Category Archives: Ghana

Unavailable and underfunded: mental healthcare in Ghana

The Accra Psychiatric Hospital only has a capacity for 600-800 patients, but currently houses many more.

Like much of the developing world, mental healthcare is lacking in Ghana. Mental illnesses are deeply stigmatized and widely misunderstood, and access to mental health professionals and infrastructure is limited. Although the recent passing of the innovative Mental Health Bill lays the legal framework for the required changes, steep challenges remain.

Ghana spends 2.58 per cent of an already small health budget on mental health. Accordingly, Ghana has only three publically-funded mental health hospitals. The hospitals are all old, overcrowded, and located in the southern part of the country. Consequently, they fail to provide adequate care for the estimated 250,000 people that need treatment in the country.

Pantang Hospital, the newest in the country, was built in 1975 and is located just outside Accra. Ankaful Hospital was built in 1965 and is located in Cape Coast, 150 km outside Accra. The largest hospital, the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, was built in 1906 and is located in the centre of the capital. It only has a capacity for 600-800 patients, but currently houses close to 1,000. It’s a condition that “compromises the comfort and general well-being of patients and constitutes an appreciable strain on [the hospital’s] resources, staff and funds,” according to the hospital’s website.

There are also only twelve psychiatrists working within the government system, many of which perform only administrative duties. There are fewer than 500 psychiatric nurses, more than half of which are located in the mental hospitals, leaving the rest of Ghana wanting.

The result of the widely unavailable care is that many rely on traditional healers, especially in the more rural and impoverished northern parts of the country. Their methods vary from prayers to exorcisms to human rights abuses.

“We’ve seen people who have cuts on their bodies that have festered into sores… It’s all under the guise of treatment,” said Peter Yaro, the Executive Director of BasicNeeds Ghana, an NGO that seeks to “ensure people with mental illnesses and their families live and work successfully in their communities,” according to Yaro.

“We have seen people who are shackled and left in the open, rain or shine for days. We’ve seen people who have been locked in rooms for days, months, and years. They ease themselves there, they eat there, and they sleep there. And nobody bothers to do anything about it until it’s reported to us,” he added.

The garden inside the Accra Psychiatric Hospital.

BasicNeeds has been operating in Ghana since 2002 and has since expanded to six out of Ghana’s ten regions. It strives to improve access to appropriate treatment, teach people with mental health conditions to support themselves, give people suffering from mental illness a political voice, and address the fiend that exacerbates all mental health problems in Ghana – the monstrous social stigma that surrounds the issue.

In Ghana, people with mental health issues are widely misunderstood and mistreated. People view mental illness as anything from a deserved consequence of a spiritual transgression to a contagious condition that will infect anyone who works in the field. As a result, they are discriminated against and marginalized, Yaro explained.

“The moment you are seen as mentally ill you are seen to be less human.… People think you can’t even feel,” he said. There is also little understanding of, or interest in, proper treatment.

“For those who know about the hospitals, they come and dump you there. For those who don’t know about the hospitals, they dump you at the traditional healer so they can move on with their life,” Yaro said.

The social stigma also affects the professionals who work in the field. Unlike other medical specialties, psychiatry is not prestigious. “It’s not attractive. It has no status, socially,” said Yaro. Because of this, and the fact that many people still think mental illness is contagious, few choose careers in the field.

The Mental Health Bill – the government’s plan to address these pressing issues – was finally passed on March 2, 2012. Originally drafted with help from the World Health Organization, the Bill meandered through parliament for eight years.

It emphasizes community based treatment over institutionalization. This is very important because up until the Bill was passed, the legislation that guided Ghana’s mental health service plan had changed little since the colonial Lunatic Asylum Ordinance made in 1888, explained Yaro.

“The national health policy under which mental health services are provided is not only arcane, but very bad,” he said. “We’ve come a long way towards understanding what mental health issues are and the law needs to be retrofitted.”

The Bill also introduces regulations for both public and private care providers need to adhere to, legally protecting patients’ rights. It also calls for a decentralization of care centers and and seeks to battle the stigma through public education campaigns.

It is estimated that more than 250,000 people in Ghana need psychiatric treatment.

The passing of the Bill marked the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ghana was one of the original 80 countries to sign the convention in 2007 and activists and mental health care professionals eagerly awaited its ratification since.

“I don’t know how to express my joy. Eight years of anxiety, apprehension and patience- that is how I can describe my feeling now. If we knew that the bill would be passed today, we would have come here with buses full of people and thereafter paraded through the streets of Accra to exhibit our joy and appreciation,” said Dr Akwasi Osei, the Chief Psychiatrist of the Ghana Health Service, at the time of the Bill’s passing.

“The way the Bill is drafted means a revolution,” said Yaro. Although the Bill received Presidential Assent on June 8 and became law, the revolution is still coming.

The massive investment required for the full implementation of what is in the Bill seems unlikely in the near future. Ghana is a Lower-Middle Income country and its economy is largely dependent on foreign aid, which makes up 11.7 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its public health care system battles both corruption and a “chronic shortage of funding,” according to a 2008 Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) report.

“We have to be optimistic, however one should not lose sight of the [challenges],” said Yaro. In the meantime he is happy with the progress made so far and will continue working with BasicNeeds as Ghana moves forward with its mental healthcare policy.

Polio effects linger in Ghana despite vaccines

When Maclean Atsu Dzidzienyo contracted polio as a nine-year-old, his symptoms worsened to the point where his nerves were affected and his legs became paralyzed. Now an athletic 26-year-old, he expertly maneuvers his wheelchair around the dusty compound of the Accra Rehabilitation Center (ARC), where he is completing his year of national service in the Center’s financial department.

Complications caused by the poliovirus, such as paralysis, contribute to reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) that Ghana’s disability rate stands between seven and 10 per cent.

“The majority of the people [who live and work at the Center] became disabled through polio, and a few of them had accidents,” Dzidzienyo said. “Hardly you will hear of somebody who was born with his disability.”

Among other West African countries, Ghana has taken strong measures to eradicate polio in the country within the past few decades, and has made significant progress from the time when Dzidzienyo was a child.

No new cases of polio have been reported in West Africa in 2012, according to the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI). Ghana’s last confirmed cases of polio were in 2009. That year, country health officials publically confirmed that eight children had contracted the virus, which was an increase by about five cases from the previous year. Before these comparatively minor outbreaks Ghana had enjoyed a period of being polio-free since 2003, according to the PEI.

This is a welcome change to Alexander Kojo Tetteh, the founder and CEO of the ARC. He also contracted the virus as a child and had his mobility impaired, though he still retains his ability to walk.

The desks at his primary school were very difficult to maneuver into and the set-up required that the children sit in pairs. No one wanted to sit next to him because they thought they could be infected by his disability, he said.

“Nobody was friendly. So I was not happy as a schoolchild,” Tetteh added.

Children can get inoculated in two ways: with an injection of a dead strain of the poliovirus, or take oral drops, which are typically the most popular in developing countries due to their ability to inoculate more people. The oral vaccine is less commonly used in developed nations because the efficacy of the vaccine depends on the strain of polio it is meant to eliminate, as it is a live culture. It can also change to the form of virus that can attack the patient, causing paralysis and nerve damage.

The poliovirus is now virtually eradicated in many countries around the world due to the development of polio vaccines in the 1950s and a global immunization campaign that began in the 1988. However, the virus can still be found in some countries in Africa and Asia. Ghana continues to have yearly mass polio inoculations. This year’s three-day campaign in March expected to reach about 5.8 million children under the age of five.

A woman collects dumping fees at Bantama. Her child stays with her at the site.

Day Cares and Dump Sites: Sanitation Problems in Kumasi

This week, my colleagues and I decided to examine urban sanitation and the associated health issues for Ultimate Radio’s Morning Show. We knew of several waste sites around town that were particularly concerning, so we went out to find them – recorders and cameras in hand.

First, we visited a garbage dump in the residential neighbourhood of Bantama, where no one has come to collect the rubbish for over a month. The woman who takes dumping fees at the site told us that nobody knew who exactly was responsible for removing the rubbish, or why they had stopped.  We also spoke to local residents and food vendors, who expressed concern over the smell, sight, and the possibility of food contamination there.

Next we went to the “Wewe” stream, which feeds the city’s main waterworks. The stream has been turned into one of Kumasi’s major drains, and its banks are covered in garbage. We noticed some Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (KMA) workers cleaning the roads nearby. They were employed to sweep away dust on the side of the road while, meters away, no action was being taken to clean up the stream.

We followed the water up to the neighbourhood of Ahinsan, where we found a refuse site, measuring 50 by 40 meters and about 10 meters high. It is used by nearby market workers and local inhabitants, as well as fishmongers who smoke their fish there. It is enormous, and sits right on the banks of one of the city’s major drains.

Perhaps most worrisome, however, was the daycare centre we found just meters away from this dump. Comfort and Alexon Kidd-Darko opened the Comkid Daycare Centre years before the site became a refuse dump, but now they must spend a great deal of their time–and money–on fighting the authorities over it.

“Because of the children, I’m not happy with this. When we came, there was nothing like this. If the place had been like this, I wouldn’t have put money here,” said Mrs. Kidd-Darko.

She also noted the damage that the site has been inflicting on their business.

“Now the children are not coming because of this, and my work is down. So now we are helpless,” she told me.

She said, however, that the centre takes every precaution to keep the children safe and healthy. They have fenced the place in and installed netting around the building to keep flies and mosquitoes away. They also never let the children play outside of the compound.

This is important because, according to Doctor Franklin Asiedu-Dekoe, children are especially at risk of illness resulting from sites like these.

“Children like to play on these refuse dumps,” he said. And they are more likely to fall ill, he explained, “because children are less likely to wash their hands with soap and water before anything enters their mouths.”

He also noted that malaria could spread in the area, if garbage prevents the stream from flowing properly and creates a build-up of still water.

We spoke to an official of the Ahinsan Market Committee – the ones in charge of managing the dump, according to the Kidd-Darkos. But he blamed the KMA members for the site’s mismanagement.

“We would be grateful if the Assembly officials could get this dumping site well managed or even get it relocated for us,” he said.

But he later admitted that his committee is in fact responsible for managing the site, and that all proceeds made from the dump go to them–not the KMA.

According to Doctor Asiedu-Dekoe, everyone is responsible for the maintenance of such urban waste sites – even the individuals who choose to dispose of their waste there.

Mrs. Kidd-Darko expressed a hope that the relevant authorities would soon be held accountable for the dumping site. She said its removal would not only be in the best interests of her daycare, but also of all the residents and market vendors in the area.

“It’s not healthy for even the residents here, and the market itself, let alone the children,” she said.

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.

Slow and unsteady: Ghana’s Freedom of Information Bill

The entrance to the Parliament of Ghana. The Freedom of Information Bill has, in one form or another, been meandering through Parliament since 2003.

July 7th marked the 30th anniversary of the day Canada’s Access to Information Act received royal assent, becoming law. Within a year the law had come into full force and Canada had joined dozens of other countries committed to government transparency and press freedom. As of January 2012, 90 countries have established nationwide laws ensuring the public’s right to request and receive government-held information.

In 2000, South Africa became the first African country to pass Right to Information legislation. Since then, seven other nations, including Nigeria, Uganda and even Zimbabwe have followed suit. Although Article 21 of Chapter 5 in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states, “All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society,” making one of a few constitutions that guarantee a fundamental right to information, no right to information law exists.

There have, however, been attempts to adopt such a law; the latest of which is sitting motionless in Parliament. The Right to Information Bill, as it was called at the time, was first drawn up in 2003, and went through the drafting and a public consultation process that year. It became stuck in cabinet and lapsed in 2004. The next year the processes had to start again. It wasn’t until 2009 that the second attempt, the Freedom to Information Bill, was finally submitted to Cabinet. It was forwarded to parliament in March 2010, where it has remained, inert.

Such stagnation contradicts a string of political promises. During the 2008 election, the now ruling National Democratic Congress promised Ghanaians that, if elected to government, they would pass the Freedom of Information Bill as soon as possible to demonstrate a commitment to fighting corruption.

The sun sets on Independence Arch in Accra. Ghana’s 1992 Constitution is unique in that it guarantees a fundamental Right to Information.

Parliament Majority Leader, Cletus Avoka, promised that before parliament rises on July 27, 2012 for a three-month recess the bill will be passed. However, he has since reneged, stating in May that “Passage of the Freedom of Information Bill was less important and for that matter, not a priority among various bills currently under consideration by Parliament for passage.”

Now, with only two weeks before a recess that will last until late October, and with only one month of parliamentary sessions left until it dissolves again for December’s election, it is clear the bill will not become law anytime soon.

“They [the government officials] have reservations about the widening transparency and the widening accountability that would come with Right to Information Legislation,” said Nana Oye Lithur, executive director of the Human Rights Advocacy Centre and the convener of the Right to Information Coalition in Ghana. The Right to Information Coalition was created in 2003 and is comprised of journalists as well as members from the National Media Commission, religious bodies, non-governmental organisations, and the Ghana Bar Association. It seeks to mobilize public support for the bill and advocate the government to expedite its passage.

“There’s just no political commitment,” she added.

This is a major problem, as activists and journalists agree Ghana needs the Freedom of Information Bill.

“I think that [the Freedom of Information bill] is a very
positive development which will go a long way to enhance the battle against corruption…it will strengthen the Ghanaian journalist to expose the many corrupt institutions that we have in this country,” said Richard Sky, the parliamentary reporter at Citi FM.

“When it comes to parliament there are so many things that are held out of the public view…once you can have access to information, information is a weapon. Once you have it, you can use it in so many ways to kill this rather monstrous institution of corruption that we have in this country,” he added.

Nana Oye Lithur agrees. The bill will empower Ghanaian journalists and citizens to demand answers and fight corruption.

“It will enhance transparency and accountability. We have serious issues with corruption…[within] every regime we have had some bribe and corruption related cases,” she said.

“Research has shown that with access to information regimes there comes a reduction in corruption… we need to ensure the little resources we have as a country are actually optimized and used to improve the lives of the people of Ghana, and not to go into a few pockets.”

When Household Chores become Human Rights Abuses

A young girl carries a load on her head in Kejetia Market

At eleven years old, Thema, a native of Kumasi, hopes to be a nurse when she grows up. Currently, however, she is employed wandering between taxis and tro-tros at rush hour, carrying packs of ice water on her head and selling them for 10 pesewas apiece. Though in the mornings she attends school, her afternoons are spent maneuvering through traffic with practiced ease; she has been doing this for four years.

Child labour is on the rise in Ghana, and particularly in urban areas.  According to UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children Report, 34% of Ghanaian children aged 5–14 years are engaged in child labour. That figure is up from 23% in 2003, as recorded in a Ghana Statistical Survey. In Kumasi, 8% of children engage in regular work, though its harmful impacts are widely acknowledged.

“It infringes on the rights of children, it affects their health, and it may result in injury,” explained Emilia Allan, a Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Ghana. “It prevents and interferes with their education, and it leads to other protection concerns such as sexual exploitation, violence, [and] child trafficking,” she said in an interview with me for Ultimate Radio.

But many families in Ghana must depend on their young ones for financial support, and the government does not take a zero-tolerance stance on it. Instead, the recently launched National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, based on the ILO Convention No. 182, recognizes that immediately eliminating the phenomenon is not feasible, and aims to protect those children who do work from physical, moral, and mental harm. And though the minimum age of employment is 15 years, the 1998 Ghana Children’s Act in fact states that children aged 13 and older may engage in some forms of light work.

[pullquote]“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour.”[/pullquote]

The legislation is therefore realistic and rational, but does it go far enough to protect working children from harm? Should it apply to those engaged in household work – cooking, cleaning, running errands, or caring for younger siblings? What about children like Thema, who work part-time and attend school on a shift system? Are they considered child labourers, and protected under the law?

“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour,” Allan explained.

“The Ghanaian Children’s Act ensures that every child has the right to be protected from engaging in work that constitutes a threat to his health, education, or development,” she said. “So if a child is . . . going to sell and then going on the shift system, the child goes to school tired and sleepy. That is affecting the child’s education, because it is not performing,” she explained, adding, “They don’t have time to do their homework.”

She also noted that, when a child is given a load to carry on her head, though considered light labour, it can affect her physical growth and pose a threat to her development.

Legally, then, children are protected from doing any kind of work – whether “light” or “hazardous” – that might cause harm.  And as part-time and light labour can inhibit a child’s development, these should be regulated as well.  So why is child labour still rampant?

According to Mr. Jacob Achulu, the Ashanti Regional Director for the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, the root of the problem is poverty.

“The legal framework is there,” he said.  “The problem is the enforcement, and I think it’s because poverty is widespread in most parts of our country. So the ILO interventions and NGO interventions are welcome, but there is the need to have sustainable activities that will make sure the families are able to keep their children in school.”

He pointed to some district-level programs in the Ashanti region, designed to work with the parents of child labourers and help them earn additional income, rather than sending their children to work.

So while the government acknowledges that, for many families, children are important breadwinners, and continues to pursue a pragmatic approach to reducing child labour, it might be prudent to develop new ways of addressing household poverty and stymying the problem at its source.

Obruni Chief

Rod McLaren, also known as Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen, is dressed in traditional regalia for a funeral. After moving from Canada to Ghana, he was given the esteemed title Nkosuohene. Picture supplied by Rod LcLaren.

Ghana is full of people who came to the country, fell in love with it and its people, and ended up staying.

Rod McLaren’s story is a little different. Like many others, his journey took him back and forth between Saskatchewan, Canada and Ghana, but he’s also received a distinctive accolade – Nkosuohene. He is now a chief in charge of the progress of roughly 200 villages.

After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with an English degree in 1971, a 23 year-old McLaren went to Ghana on a two-year teaching contract with the then Canadian University Service Overseas, a Canadian development organization.

“When I was nearing the end of my degree I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and the idea of working overseas appealed to me. I had no idea where I wanted to go, so when the posting came up for Ghana I just took it,” he said.

He finished his contract and headed back to Canada, but returned to Ghana for a couple weeks in 1976 to pick up his future wife and take her back to Canada. They soon were married and had three children while McLaren worked for First Nation’s communities, farmed, and even opened a hardware store.

In 2001 they sold their business and moved back to Ghana to open the African Rainbow Resort in Busua, on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in southern Ghana.

Three years later, an old friend and Asante chief approached McLaren to offer him the title of Nkosuohene. It is a relatively new position in the ancient tradition of the Akan Chieftaincy – the long-established power structure of the various Akan people that populate the area around Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The Chieftaincy is a pre-colonial institution of governance with judicial, legislative, and executive powers. “The chief of a village or a town was the leader, politically, spiritually, militarily, judicially. He spoke for his people, led them in battle, and heard the cases of his people,” explained McLaren.

Although the traditional chieftaincy is active only in history books in other countries, it exists alongside the presidential system as a parallel political structure in Ghana.

Its survival can be linked to the fact that while the neighboring countries were French colonies or protectorates, Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was British. Because of the British colonial system of “Indirect Rule,” they relied on chiefs and elders to help govern the Gold Coast and the chieftaincy survived.

When the Republic of Ghana was founded in 1957, because of the Chieftaincy’s historical and cultural significance, it was agreed that the chieftaincy system should be respected. Its relevance was again guaranteed in the 1992 constitution.

The chiefs work with sub-chiefs and elders to aid the development of their areas, making provisions for water, education, roads and other infrastructure. It is an especially important role in the more rural areas where the other government has less of a presence. Once a chief dies, the elders select a successor from the region’s old families. Although their role has somewhat diminished, chiefs remain hugely important and powerful people.

“The chief is assumed to be the embodiment of the ancestors. He embodies all his people and all the spirits of the people who have gone before,” explained McLaren.

The position of Nkosuohene was the brainchild of the Asantehene, the king of the Ghanaian Asante people, a sort of chief of chiefs. The Nkosuohene is a “sub-chief” responsible for the development of the region. The title was created to honour someone who does not have to be member of a royal family and is meant to bring in people from outside the area who have a different education and new ideas.

“He [the Asantehene] was trying to incorporate people who were not necessarily members of the royal but whose education and experience who could help the people develop,” said McLaren.

It is a lifetime appointment that comes with prestige but responsibility. Along with the title, McLaren was given the name “Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen.” He is charged with overseeing development in the Edubiase Traditional Area, an area comprised of about 200 villages in the Asante Region.

“There’s quite a difference in the expectations on the chiefs in the Asante Region opposed to others. The Asante take the position a lot more seriously and don’t give it out haphazardly,” he said.

The position has been challenging; there was a steep learning curve that he was responsible for overcoming on his own.

“I really thought I’d have a vigorous training and orientation, but I ended up doing almost everything myself,” he said.

He took an active role for the first five years after the appointment, appearing at various functions, attending funerals, meeting every 40 days, and applying for countless grants.

“I tried my best to find them funding, but the proposals have never really gone that far,” he said. “I don’t know if I deserved to get the position at all. Although I’ve worked hard at doing things, I’m not sure I can show any results that can justify the hope that people have had for me.”

However, there have been successes. He says the accomplishment he is most proud of was the successful establishment of a daycare.

Currently, he divides his time between Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Busua, Ghana.

Matilda sitting outside the Hare Krishna temple in Emina, Kumasi.

Searching for the man with biscuits

“This man continued giving us biscuits and bananas every day for close to two weeks. So it’s like he used that way to drag so many people. And we loved the man, so every day he [saw] us there singing and dancing, chanting “Hare Krishna” until he left my village and he told us he was going back to India.”

ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness): they base their teachings on ancient texts of Hinduism (traditional scriptures such as the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita). I’ve seen them on the streets of Montreal and New York chanting “Hare Krishna!” George Harrison was a member, and the mantras are heard in some of his music. This was, until recently, the extent of my knowledge about the movement.

On July 7, ISKCON celebrated Lord Jagannath’s Ratha Yatra. Hundreds of believers from all around West Africa met in Kumasi to honor deities, pray, feed the hungry and show the public their interpretation of ancient traditions as defined by their leader, the late Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Matilda is one of these believers. She hails from Nigeria, which has a similar religious demography to Ghana (Christian and Muslim majorities). Hare Krishna missionaries visited her village when she was ten years old.

Matilda sitting outside the Hare Krishna temple in Emina, Kumasi.

As she cheerfully told me about her search for the man with biscuits, my ears perked: is that a human rights abuse? Children are a vulnerable class, and this man lured her in with baked goods. However, dancing and sharing food can be a means of expressing Hare Krishna values.

After that man left, she found another member of the movement who welcomed her to the temple. When Matilda told her Christian family that she wanted to join the Hare Krishna, she faced resistance.

“I told my mother, she got mad. ‘If you go to that place again, I will stop taking you to school. In fact, you will no longer stay with me in this house, I will chase you away,’” she recollected. My ears perked again: is that a human rights abuse? Everyone should be able to practice religion with freedom and mobility.

Eventually, her mother accepted her beliefs. Matilda finished school, became a journalist and is now dedicated devotee.

“I’m more free in the Hare Krishna movement,” she said. “Even right now, if I go to Church, I won’t be free there… I don’t want to criticize or condemn, but I won’t be free there.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I initially set out to understand religious minority experiences (which I will do in a longer documentary form) with the expectation that they are subjugated by some members of the Christian and Muslim majorities. In my four days with the Hare Krishna devotees, I spoke to members, gurus and other spiritual leaders. I saw firsthand that religious rights aren’t black and white; even calling it a gray area is an oversimplification.

It is the same conundrum posed by religious schools and missionaries: what begins as an expression of human rights can sometimes violate the very principles that protect it, and it is difficult – but important – to define the boundary, particularly in secular states.

So where do we draw the line? I don’t know. I don’t expect to answer this question. If anything, I will likely have more questions, but an open discourse is critical to preventing human rights abuses.

I do have one answer: she never did find the man with biscuits. She is, however, continuing his work. As they chanted and danced through the streets, Matilda told me it brought back happy memories of the mystery man.

Matilda reminiscing at the Ratha Yatra Festival on July 7.

 

Development at a cost

Severe erosion in Amedeka.

When tourists visit Ghana they often say the Volta Region is a highlight of their trip. With its lush tropical vegetation and serene beaches to the south, it’s easy to see why the Volta makes such a strong impression on visitors.

But a trip to communities near the Kpong Dam, Ghana’s second largest hydro-electric power generation facility, quickly fades the Volta Region’s idyllic first impression.

When the dam was built in 1981 it displaced several nearby communities. The residents of Togorme and Amedeka, which occupy opposite banks of the Volta River, just south of the dam, feel it has caused more harm than good.

“We sacrificed the land for the construction of this dam but we are not the beneficiary of the dam,” says Christian Ananigo, Togorme’s assembly man.

Erosion has eaten away at the shoreline in both communities. Some buildings now find themselves near a precipice that could worsen if nothing is done to improve the situation.

To generate hydro-electric power water drives a turbine inside the dam and is then released through a spillway. When this happens, the water levels near Togorme and Amedeka can rise up to several metres. The result has been severe erosion.

Officials with the Volta River Authority (VRA), Ghana’s main generator and supplier of electricity, say the erosion in both communities is due to a wide variety of factors. “We can’t say that all erosion of the shorelines is due to our operations,” says Emmanuel Amelor, a manager with the VRA’s environment department. “All activities around the shoreline contribute very much [to erosion].”

VRA spokesperson Gertrude Koomson says they have worked hard to reclaim the shoreline through dredging activities and tree planting. “We have a huge budget for reforestation along the shoreline,” she says. “We are making sure that we don’t deplete the shoreline.”

Once you get past the shoreline the next thing that strikes visitors to Togorme and Amedeka is the poor state of the housing. Togorme was relocated when the Kpong Dam was built 31 years ago. The VRA provided housing for the community but many of the buildings have now fallen into disrepair.

“If you look at our buildings, when you see them they are deteriorating. Some of them are about to fall down,” says Ananigo.

But Francis Boateng, a manager with the VRA’s real estate department, says the houses are no longer the VRA’s responsibility and that maintenance should fall to the homeowners. “VRA has no obligation to refurbish those houses,” he says. “We have done our part. It is your duty to make sure that your house is in a good state of repairs, not VRA.”

Ebenezer Dzabaku, a native of Amedeka, has been critical of the VRA’s presence in the communities. In his recent book, The Volta River: Electric Power Generation and Poverty at the Crossroads, he outlines what he believes to be the VRA’s failure to properly assist the communities after the Kpong Dam was built. Dzabaku says the resettlement houses were built with poor materials, including mud bricks above the foundation. He says the VRA should still maintain the houses because they were not built to last.

Dzabaku says the VRA has also failed to properly compensate the residents of Togorme and Amedeka. “This is a national issue,” he says. “These are people who have sacrificed their livelihood, their whole lives, for the nation. We expect that the nation should make provisions for them.”

Boateng says the VRA has paid out GHC6 million, or about $3.1 million, to landowners surrounding the dam over the years. But Dzabaku says only the chiefs have benefited from the payouts, and the average resident has not seen any of the money.

Some MPs from the region have come out in support of Dzabaku and his fight for fair treatment in both communities. The author prefers to work with the VRA to solve the communities’ problems but others, such as Francis Quarcoo, secretary for the Amedeka Community Representative, say protests against the VRA will be needed for change.

Finding Accountability for Vehicle Safety

 

Passengers board tro-tro vans at Amakom traffic lights

Last weekend, on a mission to buy a pineapple, some friends and I walked to the “Amakom traffic lights” – a major intersection in my Kumasi neighbourhood, where street vendors line the sidewalks, children beg with vigor, and traffic moves at a dangerously quick pace. We bought the fruit from some young girls on the corner and watched the smaller ones play on the sidewalk while the eldest girl sliced it for us. We then crossed the street to a gas station, where I glanced out the window just in time to see a “tro-tro” minibus turn a corner at full speed and drive up onto the sidewalk through a crowd of people – right where we had been standing at the fruit stall. It fell back onto the road, still speeding, and stopped only when it hit a taxicab head-on.

Clearly, the vehicle’s brakes had failed. Less obvious was whether anyone had been injured – or killed.

According to Ghana’s National Road Safety Commission, or NRSC, the Ashanti Region experiences approximately 2000 traffic accidents every year, leading to nearly 500 deaths and thousands of injuries.  Many of these can be attributed to unsafe driving and human error. But many others, like the one I witnessed, are caused by unsafe vehicle conditions.

The United Nations has declared 2011–2020 the decade for Road Safety. Ghana was one of the resolution’s sponsors, but the country’s international commitment has not visibly translated into domestic practice. The government is developing a “National Road Safety Strategy,” expected to be finalized within the decade, but when I began looking into vehicle safety laws for an Ultimate Radio piece, the NRSC could not tell me of any solid action plan to improve vehicle safety on the ground.

[pullquote]”We have middlemen . . . if you go and approach them then they will do everything for you.”[/pullquote]

I learned that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, or DVLA, is responsible for inspecting vehicles and providing Road Worthiness certificates to safe ones. Commercial vehicle owners are expected to report to the DVLA with their cars every six months, where a license officer examines everything from headlights and electrical wiring to brake systems and tires. But according to Noah Martey, the DVLA Regional Assistant Officer for the Ashanti Region, problems can arise during the period between check-ups.

“Between the period of one month and six months,” he explained, “if the vehicle should have the sticker [certificate] on its windshield, and the car has gone rickety, or the vehicle has gone bad, we will not be able to get them until the road worthiness certificate expires and they are in again to have it renewed.”

Technically, the Motor Traffic and Transport Unit of the police is responsible for monitoring the road between check-ups and identifying unworthy vehicles, whether liscensed or not. But according to May Yeboah, the NRSC’s Director of Planning and Programs, there are not enough police officers on the roads to effectively complete this task.

Mr. Martey also noted the possibility that some vehicles retain illegitimate certificates. I spoke to some drivers in Kejetia market, and one of them, who also owned his tro-tro, shed some light on this issue:

“Sometimes, if the car’s condition is not good, I am not taking it to the DVLA, I will go there by foot,” he explained. “They ask me where is the car, but if you pay extra money there, they won’t ask for the car. We have middlemen over there . . . if you go and approach them then they will do everything for you,” he added.

Mr. Martey said that ultimately, the duty of maintaining road safe vehicles lies with the car owners, and encourages them to do the right thing when their cars break down.  Mrs. Yeboah, for her part, said “the DVLA, the police, all of us, we all have actions to take. . . but as we go through the decade, I’m sure we are all trying to address those challenges.”

I wonder what those next actions will be – and who will step up and take them. I think of the young girls playing on the corner last weekend and hope for their sake that Mrs. Yeboah’s words are true, that somebody will begin to address these challenges and take real responsibility for vehicle safety in Kumasi.