Category Archives: IYIP Rights Media Internships

Health Services Workers Union makes inroads in Ghana

Abu Kuntulo holds PSI's Trade Union Award 2011

In Ghana fewer than 10 per cent of workers belong to a trade union. While the minimum wage has almost doubled since 2008, at 4.48 Ghana cedis per day, or about $2.54,  it remains low by international standards.

Many workers—especially the large number of farmers in the rural regions—don’t even make the minimum wage because 90 per cent of the country’s workforce is informal.

But if you ask Yaw Baah, the deputy secretary general of the Ghana Trades Union Congress, the West African nation has a good union environment. It only needs more workers to be part of the fold.

“Since 1992 things have changed for everyone,” says Baah, referring to the year Ghana enacted its current constitution. “We have the freedom to outreach. In some countries union members get killed because they try to negotiate a good deal for their members. It doesn’t happen in Ghana.”

It is in that environment that the Health Services Workers’ Union (HSWU), winner of Public Services International’s Public Service (PSI) Trade Union Award 2011, has managed to make solid gains in the areas of migration, salaries and retirement benefits. PSI is a global trade union federation that brings together 650 unions in 148 countries.

“It’s an exemplary union with stable leadership,” says David Dorkenoo, PSI regional secretary for Africa. “Other unions are actually learning from them.”

The HSWU represents about 16,500 paramedics and support staff who work in Ghana’s government hospitals. Workers in the country’s Christian and Muslim hospitals also fall under the union’s umbrella.

The union was founded in 1966 after the government at the time dissolved the Health and General Hospital Workers Union, which encompassed all of Ghana’s health workers.

“[The union was] so strong that the government could not withstand the demands of the workers,” says Abu Kuntulo, the HSWU’s general secretary.

The doctors, nurses and paramedics each split up forming their own associations.

In recent years the HSWU has worked with other public sector unions in Ghana, including the nurses and doctors, to improve the country’s single spine salary structure for public service employees. The new salary structure, first instituted in 2010, normalizes salaries based on a person’s qualifications. A paramedic with five years experience in the northern city of Tamale, for instance, makes the same as a colleague with the same qualifications in the capital of Accra.

When the single spine salary structure was first introduced it had a lot of kinks to work out.

“As of now no one can actually say that he is satisfied [with the pay structure],” says Daniel York, the HSWU’s industrial relations officer for the Greater Accra Region. York says a lot of the problems come down to a lack of clarity. “At the moment nobody can actually tell you this is my salary at the end of the month,” he says.

The single spine salary structure has 25 pay scales. Through negotiations with the government the HSWU was able to ensure that all of its members would not start lower than the fifth level.

Ghana’s public sector workers were able to negotiate for an overall increase of 18 per cent to the new pay structure in 2010. In 2011 that amount was increased by an additional 20 per cent and they have achieved another 18 per cent increase in 2012.

“The reason we have managed to obtain all these increases is because we negotiate as one body,” says Baah. “That has given us some strength that we could not imagine.”

Baah says one of his friends, who has been a teacher for 18 years, was able to save money for the first time in 2011. He falls under the single spine salary structure.

With representation across Ghana, the HSWU has had to face a fair number of challenges. Kuntulo says the union’s biggest challenge at the moment is reaching workers who may be apathetic or misinformed about the union’s work.

Caroline Boateng, a HSWU member who works in registration at the Civil Service Polyclinic in Accra, says she does not see much from the union apart from the monthly deductions to her paycheque from union dues. “I’ve paid the money and I’ve not benefited.”

But Boateng says the switch to the single spine salary structure has been better than what she received before. “But it should be best,” she says.

Kuntulo says he and his team are working on improving communication at all levels. “We need effective communication, not at the national level, not at the regional level, but at the branch level,” he says.

Baah says that Ghana’s unionized workers, who work in the formal sector, generally have a better quality of life than people who work in the informal sector. Most union members, for example, make more than the country’s minimum wage.

For Kuntulo, winning PSI’s Public Service Trade Union Award just means the HSWU has more work to do to live up to its international reputation. He says the key to that success is teamwork and hard work. “We have sleepless nights,” he says.

Ghanaian women in media

Margaret Adongo is a love doctor.

Margaret Adongo giving an interview

And not only because the 27-year-old got married two months ago.

Adongo is the popular host of Fiila FM’s “Real Love” and one of the few female radio personalities in Tamale, Ghana.

Yet, for Adongo it wasn’t an easy rise to radio fame.

“Women in the north aren’t always being recognized,” says Adongo. “We should be treated equally. Privileges should be given for women to express themselves.”

To succeed in media, women must be confident and able to take criticism, says Adongo.

“I see myself as a man,” says Adongo. “I am too tough … I don’t allow people to sit on my interests. I do what I want to do.”

Adongo is the closest you get to a media celebrity in Tamale. During our conversation at a busy restaurant, she is approached repeatedly by friends and acquaintances. She says her status as an on-air personality sometimes gets her special treatment at Tamale Polytechnic, where she’s studying accountancy.

As far as Adongo is concerned, she was destined to be a broadcaster.

“In primary school, when they asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up I said I wanted to be a newsreader,” she says.

After reading announcements for two years at Fiila, Adongo making the jump to newsreader and talk show host. She credits her success to the station’s manager, Akosua Kwartemaa.

“[Margaret] has grown over the years to be a good presenter,” says Kwartemaa. “I helped her so much because she listens. She learns.”

Adongo’s show combines an hour with romantic music with an hour talk show, discussing topics like healthy marriages and cheating spouses. “Real Love” airs weekly on Thursday at 10 p.m. until midnight.

Kwartemaa knows the challenges of being a woman working in media. A working mother, Kwartemas’s son and daughter obediently sit in Fiila’s lobby, as they wait to be taken home.

But, Kwartemaa is confident that women’s roles in media are changing for the better.

“Generally in Africa, women are perceived to be relegated to the background,” she says. “Women — in Africa, in Ghana — are being very vocal. We feel, what a man can do, we can do and even do it better.”

Kwartemaa recognizes her role in fostering Adongo, saying female role models are important.

“The young ones, they want someone to look up to,” says Kwartemaa. “The girls feel it is a male-dominated job, because most of the presenters are men. At least if [the women] are here, it urges them on.”

Kwartemaa’s daughter, Kristiana, 3, plays with her socks in the radio station’s lobby. Kwartemaa says if her daughter shows an interest, she’ll encourage her to pursue radio.

“I want to encourage women in particular …” she says. “Be bold and go for it.”

This is the first blog in a series about Ghanaian women in media. Check back soon for the second installment.

Ghanaian women march to promote peaceful elections

An audio slideshow of 40 women marching for peaceful elections in Tamale, Ghana

On International Women’s Day, 40 women in Tamale, Ghana marched to promote peaceful elections. The paraded the streets of the city, holding signs promoting their cause. They were addressed by Tamale mayor Alhaji Abdulai Haruna Friday. The event was sponsored by the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding and the Swedish International Development Agency.

Photos by Robin McGeough and Gwyneth Dunsford.
Audio by Gwyneth Dunsford.

Female tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi.  Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Exploitation of Malawi’s tobacco tenants

Children tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Eletina Mwale has worked on several tobacco estates since 1985. Currently, she works on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi.

“I have been in several farms from Kasungu to the northern region. We meet a lot of problems. The water is bad, our children do not go to school and we live very far from hospitals,” said Mwale.

The most difficult conditions lie amongst the women who work and live on the farms. Mwale said often women are forced to sleep with the estate owner’s for money, food, transport.

“What other choice do we have? We are poor. We have nothing,” she said.

Being exploited and abused, tobacco tenants in central Malawi are grossly underpaid, deprived of medical insurance, and have no choice but to work without contracts under dire working conditions.

With none or little education, money and especially with no other employment, tobacco tenants earn around 200 kwacha ($1.25 CDN) per day. Food and health care are sometimes subtracted from their wages.

In Malawi 200 kwacha can buy vegetables and low-grade fruits. The amount of food a tobacco farmer can afford can hardly sustain their families. Most live with extended families, usually in a small one-room hut made of mud and straw.

As they salvage whatever income they can find to support their families, these tenants suffer at the hands of the tobacco estate owners – some of whom sit before Malawi’s National Assembly, say activists.

Malawi’s Centre for Social Concern (CFSC) is a non-government organization that has taken part in advocating against the exploitation and abuse of tobacco tenants.

Female tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Father Bill Turnbull, the acting director of CFSC said they have been lobbying for the Tenancy Labor Bill, which was drafted in 1995 to regulate tenancy labour by clarifying the rights and obligations of estate owners and tenants – a solution to demolish the exploitation.

Turnbull said the bill would be beneficial for both tobacco tenants and estate owners.

“For tenants, he or she will have a written contract. Same goes for the estate owners; they will know exactly where they stood with what is going on,” said Turnbull.

It’s been 17 years since the proposal of the bill and it has yet to pass in parliament. The CFSC argues that the delay is most likely caused by the vested interests.

However, the Minister of Labour, Dr. Lucious Kanyumba, denies such interests.

“It was proposed during the United Democratic Front (UDF) regime. I cannot be in a position to answer why it is taking so long to pass the bill, but you have to appreciate that this Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has fought for this Bill to be considered,” said Kanyumba.

Meanwhile, Goodall Gondwe, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment is known to own a tobacco farm in Lilongwe, Malawi called, Nzanzi Estate. Gondwe claims that living conditions are seemingly better on his estate, and although he said a wage of 171 kwacha ($1.08 CDN) per day is not a sufficient income for a tobacco worker, the laborers on his tobacco estate are, in fact, paid 171 kwacha per day.

In addition, minimum wage in Malawi is 178 kwacha ($1.12 CDN) per day. Gondwe’s workers make under the minimum wage amount.

Many non-government organizations that advocate change remain optimistic that the bill will pass in parliament.

Clash over gay rights in Accra

Gay rights have been pushed to the forefront in Accra after a group of young men, allegedly armed with canes, cutlasses, stones and broken bottles attacked party-goers in the neighbourhood of James Town on Sunday, March 11.

“They beat some of our lady friends who were not able to run,” says Hillary, a 27 year-old gay man who uses the alias to protect his identity. “They beat them, took their phones and money and striped them naked.”

Hillary and his friends took refuge with a local NGO called FIDA and Accra’s Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit.

The Ga-Mashie Youth for Change, the group that crashed the party, claims the gathering was really a wedding ceremony between two women. “We invaded the place with the intention of stopping them but did not to hurt anyone or beat them,” says Daniel Wettey, coordinator with the youth group. “We want to register our feelings against [homosexuality].”

But Hillary and other gay members of the community have left the neighbourhood fearing for their lives.

In Ghana religion, especially Christianity and Islam, dominate the social discourse. As in most African countries, homosexuality is a taboo frowned upon by most and strongly opposed by others.

In November 2011, Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, said he would never support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in the country. He was responding to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to cut foreign aid to countries that do no respect gay rights.

Under Ghana’s laws homosexual acts are illegal if they are performed “in public or with a minor.” The country’s criminal code uses vague language when it refers to sexual misdemeanors. It reads:  “Whoever is guilty of unnatural carnal knowledge— (a) of any person without his consent, is guilty of first degree felony; (b) of any person with his consent, or of any animal, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

While Ghana’s constitution protects a person’s human rights “whatever his race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, religion, creed or gender,” it makes no mention of sexual orientation.

Nana Oye Lithur, executive director of Ghana’s Human Rights Advocacy Centre, says she was surprised when she first heard about the attack in James Town. “We have three generations of gays and lesbians in that community,” she says.

Hillary says the Human Rights Advocacy Centre was one of the few human rights groups in Accra that stood up for him and his friends after the attack.

Lithur filed a complaint with the police, but says they have been slow to respond. A police investigator told her he wanted to engage with the community before pressing any charges. She also approached the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice; an independent body set up by Ghana’s government to protect human rights, but was turned away. “They said they were in a meeting and that we should come back Monday,” she says.

“Why can’t the law protect us?” Hillary asks in frustration. “We are all Ghanaians and we all have rights that must be protected.”

Superstition has contributed to the prejudices against gay people in James Town. “[Homosexuality] isn’t something good,” says Comfort Quartey, a 32 year-old resident of the neighbourhood who says she was once a lesbian. “It draws people back and it gives bad luck. When something good is coming your way it hinders it.”

Hillary disagrees. “They can’t tell us that we are bringing bad luck,” he says. “What about those sleeping with other people’s wife? Are they bringing good luck to the community? Are we the ones who tell them to impregnate people? They should stop putting the blame on us and they should wake up from their slumbers and get themselves busy with something. We work for our money so they should also get up and go and find themselves something to do.”

The Ga-Mashie Youth for Change sent a petition to James Town’s police commander to go on a demonstration against “sodomy and lesbianism” in the community. The petition reads in part: “With the recent trends of sodomy and lesbianism eating into the moral fiber of the Ga Mashie community, we the youth for change in the community wishes [sic] to create awareness of immorality of such acts and demonstrate peacefully against such acts throughout the Principal Street of the Ga-Mashie community.”

The protest is planned for Friday March 30 at Mantse Agbonaa Park in Accra.

Lithur says Ghana’s institutions need to take a stand to protect the rights of homosexuals. “Government needs to reduce homophobia,” she says. “It is not about legalizing homosexuality. I believe it’s about understanding issues related to homosexuality. Whether we like it or not we have homosexuals living in Ghana.”


Mphatso Banda's shows off the bullet wound he got at a protest in Lumbadzi, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Victims of Malawi’s bloody protest speak

July 21, 2011 was an unruly day in Lumbadzi, Malawi – a violent protest paraded through the streets. While some citizens were using the protest to loot shops and pelt stones at police officers, many innocent people were injured.

“I started to run, but I felt numbness in my left foot. I realized that there was a lot of blood and I was told that I was shot,” said 16-year-old Stanley Zacharia, who said he was shot in the foot by police following the demonstration against corrupt governance charges.

The violent protest left 20 people dead and over 200 people injured.

It has been over seven months since the occurrence and families of surviving victims have yet to receive answers, advice or assistance from any organization.

Mphatso Banda's shows off the bullet wound he got at a protest in Lumbadzi, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

“I rushed to the scene and when I got there I saw my boy was lying in a pool of blood. He couldn’t walk or sit. The blood was oozing so much,” said Albert Zacharia, who described the day when he thought his son, Stanley, was going to die.

Zacharia wasn’t the only 16-year-old to be shot during the July demonstration. Mphatso Banda, who was on the verge to play for Malawi’s national under-17 soccer team, now lives with a bullet in his leg. He was also shot by a police officer. He said he wasn’t a threat to police, but rather he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I was coming back from the trading centre and that’s where I was shot. In fact, I didn’t even know I was shot until someone told me,” said Mphatso.

A lot of money was spent on hospital bills. While Zacharia is left with two broken toes and a wound that may cause infection, Mphatso was told by doctors at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe that resources for his recovery would be readily available at a hospital in South Africa. However, due to the lack of financial means, he cannot afford to pay for his full recovery.

There has been financial compensation to families who have lost loved ones, but those left with permanent injuries like Stanley and Mphatso have not received any compensation.

During a 2012 New Year’s speech, Malawi police chief Peter Mukhito admitted that the police force did not have adequate equipment to handle July’s demonstration. Rather than using rubber bullets, the police used real bullets.

Davie Chingwalu, the national spokesperson for the Malawi police said cases like Zacharia’s are still being investigated.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission is a government organization that investigates cases in which police may have caused unnecessary injuries. John Kapito, the chairperson of the MHRC said during their investigation, they did discover the injustice on both Stanley’s and Mphatso’s cases. He said their next step is to determine what action should follow.

The human rights activists who organized the July 21 demonstration, among others, have been paying tribute to families of people whose lives were lost during the violent protest. MacDonald Sembereka, the national coordinator of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, was one of the many who organized the demonstration and said there are legal actions that victims can initiate.

“We are looking at legal address for them. We know who shot them and they are liable to sue the government in this circumstance. We want them to take this to court,” said Sembereka.

Albert Zacharia, Stanley’s father, worries about the lack of action taken by these organizations that are forefront of the investigations.

“Who do I blame? Should I blame the government, the civil society, should I blame myself? Should I blame the boy? There are no answers to these questions. At the moment, I need assistance in figuring out what should be the next step,” he said.

The children of Zion Bata

A young member of the Zion Bata church lies on the floor covering her ears. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

The children of Kachitsa Village, a small village of 1,000 in the northern outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, are adamant about their religious beliefs. Mention God and their shy, soft-spoken demeanor converts to self-assurance and poise.

These children are members of a church called Zion Bata which preaches that prayer is the only effective method for healing the sick.

“Since I was born I have never had any drugs,” says 10-year-old Rezina Emphraim “It would therefore be wrong if I had any vaccination because we made a promise to God that we will never take medicine.”

All members of the Zion Bata church, including 600 children, are forbidden access to modern medical care. Those who do seek treatment for sickness are heavily judged and ultimately kicked out of the  community.

For the children of Kachitsa, their parents’ decision to join Zion Bata has influenced every aspect of their lives.

“When a child is born, we give him blessed water first before he takes anything of this world,” says Mrs. Chigona, the community midwife who would only give her last name “He is blessed first and then he can be breastfed.”

Some members of Zion Bata have never spoken to the media before, largely because their beliefs are highly controversial in Malawi.

In 2011, when the Malawian government made the measles vaccination mandatory, health officials visited the village and found not a child in sight. It was later discovered that they ran away to a nearby mountain to avoid any wrongdoing.

“If I took drugs, it would be a sin against God,” says 13-year-old Enelesi Haswel, “It is not right that I should receive any medicine.”

To an outsider, it seems like the strong commitment to the church is governed by a fear of relinquishment. But the leader of church, Inspector Jamieson Ofesi, says that members have free choice to take medicine.

“If a person has little faith, he can use drugs. We do not prevent them from taking drugs. But if they do [take drugs] we excommunicate them because we know that they do not have faith.”

According the World Health Organization, 110 out of every 1,000 children born in Malawi will die before the age of five.  And for every eight that die, one will be the result of a preventable disease such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, or measles. Which prompts the question: Can the children of Katchitsa risk never seeing a doctor?

The physical appearance of the kids in this village is a testimony to the effects of prohibited healthcare.

The majority of them have scars, wounds or ring worms, and sitting in on the Sunday service is like sitting in a hospital waiting room. Young infants have worrying chesty coughs comparable to adults with bronchitis.

Malawian authorities have done little for the children of Zion Bata because the grey area between freedom of religion and the rights of the child is not yet defined.

Malawi practices religious tolerance, but children’s rights are a fairly recent phenomenon. The country only passed its first comprehensive act on child protection in 2010. Known as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, Article 80 states that “no person shall subject a child to a social or customary practice that is harmful to the health and general development of the child”.  Those found in breach of the article will land 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, no arrests under this act have been made at Zion Bata.

Grace Malera is the executive secretary of the Malawian Human Rights Commission, and she admits to facing difficulties in taking a proactive stance toward investigating whether the children are severely suffering due to their parents’ personal choices.

“A matter like this one needs further and comprehensive research because that kind of research will enable to us to generate evidence which could then in turn inform relevant policy and program interventions.” Says Malera

For child’s rights activists like George Kayange, who is the founder of the Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre, the central focus is the government’s role as a duty-bearer who has ratified the UN convention of the rights of the child.

“Government must take action in terms of ensuring that the best interests of the child – as enshrined in the convention – are being guaranteed,” Kayange says.

“It’s unfortunate that in many developing countries people use religion and culture as an excuse for violating other people’s rights, including children.”

With files from Teresa Ndanga

Radio waves inspire change in Malawi

Violet Banda presenting a Radio Timveni program. Photo courtesy of Timveni

Violet Banda is not your average 21-year-old.

A poised, confident and outspoken child rights activist, Banda personifies the power of radio in Malawi.

Born to a family of five children, Banda is the only female and the only child to have contracted HIV from her mother who succumbed to AIDS when Banda was just three years old.

“When I found out I was positive, I was in primary school,” says Banda, “Whenever I would tell people about my status it happened that I lost all my friends. Some didn’t want to be near me or touch me. They just ran away. “

HIV/AIDs is the leading cause of death in Malawi, and Banda says the stigma she faced growing up is a common reality for the half a million AIDS orphans in the country.

For Banda personally, the discrimination affected her ability to perform at school, as well as her relationship with her family.

“It felt like they should do their own thing, and I should find other friends in the world”

But all of this changed when Banda turned 15, and was invited to speak publicly about her experiences on a children’s radio show run by a local NGO called Timveni.

Phillip Kamwendo is the programs manager at Timveni, a media project which focuses on children’s rights and creates space for children to anonymously tell stories about the issues that affect them. He recalls the first time Banda came on air.

“Her grandmother could not accept that she was HIV-positive until she came on our radio program,” Kamwendo says, “She told her story and how she feels, and her grandmother was listening. Afterwards, she changed her mindset towards her granddaughter.”

That wasn’t the only difference in Banda’s life.

Following her radio debut, she became a youth reporter for the project, where she’s enjoyed success in highlighting violence and abuse against children. Many of her stories grapple with issues like rape, child labour and forced marriages – and her work has often had a positive and immediate impact on local government policy.

“I once interviewed this girl who was raped by her teacher and had dropped out of school,” Banda says. When we brought her on the radio, the ministry of education took action. They fired the teacher and the girl returned to her studies.”

Banda along with her many Timveni colleagues are from humble beginnings. In Malawi, 80 per cent of the population lives in rural settings where electricity, clean water, and money are scarce. One form of entertainment for the rural masses is the radio, particularly so-called “listening clubs” where community members huddle around a battery-powered radio to hear a show of interest.

According to a national survey, 96 per cent of the population uses radio as their primary source of information. With such a large audience, it’s no surprise that organizations across the country are investing in listening clubs because of their influence in even the most marginalized communities.

Similar to Timveni, Story Workshop is a non-profit organization which produces dramatic portrayals of real-life human rights scenarios on-air. They sponsor 60 listening clubs and use the feedback they receive to inspire new content and measure their impact.

In addition, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) recently donated radios to 30 clubs across the country, while smaller NGO’s like Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre (CRIDOC) are hoping to do the same, provided they can get the funds.

For Banda, radio not only improved the quality of her life, but it also opened the doors to experiences she never thought possible. As a child rights activist she has travelled the world, and just last year, she gave a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. She maintains that the mass medium is the cheapest, most effective tool for change.

“It is the only key to awareness in Malawi” she says.

In Malawi when ‘Life’ gets tough, it gets banned

Saturday night in Blantyre and the drinks are flowing at Mustang Sally’s, a fluorescent bar with a swimming pool centerpiece frequented by ex-pats and a new generation of young Malawians who have money.  The laptop DJ plays LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” for the eighth time of the night.

No longer under the strict censuring control of one-party-state president Hastings Kamuza Banda, Malawian airwaves have opened up to music that in the 20th century remained an unknown.  In the years following the country’s first multi-party elections in 1994, the Malawian music industry has diversified, with Malawian artists more free to perform traditional, gospel and reggae-inspired sounds, and some images and styles even being scavenged from sexually provocative, explicitly violent and drug-saturated music on  stations such as  MTV.

Today Malawians can praise any God, they can even party rock, but if you ask Lucius Banda they still can’t protest.

Lucius Banda, the first Malawian musician to use his platform to protest government. Photo submitted.

The first musician to sing openly against political oppression in Malawi during the decades of one-party rule, Banda says growing up in absolute poverty and amid systemic social injustice inspired him to “make sure there’s an alternative voice from the government.”

“Coming from a broken family living in absolute poverty, life was difficult,” remembers Banda.  “We had to go to the Catholic mission houses to clean toilets to pay for school fees.  After we’d paid that, we’d go to school, and then if the president was visiting your area you had to raise money to give him as a gift.

“We couldn’t afford that and so we wouldn’t be allowed in class, maybe for two or three weeks.  It was like getting candy from a grandchild,” he says.  “I don’t forget that.”

In the 1980s Banda began his music career singing gospel songs as part of the Alleluya Band, but eventually branched out on his own to produce music that would “sensitize people to regain their conscience.”

“I didn’t like singing love songs,” he says.  “I talked about injustices, the suffering of the people, that was my main concern.”

In 1993 Banda released his first solo album titled “Makolo”.  The single “Mabala” which means “wounds” was critical of the ruling Kamuzu Banda regime, which he said afflicted pain on those already living in absolute poverty.

In 2001 when then-UDF chairman and President Bakili Muluzi attempted a third term, Banda released the song “How Long.”

“I did a lot of songs rebuking [Muluzi],” Banda says.  “Why should we have become a friend of Mugabe and others who were clinging to power?”

In 2005 he released the album “Enemy (of the State)” where he criticized current president Bingu wa Mutharika for quitting the UDF party that had ushered him into power to seek re-election as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate instead, and in 2006 and 2008 he released the albums “Survivor” and “Freedom” respectively with messages meant for Mutharika: “We’ll survive you” and “You will see when people realize the truth.”

But in 2011 his latest album of protest music and its title track “Life” attracted negative attention from the Malawi Censorship Board and a ban by the Malawi Broadcasting Company (MBC).  Now that his music is banned from Malawian radio stations, Banda says Section 35 of the Malawi Constitution has failed him and that without free expression the music industry is “harsh” in Malawi.

“You can’t criticize people who are in positions where you put them with your vote,” he says.  “They say, ‘Stay quiet as I’m sitting on your money’ at a time when we don’t have a strong opposition and [Malawians] are weaker than we were in terms of our reactiveness to dictatorship… The Malawians you meet today are not the Malawians of 1994.  In 1994 Malawians were aggressive.  We were patriotic.  The Malawians you meet today I’m sorry to say are desperate, everyone for himself, ‘as long as I get mine it’s OK.’  That’s why we cannot come together and fight one common enemy.”

Though he still believes Malawians who love their country should show that they’re not happy with what is happening, Banda says the MBC ban has hurt his medium.

“Because of the ban, slowly [my] music is dying, people don’t listen to it, youngsters don’t listen to it, so they [government] are succeeding,” he says.

“Today you have to censor yourself so much when an artist is supposed to be free.  If I were going into the industry now, in this environment, I wouldn’t go.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on March 8, 2012.

Listen to Banda’s song “Tikamalira” (Why We Cry) here.

Kidney disease: a ‘silent killer’ in Ghana

Richard Kusi Yeboah on dialysis at Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital. Photo courtesy of Janet Donkor

He says he feels weak. Plastic tubes protrude from his arms and connect to a rectangular machine next to his bed. They are coloured crimson with his blood.

Richard Kusi Yeboah is only 15 years old, but he spends 12 hours every week at the renal unit in Accra’s Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital. In early 2011 his kidneys failed. He has been on dialysis ever since.

“I don’t play the games they play [in the school yard],” says Yeboah as he lies in a hospital room that smells like the sterile disinfectant you would find in a dentist office. “I play with my friends normally. I don’t run but sometimes I go for a walk.”

He lives with his mother, Janet Donkor, who has struggled to raise funds for the dialysis that keeps her son alive. Each session—and Yeboah must go three times a week—costs 140 cedis, or about $81. Korle-Bu asks that patients leave a 5,000 cedi deposit before they begin the treatment. That’s about $2,300. Donkor had to borrow money from her mother for the deposit.

“The majority [of Ghanaians] cannot afford renal replacement therapy,” says Dr. Vincent Boima, a kidney specialist at Korle-Bu.

Renal replacement therapy comprises of dialysis and an eventual kidney transplant, which is the only way for someone with kidney failure to live a normal life.

Boima says some families have lost everything they own paying for dialysis. Once they lose all their possessions they also lose their loved one because they can no longer afford a kidney transplant, which can fetch a price as high as 40,000 cedis, or roughly $23,000.

Donkor is a single mother. She wants to donate one of her kidneys to her son but cannot afford the operation. She has pleaded local media to help her raise the money she’ll need to donate her kidney to Yeboah.

“He can’t go on like this for the rest of his life,” says Donkor. “I don’t have anybody. I only pray to God for help.”

Ghana’s National Health Insurance Scheme does not cover renal replacement therapy for patients who have chronic kidney disease. The government says the treatment is too expensive and would put too great a toll on the system.

But kidney disease is a growing problem in Ghana. Boima says 10 per cent of all hospital admissions in the country are now kidney-related.

In 2010 Korle-Bu handled 2,121 kidney-related cases. In 2011 that number shot up to 2,687 cases—a 31 per cent increase.

But Dr. Charlotte Osafo, the head of Korle-Bu’s renal unit, says the increase is due at least in part to more awareness of kidney disease. More patients are coming forward for treatment.

Boima says kidney patients often arrive at Korle-Bu “crash landing.” The kidney disease has progressed to the point where they must be put on dialysis right away to survive.

The three main causes of kidney disease in Ghana, and around the world, are diabetes, hypertension and inflammation of the kidneys. The first two can be controlled through diet, exercise and the right medication if they are detected early enough.

Korle-Bu has 135 patients who are regularly on dialysis due to kidney disease. The youngest is eight years old and the oldest is in his 70s. The hospital has 18 dialysis machines. “These machines are under real pressure,” says Boima. “In the near future they will break down.”

A basic dialysis machine costs about $20,000.

In addition to Korle-Bu, Ghana has one other kidney centre at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. A local charity called the Christian Council of Ghana is raising funds to build a third kidney centre at 37 Military Hospital in Accra.

Rev. Fred Deegbe, the Christian Council’s general secretary, says appeals from the families of people suffering from kidney disease encouraged the group to build the new centre. He says it should be ready by the end of 2012.

Boima says kidney disease is a “silent killer” that kills people when they are often in their most productive years. Most people with kidney disease in Ghana are in between the ages of 20 and 50. He says Ghana should follow South Africa’s lead and at least cover treatment for patients under the age of 40.

Donkor is desperate for a solution in the near future. She cannot afford to keep her son on dialysis indefinitely.

“For the past year I’ve struggled to take care of him,” she says. “I won’t let him die.”