Author Archives: Sarah-Jane Steele

About Sarah-Jane Steele

Sarah-Jane Steele was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After living and working in the UK for almost 4 years as a researcher and writer for the BBC Sarah-Jane returned to Halifax to complete her post graduate degree in Journalism at Kings College in Halifax. Since her time at Kings Sarah-Jane has worked for Rogers Radio as a producer, reporter and audio editor- she has also worked for Halifax Film on CBC children’s programming. Just like the rest of the JHR team S.J is a wayward journalist. Her work takes her to Turkey and Germany where she gallivants around with NATO troupes on media training and now Africa. Africa has always been a place she hoped to go and JHR has been the means she needed to get here. S.J’s main "mission" in becoming a journalist was to use it to truth tell in a way that created change and helps in some minute way. She will be stationed in Accra for six months, where she will act as producer for an International Assignment T.V. Program (Jefferson Sackey’s International Assignment) where she will be assisting in producing human rights content for Critical T.V. and local newspapers.

Forget Pity, it’s Time to Empower Ghanaian Widows

Kwesi-Gyan Apenteng insists that widows in Ghana need to be empoered, not pitied

It’s hard not to feel pity when you meet a widow who has been taken through her rites. It’s an ancient custom here in Ghana — one where a woman is taken through her village after her husband’s death.

The local soothsayer asks the woman if she had a hand in her husband’s death. Sometimes during the questioning widows will be physically scarred so the ghost of her husband will not recognize her. Sometimes, they’ll sit on a reed mat naked for days, exposed to bugs and the intense Ghanaian heat. Sometimes, they’re encouraged into arranged second marriages.

As a result, pity is the common sentiment from media and NGOs seeking financial aid for widows, many of whom leave their villages to live on widow compounds. There is, however, a new way of treating widows emerging among some local NGOs, one that changed even my pitying perspective. It’s a view that insists that widows are empowered to change policy regarding widow rights, not the helpless victims were used to seeing.

One of the first stories I filed in Ghana was about widows’ rights in the country. I visited a widow commune in Bolgatanga in Ghana’s north run by Betty Ayagiba, executive director of the Widow and Orphans Movement (WOM), a local NGO that supports over 8,000 women who have lost their husbands. There, I heard stories of women who, because they lost their husbands, lost their homes, property, and their dignity. 

It was hard not to take the 14-hour bus ride home from Bolgatanga without feeling pity. I filed a story on widows, and thought about quitting my job as a journalist to become a volunteer for WOM.

That’s until I met Kwesi-Gyan Apenteng, who shook the pity out of me.

“These women are to be respected,” Apenteng says, with reverence in his voice. “They’ll regale to you what happened to them but they’re committed to using their experience to educate other women on their rights. It’s very empowering.”

Apenteng insists media and aid groups should stop treating widows in Ghana as helpless. 

“What’s happened to these women for centuries is abysmal, but with the right people on board, it will stop,” he says vehemently.

Apenteng is the smiling, hopeful program coordinator of the Cultural Initiative Support Program in Accra. He is the former editor of The Mirror newspaper in Accra and has a penchant for journalism that promotes change, not sorrow without legislative action. He’s kept up with the work of journalists here and abroad and he’s noticed a constant: widows are routinely portrayed as powerless.

It’s one of the reasons he started policy work. He saw Ayagiba on Obaa Mbo, Ghana’s version of the Oprah Winfrey Show, and with what little he had left in the CISP budget, he championed her cause. Within weeks of seeing the show, Apenteng organized a three-day conference in Bolgatanga to push for the protection of widow rights.

The conference informed widows about the gender provisions in the constitution, which state that the violation of human rights as well as harsh or inhumane treatment of widows is unacceptable. Widows are kept down through lack of education, Apenteng says, and few know they have a constitutional right to contest ceremonies and a right to protection from the state. The CISP conference sought to change that.

Apenteng told attendees that if more seats are granted to women in parliament, women in rural areas could have better political representation. Apenteng enthusiastically encourages widows to become politically engaged. He feels this is one of the ways rural gender issues can be brought before parliament and gain status on the national political agenda. He also challenges the state to become a conduit in this process. 

Post-conference, the CISP reported that seven communities in Ghana’s Upper Eastern Region have signed a resolution saying they will stop the widowhood rites in their communities. It appears his message was well received.

Apenteng maintains Ghana is a progressive country capable of change—you just need the right people on your side. “We know who’s influential in this country, so we gathered chiefs, law makers, advocacy agents and, of course, the widows, to ensure we effectively call on government, instead of accepting cultural practice as a norm,” he says.

“Let’s accept there are reasons communities do things the way they do, but, over time things change, and we are responsible for bringing that change about,” he adds. “Some of our customs are just unacceptably archaic so let’s move on.”

In Canada, widows receive a monthly survival allowance from the Survivor Benefit scheme if they cannot provide for themselves. Apenteng says this support is not be provided to widows here, but educating them on what little they could—and should—be entitled to is a step in the right direction.

As I prepare to head home from the interview with a little less pity on my pallet, Apenteng adds, “what we have done is brought people together that might be able to move us forward. We dropped a very, very tiny pebble, but it had to be dropped.”

It’s hard not to feel pity when you meet a widow who has been taken through her rites. It’s an ancient custom here in Ghana — one where a woman is taken through her village after her husband’s death.

The local soothsayer asks the woman if she had a hand in her husband’s death. Sometimes during the questioning widows will be physically scarred so the ghost of her husband will not recognize her. Sometimes, they’ll sit on a reed mat naked for days, exposed to bugs and the intense Ghanaian heat. Sometimes, they’re encouraged into arranged second marriages.

As a result, pity is the common sentiment from media and NGOs seeking financial aid for widows, many of whom leave their villages to live on widow compounds. There is, however, a new way of treating widows emerging among some local NGOs, one that changed even my pitying perspective. It’s a view that insists that widows are empowered to change policy regarding widow rights, not the helpless victims were used to seeing.

One of the first stories I filed in Ghana was about widows’ rights in the country. I visited a widow commune in Bolgatanga in Ghana’s north run by Betty Ayagiba, executive director of the Widow and Orphans Movement (WOM), a local NGO that supports over 8,000 women who have lost their husbands. There, I heard stories of women who, because they lost their husbands, lost their homes, property, and their dignity. 

It was hard not to take the 14-hour bus ride home from Bolgatanga without feeling pity. I filed a story on widows, and thought about quitting my job as a journalist to become a volunteer for WOM.

That’s until I met Kwesi-Gyan Apenteng, who shook the pity out of me.

“These women are to be respected,” Apenteng says, with reverence in his voice. “They’ll regale to you what happened to them but they’re committed to using their experience to educate other women on their rights. It’s very empowering.”

Apenteng insists media and aid groups should stop treating widows in Ghana as helpless. 

“What’s happened to these women for centuries is abysmal, but with the right people on board, it will stop,” he says vehemently.

Apenteng is the smiling, hopeful program coordinator of the Cultural Initiative Support Program in Accra. He is the former editor of The Mirror newspaper in Accra and has a penchant for journalism that promotes change, not sorrow without legislative action. He’s kept up with the work of journalists here and abroad and he’s noticed a constant: widows are routinely portrayed as powerless.

It’s one of the reasons he started policy work. He saw Ayagiba on Obaa Mbo, Ghana’s version of the Oprah Winfrey Show, and with what little he had left in the CISP budget, he championed her cause. Within weeks of seeing the show, Apenteng organized a three-day conference in Bolgatanga to push for the protection of widow rights.

The conference informed widows about the gender provisions in the constitution, which state that the violation of human rights as well as harsh or inhumane treatment of widows is unacceptable. Widows are kept down through lack of education, Apenteng says, and few know they have a constitutional right to contest ceremonies and a right to protection from the state. The CISP conference sought to change that.

Apenteng told attendees that if more seats are granted to women in parliament, women in rural areas could have better political representation. Apenteng enthusiastically encourages widows to become politically engaged. He feels this is one of the ways rural gender issues can be brought before parliament and gain status on the national political agenda. He also challenges the state to become a conduit in this process. 

Post-conference, the CISP reported that seven communities in Ghana’s Upper Eastern Region have signed a resolution saying they will stop the widowhood rites in their communities. It appears his message was well received.

Apenteng maintains Ghana is a progressive country capable of change—you just need the right people on your side. “We know who’s influential in this country, so we gathered chiefs, law makers, advocacy agents and, of course, the widows, to ensure we effectively call on government, instead of accepting cultural practice as a norm,” he says.

“Let’s accept there are reasons communities do things the way they do, but, over time things change, and we are responsible for bringing that change about,” he adds. “Some of our customs are just unacceptably archaic so let’s move on.”

In Canada, widows receive a monthly survival allowance from the Survivor Benefit scheme if they cannot provide for themselves. Apenteng says this support is not be provided to widows here, but educating them on what little they could—and should—be entitled to is a step in the right direction.

As I prepare to head home from the interview with a little less pity on my pallet, Apenteng adds, “what we have done is brought people together that might be able to move us forward. We dropped a very, very tiny pebble, but it had to be dropped.”

Alternative Medicine in Ghana Part One: Sorcery versus Psychiatry

The mentally ill are often chained up in Ghana, like this woman suffering from depression

A young woman stands with her left foot chained to a tree in rural Ghana. Her wrap-around traditional cloth hangs loosely at her hips, and her breasts are exposed.

“Cover yourself,” Atete Atempon yells at the girl I’m now staring at.

The woman smiles a doped-up smile as two servants rush to unchain her. They know I’m quizzically wondering why she’s tied up and how she got there. They work hard to unshackle her so they can shoo her away before I start asking questions.

“She is not well,” says Atempon, as he orbits his hand around his ear to imply she’s lost her mind. Atempon is an herbalist at the prayer camp where the woman is being treated.

Finally, she is covered up, unchained and led away screaming.

In Ghana, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression are conditions rarely diagnosed. What is diagnosed, however, is the condition of being possessed by evil spirits. The belief in witchcraft and spiritualism is very much alive here. For someone to simply be mentally ill is not. As a result, most mentally ill end up in prayer camps such as this instead of receiving psychiatric care.

As treatment on the camps, they’re often given herbal mixtures or physically beaten until the demon is believed to have left the body. Or, they’re left secluded under a mango tree for weeks, as is the case with this nameless woman.

Her family left her here because she began exhibiting strange behavior after her former boyfriend reneged on his promise to marry her. What might be cured in Canada with a vat of ice cream, a session with a shrink or an anti-anxiety pill is treated a little differently in Suhulm, Ghana, where patients are chained up or fed herbal remedies until they’re no longer possessed—or broken-hearted.

As resident herbalist, Atempon treats patients with his special concoctions. He offers to show me his workspace and I eagerly agree. We cross the threshold of his laboratory of blood-red oils, leafy soups and bottles of herb-infused moonshine, to be ingested by or smeared on patients, and I ask him if he has a background in mental health.

“I know how to cure anything,” he says, averting the question. He tells me he not only cures AIDS, but also makes the insane sane. He looks at the tree where the woman was shackled. “In two weeks, the girl that was there will be fine.” His claims are lofty, but Atempon’s Ralph Lauren shirt and stacked gold rings tell me people pay him big for his work.

Dr. Akwasi Osei, chief psychiatrist at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, has a different approach to mental illness. He believes in mainstream psychiatry that assesses a person’s mental state and considers any contributing social factors to their condition before suggesting treatment. According to Osei, about 2.4 million Ghanaians are living with mental illness, many of whom suffer quietly on the peripheries of society, in fringe communities like Suhulm.

Spiritual churches, prayer camps and other unorthodox institutions treating the mentally ill are rampant in Ghana. It’s a cheaper option than going to the hospital, and often the only option for most families who make less than $1.50 (CDN) a day. Dr. Osei laments that he and the World Health Organization, which also supports mainstream care, face a barrage of opposing views from the public in their battle to erase the stigma attached to mental illness.

But how do you convince an entire society that someone is not possessed but instead depressed, suffers from a chemical imbalance or simply has a case of the breakup blues in a country where a belief in witchcraft is so deeply engrained?

One way might be through legislation. In 2006, the Disability Bill was passed in Ghana to prevent mistreatment of the mentally ill, but abuses still abound and proper care remains widely unavailable. As it stands, Dr. Osei says only two per cent of people suffering from mental illness have access to adequate treatment.

There are a meager nine practising psychiatrists in all of Ghana, and they are stifled when it comes to reaching even half of all cases. What’s more, many are discouraged from becoming practising psychiatrists, according to Dr. Osei, because their peers believe gods and spirits rule the psyche of a person. Chemical imbalances seems obtuse to many in a country where the mental state of the individual is often put down to sorcery, not psychiatry.

That’s why this girl is chained to a mango tree. Patients waiting to see Atempon barely blink an eye at the chained insane. There is an undercurrent of acceptance; people in the waiting area sit like an audience ready to applaud at the wonder of the herbalist — seemingly making it a Gordian-knot of a problem to solve.

As I leave the compound, I hear the girl screaming as she is doused with cold water and barked at by her two keepers.

Atempon waves goodbye as his gold rings catch the sun and blind my gaze.

Where There’s Smoke…

Ghanaian firefighter Sam Sowah Oblejumah with one of his station’s ageing fire trucks

“When there is a fire, we follow our nose and we find it.”

That’s how firefighter Sam Sowah Oblejumah explains how Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) firefighters respond to emergency calls in Accra. I’m shocked.

I grew up in a household with a fireman father. A father who grounded me if I burnt candles in my room. A father who doused our campfires not once but thrice on summer holidays. A father who couldn’t sleep at night when he didn’t get to a fire in time to save a house. I can only imagine how he’d feel knowing an entire city block burnt down on his watch, something firefighters in Accra face regularly.

Firefighters here are starved for resources to assist them with the bush, home and market fires they’re called to extinguish. While some people dismiss the fire department as lazy, most GNFS firefighters are determined to do their jobs well, but cannot secure the support they need from the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) to do so.

“It’s a problem,” Oblejumah says in his raspy voice. I resist asking if his voice has been altered from inhaling too much smoke—you’re lucky if you get a gas mask to battle fires here.

Throughout Ghana, villages and cities are dotted with fires burning unabated. Piles of hot garbage steam on the roadside in sewer gutters, silently hissing as plastic and other waste sizzle. Many houses in Accra, especially in the slums, are made of combustible material—wood, cardboard or grass—making it easy for these roadside bonfires to extend beyond the city’s gutters.

“I joined the GNFS because I wanted to save the lives of people in slums,” Oblejumah says. He doesn’t always get his way. “City planners do not enforce building laws here; you can burn where you want to burn and build with whatever materials you can fashion a house with.”

And the slum dwellers aren’t to blame, according to him. “It’s not their fault they need to build with old wood that sparks easily, it’s not their fault they cook with open fires. They have nothing, and fire is what keeps them alive.”

Accra’s slums are not designed with proper city blocks, instead they are made up of scattered piecemeal constructions, so reaching fires becomes nearly impossible. “We can’t get to the people who need it most with our trucks,” Oblejumah says. The AMA doesn’t require houses to have proper addresses either, the result of weak legislation, and so fire trucks are forced to navigate the labyrinths of the slums, often resulting in lost lives. “Someone will call 192,” he says, referring to the emergency number. “They’ll say, ‘there’s a fire next to the post office’ and they’ll simply tell us to wait until we see or smell smoke.”

And what they face if they finally do reach a fire poses another barrier: “Imagine trying to squeeze ahuge fire truck down a lane no wider than this office,” he laments, standing in a 600-square-foot space that is about as narrow as a walk-in closet. “It’s impossible. As a result, the city burns from time to time.”

Oblejumah says he can’t do his job without proper financial support from the AMA. “They are the ones to blame,” he says. “The only time we receive monetary assistance from them is when a prominent government building burns.”

He may be right. The AMA suddenly became quite generous, handing over resources from the United Kingdom, America and India, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Accra burned down last year. They promised 30 new trucks along with $50 million USD. (Though neither has come through yet. Oblejumah and his colleagues at Accra’s seven other fire stations are still waiting for the promised resources.)

Nonetheless, Oblejumah is proud of his department. They have a sizeable intake of female firefighters, 30 this year, and have recently garnered recognition for their impressive road rescue operations. The number of lives saved this year has earned GNFS an award from the World Rescue Organization in the U.K.

As we chat, Oblejumah walks me through the truck bay. He does a single jumping jack in front of an archaic truck, one of the few functioning in Accra. It’s an old Betsy of a thing, and he looks a bit ashamed of it, though his dedication persists.

“We are firefighters, if we have to, we’ll follow our nose to protect human lives,” he repeats. “The rest is up to the powers that be. Now take a photo of me I front of this nice truck.”

I oblige, and think of how good my father had it.

Being Your Own Keeper: Self-Made Media in Ghana

When Ibrahim Barkho walked into the TV Africa newsroom two weeks ago, he was a man on a mission.

Tall in stature and one of the more energetic Ghanaians I’ve encountered, Barkho was a force.

“I wish to speak to the head of your newsroom,” he said to a reporter who was idly ignoring him. The reporter thumbed in the direction of newsroom editor Fred Chidi’s office.

Barkho walks toward the office with a sense of urgency and almost prostrates himself before Chidi. Two minutes later I’m beckoned into Chidi’s office. I learn that Barkho is the founder of an NGO called the African Trust Foundation (ATF). The organization was established by four men to advocate for the rights of poor and ignored villagers across Ghana. ATF set its sights on Abamkrum in the Upper East Region four years ago, but they haven’t been able to move beyond it since. The plan was to start in Abamkrum and spread access to clean water, education and health care to neighbouring communities but it’s been an uphill battle for Barkho and his team—that’s what landed him in the TV Africa newsroom.

Children in Abramkrum gather dirty water daily for drinking, cooking and bathing

“I have tried calling every media agency I can, I tell them to come and see what is happening in this village, but no one comes, so I am using my own money to come to the media,” Barkho says with a sigh. “They are the only ones that might be able to help.” He believes the media is the conduit for change and has a more modern approach than many village elders who simply pray for aid.

TV Africa’s policy is that unless reporters pay out of pocket to venture to regions outside of Accra, they’ll not be leaving Accra. Still, Chidi seems taken by Barkho’s plea and offers to at least watch the tape he brought. The film, shot by Barkho, reveals images of life in Abamkrum. We see children drinking murky water from a back-road pond. We see AIDS-infected pregnant women pleading for anti-retrovirals so their children stand a chance at not being born with their death already imminent. They sit and talk to the camera from the only hospital available to 48 villages in the area. We also see vacant school buildings that haven’t been occupied by a teacher in years.

“We will try and send someone there,” Chidi says in a gruff tone that covers his look of sympathy for the people in the amateur video.

Meantime, I work with Edem Srem, a TV Africa journalist desperate to report in the rural regions, to file a story that night with rushes from Barkho’s tape. The first shot is of a child jumping into soiled water his family cooks, drinks and cleans with. The broadcast journalist in me thinks it makes for a great sound-up.

TV Africa reporter Edem Srem interviews women and children in the village about their living conditions

Two weeks later, Srem and I are heading to the village in the Upper East to meet again with Barkho. Waiting for us when we arrive are village chiefs from Abamkrum and more than 45 surrounding villages. All tell us they face the same challenges—accessing water and adequate education—and say government officials have come and gone over the years, but little action has been taken.

Eighty-six-year-old Thomas Yao Tonyeviadzi is Abamkrum’s head chief. Tonyeviadzi says ATF is his voice now, adding that elder chiefs no longer know how to follow politics in this country. They’re also not equipped to deal with new challenges, like HIV/AIDS, and need to rely on outsiders for help, he says.

We get to work filming children drinking lime green-colored water, the town midwife speaking of needless maternal deaths that happen on her watch due to lack of resources and a dust-collecting cocoa field that has remained untilled without funding from the Ghana Cocoa Board.

Srem has paid for his trip by pairing a story he is doing about AIDS in rural Ghana with this one. He applied for the reporting grant six months ago from Ghana Health Service. He needed to ask for outside financing in order to leave Accra and do stories on AIDS in rural Ghana—it’s an unfortunate reality for most journalists in Ghana, since newsrooms rarely have enough resources to send reporters out of town on assignment.

Srem says media interest in AIDS has waned and he wants to show Ghanaians how patients are still stigmatized and how access to proper medical care is a far cry from where it should be. He received enough money to produce a piece for the National Aids and STI Control Program. We agree that material we gather from interviews with HIV/AIDS patients in Abamkrum will compliment his AIDS documentary while providing human rights content we can also air on TV Africa.

It only took Ibrahim Barkho traveling to Accra, shooting his own tape and pleading with the station to get us here. But we’re here.

Akpeteshie is a Hell of a Drug?

Josephine is the queen of her compound. She carries a stick in one hand that serves as her scepter, with her other hand, she grabs for me. I have a mild tummy ache and am off to find instant coffee that I know won’t help me, but I want it bad.

Swarms of children run circles around Josephine’s voluptuous frame as if she’s a maypole.

Today, the neighbourhood fixture wears a muumuu, those large tent-like, long dresses that catch the wind with every step. Josephine’s dress still swims around her body even though she’s pleasantly plump. I tell her she looks like a goddess.

It’s a peachy mint colored frock embroidered to add pizzazz. She holds her heaving breasts in her hands as she run towards me. She’s heard I’ve been ill and she has just the cure.

It’s the Sabbath and I can hear the voices of the Presbyterian parish singing nearby, along with the drums of the charismatic church banging on either side of me. Josephine is a woman of the lord, or so she says, but this morning she’s decided my health is more important than church.

We cross the road dotted with taxis, whose drivers love honking their horns just for the hell of it. It occurs to me that we’re going somewhere.

I came looking for a Nescafe coffee fix, I think to myself, how the hell did I get dragged into this?

We enter a few side-winding alleys and arrive at a den of inequity Josephine calls her second home. Jerry is working the bar. Josephine greets Jerry in Ga, a local dialect, and asks for one akpeteshie, a local spirit, for me, and a larger one for herself. It’s 9 a.m.

It’s no wonder she loves a drink at 9 a.m. She drinks here at her second home because her husband ran off and left her with three children, she’s broke after the chop bar (little food stands that dot every corner in Accra selling food and drink) she ran went bankrupt.

“Women were born to suffer, then die,” Josephine says as her almost jaundice looking eyes stare into mine. “Let’s just drink and be friends and forget about it,” she says, as if the dark phrase she’d just uttered never happened.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t drunk akpeteshie before. The home-brewed whatever and I go all the way back to July, when I first arrived in the Osu neighbourhood of Accra and was led down a back alley much like this one. A man called Captain fixed a strong one for myself and my friends to take the edge off, which I haven’t felt since I arrived in Accra.

It’s considered the strongest drink on the Ghanaian liquor market. An elixir that sings to your intestines and brings an almost levitation sensation, akpeteshie is far cheaper than standard liquors. About $1.50 CAD will buy you a 1.5-litre plastic bottle of the swill, compared to about $8.50 for a bottle of local gin.

That price point may be cheap to the average North American, but $8.50 is about three day’s pay to a Ghanaian earning minimum wage.

This drink made with anything from potatoes to rusted nails has caused quite a ruckus in the news. Since 1965, all brewers must register their product and pay a cut to the Ghana Cooperative Association before distributing it.

That doesn’t fly well with the backyard brewers selling to fine young customers like myself. Attorney-General Betty Mould-Iddrisu is advocating that the Manufacture and Sale of Spirits regulation be amended to enable akpeteshie brewers to sell their products directly to the public and not through the Ghana Cooperative Association as it is presently done—or rather, supposed to be done.

My stomach starts to feel surprisingly warm and fuzzy. Maybe I’m buzzing, maybe Akpeteshie does, cure all. Josephine says this brew will stop you from getting pregnant but make your sex life amazing, while curing your stomach, all in one go. She says as a journalist I should write about it. I tell her I’ve been working on human rights stories and she has many rights she feels have been violated that she wants to tell me about.

On this Sunday morning as the sun catches my glass of orange-colored akpeteshie in this back alley of Accra, all that’s on my mind is whether Josephine’s medicinal prophecy will come true.

“Once you take it, go home and eat, then sleep, and when you awake you will have a new stomach and all your problems will disappear,” Josephine says as she clinks her much larger glass against mine.

“And all your problems will disappear,” she repeats.

Funeral Rites

Jessica Ansuman is comforted by her auntie at her mother's funeral

If Josephine Adjeley Asumang were around she would be helping her husband Benjamin Asumang tie his aquajung, a traditional cloth worn by Ghanaian men, before leaving the house. Today he’s burying her instead.

It’s 9:30 on a Saturday morning and a sea of people cram Benjamin and Adjeley’s family home. The women wear fine black fabric dresses (some made special for the occasion) and the men wear aquajungs, traditional Ghanaian cloth that men wrap around their bodies, leaving one shoulder exposed.

I awkwardly pick my way over rocks outside the Asumang home as I enter the funeral site with my landlady, Joyce, who is a cousin of the deceased. My very Western black top and bottoms make me stick out like a sore thumb among the finely dressed Ghanaians, of which there are over 500. It was standing-room-only for this woman who died of cancer almost three weeks ago. No one mentions that she died of cancer though. Cancer is a proverbial Voldemort in Ghana, much like AIDS. It’s ‘that which shall not be named,’ as it’s sometimes believed the person did something evil to deserve dying of the disease.

Benjamin sits in the corner of the room I’ve been shuffled into. Guests cram into the courtyard outside and are entertained by a band and preachers. The immediate family of the deceased sit inside, near the wake. The immediate family of the widower sit in a third room. I sit and watch people moan and cry or stare into the distance as tears well up and lumps of sadness are swallowed before the floodgates open.

In front of me sits 20-year-old Jessica, Adjeley’s paper-thin daughter. Her spine pokes out through her beautiful black dress that stretches to the floor. Joyce tells me Jessica was the only daughter who stayed with her mother in Ghana as the rest of the children

moved to London “for a better life.” By tomorrow Jessica and her

father will be putting on their game faces and combatting the

extended family of the deceased.

“Once your husband or wife passes, their family appears out of

Nowhere,” Joyce says.

I ask her what she thinks about that.

“I think it’s very sad,” she adds, as the corners of her mouth turn down. “The family comes back and starts taking, taking, taking everything from even the children. They say it’s because it’s their child and therefore they are entitled to whatever their child had and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

In fact, a law recently passed in Ghanaian parliament states the family of a spouse is now more legally protected and potentially entitled to everything right down to the broom the deceased used to sweep with. But few know their rights. When the tears dry,

the gloves come off in many a Ghanaian household in the wake of a funeral.

A brother of the widower in traditional garb, aquajung

I’m nudged to go see the body. I don’t know why I balked at this slightly, I suppose I didn’t feel I even had the right to be the white elephant in the room let alone the obruni (white person) who goes to stare at the dead body of someone I’ve never met.

I go to see the body.

The shoebox-size room barely fits the size of the coffin and some of the larger people have to settle for paying their respects outside of it. I’ve heard in Ghana some dead are displayed in fantasy coffins, coloured and shaped after a certain object, like a fish, crab, boat, and even a sports car. I pray this woman will be displayed in something like an airplane but I’m not disappointed when its a simple blue coffin. I’m slightly in awe. The tradition is to walk around the coffin in a circle, to stare at the frozen face of the deceased, and say a prayer. Adjeley is dressed head-to-toe in what looks like a wedding dress. Silver details that look like paper snowflakes catch the sun and make my hard face light up.

I stop and become almost transfixed by what some Canadians would say is a gaudy show, but I’m so taken with it. I’m nudged to finish walking my circle.

I feel especially foreign today, and painfully awkward.

I traipse back over the rock-strewn dirt floor and I leave with Joyce.

As the sun beat down on our black clothing, we make our way

through a day of serving the more than 150 guests that attend an party for one side of the family. On the other side of town, another 150 guests eat, drink and swish their black fabric to music, all at the expense of the family.

“People would rather have serious money problems than shame their family by not providing a good funeral,” Joyce says.

I see this first outstretched hand twenty minutes later when guests from the other side of the family show up and crash our funeral party. They demand a second meal, drinks and chairs. One woman spits out a piece of rice from a meal she most likely just finished in the other family home as she barks out something in Ga, one of Ghana’s local languages.

“She’s demanding she be fed,” Joyce sighs as she flicks the still-warm rice off of her dress.

The author and Joyce, wiping their brows after serving funeral guests

The woman joins her posse now corralled around her. Together, they resemble a school of elderly prom goers. Their taffeta dresses rubbing against each other as they stare down the other side of the family, waiting for someone to cross them.

I see the hopelessness in the family’s eyes. There will be more that will come, they’ll bring nothing and take a much as they can with them.

Tomorrow when the tears dry and the black dresses and aquajungs are hung back on their hangers, Benjamin Asumang’s wife will still be dead.

He will be congratulated for not turning anyone away at her funeral.

I walk home with my maize wine (made of ground-up corn and sugar), arm and arm with Joyce, who’s exhausted by the death of her cousin and the advent of her afternoon.

“’Till we meet again,” I say. “Mama, may your soul rest in perfect peace, Amen,” Joyce says as the sun starts to set on Accra. “That’s what we say, S.J.”

Her words echo back to me in my head as we turn into our compound to show my respect to a woman I never knew one last time to her widower, but these people gave me the opportunity to just have a glimpse, and they don’t even know my last name.

Mac Attack

A broken keyboard is just the beginning of tech challenges for journalists in Ghana

Here I am writing blog number three on a broken Mac keyboard. The “g,” “h,”t,” “y”, “n” and “?” keys don’t work so I’ve made a makeshift keyboard by typing the entire alphabet into a Microsoft Word document and rely on Word’s spellcheck to insert my missing letters. I then have to paste in missing letters to other words. It’s much like sewing a piece together. This sure would make things hard if I were primarily a print journalist.

The trouble with the keyboard started almost three weeks ago. I was playing music on our wonderful balcony in Accra. Maybe ants got into the keyboard or dust from the Ghanaian air – who knows – but come Monday morning, when I eagerly hooked my Mac up to the rare wireless internet, the keys didn’t respond. I know what you’re thinking – why not just find the keyboard application that most Macs so adequately have? Well I tried that, but my computer, which ordinarily is able to heat my home, cook me dinner and do my laundry, didn’t have that function. I held back tears and just took a deep breath. I accepted it as a norm and figured I’d find the nearest computer shop and have it fixed. I am, after all in the capital city of Ghana. Six shops later and one trip to the only Mac store in Accra, it was determined that fixing my keyboard would cost triple the cost of repairing it in Canada.

“You cannot get your Mac fixed here because no one owns a Mac,” says Safo and editor at T.V Africa who often makes off with my Mac, even though it’s broken, to tinker with the Final Cut a program.

Journalists in Ghana deal with resource and technogical barriers  everyday. Safo explains how most journalists operate without their own computers and there are usually three computers to every 15 journalists in a newsroom. I now know what it’s like. When there is a computer free, you must grab it, and if  not your story waits, and waits, and waits. You are often elbow to elbow with another reporter and there are literal fights that break out over who sat down in the computer chair first, a veritable musical chairs act ensues every day. What’s more, pen drives are a commodity. You have to have one on your person at all times. (I’ve already lost two to someone who wanted to “borrow” mine.) Pen drives often contract viruses from the non-secure office computers. This prompts the reporter to be stingy with their pen drive. Similar to the way a Canadian reporter can become stingy with their stories. Only here, it’s about the basics, right down to whether or not you’ll have power that day. A million times I’ve pictured how past editors I have worked with would lose their cool at four power outages in an hour.  All of the key prompts I took for granted in my Final Cut and IMovie HD are no more and I have learned the ways of the mouse. It’s a timely task but I have been patting myself on the back for persevering and getting stories done the slower way, but done nonetheless. How do these journalists do it? They possess a calm acceptance of what is, not what it could be, it seems.

During jhr training we were advised that it’s best not to use all of the technology we brought with us in the newsroom. It is not sustainable to give a newsroom the use of our editing software, computer and other electronics for six months only to leave the newsroom in the lurch when we depart and go back to the land of opportunity.

If spending money to go to internet cafes just to have a keyboard functional enough for us to blog is difficult or, then sending video over email is very difficult!  This difficulty makes one live the way thousands of reporters in this country do every day. Still, as I bask in what has been a fruitless three weeks where my relationship with my computer is concerned, I have found a peace, an acceptance.

Fred Chidi, newsroom director at T.V. Africa, told me on day one: “Be prepared to accept some of our limitations where resources are concerned,” I make like Chidi and accept now.

My blog may take a while to “sew”, my memoirs may have to wait, but I, along with the other journalists I am here with, are doing it. The work will get done whether we have our own personal computers on our side or not. But let this be a warning to the future intrepid Mac users that land come January to work as jhr interns. Bring a backup battery, have a warranty on that Mac (if you even decide to bring one, consider me a PC convert in light of this experience) and most of all, have the ability to surrender to those things you may not be able to change. You never know, it may make for a good story.

Superman Never Made any Money

When Kwami Minkah was little he’d take material from his mother’s sewing pile, tie it around his neck and fly around the house imagining he was Superman. He says he thinks of Superman at least once a day when  he’s reporting and it reminds him that he chose this gig, journalism, because he wanted to help–he certainly didn’t get into journalism for the money.

When I went through the process of casually interviewing reporters at T.V. Africa to see who would accompany me to report on human rights stories, Kwami, or “Prince” as he’s affectionately known, was the last reporter I thought would come forward–he was too confident, I’d never bag him.

“I just want to use my journalism to help people who cannot help themselves,” says Prince. “That’s why I became a journalist.”

Prince stands at about five foot one–he’s a short stalky 22-year-old reporter with a grin that seems to take up his whole face. His smile fades, however, when I suggest walking into the slums of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Fred Chidi, T.V. Africa’s station manager, says he wants to see his journalists more inspired to go out and get more human interest stories. Half of the reporters in the newsroom have not received journalism training and as such they are often assigned stories. Though Prince and I don’t don capes, we’ve begun reporting together–a Lois and Clark of sorts–we’re going beyond today.

On this particular morning Prince was assigned a story about a public park that has become run down, I tagged along.

The park happens to be in the slums of Sodom & Gomorrah (a.k.a Old Fadama)–a settlement of over 23,000 people (according to the last census report), which lies by the bank of the dead Korle lagoon now undergoing a $67 million reclamation exercise. We were there about the lagoon and park but we stayed for a bigger story.

There’s no brimstone in the air of Sodom and Gomorrah but there’s fire. Big steaming piles of burning garbage, electronics and waste. We traipse through what the ruling political party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), tried to establish as a green space over eight years ago. Since then, an influx of illegal squatters have made their way in and the slum’s name and reputation were born. Gradually the park has deteriorated into a badland of burning garbage, human waste and slum land. Prince wasn’t even aware the area was nicknamed Sodom and Gomorrah.

After two hours through the perpetual dump, gardens that double as washrooms and slums we decide on conducting Prince’s standup in front of a fire with billowing smoke enveloping his small frame, to show the viewer what conditions children dig garbage in and what type of soil some of their produce is grown in. I stifle a pleased laugh as we walk out of the “zone.” I’d  managed to convince a T.V. cameraman to go from taking wides of an area to walk through the thick of stench and squalor to get some tight shots. To go over the river and through the garbage to observe the rows of lettuce growing in fecal matter mixed with soil was powerful and immortalized through a lens. By the end, I could not help but notice the cameraman’s face–he was happy. Now, we had to go take on the boring…government.

President Atta Mills’ government has pushed to have the squatters of Sodom removed by force but various tribal leaders have banded together in a united front to combat military that has come in.

I attempt to speak to a local NDC member of parliament about why this is, it ends in him pressing 50 Ghana Cedi (roughly $40 CAD)in my palm, which I promptly press back into his hands. He responded with an expression of shock mixed with insult.

I’ve heard “chequebook journalism” referred to as discreet and I’m sure this is so. What Prince experiences almost daily is blatant, out in the open, and accepted. He says most reporters give in to the practice but with a little encouragement in the “right” direction he thinks reporters would choose integrity over money.

As we walk away from Sodom Prince jokes “ Now that’s some cabbage growing in garbage a “garbage cabbage,” he laughs. Prince has decided he’ll call me “animal” because I navigated the slums and dump in high heels. I consider the story we worked on together victorious.I wonder how he feels about the money that was pressed into my hands and my polite declining of it. I wonder if he ever feels what the average Canadian journalist can sometimes feel–overworked and underpaid.

“Superman Never Made Any Money,” a song by the great Canadian band Crash Test Dummies, is one I remember well. I quote a line of the song to Prince, he smiles at me and tells me he really is in this gig to help people. I believe him.

As the first month of my television in Africa induction closes–I am looking ahead to the workshop components jhr includes as part of each stations jhr experience. I’ve met some journalists who have maintained an integrity and inpeccable sense of reponsible, bribe free journalism. Journalism that extends beyond the politics and onto the front lines of human rights reporting. It’s my hope that senior, seasoned West African reporters will come with me to T.V. Africa and discuss maintaining integrity even in the throws of “chequebook journalism.”

Slow Down and You’ll Get Where You’re Going

Makafui and I conduct our first interview at Ho Polyclinic

“If you just slow down, you’ll get where you’re going,” wise words from 28-year old Makafui Agbotta, the IT king of Critical TV here in Accra.

In my haste to try and assemble a camera kit which contained one broken PD-150 Sony Cam (with no playback), a broken tripod (compliments of the tro-tros of Accra), and a non-existent microphone, I failed to see the wisdom of Makafui’s utterances.

We were on our way to the Volta region of Ghana, long known as being one of Ghana’s most beautiful locales. The purpose of our visit, however was less about the ambiance and more about some it’s most forgotten inhabitants. The lepers. Cured, but in some ways forgotten.

Makafui wishes to make it absolutely clear “I am an IT man,” he laughs. “I cannot go more than two hours without the Internet. I scoff at his statement as I’ve battled the power outages that happen regularly in this country and know he must have had to sacrifice online time for a short fuse or two. But I digress. Makafui’s point as we bumped along the dusty roads from  Sogakope to Ho, Volta was “I am not a journalist. I am merely here to support you.” I enlisted Makafui as a translator as my Twi is borderline pathetic and my Ewe is non-existent.

At this point I am looking to Makafui as a mentor. He tells me to slow down when I start to speak, walk and act faster. He’s a saint.

Makafui gladly used his leave time to come with me to the far reaches of Volta. What awaited him was the mountains he remembered as a child and the empty sewers he missed so much. (The sewers are empty, he tell me, because the inhabitants of Volta burn what seems like 90 percent of their garbage, so while their sewers are far less clogged than that of Accra, their lungs are full of smoke.) Within 24 hours of arriving, Makafui was exposed to a rigorous schedule that consisted of finding, filming and interviewing lepers. We visit the Schoonhoven Cured Lepers Village and met survivors, who over-fill the rooms.

We meet lepers like Rosina, who sometimes goes for over three days without food because she can only eat when an NGO or private donor gives to the Poly Clinic near to her colony. We meet lepers like Kofi, whose legs have degenerated so much that he farms on his knees (what he farms is sometimes all he has to eat). We meet lepers like Malarina, whose left eye is sealed shut from her disease, yet still she wears glasses with one lens in, one out to remind her she still has one good eye.

Still, as we head back on a bumpy bus ride home Makafui chomps at the bit to check his e-mail. He’s heard that Vodaphone, his other employer, is downsizing and he wants to make sure he won’t be affected. Jobs like his are hard to come by here in Ghana. “So Makafui, have I convinced you these stories matter and you should hop on the journalist band wagon?” I  give him the eye as I yell over the engine. “When journalists make money, I may S.J,” he laughs. He again reminds me to slow down and rest.

As the shooting ensues the next day, Makafui is no longer just translating answers for me, he’s asking the questions. He starts to watch me as I work and rework the broken tripod, and offers to shoot. He asks one of the main benefactors of lepers in the community what else she plans on doing to make more housing, more food and more aid available. He angrily tells me these are some of the people his government should care for the most. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says, not for the first time.

As Makafui prepares to leave Volta on the third day he tells me he’s going to invest in his own video camera and tripod. He wants to start shooting documentaries on stories ” just like this.” He saw the missing fingers and toes, he heard the voices of people who, despite all of their loneliness and sometimes helplessness, ask you how you’re doing and thank you for just holding their hand for one fleeting moment without flinching. When I return to Accra I check my e-mail and see Makafui has already posted videos on facebook of his Volta excursion. One is of us letting a three-year old look down the lens of the video camera, the grandson of 90-year old Rosina. There’s more video to come from him, he texts me.

“We’ll make a journalist of you yet,” I mutter under my breath. I walk home from the internet café slow, so I can take in where I am going.