Author Archives: Robin Pierro

About Robin Pierro

Robin Pierro has made a habit of dashing off to foreign countries to get the story. Before landing her placement at TV Africa in Accra, Pierro travelled to Kenya, Ghana and Peru to produce three independent documentaries. In Kenya, Pierro spent weeks living and working in one of Africa’s largest slums, working on her film The Voice of Kibera. Pierro’s current role at TV Africa is driven by her belief that journalists have the ability to empower, educate and evoke change through the stories they share. She graduated from Ryerson University with a degree in journalism and was honored with the Joe Perlove Award for the best student journalist in their graduating year.

Journalism students in Ghana use their skills to make change for refugees

Students responding to questions from the audience following their exhibition

On July 15th, 2011 a group of 10 journalism students from Ghana presented a body of work, including a radio feature, print articles and a video documentary, at the Silverbird Cinema in Accra, Ghana.

The premiere of their work brought over 200 Ghanaians together to read about, listen to and watch the stories the students produced about refugee rights in Ghana.

Ghana’s biggest media outlets were present to cover the event and following the launch of their work, the documentary was screened on television, their print articles made it into several newspapers and the radio feature was broadcast on two of Ghana’s biggest radio stations.

The UNHCR-Ghana also used their work to promote the ‘The Hope Campaign’, aimed at raising funds for the education of refugee youth.

Robin Pierro, a jhr educational officer, guided them throughout the process of producing their work through of series of workshops focused on human rights reporting and lead them on a four day reporting field trip to the Krisan Refugee Camp in Western Ghana.
Angela Johnston, jhr Rights Media Trainer, also played a pivotal role in assisting the students who were producing the radio feature.

Following the completion of the project, the launch of the work and the media buzz that followed the students were determined to continue creating awareness about refugee rights in Ghana. They are now organizing a series of events at Universities throughout the country to showcase their work and spread their knowledge on refugees rights and human rights reporting.

Ghanaian Journalism Students Reporting field-trip to the Krisan Refugee Camp.

Robin Pierro with students before embarking on reporting field trip.

In May 2011, journalists for human rights educational officer Robin Pierro helped organize a reporting field trip with students from the African University College of Communications and the Ghana Institute of Journalism to the Krisan Refugee Camp in the western region of Ghana. The trip taught the students what human rights reporting is all about and gave them an opportunity to put their journalism skills to use.

The ten students were separated into groups and produced a video documentary focused on youth in the refugee camp, a radio documentary (with the help of jhr media intern Angela Johnston) about refugees being pushed into working as prostitutes, and four print articles accompanied by photos.

The trip was funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the students spent three days working inside of the camp

Prior to departure Robin held a series of 5 workshops preparing the students for their visit to the refugee camp. The workshops focused on human rights reporting and reporting techniques such as interviewing, story structure, pitching. A large component of the workshops was also focused on documentary production.

Following the visit to the camp Robin continued her series of workshops to guide the students through the post production work on their stories and the documentary.

This video highlights some of the lessons they learnt about human rights reporting and journalism.

Moving up and Moving Out: Oil’s impact on Takoradi

A street lined with the traffic that has hit Takoradi.

The air was thick with smoke, filling the congested bar with the smell of cigarettes butts and beer. The majority of the crowd was made up of balding middle aged men, filling their bellies with beer and scanning the room for available ‘companions’ for the evening.

The Champs Sports bar in Takoradi was built in July 2009, following the discovery of the jubilee oil field in 2007. According to a bulky man who sat alone watching the crowd, most of the clientele that evening were “oil men”.

Champs Sports Bar, the crowd of oil men and the prostitutes are not the only additions Takoradi has seen since the construction of the jubilee oil field commenced.

“It was never like this before. The traffic is really bad here now and people are being driven out of the city because they can’t afford the rent prices anymore,” says Justice Baidoo, who is a local of Takoradi but now lives in Accra. “Every time I come back I see more changes.”

The traffic into Takoradi has increased dramatically over the past few years. The road network was not built to support to the number of cars and trucks now rolling in and out of the Western Region port city everyday.

The Ghanaian government has implemented plans to re-build the road network and improve transport conditions, however, this will involve evicting residents and destroying some homes in order to make room for the new roads.

Most of the traffic now flowing through Takoradi is being generated by all the new residents to the city. Peter Abitty, the Managing Partner at Takoradi Real Estate Ltd. says that business is going well because more foreigners are moving into the city. He says that land value is going up and people are re-modeling already existing homes to accommodate the new crowd.

“Three of four years ago you could rent a 3 bedroom house for 200 USD, but now the same house is going for 1000 to 1,500 USD,” says Abitty, “Accommodation is becoming astronomical.”

Beyond the real estate firms that are benefiting from the oil boom, the local population is being pushed to the outskirts of the city because they can’t afford the rent or are being evicted so that landlords can remodel homes to “international standards” according to Abitty.

“My mother moved out of Takoradi a year ago because they wanted to increase the rent. It just didn’t make sense for her to stay.” Says Baidoo, who doesn’t like seeing what is happening to his hometown.

Abitty sees the development of Takoradi as a good thing for the city and even better for anyone with money to invest in building or construction because the demand for more homes and luxury flats is increasing steadily. “Right now is the best time to build here, it’s wise for people to start investing now because it’s only the beginning.”

The prices for basic goods is also going up and the business’s that have started in the last few years, such as Champs Sports Bar, are marketing themselves towards the more affluent oil workers.

Residents of Takoradi who should be benefiting from the boom are finding it increasingly difficult to go about daily life, they are not the ones enjoying the new restaurants, hotels and roads being built.

The majority of high paying jobs on the jubilee field are not going to the local population, and according to Abitty it’s the people who already have large amounts of money to invest in businesses that will actually benefit from the new oil discovery.

“It makes me sad because the culture is being lost,” says Baidoo, “I just don’t think it’s the same city anymore.” Baidoo believes people who are not able to keep up with the high prices or are going to continue escaping the city.

A Dream Deferred

Gaga’s eye fill with tears as he watches the students in the high school courtyard laughing and joking together. His tattered and stained grey t-shirt looks drab next to the crisp mustard colored shirts the students inside had on.

“I’m embarrassed that I am standing here, when people I used to be in school with are inside moving on to a brighter future,” he remarks.

He looks down from the lens of the video camera; he’s embarrassed to be so upset in front of our documentary crew, so we stop rolling and give him a minute to recoup.

Our team—myself and ten Ghanaian journalism students—were at the Krisan refugee camp to produce a series of stories about refugee rights.

Francis Gaga is a 20-year-old refugee who lives in the Krisan refugee camp in the Western Region of Ghana. He can barely remember life in Liberia, where he lived before moving to Krisan 18 years ago. Gaga considers himself Ghanaian, but while he slumps against a wall outside the high school that many of his friends attend, he’s reminded of the opportunities he can’t afford as a refugee.

“I had good grades and I dreamt of being a bank accountant one day because I was good at math, but that dream stopped when I had to stop school,” says Gaga. “I’m scared I will be a useless person, with no skill and no opportunities.”

For young people like Gaga, life is a waiting game. He doesn’t know if his family will ever be resettled in a third country and he’s now at a point where he just wants to start building his future, even if that means staying in Ghana.

Like most refugees at Krisan, Gaga’s mother barely earns enough money to feed their family of six. For many, it’s been difficult to integrate into the community to carve out a living because of the cultural barriers. Many of the refugees in Krisan don’t know the local language. One refugee we met said that she braided hair for a living, but her Liberian style of braiding hair was different then that of Ghanaians, which made it hard for her to find customers.

Although there are cultural barriers holding refugees back from finding work in the surrounding community, William Bannerman Martin, the camp manager at Krisan believes there are other factors preventing them from finding work as well,

“A lot of the refugees don’t want to integrate because they think it will hurt their chances of being resettled in a different country.”

Gaga’s mother wants a bright future for her son, but she struggles to collect money to feed the family every day. To pay $400 a year to send her son to high school is not an expense she can handle. Refugees have to pay international fees, which are more than double the cost that a Ghanaian student pays.

There is scholarship program set up between the UNHCR and Christian Council of Ghana that sends a few select youth from Krisan onto Secondary School, however it’s a difficult program to get into. Due to a lack of funding there are only 25 spots for all young refugees living in Ghana.

When Gaga was interviewed, he was rejected from the program because he couldn’t pay $23 for an admission form from the local high school. Students must prove they have been admitted to a high school before they can apply for the scholarship.

In their time at the camp the journalism students met many youth in the same situation as Gaga. Most of them spend their days going to the bush to hunt for food, or to the beach to fish and many of the young women end up pregnant or in the sex trade soon after dropping out.

There is hope amongst many of the refugees in Krisan that they will be resettled in a third country, but many are also praying that the Ghanaian government will decide to give them permanent residency, so that they can move out of the camp, get better jobs and finally have identities as Ghanaians.

“I’m tired of sitting idle, doing nothing, this isn’t a life. I am tired of wasting myself,” says Gaga.

Michael Cooke does Ghana

Text by Jenny Vaughan, video by Robin Pierro

In May 2011, Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Star, Michael Cooke, travelled to West Africa with Journalists for Human Rights. On the last leg of his three-country tour, he stopped in Ghana where he met with editors, reporters and media managers at the forefront of human rights reporting in the country. He also met with journalism students at the Ghana Institute of Journalism to talk about investigative journalism, something his own paper is spearheading back home in Canada. The students eagerly absorbed his presentation and many left inspired to be Ghana’s next big investigative journalist. Watch Robin Pierro’s video from the presentation above.

Ghana going online: The true gods of fraud

Internet cafes are popular hangouts for internet scammers in Ghana. Photo by Robin Pierro.

If you’ve ever received an email request for your bank information from someone who claims to have inherited a $20 million estate and wants to share it with you, it’s likely that email originated from West Africa.

Sakawa, the business of online fraud, is one of Ghana’s most profitable and popular underground industries. People use email scams, dating websites and hacking software to tap into bank accounts. Ghana’s government has been battling to stop the scammers for years, but to little avail: the country is currently listed as the world’s tenth worst country for online fraud.

And there’s a spiritual element of Sakawa that people don’t often hear about. Many of these gods of fraud actually consult their own gods who have adapted to the information age—traditional juju (voodoo) priests—before embarking on a scam.

Consulting a spiritualist is part of making major decisions for many Ghanaians. Believers might visit a traditional priest to seek guidance before travelling, getting married or buying a house and now, for a few, before they rip people off online. Sakawa hopefuls pay for costly rituals or buy charms and potions with the belief they’ll have greater luck luring a wealthy American or European victim online.

The rituals have also garnered a reputation for evoking violence, pushing hopeful fraudsters into crime. This month, a young man looking to get rich quick was arrested for allegedly beheading an eight-year-old boy in order to use the head for a sakawa ceremony. Images of the would-be fraudster holding the decapitated head have become ubiquitous in the media, and sakawa has once again become a hot topic in the country.

And it’s not cheap—ceremonies start from 100 cedis, or about $75 CAD.

“The [scammers] borrow big money from their families and friends and go to the shrines so they can get help to get rich from sakawa,” reports an IT student in Accra, who says many of his peers are involved in online fraud.

The Afrikania mission, a group working to preserve traditional African religions, says they don’t condone traditionalist’s support of online fraudsters.

Sakawa is a criminal act, and for the priests to do ceremonies for them is wrong, they should not be involved,” says Godwin Azameti, Afrikania’s representative in Ghana’s Volta Region.

And according to some, online scams are tarnishing Ghana’s image in the online world. “The unfortunate thing is that regular Ghanaians are suffering from online crime,” says Scott Allen, who runs Ghana’s second largest internet café, Sharpnet. “A lot of sites like eBay won’t except Ghanaian credit cards or except purchases from Ghanaian IP addresses because of all the fraud.”

Allen is always on the lookout for scammers in his café, but as people have begun to catch onto scams, sakawa artists are coming up with more creative ways to tap into people’s bank accounts. New strategies like using IP blockers and not relying internet cafes (where they’re more likely to get caught) have made the fraud harder to track.

As long as sakawa exists in Ghana, hopeful scammers will likely continue to shovel money into the pockets of new age juju traditionalists in hopes of striking it rich. So who’s the true god of fraud in Ghana?

Yes they can: Obama Biscuits employs autistic adults in Accra


Video and Text by Robin Pierro

Nortey Quaynor sits at his station in Accra’s United Biscuits factory. His hands move swiftly sealing bags of freshly baked cookies with Barack Obama’s face pressed into them. Large machines fill the warehouse with a deafening drone while the sweet aroma of fresh baking wafts in the air. Nortey remains undistracted by the hundreds of people working around him. It’s his seventh month at the biscuit factory and the other workers no longer look at him like he’s different.

Nortey has lived with autism for 28 years, and for the first time in his life, he has a job. He doesn’t know exactly who President Obama is, but he does understand that he has a task to do: seal biscuit packages. His caregiver, Abiku Grant, who works for the Autistic Awareness Care and Training Centre (AACT) in Accra, stands off to the side exhibiting a proud grin.

AACT is the only centre in Ghana that works specifically with autistic people, and the high demand for support only allows them to care for people up to 25 years old.

Grant says the training program at the biscuit factory was established to teach autistic people skills they can use to find work once they leave the centre. However, setting the program up wasn’t easy.

“There is so much stigma surrounding autism and disabilities in Ghana, people look at them and think that they are mad,” says Grant. “They don’t think they can be taught the skills to work.”

In light of April being autism awareness month, a conference was recently held in Accra to bring together the West African autism community for the first time.

Dr. Emmanuel Badoe, Director of the Neurology Developmental Clinic at the Korle Bu teaching hospital in Accra, was a presenter at the conference. He says there are no statistics on how many people have autism in West Africa and there are only a handful of professionals who work with developmental disorders in the region. Beyond that, he notes a lack of information for Ghanaian families about autism; many people don’t even know the disorder exists.

This lack of public awareness has made it difficult for people with autism to be accepted into regular society, let alone gain employment.

“This is a real way forward,” says Dr. Emmanuel Badoe, speaking about the work program. “People with disabilities need to be integrated back into society. This is a great thing for our country.”

Nortey was the first member of AACT to be placed in the biscuit factory, where six other autistic men and women are also employed. Nortey works in a spaghetti factory too, and AACT is hoping more companies open their doors to autistic workers.

Thorugh his work, Nortey is slowly changing the perception of autism in Ghana. When his mother, Serwah Quaynor, founded AACT it was out of a need that was not being filled by other facilities. She knew Nortey could not be the only one with autism in Ghana and opened the centre, but never expected to get to a point where her son could be employed.

“People are finally realizing what autism is,” says Quaynor. “Now the workers in the factories look at Nortey like he is a normal person.”

Nortey will continue to do his part in changing the public view towards people with autism, one Obama biscuit package at a time. Yes he can.

Ghana going online: Internet as a human right?

A scene from an internet cafe in Ghana, where some are pushing for internet access to be recognized as a universal human right. Photo by Robin Pierro.

Conversations about human rights violations often summon clichéd images of impoverished, emaciated villagers or fly-ridden, pot-bellied children. For many, the term “human rights” means having access to basic needs such as water, food, shelter and health care.

Rarely do we think of access to internet as a human right. But today in Ghana, there are moves to designate web access as a universal right.

And it’s not just in Ghana that this argument is being mounted. The United Nations has proposed that internet access should be a universal right. And Finland, France, Greece and Estonia have already caught on, ruling that the web should be accessible to all.

However, some question the need for such a right in a developing country like Ghana. Should making internet access a right really be a priority when access to basic education and healthcare are still not available to all?

Emmanuel Lafti, a 24-year-old fisherman from Adidome in eastern Ghana explains that for people like him, internet has no use because he has more pressing concerns.

“Why would I spend money on that? I need to work and feed my family,” he says.

But in Ghana, as elsewhere, internet access has the ability to eliminate and prevent rights abuses; it’s a source of awareness and empowerment for people who might not otherwise have access to information about fundamental human rights.

“People need to have the capacity to use technology in order to get information and develop,” says Kafui Prebbie, CEO of 1Village, an ICT company in Ghana that provides internet to rural communities at subsidized rates. At one point, his company even provided free wireless internet in Winneba, a community west of Accra.

“The internet is a tool that has given people a better idea of what opportunities exist outside their own communities,” Prebbie adds.

If fishermen like Lafti could look up different fishing strategies online or ways to prevent the degradation of their fishing crops, for example, it could improve their current methods. Or, fishers could create online forums to discuss issues affecting their industry, such as offshore oil drilling.

Like Prebbie, others think internet should be available to even the poorest citizens. Scott Allen, a Canadian who founded Ghana’s second largest internet café, Sharpnet, wishes internet was more widely available.

“Yes, the government should focus on providing electricity, yes they should focus on water shortages, but Ghana needs to compete with the rest of the world,” he says.

“Internet access is not the government’s number one priority, but it affects so many sectors of society that they can’t ignore it,” says Allen. For him, it’s not about prioritizing one right over another.

A lack of infrastructure and high fees are preventing smaller communities from getting connected, says Prebbie. 1Village is trying to counter that with lower rates, which has opened doors for many people. For example, those who could not afford to leave Ghana for post-secondary education are now taking online courses at universities around the world.

“There are so many people here who don’t even realize what they can do with the internet,” says Allen. “There needs to be more education in schools, not only on how to use it, but on what it can provide.”

The ‘lucky boys’ of Chorkor

Children gather on a fishing boat in Ghana. Though an important cultural tradition, 1.8 million children work in similar trades instead of going to school. Photo by Robin Pierro.

Joseph is 12 years old, with a small body that is toned and fit from fishing with his father for the last three years. Since becoming a fisher boy, Joseph has stopped going to school.

“After my senior brother died, my mother said I shouldn’t go to school anymore,” he says. “I wanted to stay in school, I liked it. But fishing gives us money.”

Joseph lives with his family in Chorkor, a fishing community in Accra known for having a high rate of children who don’t attend school. Many fish instead. Joseph usually wakes up around 1 a.m. and swims 100 meters offshore to his family’s boat, where he’ll work until sunrise. The rest of the morning is spent maintaining the boat with his father. Everyday he hopes for a good catch that could bring the family 10 cedis ($7 CAD).

Joseph explains that his father has taught him a lot about fishing and that what he has learnt on the boat is more useful than what he was learning in school.

“Because I work, I understand how money is. I didn’t know about money when I was in school,” says the boy. “I will be able to have my own boat one day and teach my sons how to fish.”

Ablekuma South, the Member of Parliament for Chorkor, says many children here learn to fish from their fathers—it’s like a cultural apprenticeship. However, he insists the tradition is leading to high numbers of children out of school. “They fish, and they make their money from fishing,” says South. “[Parents] are not going to be inspired to send their children to school.”

South says he cannot and should not stop children from learning the traditions of their elders, but he believes they need to balance this with getting a formal education. He suggests children work with their fathers or elders on weekends or after school instead.

James Anan says that it’s time to move on from the custom. “It’s not about the tradition anymore, it’s about the law and what the law says,” notes Anan, the director of Challenging Heights, an NGO dedicated to rehabilitating child labourers. “What they are doing is depriving that child of a future.” In Ghana, denying a child the right to go to school is illegal.

Daniel Quaye has been fishing for over 25 years in Chorkor. His two youngest children are in school, and his two eldest sons work with him every day. He says his sons were happy to take on the family trade, but he wishes they could have graduated high school.

“If I had more money I would send them all to school,” Quaye says. “I know school is good, but I needed them to work with me on the boat.”

The Ghana Child Labour Survey, conducted by the Statistical Service of Ghana in 2003, found that 20 per cent of children between the ages of five and 17 were involved in child labour and not going to school—that’s around 1.8 million children like Joseph working instead of receiving a formal education.

In the afternoon, when 12-year-old Joseph has finished his duties for the day, he gets time to play with other fishermen’s children. They gather together on top of a beached boat named Lucky Boys. His laughter and exuberant dance moves atop the bow are a reminder that he’s not even a teenager yet.

Among some people in Chorkor, Joseph is considered a lucky boy—he has a family, friends and a future as a fishermen.

Ghana online: Supply, demand and dominance

Internet cafes in Accra are often rammed with people, even late into the night. Photo by Robin Pierro.

It’s nearly 11 p.m. and the internet cafe in Accra, Ghana is surging with energy. University students, business professionals and groups of friends crowd around computers, eyes glued to the monitors. The calming hum of over 20 machines is broken by the odd burst of laughter and whispering voices.

Beauty Badger, a first year marketing student in Accra, is getting ready to leave, after spending six hours plugged in. “I am here at least four times a week, but when I have a big project I’m here everyday. I wish I could live [here] sometimes.”

For students like Badger or working professionals that need to get online but can’t afford internet at home, web cafes are their only option. The average cost to have access provided to ones home is $60 a month; this is in a country where the average income is $260 per month. Access in cafes is roughly 75 cents per hour.

Badger believes she’s fortunate she can afford to browse because it’s a privilege many still cannot afford in Ghana.

According to Internet World Statistics, in June 2000 there were 30,000 internet users in Ghana. By 2010 that number increased to nearly 1.3 million. Ghanaians are keen to get connected but growth in the market is slowing because the high price of broadband.

In comparison to rural areas, larger cities like Accra are littered with places to plug in, but there is still a demand for more. “Even if price isn’t a problem, sometimes finding a place to go is, the seats will all be full. We need more cafes in the city,” says Badger.

Desmond Boateng, director of finance at the Ministry of Communications, believes the Ministry is responsible for building the infrastructure necessary to increase internet access. In order to do this, he says the government must work with private telecommunications companies, such as Vodafone, the country’s central internet provider.

But Vodafone’s monopoly on the market is a hindrance. The company provides internet for cafes and homes, but provides a slower service to cafes then it does to private users, discouraging more from opening up.

The frustration is not lost on Olivet Samuel Mensah, who runs an internet cafe in Accra. She’s been open for five years ago and has never been satisfied with Vodafone’s service. “The network goes down six times in a day and it’s very slow. You call them and they say ‘they’re working on it,’ she says. “It is not good for business and it’s frustrating.”

Despite legislation to prevent this monopoly, Vodaphone continues to control access.

In 2004, the telecommunications policy was introduced in order to ensure equality among providers in Ghana, but the broadband market remains unregulated, allowing Vodafone to swallow the market by determining the price of network usage, according to Research ICT Africa.

Many Ghanaians are eager to get connected, but until a provider comes along prepared to fight the Goliath that is Vodafone, they will have to hold on.