Author Archives: Robin McGeough

About Robin McGeough

Robin recently returned from Japan, where he spent a year working as an English teacher and also worked as a reporter for an English language program. He earned a degree in Global Development Studies and Geography from Queen’s University where he devoted much of his time to QTV, Queen’s visual media outlet. Robin has worked with a variety of community-based organizations developing social programs in Canada, Peru, Tanzania and Vietnam and he wishes to use his knowledge of development and journalism to empower marginalized individuals while in Ghana. Robin will be working as an Education Officer in Tamale, Ghana.

Zen and Goats: Last impressions of the little things in Tamale

I checked my phone – 9:30am. Half an hour had passed since my last meeting in Tamale was due to start. No sign of the big boss. Having waited up to 2 hours for meetings to start in the past, this was business as usual. This was my last day in Tamale and after a quick meeting with the principal it was back to packing, writing reports and saying goodbyes. I had planned for every moment to count, but this being Ghana, you have to go with the flow of the unexpected.

Rather than roll my eyes and carry on counting the goats in the courtyard, I figured this moment of calm in the warm Tamale sun on the balcony at my school was a keepsake of the bureaucratic tango of meetings in Ghana. “Remember this,” I whispered to myself.

“I am SOOOO sorry!”

I turned as I heard feet pounding and giant palms slapping the metal railing up the dusty staircase to the balcony I was leaning over.

“I had a problem with some guests. You know how they are, always rushing you around.”

It was the big man on campus, Al-Hajji Razak Saani, the recently appointed principal at the IIJ. I like Al-Hajji – he joined the school as principal at the same time I was preparing to leave.  I was gutted to have met such a welcoming man only to leave a few weeks later.  A man of the world, he spent much of his time in the US studying Communications, and the way he so authentically said “Chicaaaago” always cracked me up.

I assured him it was no problem. It had rained heavily the night before and the breeze was cool on the skin. I could have stood on that balcony for much longer, contently playing the tapes from my last six months in Tamale. But it was time for business.

Dusting off the couches with a flick of the rag, we sat down and asked each other about our families, the last meals we took and if our houses had survived the rains. All the boxes were checked.  I made a move for my bag and told him I had a gift. I handed over the tactile culmination of my time at the school: a curriculum document and guide for the jhr chapter for the next semester.

“I’ve been working on this for a couple weeks and I think it could be really useful for the school and the chapter. You guys can reference it and keep up the amazing work you’ve started.”

He brushed the cover with his hands and turned to take mine. I was taken aback but held on to see where he was going.

“You have given us so much. This book is so important to us, I can’t thank you enough.”

Being someone who is almost allergic to one-on-one praise, it was all I could do to squirm in my seat and just return the sentiments. I made a move to open up the book and walk him through it but his giant palms pressed it firmly shut.

“This program you are working on, I can’t thank you enough for the vision you have given our students. The worst thing in the world I could imagine would be to have this momentum come to a close.”

“So would I,” I said.

A montage of our workshops, brief moments in the hall, laughter, taps of chalk on board all came flooding back to me. I would have burst into tears if I hadn’t  bitten my lip so hard. “You guys have given me more than anything I could have asked for,” I stammered. “If you can keep this program going, then we will have all done our jobs.”

“I will do just that. Now tell me about this curriculum thing,” he said.

Just like the breeze on the deck and the taking of someone else’s hand in an unscheduled moment of zen, it’s the little things that have taught me can bring the biggest impact. While there was many a moment I was unsure of my impact, of what I were here to do, I’ve learned from my time in Ghana that no act is too small. Just as much, it has been in the little things, the little gestures and comments that have lead me to believe that jhr is making an impact on the lives of those it works with. Not always as grand and not always in the manner you expect, but if you keep your eyes and ears open like every good journalist should, you’ll see it.

Witchcraft forum focuses on gendered solutions

On May 19, the International Institute of Journalism and JHR hosted a community dialogue on the issue of witch craft allegations in Northern Ghana. Twenty IIJ students, members of the Ministry of Women and Children, local media outlets and NGOs debated the role of the media concerning allegations of witchcraft in the North.

Ghana’s Upper East and Northern regions are home to seven witch camps – more than any other region. The largest camp, Gambaga, was established over a century ago and is now home to 83 women and over 45 dependent children and grandchildren.

As guests began their presentations, the bottom line became clear: accusations of witchcraft are based on gender.

“The debate is beyond whether there are witches or not. The issue is that witchcraft allegations have become a feminized issue,” said I.P.S. Zakaria, of the Department of Women and Children.

Women, often elderly and widowed, are accused for misfortunes in their villages, leading to lynching or banishment to camps far from their communities. The banishment of these women directly affects their access to hygienic facilities, education and economic independence. For many women, discrimination and the emotional stigma attached to being accused limit their ability to speak out against the issue.

“When a woman is 30, she will fight the allegations with all her power,” explained Fati Al-Hassan, president of the Anti-Witchcraft Allegations Campaign Coalition (AWACC). “But when she gets into her 50s and 60s, she begins to accept these powers and confess to these allegations.”

Zakaria finds many women are unable to act independently from their husbands, keeping them vulnerable to allegations. Many widows are accused of witchcraft so they are not entitled to their husband’s inheritance.

“If it looks like you killed someone with witchcraft, you are not entitled to the use of the property,” explained Al-Hassan.

She is no stranger to allegations, having been accused of being a witch herself.

“I love my powers,” she said. “I love the assumption that people have that I have these powers, because it gives me motivation to do the work that I do.”

Allegations follow similar trends, says Ken Addae of AWACC. Working with members of the witch camps since 2000, he has found allegations often occur in areas with high poverty levels and low education. The largest indicator is the structure of social and cultural systems that make women vulnerable, said Addae.

However, Al-Hassan finds this no reason for justify the accusations.

“Culture is dynamic,” she said. “We can’t cling to a culture and justify our actions when we abuse someone.”

Journalist Francis Npong echoed Al-Hassan’s concerns, targeting the media as those most responsible for influencing public opinion on the issues.

“The world is changing,” said Npong. “The role of the media or journalists now goes beyond just the traditional role of informing, educating and entertaining …This century needs more dedicated journalists than any other century.”

Panelists encouraged journalists to make their messages accessible to communities most likely to banish women for witchcraft. Addae suggested creatively engaging communities with traditional Dogon drum and drama troops to shift public opinion.

Addressing the crowded room of students, panelists encouraged the audience to be assertive and balanced with their reporting. They also emphasized the importance of minimizing harm.

A journalist herself, Al-Hassan envisions the media as the public face of the fight for human rights awareness.

“When people have rights, they must be made to see that they are working for them,” she explained.

The forum topic was chosen by the students themselves who have shown an interest in addressing and educating themselves on issues specific to their region.

Talking to the students, the impact of the forum is obvious.

“I have learned so much on how to report gender issues and women’s rights,” said Yakubu Gafaru, the JHR vice-president. “It was interesting to see the majority of the camps are within our region. Why not down south? It means there is something behind it, something we need to address.”

Others found the chance to work with prominent female journalists inspiring.

“We need more female role models like Madam Fati [Al-Hassan],” explained Yahaya Niamatu. “I admire the courage she has. I want to be just like her.”

Why we do what we do: rights media in Northern Ghana.

“Always leave your office door open, because you never know who will walk in,” a kernel of wisdom from my father that has always stuck with me. So when I arrived at the International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) in Tamale, the first thing I did was prop my door open with a blue plastic chair and wait to see who would walk through.

The power of an open door.

The power of an open door.

2012 marks the first year that jhr has partnered with the IIJ on a rights media program. The IIJ is the first journalism college of its kind in the Northern Region of Ghana. A campus of two rooms, 12 staff and 40 students, their aim is to educate students on professional journalism with a focus on issues specific and often underrepresented in Northern Ghana. While still the younger brother to schools such as the African University College of Communication in Accra, the number of students enrolling is growing steadily at the fledgling school in Tamale.

Mohammed is a first year student at the IIJ and was also the first student to walk through my door. He had come by to pay his fees and check his class schedule and was eager to have a chat when he knocked on my door. A former secondary school teacher and development worker, Mohammed enrolled in the IIJ to add a practical component to his passion for spreading awareness in his community.

“My goal is to give a voice to the voiceless and journalism with a purpose is my best effort to do that,” he informed me.

Only a few months earlier, a small group of IIJ students established a jhr chapter looking to bolster its presence on campus and the role of rights media in the Tamale community. I explained the concept of rights media and that there was a place for him in the jhr chapter if he wanted to join.

Mohammed grinned and placed his glasses on the table. “I knew there was a reason I came into your office today.”

He expressed a great interest in coming to our meetings and the skill set he could contribute to getting the chapter off the ground. Having only met one student so far, I was thrilled to meet such an enthusiastic student eager to get involved with rights media. We shook hands, parted ways and I went back to my desk, buzzing with anticipation for the next five months.

Later that afternoon, there was another knock on the door. Mohammed was back and he had a group of other students in tow. Their professor hadn’t shown up for lecture. Not wanting to waste time, Mohammed rallied the group and brought them to my office, asking me to lead workshop on human rights to give them a head start.

After spending my first few weeks in Tamale while the students were on holidays, I was taken aback by his initiative on his first day. Despite only just arriving on campus, he explained that he was very interested in what jhr was in Ghana to do and was just as keen to get other first year students involved in rights media on campus. I jumped at the opportunity to introduce them to jhr’s rights media pillar PANEL and discuss how we could make the most of this semester. After wrapping up our workshop, they all expressed that they would attend our jhr introductory meeting next week. Mohammed turned and thanked me for taking the time to come and talk to him and I insisted that the pleasure was all mine.

“Same time tomorrow, ok?” he said.

I nodded, trying to hide the ridiculous grin on my face. The work we are doing is meaningless without people like Mohammed  who believe in the cause of rights media. Building rapport and strengthening rights media education is a process, one that is made much more meaningful and enjoyable with students like those at the IIJ.

The success was not leaving the door open, but being inspired by who walked through it.  To see students taking initiative and seeking out knowledge, eager to see what jhr can do for them, that is where we are building success together.

Tamale’s rights media crusader: The story of Joseph Ziem

Choosing a pen and paper over a bow and arrow, Joseph Ziem is the Robin Hood of Ghanaian rights media.

Joseph Ziem - advocate, journalist, environmentalist.

“When I see something wrong, I start to ask questions,” says Ziem. “Who is supposed to deal with this situation? Why is it like this?”

A blogger, a radio host, a freelance writer – Ziem chooses not to limit himself to one title. However, the focus of his pieces are clear: giving a voice to the voiceless and holding those in power accountable.

“I am a human rights journalist, I’m a development journalist, and I’m an environmental journalist; human rights journalism is in all of them,” the 28-year-old explains.

What makes Ziem unique among other journalists in Ghana is not the quantity of his stories but rather their calibre. While prominent Ghanaian newspapers are headlining “Fisherman Kills Rival” and “Robbers Rape Student Nurse”, Ziem challenges the sensational with titles such as “Disbandment of Witches’ Camps Should Not Endanger Lives of Victims” and “Costly Disasters Created By Mining Companies in Ghana”.

Ziem has made his mark on a wide array of media outlets: as a radio host for Tamale’s FIILA FM, northern correspondent for the Daily Dispatch newspaper, staff writer for The Advocate and Free Press newspapers, and most recently co-founder of the development issues-oriented blog, Savannah News.

Ziem’s interest in journalism began as if torn from the script of a Hollywood childhood fantasy: nose pressed to the glass, fogging up the window with wide-eyed curiosity. It started in 2002, when a community radio station opened up in his hometown of Nandom.

“I peeked through the window of the station and saw gadgets,” he recalls. “I asked myself, ‘How can people sit inside this room and when they talk, people just tuning their radio sets can hear what they are saying?’ I was inquisitive. When I went to senior high, I nurtured this ambition to become a broadcaster.”

However, a crusader’s path is rarely without challenges. Ziem explains that he was unable to complete high school, only half a percent shy from making the minimum grade of 50 per cent to move up a grade.

“I was sacked. I think somebody was in there to get me out of school,” he confides.

Unable to make the grade, he was denied entry into his final years of senior high and moved south to Kumasi to recalibrate his future with broadcast journalism.  Not letting his academic standing stop him, Ziem was determined to carve a new path to his dream. Six months later and six cedi lighter for the application, Ziem enrolled himself in broadcasting school.

After four years in the industry, Ziem was awarded the 2010 Kasa Media Award for Natural Resources and Environmental Journalism.

He still remembers the call from Kasa Media.

“I just knew I had won. When they said congratulations, I said Hallelujah,” he says.

Ziem wrote the award-winning article in response to foreign gold mining activities in Northern Ghana. Mining is one of Ghana’s largest industries and yet the government only sees a fraction of the royalties.  His article highlighted the effects of desertification wrought by mining activities in the North and the impact on many surrounding communities’ ability to access to clean drinking water. Ziem advocated that the environmental and health risks to the nation were not worth the profits evidently escaping the country.

Word came back to Ziem about other stories as well. A community in the East Gonja region of Ghana faced constant power outages by the Volta River Authority (VRA). The community advocated several times to the VRA regarding their right to electricity, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Ziem wrote a story for the Daily Dispatch advocating that the VRA address their concerns. It was passed on to the Accra head office and the resolution caught the attention of the wider community.

He admits that there is not much money to be made in journalism in Tamale. Journalists in town earn between 50 to 70 cedi a month (around 30-40 CAD). However, Ziem’s affirms that his passion is rooted in the positive effect journalism can have on improving the standards of living in communities and the environment.

In journalism, he says, “if you want to be rich, do not come. But if you want to save humanity, you are welcome.”

Despite choosing silver-framed sunglasses and a well pressed shirt over a green cape and tights, the fervour for justice remains the same.

“Until I see nothing wrong around me,” he says, “I won’t stop writing.”

A Silent Shout: Marital Abuse in Ghana

Breaking the silence is the greatest hurdle to ending marital abuse.

Flashy, kitsch and heinously dubbed – soap operas are the window of entertaining escape from the day to day in Ghana. In an episode I witnessed last week, our heroine was trapped by fate in a loveless marriage, unable to bear any children of her own. Raped by her husband and ostracized by her family, she is too afraid to admit to misdeeds in her past that made her barren. Would she go to jail? Would she ever escape the clutches of her husband? Before any questions could be answered, the power went out.

I had my quota of full body gasps and furrowed brows for the day and got up to leave. Halting my exit, my friend Wasila quickly explained that while the details might be far-fetched, the theme is a reality for many women in Ghana. She believes that a woman’s ability to negotiate safe sex in a marriage can be hard to come by. People may be willing to talk about it as it happens on TV, but few bring it up personally.

“When I was growing up, there were many instances where a woman, often below 16, was given to a man,” says Saratu Mahama, programme director for the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Tamale. “At night, when a man was holding her, the woman would cry out loud and no one would come closer because they already knew what was happening. Nobody will talk about it. There are still girls being betrothed against their will today.”

For many victims of marital rape, Mahama says, “the moment you are married, your body becomes the property of the man. He can use it, as and when he likes.”

In 2007, Ghana introduced the Domestic Violence Act, a bill meant to protect the rights of those most marginalized by abuse in the household. However, Mahama explained that public opposition and a desire to speed up the passing of the bill left a controversial clause from the Ghanaian Criminal Code of 1960 unchanged. The clause states that the act of marriage is grounds for consent. If a spouse refuses to consent to sex and a rape occurs, in the eyes of this particular clause, consent was already given, voiding the case against the accuser.

Inspector Lawrence Adombiri, Metro Coordinator for Tamale’s Domestic Violence Victims Support Unit, says that in a year he has never seen a case of marital rape brought to their office. “It is a silent issue,” he says.

Even without the specific mention of marital rape in the Domestic Violence Act, many cases fail to even reach the courts. Societal pressure and threats directed at the victim deter many of these cases from seeing redress.  Adombiri believes that the community must support the process of the victim before the laws can react accordingly.

Mahama echoes his concern, attributing the lack of reported cases to stigma attached to women in the domestic setting.

“[Society] feels that a woman should bear it, especially when it has to do with sex,” she says. “All other things can be mentioned, but not sex.”

An absence of women’s shelters, the cost of obtaining a doctor’s report confirming instances of rape and the bureaucratic nature of police follow ups to cases were other issues Mahama described that deter women from vocalizing cases of marital rape.

“Most women do not have money to feed themselves, let alone pay for such medical bills. Because of the fee, they are deterred and the cases go unreported or are not followed up,” argues Mahama.

While soap operas may see a happy resolve before the credits roll, many women fear to bring their cases to light. Talking to Mahama and Adombiri, it becomes clear that the issues of marital rape extend beyond the courts to underlying issues of patriarchy and discrimination reflected in Ghana’s traditional domestic structure.

In a report by ActionAid, one woman details her experiences being given to her sister’s brother-in-law at an early age. “I reluctantly went into the room because I was tired of sleeping outside. I was then about fourteen. He forced me to have sex with him.”

Overpowered by her husband and ignored by her family, the recurrent rapes gave way to three children, and left her HIV positive. “I should have fought harder,” she says. Her struggle fell on deaf ears, being told that abuses such as these “are what all women go through”.

Abdallah Abubakari, programme manager of ActionAid, in Northern Ghana, acknowledges that women’s abilities to negotiate terms within the household are affected by structures of patriarchy. He advocates that women must be given more opportunities to express leadership in the household.

“Where women are empowered, the men get awareness,” says Mahama. “They should appreciate the situation of the woman, and there can be change. But when you keep silent but keep the law in place, it still won’t work.”