aware of our presence.   We were warned not to carry the black plastic bags used to carry food in Ghana and that “they don’t like girls.”

Back at my chalet my gender status crossed my mind as I looked at my camera case – black bag.  Half-asleep, my boyfriend opened the door to the darkened hotel room and I charged past him.  The baboon was slamming against the door and turning the handle, trying to get in.  I felt something brushing against my leg and let out a blood-curdling scream.

“What are you screaming like that for?!”

I realized he had won the fight with the baboon over the door handle and it was my camera case strap I had felt.

Later on in the hotel restaurant we heard several similar stories. One man woke up from a nap to find a baboon in his bed. A fighting match ensued and he had bruises to prove it.   We witnessed another German man get  mugged by a baboon for the black bag he was using to carry a towel. Mixed feelings of humour, anger and fear prevailed – we were being ambushed.

The sole fearless warrior among us was Joshua, a seven-year-old who lunged at the baboons with fire in his eyes, whipping a stick on the ground and fiercely whispering nonsensical threats.  His hotel room was next to mine so we tasked him with escorting me to and from my door.

If there’s anything I noticed about Mole, it is the solidarity among tourists who sit bouncing and jolting along that road through Northern Region to be overcharged and under-serviced.   We all agree – the chance to walk among and in some cases clash with the animals makes it all well worth it.

How to make a comeback in Tamale

As we approached her small dress shop housed in a shed by the roadside, Fadila stood tall in her stunning dress and headscarf and welcomed us warmly in Dagbani.   Her attempts to help me reply in the local dialect were met with giggles all around from the young women sitting at her sewing machines.   Not all young women in Tamale have reason to carry the easy smiles they do.

There are many organizations here trying to empower women to earn their own incomes.  The dusty Northern town of Tamale is often referred to as the NGO capital of Ghana, a West African country known for attracting large sums of foreign aid.   Walk down any street of this regional capital and you will be bombarded by signs – UNICEF and NORSAAC, WFP and GIGDEV.  You have  now entered a world of endless development organization acronyms.   Walk down any street, though, and there are still signs of poverty at every turn.  It makes one question what these organizations really accomplish in this, one of the most impoverished regions in Ghana.

“Have you been to Kayayei before?” we asked Fadila behind a closed door away from her colleagues.

“Yes,” she answered calmly.

A glaring indication of this poverty are the droves of Kayayoo – Northern girls who escape scarce employment opportunities by migrating to the larger cities in the South to work as head porters.  In the capital city of Accra they weave in and out of traffic, artfully carrying heavy trays on their heads selling whatever products or produce people will buy.

Looking back, Fadila said nothing had prepared her, a 20-year-old girl from the rural community of Kakpayili, for the living conditions she would face over 600 kilometres away in Accra.  She described sleeping more than 20 girls to a room where the landlord had absolute power to squeeze as many girls as he wanted inside.  She was making a maximum of 5 to 10 Ghanaian Cedis a day ($3-$6 CAD), but sometimes nothing. Her dreams of saving enough money to buy goods to bring to her marital home were not being realized.  Her family didn’t even know she was there –  she was too ashamed to tell them she was working as a Kayeyei.

The girls she lived with were desperate.   Fadila’s tone became stern.  “It would sometimes lead them to do things that they didn’t intend to do…because you want to survive, in the night, you would definitely make yourself available to any man who wants to achieve his aim and give you some money, so that the following morning, you can get food to eat.”

It has been well documented that many of the girls end up living in unsanitary conditions and are often subject to physical and sexual abuse.  The Kayeyei migration phenomenon is the subject of much talk in Ghana, and these  young women have become a symbol of the socio-economic gap between the North and South.   Despite programs like the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA) introduced two years ago, experts say the government is not moving fast enough to improve the lives of those in the three northern regions of the country.

Fadila decided to return North and come home.  “I came because I knew I couldn’t sustain myself on that kind of income.  So I came to learn a trade which I believe can sustain me,” she said.

She managed to get herself enrolled into the Ghana Young Artisans Movement, an NGO run by locals and funded by international institutions. GYAM recruits underprivileged youth and teaches them how to sow, die cloth or some other skill in order to provide them with a form of sustainable income, and helps them set up shops.  Fadila said she thinks the government should fund more programs like this.

“Trying to compare the past and now, now is far far better,” she said, adding she has achieved financial stability and is able to save money like she never could before.   She  said getting accepted into the Tamale-based NGO program changed her life.

Fadila did not accept the fate of a kayeyei in the streets of Accra

Fadila did not accept the fate of a kayeyei in the streets of Accra