Author Archives: mnewlands

About mnewlands

Working in Ghana with Journalists for Human Rights is a dream job for Michelle. With a background in print and online journalism and a post-graduate certificate in International Support Work, Michelle has worked in media relations with numerous non-profit organizations and has freelanced for multiple Canadian magazines. She strongly believes in the power of media as a tool of development and is an experienced educational facilitator, with a focus on international experiential learning. She is pleased to have the opportunity to incorporate her knowledge in journalism, experience in facilitation and passion for human rights at the African University College of Communications working with students and faculty as a Rights Media Educational Officer.

Toronto Star’s Chair of the Board Visits Ghana

Mr. John Honderich of the Toronto Star delivers a presentation to local media at the Ghana Journalists Association.

Newspapers are intended to deliver information, educate the public and beyond that – bring community together.

This is what former publisher, editor and current Chair of the Board of the Toronto Star Mr. John Honderich shared with local journalists on his visit to Ghana as part of a Journalists for Human Rights initiative. During Mr. Honderich’s ten day visit, he delivered a presentation to over 20 of Ghana’s leading publishers, editors and reporters at the Press Centre of the Ghana Journalists Association.

The presentation focused on the role of the media in community development. Honderich described much of the media scene within Canada and the role of the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest national newspapers, in communicating news and information within the most diverse city in North America and around the world. Toronto, with a population of 2.48 million people, is home to over 20 per cent of Canadian immigrants and has up to half of its population, 1,237,720 people, being born outside of Canada.

In Mr. Honderich’s presentation, he acknowledged The Toronto Star’s commitment to covering issues of public interest for such a large diversity of people. He recognized the challenges of cultural values and belief altering one’s perspectives on a particular subject or issue, but says it is essential to reflect these issues in mainstream media.

Mr. Honderich called this interaction, ‘the dialogue on diversity‘.

Topics have been featured in the Toronto Star that have created heated discussion, not only within Toronto’s multicultural environment but nation wide. Some of the issues discussed within the presentation included the debate on whether Muslim’s within the RCMP should be allowed to wear their traditional turbans while on the job to whether the singing of Christmas Carols in public schools should be banned.

To some, these issues seemed unimportant but were seen as essential in the eyes of Mr. Honderich in regards to the dialogue on diversity.

Although these topics were not specific to Ghana, the discussion of dialogue on diversity is taking place within Africa and here, local media has its own cultural conversations to report.

A recent example is Ghanaian President John Atta Mills’ refusal to legalize homosexuality in exchange for the continued support of foreign aid from British Prime Minister David Cameron – a leading news story which has been causing heated reaction and debate nationally and internationally.

Although many Africans strongly oppose homosexuality and believe it is a foreign concept brought in by Westerners, a minority of the population support gay rights or claim to be gay themselves.

This includes gay rights activist who goes under the alias of Prince.

Prince met with Mr. Honderich during his visit to Ghana and described the circumstances under which homosexuals live in the country as a ‘difficult thing’. In a column written by Mr. Honderich inspired by his visit with Prince, he writes “[Prince] no longer feels safe, adding police harassment has spiked dramatically.”

In regards to Ghana’s dialogue on diversity, Chair of the Ghana Journalists Association Ado Yeboah-Afari referred to the press reaction to the homosexuality debate as ‘hysterical’.

When asked by participants to share his own opinion, Mr. Honderich explained that homosexuality is legal in Canada and described the process it took to get there – highlighting that many people in Canada were also opposed to the notion. Nonetheless, it is the media’s job and responsibility to cover the issue unbiasedly from both sides.

In addition to the presentation held at the GJA Press Centre, Mr. Honderich was kept busy with multiple media engagements. He paid visit to two of Ghana’s leading radio stations, Joy FM and Citi FM and spent time speaking with young professionals of the Journalists for Human Rights Student Chapter at the African University College of Communication.

He also facilitated a panel discussion at the residents of the Canadian High Commissioners and met with over 70 students from Communication Studies of the Islamic University College, Ghana and worked alongside management at Ghana’s leading independent newspaper, The Daily Guide.

Thanksgiving in Ghana

The feast - please notice the mashed potatoes and the banku

Our Thanksgiving adventure began with a three hour trip to the one place we figured we could get a turkey – Shoprite. This meant hoping on a tro-tro, switching over twice, and patiently waiting as the process took it’s sweet time. Most often we shop at local markets or roadside stands, but for this occasion we wanted to go all out.

On our way, we stopped along the roadside to buy hardboiled eggs and salsa then flagged down the bicycle carrying fanmilk – the closest comparison to an ice cream truck in Ghana. As we waited for the next tro-tro to come, we couldn’t help but laugh at how different – and to us random – the daily events of our lives had become since leaving Canada three short months ago.

We wandering the aisles of Shoprite, a typical Westernized grocery store located in the largest mall in Accra, and chose items for our dinner celebration, eliminating those that could still be purchased at the market closer to home. The cost of a turkey was an arm and a leg – and since we each only had two – we decided to scratch that and improvise with chicken.

Originally, we wondered how Thanksgiving could really be Thanksgiving without the traditional turkey. Then we realized how silly a thought this was an laughed – we’re in Africa, baby!

Turkey or not, Thanksgiving would be great!

Shannon, Rahinna, Me and Cheryl - U.S.A., Ghana and Canada - meet for Thanksgiving

We spent the day preparing for dinner. Stuffing the chickens with lemon, apple slices, herbs, salt, petter, tea grass, garlic and chives. We peeled, cooked and mashed the potatoes. Prepped the salad and bought the beverages. Opened the beans, made the gravy, and for an African touch, added the stew and banku.

Nine of us gathered, bringing representation from three countries together, and filled our plates.

We sat outside under the summer hut, made a toast with the Ghanaian drink of Madingo and each took a turn sharing aloud that which we gave thanks for.

My mashed potatoes shared a plate with my banku and my stew blended with the gravy. And then, for the first time in my life, I ate Thanksgiving dinner with my hands, in a true African fashion.

Thanksgiving isn’t about the turkey on the table. It is about joining with family, friends and sometimes even strangers to enjoy good food, good company and give thanks for all which you are blessed with.

We didn’t have a turkey but we celebrated a Canadian holiday in a Ghanaian way and had an incredible night – one definitely to remember.

Kenny and Serge's first Thanksgiving

JHR-AUCC Chapter Holds Official Executive Handing Over Ceremony

JHR-AUCC newly-elected President Ernest Lartey delivers a speech at the official executive handing over.

As the start of classes drew closer at the African University College of Communications, members of the Journalists for Human Rights School Chapter held their official Handing Over Ceremony.

“For me, this was significant in the history of the chaper,” says Danny Bannah, two-term president of the school chapter. “This is the first time JHR AUCC is handing over – officially handing over.”

The event was to officialize the transfer of administrative responsibilities from previous executives to the newly elected team. The event was also in recognition of the accomplishments of the previous year’s executive team and as an induction for the administration of the chapters new leaders.

The event began, as all events in Ghana do, with a prayer of blessing, followed by a welcome address. As the theme chosen was African Wear, the room was filled with bright colours and beautiful patterns. All which matched the uplifting energy of a room filled with empowered students passionate about human rights education.

Journalism major at the AUCC, President Lartey has already been hard at work planning and preparing with his newly elected fellow executives for the coming semester. Upcomming initiatives include human rights awareness campaigns, Train the Trainer workshops and a multi-media project focusing on impacts of mining on rural communities in Ghana’s Western Region.

Lartey comes from the small village of Torompan, a suburb of Samreboi in Ghana’s Western Region and has always been passionate about media.  He has chosen to pursue a career in journalism – and act as the president of jhr-AUCC chapter – because he strongly supports the work of jhr and believes media has the power to change lives – which is exactly what he hopes to do.

“I want to impact society,” he says. “I come from a place where many people don’t have a voice – I want to help be that voice.”

Past President Bannah also delivered a speech acknowledging the dedicated hard work of his fellow executives and chapter member. He also highlighted the successes from the previous term, including the launch of rights media magazine Faces of Old Fadama – which told the stories of those living in Ghana’s largest slum.

He admitted that when he entered office, the chapter was unorganized, and said without giving himself too much credit, it took work to put back together. Proudly, he stated the chapter membership had doubled within his term, something incoming President Ernest Lartey hopes to continue.

The celebration included presentation from AUCC Dean of Students Mr. Osei Piesie-Anto, who also acted as Chair of the ceremony. He echoed recognition for the dedication and success of the previous year successed and joked, stating at times he would grow tired of the daily visits from chapter members knocking at his door with new ideas and initiatives.

Piesie gave due recognition to previous jhr Vice President Rahinna Iddrisu, stating every time President Bannah would come knocking, she would be right behind him.

Lawyer and lecturer at the AUCC, Mr. Ogochukwa Nwek was the special guest of the ceremony. He discussed the important role of journalists in the development of human rights. He gave word to the responsibilities of journalists to uphold their credibility by reporting factual, non-bias stories which serve public interest.

The ceremony was open to all students at the university and was followed by a group social, including beverages and chops provided by jhr chapter members. To see photo’s from the event check out jhr’s Facebook group called “jhr:Journalists for Human Rights”

Rotary Launches Road Safety Campaign in Accra

Asiedu Aboagye has been driving taxi in Ghana's capital city of Accra for the past 22 years

The Rotary Club of Accra-Labone in partnership with the Motor Traffic and Transport Unit and the Driver and Vehicle Licencing bureaux have launched a Road Safety Campaign aimed at educating Ghana’s motoring public.

This initiative is a result of increased numbers in traffic related deaths, as according to the MTTU’s nation wide accident statistics. These are numbers Officer Simon Tenkuu of the MTTU says the country can not be proud of.

“The traffic situation in Accra is becoming quite disturbing,” he says. “When it comes to the accident rate at the metro police, it is high – due mostly to indiscipline of drivers.”

According to the MTTU nation wide accident statistics, traffic related deaths were up to 1,679 in only nine months, between January to September 2011 and traffic related deaths remain the number one cause of fatality between those aged ten to 24 in Ghana.

Although accidents in large cities are common, the report shows a majority of traffic related deaths take place on main roadways between key cities such as Accra, Kumasi and Takaradi. These are findings Tenkuu says take place because roadways are in better condition, and therefore, drivers tend to speed and lose control.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “In this part of the world it is the good roads that kill.”

Youth and commercial drivers are main offenders in roadway accidents according to the report, and Officer Tenkuu believes the increased number of drivers is a direct result of the high volume of imported cars.

Although the main mandate of police is law enforcement – a collaboration between drivers, pedestrians and government officials is needed to reduce traffic related deaths and accidents. Tenkuu says the MTTU strongly believes in the need to educate the public on issues related to road safety and says their unit has made it a pro-active policy to do so – being the drive behind the partnership with Rotary in the Make Roads Safe Campaign.

“We appreciate what Rotary is doing and we hope that other organizations and civil society will emulate the campaign,” he says. “Road safety is a collective responsibility and the police alone can not ensure road safety [stability], we need everybody to get onboard.”

As a result of these findings, the Make Roads Safe Campaign focuses on educating pedestrians and drivers – specifically young drivers and commercial drivers – on proper road safety. The campaign will be an ongoing initiative and is something driver Asiedu Aboagye says is essential for road safety improvement.

Aboagye has been driving taxi in Ghana’s capital city of Accra for the past 22 years. He was a participant in the Make Roads Safe Campaign launch, where trained physicians spent the afternoon offering free eye-exams to the public, offering prescriptions, medication for minor problems and education on road safety.

Based on his experience, Aboagye says he has noticed an increase in careless driving within recent years. As many in Ghana do not attend driving school – or have the means to do so – before obtaining a drivers license, many drivers remain unaware of roads signs, consequences of unsafe vehicle conditions and responsible driving.

Aboagye, who is a member of the Ghana Private Road Transport Union, says there is currently limited opportunity to receive road safety education and society as a whole should work together to create road safety awareness.

“We shouldn’t just think about driving to get money,” Aboagye says. “But should make time to educate ourselves as well.”

Rotary Club of Accra-Labone President Charles Amamoo Tawiah Boakye, recognizes severities of road related accidents. He says that as Rotarians, members have a moral, civic and professional responsibility to work tirelessly towards reducing road traffic crashes and casualties.

As President Elect of the Club Adwoa Oforiwah Kye says, this is a cause of extreme importance as drivers are people who literally hold our lives in their hands every day.

Biking as a Tool of Female Empowerment

Woman on Bike participant Alba Kunadu Sumprim before the ride.

In Ghana’s northern regions bicycles are used as a necessary means of transportation, but in the capital city of Accra, this is not the case. Cycling in the city can not only be dangerous, but attached to social stigmas – especially for women cyclists.

This is what Alba Kunadu Sumprim, along with ten others, discovered as participants in the Woman on Bike workshop, which is also part of the Prêt-à-partager art exhibition.The purpose is to explore the limits and possibilities of bikes in an urban West African atmosphere with particular significance to biking as a tool of female empowerment.

Sumprim is a British born Ghanaian and a participant in the workshop. Sumprim says back in England, cycling was a key method of transport for her and part of her daily routine. She has spent the past decade living in Ghana and says this workshop gave her the courage and confidence to get on a bike for the first time since her arrival ten years ago.

“When I first started I was a little scared,” she says. “It’s a matter of confidence… as I became more confident I realized it was my right to be on the road with everybody else.”

Sumprim says, based on her experience riding in the city, she has felt social discrimination as a female cyclist, stating one man she met while riding told her that as far as he was concerned, the only women who should be on bicycles are villagers, women from the north or foreigners, and Ghanaian women in Accra, should not be on bicycles.

“It is all about status – and riding a bike says that you are poor. That is the perception. I think there is also a gender thing, we have very typical ideas of what women can do and what women can’t do,” Sumprim says.

This is the type of discrimination the workshop aims to eliminate. Sandrine Micosse-Aikins, co-creator of Prêt-à-partager art exhibition in collaboration with the German Institute of Foreign Cultural Relations, says the initiative is related to ideas of freedom and Pan African Empowerment. As a German-Ghanaian, she says female empowerment is an important issue for her and feels biking is something people in the city aren’t practicing and aren’t claiming as their right.

“[It’s] about promoting biking as a practice available for women, especially Ghanaian women,” Micosse-Aikins says.

The women involved in the workshop agree the perception of female cyclists in Accra and the discrimination towards them is not something that is going to vanish overnight. It is, however, something they believe they can work towards and plan to continue.

Zohra Opoku is a German-Ghanaian, avid cyclist, artist and coordinator of the Woman on Bike workshop. Opoku says this workshop is just the beginning and they have started to think of actions to strengthen their goal. It begins with public interaction, she says.

“In terms of empowerment it is something that has to grow,” Opuku says. “I think this is good. People will see more bikes on the streets because of our workshop.”

In addition to the empowerment associated with female riders, Sumprim states that although the workshop is focused on women and female empowerment, it has potential to extend into the greater community.

According to her, less traffic congestion, decreased pollution, lower economic demand for oil and overall health and fitness are benefits of the cycling initiative.

“It is Woman on Bike because it is a novelty, but society in general can be empowered… it is actually a huge thing for society as a whole,” Sumprim says.

Our tro-tro after the crash.

Commuters Crash

The evening was dark and the air crisp as we embarked on our journey to Accra from Ghana’s Western Region. It was not much past 7:00 pm but the quiet, urban roads made it seem as though the whole of the country would be asleep.

The route home was anything but smooth, potholes causing our tro-tro to veer from one side to the other. The vehicle remained silent despite being at full capacity, including three passengers per four rows, plus the small child strapped to his mothers back. We were approximately two hours into our seven hour journey and I had finally managed to reached the point of dosing off.

As my head rested on my hand against the window, I was Instantly and abruptly brought to attention. I was temporarily blinded by the headlights of oncoming traffic as we were forced between the two lanes of the highway.

Initially, I was overwhelmed with confusion until the realization sunk it; we were going to crash. The two left side wheels gripped the road side gravel and pulled the vehicle further off the road. We were now driving on a downward slope into the ditch. I tried to balance my body and grip the seat in front of me – as I was convinced we were going to roll. Without the option of seat belts in Accra’s public transportation, I was planning a way not to be thrown out of the window beside me.

Again, I was abruptly brought back to the moment with force. Our vehicle had stopped. I could see the broken glass in the windshield and we were now completely surrounded by darkness. The silence was piercing, nobody moved and I waited for the baby to cry.

Realistically, it may only have been seconds, but we sat silently for what felt like hours. People slowly began speaking and confirmed everyone was alright. Finally, the baby cried and we knew he was alright.

Slowly we emptied the vehicle. Some exiting through the sliding door into muddy water, others using the windows to avoid getting wet. Minus a few cuts, bumps and bruises, fright was the largest injury any of us endured.

After assisting passengers out of the car, we gathered in the pitch black and stood on the side of the road. It was getting colder and the mosquitos were in full force.

Our tro-tro after the crash.

We stood there, questioning our next move. Vehicles drove past, some honking but none stopping. Finally a taxi came and the driver of our tro-tro jumped in to go retrieve assistance is what he said. The rest of us, about 12, continued to wait. Slowly, vehicles began to pull over until finally a police officer and taxi driver, both smelling like liquor, came to assist us.

“Where are you from?” A man asked.

“Canada,” I answered. “We are Canadian.”

“Canada? Very good, very good. Don’t worry we will get you out of here safe.”

“We’re fine,” I answered. “We can wait.”

People began speaking in Twi arranging a solution. My Canadian colleague and I stood silently and waited to be told what to do. After a characterized discussion, we were directed to get in the taxi by a police officer. I was hesitant to oblige.

“Take the kids first,” I said. “We’re fine – get the kids home first.”

They continued to herd us towards the taxi.

“Go, get in,” they said.

I didn’t like it. I resisted.

We weren’t hurt, we weren’t scared. We were fine and we could wait, just like the others. Yet our strong requests to be left were ignored and we were ushered into the vehicle with our four local friends. We were driven to the nearest police station where we would find an alternative means back to the city of Accra, still an estimated three hour drive east.

I will never know why we were cared for first. Our friends said it was because we were the only ones from out of town -yet my mind could not help consider alternative motives.

I reflected on a conversation between myself and a professor on ‘preferential treatment’ – also referred to as ‘white privilege’. I don’t want to be arrogant to suggest this is an example of either, but it was a feeling I could not ignore.

Still reflecting on the conversation with the professor, I recall him saying ‘we’ (foreigners, white people) will be given certain privileges and it’s us who will decide if we accept. I thought about how often this must happen without us recognizing it. Being served first, receiving access to resources or a certain quality of materials. I have begun to wonder how often this takes place and recognize how often I consciously or subconsciously accept this preferential treatment we had all been on the same bus, endured the same experience yet we were first to be cared for and I didn’t like it.

My mind was stumped and my emotions twisted. We drove from the site of the crash, leaving the other passengers to stand on the road. We would never know how long they had to wait or if the driver ever returned to assist them as he had promised.

Privileged treatment was something I attempted to avoid, and while reflecting on that pivotal conversation with the professor, was something I felt I had agreed to in that moment.

In the end, we made it home safely – and the lessons gained will remain something I carry with me.

From intention to interpretation

On the roof of our guesthouse in Kokemlemle, we sit and enjoy the African breeze that comes with the setting of the sun beginning around 5:30pm. In the company of our local friend, we sip Ghanaian produced Gulder beer and reflect on day’s events.

We are soon joined by a fellow from Germany and a young lady from Sweden. Staying at a guesthouse we often meet travelers, mainly volunteers, from around the world. The gentleman is traveling Ghana and Togo for a month, visiting his brother and will be joined by his family. The young lady arrived in Accra the night before to begin her short-term volunteer work at an orphanage outside of the capital city.

“Welcome to Ghana, what do you think so far?” I ask the slim blonde woman.

Her eyes widened and her grin lit up her face.

“Thing’s here are crazy! Everything is unorganized – it is so different than Sweden,” she replies.

She goes on to explain her experience navigating through traffic and finding her way through the city. Even with the help of her program leader she found it difficult to grasp what was going on around her in the bustling of the city.

Similar to her experience, as a newcomer I could relate to her initial reaction of what appears as hectic chaos. Upon arrival, there appears to be no identifiable structure, no order, no rules. There are no clearly marked road signs or bus stops. Public transit is not lit up with signs of final destinations and pedestrians, vendors, dogs, goats and chickens roam closely around you. It’s difficult not to feel like you are always in someone’s way and completely lost.

As the night continued and the mosquitos came to join, we discussed the differences we noticed in comparison to our home countries. As our Swedish friend went back to her room to prepare for her early morning start, we said goodbye. Our local friend shook his head and laughed.

“What?” We asked.

His eyes met ours as he explained the reasoning for his smirk.

“This is my country, and she says it is unorganized. My country isn’t unorganized,” he says.

I paused to process his reaction. Never had I thought our discussion on traffic and rules of the road would come of as offensive, but it did.

“I don’t think she meant it to be rude,” I say. “It’s just different from what we are used to.”

We acknowledged her intentions were harmless and discussed how from a foreigner’s view her statement may test true. There seems to be no order. For the locals, however, this system works. Ghanaians have ways of communicating that newcomers don’t recognize. They use hand gestures and body language, whistles and snaps. Everything around us functions – and it is us who are unorganized in the chaotic structure which our new friends are accustomed and we do not understand.

“It works for us,” he says.

Through this exchanging of words and analyzing of experiences I learned an important lesson; things are not as they appear.

When something is different than we are culturally accustom to we identify it as “broken” – but this is not the case.

If we don’t understand, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean it is wrong and must be changed. To understand the way a system works, we must be patient, open-minded and most importantly respectful.

If not, our world will continue as a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and a perpetuated cycle of misunderstandings and hypocritical ignorance will continue as a global norm.

So, we have moved to Africa

Each time one moves they must adapt to a new culture of some sort – changing neighbourhoods, towns, cities, provinces, states – each signifies it’s own identity and culture. For us, we have left the continent in which was home and the differences in culture can seem extreme.

Since arriving in Accra things have been interesting and eventful. We have been looking for a home, identifying parts of the city, figuring out transportation, establishing frequently used routes and choosing the markets to buy our groceries. We have had to learn about garbage disposal (or removal as there is no proper waste removal system in Accra), where to buy water, what to do when the house water supply runs out, how to sufficiently bucket-shower, how to hand wash our laundry, where we can withdraw money, where to buy a mattress, a phone, internet stick, additional converters and anything else we realize we need.

We have learned how to haggle taxi drivers for fair prices, how to flag down a tro-tro, how not to get stuck on a tro, how not to get entirely lost in general, where the ‘obruni’ (white/foreigners) spots for food are (when our tummies are telling us not to be too adventurous), where locals gather and of course deciding on our favourite places to celebrate the day with a beverage. We have begun new jobs, met new colleagues and made new friends – all the while adjusting to an entirely new culture.

The differences are great, although at times intimidating. We are surrounded by new sites, new people and new language (the official language is English, Ghana was previously conquered by the British and originally inhabited by tribes each with their own dialect). To us, everything is new.

It is interesting to live your life the way you would at home – have breakfast, brush your teeth, shower, get to work, get home, have dinner, go out, go to sleep – but do it in a new continent.

Everything is new, exciting and comes with difficulties.

It took me time to establish why this round was different and then it hit me – like my semi-daily cold water showers – I had moved to Africa!

Something you’d think was apparent and obvious yet somehow easily forgotten. Each of my other long-term travel experiences had some aspect of support – when I moved to Spain as an Au Pair I went through an organization and lived with a family, when I backpacked through Europe we were going day-by-day, when we stayed in Mexico we traveled as a group through an NGO and had logistical details arranged – when all of those things are taken care of it is much easier to focus on the tasks ahead and even then can be exhausting. It is an incredible experience to re-teach yourself how to live out your day.

In respect to all mentioned, I have noticed instances of personal growth since my arrival. I have over come fears, questioned my purpose, identified my needs and integrated to the best of my ability while still staying true to myself.

Now that we have established the functions of our daily routine, I am looking forward to what the next leg of our journey will hold. We have made trustworthy friends, established an understanding of the logistics of the city, entered our work places and have confirmed final living accommodations to begin August 17th. We have gained insight into Ghanaian culture but have yet to begin grasping a full understanding of the true complexities.

We have touched the surface and I am eager to learn more, dig deeper and go upstream.