Category Archives: Photo Essays


“Lutte Traditionnelle:” a photo essay

I’ve never really done sports journalism, so I jumped at the opportunity to go to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Games in Accra from the 16 to the 22 of June, 2012. All ECOWAS members were invited to attend, but only eleven countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo) fielded teams.

The games brought together athletes under the age of 23 to compete in five disciplines: boxing, handball, volleyball, track and field, and traditional wrestling. Traditional wrestling, often called “lutte traditionnelle” because it is most common in French-speaking West-African countries, is often described as West Africa’s oldest sport and has been around for thousands of years. This year the host Ghanaians fielded a wrestling team for the first time, but were swiftly defeated. Although they dominated many of the Games’ other events, the Ghanaians lost to Cote d’Ivoire three matches to two, and then lost to both Benin and Burkino Faso by a score of 5-0.

Each county’s traditional technique differs slightly, but since the 1950s they have been assimilated into one form, making international competition possible. The two fighters compete in a circular ring enclosed by sand bags. As with Olympic free-style and Greco-Roman wrestling, the goal of traditional wrestling is to take your opponent down to the mat. If an opponent is knocked off their feet, the match is over.

Lutte traditionnelle is Senegal’s national sport and, for Senegalese competitors, it is both a physical and spiritual exercise.

“They do the spiritual aspects of it to aid them and help them win their fight. Without [the spiritual elements], they don’t believe it is a traditional fight,” said Daouda Diagna, a member of team Senegal, speaking through a translator.

The Senegalese competitors can be seen looking through a hollowed out bone to “see their future,” as well as dousing themselves with “magic water” before a match.

“They put sand and colours and some other thing in the bottles [of magic water]. The mixture has been sanctified through prayers and they pour it on themselves,” explained Daouda Diagna.

“The wrestling is something very important for everyone in our country. We all love it, even more than football,” he added.

The 2nd biannual ECOWAS games were held at the Accra Sports Stadium from the 16 to the 22 of June, 2012.

Before the fight, Senegalese competitors douse themselves with bottles of “magic water” that have been sanctified through prayer.

A Senegalese competitor observes his teammate’s fight. In line with tradition, he occasionally lifts a hollow bone to his eye to look through.

Three referees officiate the fight. There is one in the ring, and two that sit along the edge.

“The wrestling is something very important for everyone in our country. We all love it, even more than football.”

Habibou Idi of Niger and N’diaye Papa Diabel of Senegal embrace each other in sportsmanship after the fight.

The Burkina Faso coach comforts a competitor after a loss.

Omar Diouane, a competitor from Senegal, celebrates winning the 75 kg weight category while his opponent walks out of the ring.

Athletes and spectators dance in celebration of a Burkina Faso victory.




Meet the Tognis: Las familia Circo

Yecid’s clothes don’t fit him quite right, his shoes are four sizes too large, his left wrist sometimes pops out of place and it always aches with arthritis. The mangled joint is a painful reminder of a fall he suffered at work. At the same job he’s had more than forty years, where every night his employer beats him and a gathered crowd of spectators applaud his humiliation.

This may seem exploitative, but Yecid has passion for a craft he hopes others find silly. He’s a clown in the Darix Togni Italian National Circus. His employer is the tiger-tamer and both say the Circus is more than work, it is a culture, a family and a lifestyle they will perpetuate.

“When you are born into it (the circus). It is a part of you, it’s in your blood,” Yecid says. He sits on a concrete park bench between two temporary alligator ponds. He’s forty-five and at this point has done every job under the big top. In addition to clown duties he is also the crew’s chief animal wrangler and makes nightly cameos with the trapeze act. “The circus gives me joy, I live for the adventure.”

 This clown’s nomadic path began at birth in a caravan in Venezuela. His father was a trapeze artist and his mother dazzled audiences with graceful precision on the aerial silks (aka ribbon trapeze). “Her performance was the most beautiful,” he says, pausing a moment to wipe nostalgic tears from his face. “All eyes in the crowd were on her. It inspired me.”

As a toddler, he takes his first steps into the performance ring. The act is child- clown, but by five he is on the trapeze and in his teens he is seen on television screens across South America.

“I became famous, people in the streets of towns I’d never walked knew my name.” Yecid’s performance is an rigorous display of refined acrobatics executed above the heads of frenzied fans. During one of these spectacles his hand slips. Momentum carries him outside the net while gravity brings him down with force. He attempts to break his fall but his left arm shatters on impact. The accident leaves him with broken ribs, bruises and an arm no longer capable of strenuous trapeze maneuvers.

The last moments before showtime are critical. Backstage is an open-air yard fortified by strategically placed shipping containers, fences and temporary animal enclosures where five tigers, two alligators and one kangaroo watch the performer’s final preparations. A group of men converse in Spanish and Italian. They spin wrenches, tell jokes and fine tune the motorcycles used in the “Globe of death” act. Circo showgirls Astrid, Alessandra and Alissa plume their head-dresses while others gather around an octagonal pedestal beneath a canopy. Vera, a Brazilian acrobat, goes through a yogic stretch routine while Mongolian contortionists Inga and Tsatsral apply shimmered eye make-up to their faces.

Martina, a blonde Italian clown, and Ali, the resident mystic, sit on the edge of the octagon. The pair are already painted and take a few moments to entertain a baby while the child’s parents prepare. The infant is the seventh generation of Togni to travel with the circus. His parents are Francisco, the strong man, and Elis Togni, the solo trapeze artist.

“It’s an extended family,” says Elis, in a pleasant maternal voice. “We look out for each other, help each other.” She scans the group of artists gathered before her, “I know if I need help with the baby they are here. And they know they are safe and protected. If an outsider caused a problem it would be handled.”

The family patriarch is tiger-tamer and master of ceremonies Davio Togni. He and his brother Livio, a former Italian National Senator, keep a watchful eye over the circus and its naturalized offspring. This family tradition descends from a legendary Italian performer.

“In Milan, Darix Togni is synonymous with Circus,” says trapeze artist Daniel Togni, while reviewing the playlist for the night’s performance. He is the son of Davio, brother of Elis and heir apparent. “Darix was the first man in Italy to master the art of animal taming.” Daniel never met his famous ancestor, but the family moniker has defined much of his life. From youth, he studied circus performance in Italy, and the United States where his mother works as a costume supervisor for Cirque de Soleil. “Traveling with the circus is never boring,” he says.

It has been forty-four years since the Togni family last appeared in Ghana. Times have changed, and the entertainment market is unforgiving. In the interval several major circuses closed their tents permanently. However, the Togni’s continue to electrify their audience. At times the journey takes them into exotic, conflicted, and dangerous territory. In 2009, the circus was nearly stolen in Iran when an opportunist sponsor used the Twitter Revolution as an excuse to keep their tent and everything in it. They were forced to escape on a late night cargo ship organized by Uncle Livio and spent the next year entertaining a mysterious Oil Sheik in Qatar.

The Togni family owns a three uniquely arranged circuses. “When we come to places like this (Ghana) we bring the small circus. This is most peoples first time, so they are still amazed by the traditional acts.” The family business is headquartered in Lombardy, Italy. Their home-base is a large compound house on a ranch where family, friends, performers, giraffes, elephants and tigers are a welcome and common. But many of these performers haven’t seen home in years. Constant travel can weigh heavily on group dynamics and mileage with animals, artists and loads of burdensome equipment can revert to utter chaos.

Patriarch and animal trainer Davio, has a substantial scar on his abdomen. When asked how he got it he is quick to redirect the discussion. His son Daniel is more willing to tell the story. “He didn’t get it from the tigers,” he says with a laugh. The wound was left by one of two Brazilian brothers, once a part of the Togni’s circus. “It was the moto-boys. They were with the circus a while but they were drunkards,” says Daniel. “One night, they got drunk and one punched up his girlfriend’s face (a fellow performer- name withheld),” says Daniel, shifting to a serious tone. “My Father was teaching him a lesson when the other brother stabbed him.” He says, thrusting his right arm in front of him. “They took off and left my father with the knife still in him.”

Davio bled profusely but retained consciousness and enough strength to secure medical attention. The brothers fled to the nearest Brazilian embassy, leaving their bikes and other articles behind. The incident left the Togni family’s leader in hospital, a female artist unable to perform and no-one able to execute the final act. Rather than shut the tent, the crew rallied together. The Wonderboys, a pair of juggling, tight rope walkers from Colombia decided to give the Globe of Death a shot. By the time Davio was released the pair had mastered the act and perform it nightly ever since. “This is the way in the circus,” says Daniel.

Now, Yecid has performed with the Togni family’s circus for more than two years and his clowning has brought smiles to international faces of all ages. He sleeps backstage in a shipping crate cluttered with over-sized wardrobe changes, prop jokes and other more banal necessities of life. He has five children of his own, all in Venezuela, some in the circus and others who are not. “It is their decision, I would never force them into this life. But they know it is the only life for me.”

The Togni’s “Il Florigielo” Circus Ghana tour has been extended. The big top will continue to host shows six nights a week in Accra’s Children’s Park opposite National Theatre until May 20th.


Down the road to BASCO

Vida sits in a scratched wooden chair beneath the only coconut tree in a clearing. She has a series of line scars next to her eyes and mouth, three sets of four, twelve marks in all. “I got them from my mother,” she says. “When I was a baby I was sick she gave me them to keep me healthy.”

The fifteen year-old is outgoing, pretty and popular amongst her classmates at the Baptist School Complex and Orphanage (BASCO). “I was only a small girl when I came here. I don’t remember who brought me,” she says. But her eyes convey a knowing sadness as she speaks of the past. She made the trip here a decade ago, up a rugged and isolated path cut through dense jungle brush. Many children have walked the same path since.

Pastor Victor is BASCO’s director. He is tall, dressed all in white with gold trim and refers to the students as his children. He says he remembers Vida’s first day, “we didn’t even have buildings yet. Taught the classes standing under the shade of cocoa trees.” He says Vida had to overcome several challenges. “When she got here she would never talk. For two years she would never say anything. Just a sobbing little girl. She would eat sometimes but she didn’t trust anyone yet. It was so serious you could see she had been traumatized,” says the pastor.

“I wasn’t scared just sad sometimes when I would think of my mother,” says Vida. She shrinks in her chair, stares at the ground and drags lines in the sand with her feet. It is clear she is uncomfortable with the topic.

“Her father died in an accident and her mother was murdered in front of her not long after. Her family thought she was a bad omen. Strange where people find Satan,” says Pastor Victor.

The sobbing little girl is now a young woman and well adjusted survivor. Her development is paralleled by the institution’s. She is one of many success stories in a facility that now feeds and houses eighty-six children and educates more than two- hundred. The schools budget is stretched thin but the staff has developed ingenious methods of assuring students are well taken care of. The compound has evolved to include classrooms,dormitories, washroom facilities, a kitchen, health centre, computer lab and their most recent project, a snail and pig farm.
“The farm will help make us sustainable and self-sufficient,” says Pastor Victor, while examining the wooden boxes filled with snails. “We want to use the money to help our older children continue their education,” says Victor. “We plan on offering vocational training here soon, but these kids have the potential to be anything they want. All they need is funding.” Currently, BASCO is dependent on the donations of benevolent individuals and agencies. The school teaches students between the ages of four and fifteen. Vida is studying for the last round of the final exams the school has capacity for. She wants to be a medical doctor and dreams of a future unimaginable when she took her first steps under the shade of BASCO’s cocoa trees.

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

Students responding to questions from the audience following their exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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