Category Archives: University Internship

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.

 

Victoria, 23, was trafficked to Kumasi in the Ashanti Region and has never gone to school.

Poverty prevents some Ghanaians from seeking education

Very little light illuminates the abandoned railway line that cuts down the center of the squatter community of Kejetia. The large field where the rusting tracks lay unconnected and the train station simply wasn’t built sits in the centre of Kumasi’s business district.

Overhead view of a section of Kejetia, a sprawling squatter community and market in the city of Kumasi.

Kejetia is a sprawling squatter community and market in the downtown core of Kumasi.

It is very dark at night despite the constant hustle and bustle of shop owners packing up their goods and chatting with customers. The stalls serve as both businesses and homes for many of the people who live in the area are unique, each selling items ranging from belts and bags, to banku and kenkey.

Among the shops a group of young women pack up quietly on a raised wooden platform. Victoria, 23, originally from the Brong Ahafo Region, says that when she was young, a woman brought her to Kumasi under the guise of being able to care for her. Instead, Victoria was forced to sell sachets of pure water, and as a result, she did not attend school.

Now, she says she no longer sees education as an option, as she has to sell banku to support her two-year-old daughter Francisca.

“I would love it if education in Ghana is free. As a result of the kind of struggles people have to go through, there’s no money in the system, there’s poverty in the system,” she said in Twi, the main language of the Ashanti Region.

“If the politicians should go on ahead and make education free, I would be more than excited if they would only implement it and move away from the talks. I would love it,” she added.

Victoria, 23, was trafficked to Kumasi in the Ashanti Region and has never gone to school.

The Ghanaian constitution states that, “all persons shall have the right to equal educational opportunities and facilities […],” and as such, “basic education shall be free, compulsory and available to all.”

Ghana’s Ministry of Education eliminated basic education fees in 2005, and 75 per cent of girls were attending school as of 2010, according to statistics released by UNICEF.

Yet the group of women in Kejetia say poverty has been the main obstacle that stopped them from getting an education.

Rukaya, 19, moved from her town of Bokoe in the Northern Region to Kumasi because she had heard from travellers that it was possible to make a lot of money in the city.

Rukaya has never been to school and says she feels that education is still a privilege for people who can afford to send their children to school, instead of requiring that they work instead.

Rukaya, 19, doing her washing in the Kejetia open air market where she lives and works.

Both Victoria and Rukaya say they feel it is too late for them to get an education and want to return to their hometowns when they save up enough money, which will be difficult since they work for “masters” or “mistresses” who control their wages.

The young women say they hope to be traders – Victoria says she hopes to sell cosmetics and Rukaya says she wants to learn how to become a dressmaker.

Despite their disenchantment with the educational system, Victoria says she still hopes Francisca can go to school to become a lawyer or nurse.

“If I had the means, I would allow Francisca to get the education that I couldn’t have.”

Photo by Ohemeng Tawiah of Luv FM.

This land is your land, this land is my land


Some men wore fitted suits. Others were dressed in traditional kente clothing. The event started an hour and a half after its scheduled time.

The press conference I attended embodied the relationship between traditional customs and modern, democratic values – as well as the potential conflict between these structures. Many Ghanaians defend chief authorities, though their power has diminished over time. What happens when they meet with formal government structures? Ideally, they merge to incorporate tribal leadership and a mandate of democratic justice.

Or sometimes, they form an impetuous decision-making process that leaves a nomadic group with nowhere to go.

The Fulani are an ethnic group – a small minority in Ghana – dispersed throughout Western Africa. They are mainly nomadic pastoralists, though some lead sedentary lives and have integral roles in cattle management.

The Paramount Chief, Nana Akuoko Sarpong, had granted a fifty year lease to some Fulani herdsmen in 2006. The government can override these leases. The current system of land titling combines chiefdom authority and the British colonial practice of registering deeds.

Cattle population grew unmanageable for herdsmen and animals began escaping the allotted property. Local farmers sprayed their crops with pesticides, angering the Fulani.

“Land has traditionally been controlled according to the unique conditions pertaining to pastoral communities, which have given rise to their concept of communal property rights,” explains a report on pastoralist rights by the UNHCR. “In contrast, the Western concept of personal rights over property, which has been adopted by all states in the region, is an individual right.”

Tensions grew between these two forces, resulting in violence. There were burnt farmlands, destroyed crops, 15 cases of murder last year and one report of rape. Some crimes were committed by Agogo community members, but the Fulani are considered to be the instigators.

Demonstrations within the community effectively called for government action, a promising display of civilian power.

The regional court issued an order to “flush out all the cattle” and effectively, the Fulani people. To execute this, a committee – REGSEC – was established. They were supposed to complete an evacuation plan by February 7.

Photo by Ohemeng Tawiah of Luv FM.

“…The Committee accomplished its task; except that it took thirteen, instead of the two weeks originally assigned to submit its Report,” Alex Dary, a member of the committee read aloud.

In February, the herdsmen were given an ultimatum: they had until April 30th to vacate the area. They didn’t.

“The failure to voluntarily vacate within the stipulated timeframe will invite forceful eviction by the security,” he continued. The press conference was wrapping up. Chiefs and regional government officials were getting prepared to sign paperwork when a question from the press was taken: when will this forceful eviction take place?

They hadn’t thought about it.

They took a five minute break to decide the time frame of an evacuation plan. Ashanti Regional Minister Dr Kwaku Agyeman Mensah returned; security personnel will be on standby to flush out the cattle and herdsmen if they do not evacuate by July 21.

Perhaps Ghana can successfully maintain its cultural roots and still operate by fair, democratic principles. However, the fact that justice has been administered by holding an entire group accountable for crimes – rather than individuals – indicates there may be room for progress.

The report mentions ‘the inability of the cattle owners and herdsmen to indicate where else they will relocate since no community is prepared to tolerate them.”

Where do they go from here? The committee hasn’t decided.

IMG_2184

“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.

 

 

Defending sexual minority rights

Homophobia is endemic to much of Ghanaian society.

“Pedophiles or other sexual deviants are not welcome in Ghana.”

The sign loomed over me as I stood, waiting to get my passport stamped, in line at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. It was my first, and perhaps most jarring, experience with exactly how different the Ghanaian culture is from my own.

In Canada, the prevailing Ghanaian attitude towards homosexuality would undoubtedly be called homophobic. The attitude, however, is characterized less by phobia and more by a vitriolic hatred.

In Ghana, Christian and Muslim communities converge to condemn homosexual activity; a notion that is reflected in social, political, and legal discourse.

Although litigation is rare, homosexual activity is illegal. The Sexual Offences Article 105 in the Ghana Criminal Code reads, “whoever is guilty of unnatural carnal knowledge” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and can be sentenced to up to six months in jail.

Chapter 5 of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution guarantees the protection of all human rights for Ghanaian citizens “whatever [their] race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, religion, creed or gender,” but does not mention sexual orientation.

There have also been calls to criminalize homosexuality. In June 2011, the minister of Ghana’s Western Region, Paul Evans Aidoo, described homosexuality as “detestable and abominable,” and advocated for homosexuals to be immediately arrested.

Later that same year, President John Atta Mills reiterated his government’s position.

“I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana,” he said in October, 2011.

The leaders’ attitudes reflect that of the citizenry. In March, 2012, a group of young men brutally raided a party with suspected homosexuals, beating them in the Accra neighbourhood of Jamestown.

It is a social climate Samuel, the deputy director of the Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights Ghana (CEPERHG) who used only his first name to protect his identity, is all too familiar with.

“Growing up, I had a lot of friends who are MSM [men who have sex with men]. They faced so many troubles and, knowing their troubles, I was like ‘wow,’” he said.

CEPERGH was established in 2003 to promote sexual minority rights in Ghana. They “envision a liberal society that provides friendly, sexual and reproductive health rights services for all persons regardless of sexual orientation, age, tribe, [and] religion,” according to their mission statement.

Although it now provides a variety of programming, including self-defense courses and HIV/AIDS outreach, CEPERGH started by putting on small, secretive “human rights” workshops for sexual minorities.

“These workshops are aimed at educating sexual minorities on their human rights, to make them feel that they are also humans and that they deserve to live like every normal human being. They have the right to association, they have the right to information… they have the right to live as every heterosexual person lives,” said Samuel.

But it is a very hostile environment in which to advocate sexual minority rights.

In 2006, in a response to a rumour that the group was trying to organise an international gay and lesbian conference in Ghana, one of their staff members was badly beaten. They also had to relocate their head office and, under a constant threat of violence, their director fled Ghana for six months.

“I don’t even want to talk about it… [the people] use such harsh words: ‘they should be broken, they should be killed’ they say,” said Samuel.

“It’s not all that bad though. Over the years, some people have come to be accommodating about the situation. We’ve helped people and we’ve changed some minds,” he added.

“The whole thing is dedication. We are poised to do the work, so no matter what the situation is we will still do our work.”

Ending Ghanaian child labour

A girl sells water while, behind her, other children play soccer. An estimated 6.36 million children in Ghana work.

Working children are everywhere in Accra. They collect the fares for trotros, mini-vans turned into buses. They stand in intersections, balancing baskets full of water sachets on their head. They sell bundles of plantains in the market. Although I’m usually unable to guess a Ghanaian’s age within a decade, these workers are clearly children.

Child labour is on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Global Child Labour Report. Troublingly, one in four children in the region is a child labourer. Although the Ghanaian numbers are better than this average, the problem is endemic to the country.

“Ghana has made some progress, but the challenges are always there. We can do more,” said Stephen McClelland, the Chief Technical Advisor for the Ghana Project of the International Labour Organization.

According to a 2003 Ghana Child Labour Survey, an estimated 6.36 million children, between five and 17 years old, are engaged in economic activities. That means that half of children in rural areas work, and 1/5 of urban children work. However, not all this “child work” is considered child labour – labour performed by a child that directly impedes the child’s education and full development, jeopardizing his or her physical, mental, or moral well-being.

Twenty per cent of all children in Ghana, however, are involved in work that meets this definition of child labour. They work mostly in agriculture, sales, and general labour, but also in ritual servitude or commercial sexual exploitation. Out of these child labourers, over 242,000 work in conditions deemed “hazardous.”

According to McClelland, fighting child labour is about protecting children’s dignity, but is also about national development.

Eliminating child labour is “important for countries that are developing. If you ignore the development of your children, then you are condemning your country to difficult development challenges ahead,” he said. Working children perpetuate a cycle of uneducation and poverty.

The International Labour Organization has declared June 12 the World Day Against Child Labour. In anticipation, Ghana’s Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare outlined their way of combating the problem: the “National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour” (NPA).

The plan admits that Ghana has a problem, but also proudly mentions that Ghana has ratified both the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The NPA strives to honour these conventions and eliminate the “worst forms” of child labour by 2015 through enforcing labour laws, improving the education system, extending “social protection measures,” and developing standard procedures and protocols in dealing with child-labour cases.

McClelland says it’s a good plan, but needs to be turned into an action plan. And then into results.

“One thing that has struck me is that Ghana has gone a long way. It has good experiences with building up a policy and legal framework against child labour. I am encouraged [by the progress], but I’m also a realist.  We haven’t got all the solutions,” he said.

He added that, in order to decisively end child labour, Ghana need to make high quality schools readily available and has to better redistribute its new found wealth.

“Undoubtedly child labour is caused by poverty, and some of the best of ways of overcoming poverty is to have a good, comprehensive, social protective system,” he said.

The politics of being gay

On my first day of work, I was asked how I felt about having a gay president.

The question was referring to President Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage; my reaction was some combination of nervous laughter, discomfort, denial and correction. It was the first of many conversations about Ghanaians’ attitudes toward homosexuality, which would unequivocally be deemed homophobic in North America.

It is getting close to election time here. The 2008 election had a high voter turnout – 72.91%, compared to the United States’ 56.8%. Mills’ peaceful victory was considered a redeeming display of African constitutional democracy after the corrupt elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Does a high turnout and lack of military coup during elections translate to a fair democratic state? The Constitution claims to have a commitment to “the principle of universal adult suffrage” and “the protection and preservation of fundamental human rights and freedoms.”

There are various documented ramifications of being gay in Ghana. On May 21, Joy FM aired a documentary called “The Gay Next Door” which explores the gay community in Jamestown, Accra. After the recent discovery of a “lesbian party”, gay men and women were beaten, threatened and bullied. Police officers stood by, and when victims went to police headquarters seeking justice, they were refused.

“All these gay people who are making noise are doing so because there is no law that says that it is criminal. Parliament should look at that if possible,” one listener chimed in.

The broadcaster agreed. “If the majority of people feel that it is something that is wrong and it should be criminalized, you ask your lawmakers to amend the criminal code and add it to the sexual offenses act.”

Supporting gay rights in Ghana is political suicide. Official statements against homosexuality have been made by people at local and national levels of government. In 2011, the Western Regional Minister called for the arrest of gays, and President Mills has dismissed international pressures to legalize gay rights on multiple occasions.

“Ghanaian society frowns upon homosexuality and everybody has been telling us that democracy means governance for the people, by the people in the interest of the people,” President Mills commented.

On June 4, NPP Youth Organiser in the Ashanti Region, Collins Randy Amankwa, called for a harsher statement from Mills: “Ghanaians must open their eyes wide because our president may surprise us all just like Obama did to the Americans. He went there several times to seek for help before Obama made that declaration. What if he is given a huge assistance just so he will declare our support and recognition for homosexuality?”

Regardless of the religious and cultural contexts, publicly denouncing a faction of the constituency is a way to alienate certain citizens from the political process, and I wonder if this violates Ghana’s democratic principles.

In a background note published by the UN, Diana Ayton-Shenker addresses the potential conflict between human rights and cultural diversity. “The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right.”

Ghana will see a different political climate in fifty years – the same amount of time that made President Obama’s election possible. In Ghana’s relatively new democracy, I ask a question that few nations can answer affirmatively: is it possible for a publicly gay person to be elected to office?

My colleague – the staunch opponent of legalizing homosexuality who asked me the opening question – thinks it is possible.

“I’m sure, with time. The younger generation is more liberal than the previous one. In the next fifty years, we may not have a gay president, but we will have a community that generally accepts gay rights.”

 

Repatriating Ghana’s “Witches”

Ghanaian witch camps are a cultural phenomenon I have yet to fully experience and understand. Although I have read much about them and spoken to some people affected by accusations of witchcraft, I can only conjure a vague image of what it must be like to be banished from one’s village to live in poverty and severe segregation.

Witch camps are mainly located in the northern regions of the country, where belief in witches and the supernatural is generally much stronger than among the more cosmopolitan, urban areas along the coast.

All it takes is one accusation from a disgruntled, superstitious, or envious neighbour or relative to tarnish a reputation and drive out even the most well-respected women from a community.

Forced Out

These women, who typically leave their homes with no possessions, tend to gather together in camps where they eke out a living any way they can. The small economic and social communities they form become the infamous “witch camps” where they remain disempowered, and embody the gender disparity in Ghana.

“Anybody could be a victim,” says Hajia Boya Hawa Gariba, the deputy minister of Women and Children’s Affairs.

That’s why the Ministry is seeking to peacefully disband all of Ghana’s six witch camps over the next three years, she said, speaking with me in a phone interview that aired on Pravda Radio.

The Ministry has recently commissioned a task force involving the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the domestic violence unit of the Ghana Police Service (GPS), the Department of Social Welfare, and the NGOs Action Aid Ghana and the Presby GO HOME Project, she said.

The goal is to repatriate and reintegrate the ostracized “witches” back to their homes and into society. Gariba says the root cause of banishment of witches is cultural beliefs “that have no place in society.”

Open Arms

In order for the women to return safely to their homes, the task force will be educating their communities on basic human rights, the law, and domestic violence. Educators have already been taking the families to the witch camps to show them how the women are living, and discussing the rationality of the beliefs.

For example, Gariba explains, accused witches are made to drink a concoction that is said to take away their power before they are banished. She argues it is against a person’s human rights to make them consume a questionable, and potentially harmful, substance against their will.

Despite consuming the drink, the women are still forced to leave, which makes no sense, according to Gariba, since the witch’s powers are supposed to be neutralized.

Educating communities has been making some gains in the reintegration process, and Gariba says the women’s security is the ministry’s primary concern. She says they also intend to make the women comfortable enough in the camps so that they do not die from exposure, but not enough so that they will not want to go back home.

“These people are human beings. There’s no point in leaving them there.”

Malaria, the hospital, and Ghanaian health care

At the Labadi Polyclinic in Accra, the queue for insured patients is empty. The vast majority of Ghanaians still pay for their medical care “out-of-pocket.”

There is an odd fear and fascination with Malaria in Canada. To many, it’s an “exotic” and deadly disease. It’s shrouded in misinformation and myth. Travelling to a high risk zone, I fecklessly stocked up on mosquito spray and prophylaxes.

After only two weeks in Ghana, I developed a hellish fever. In a haze, I wandered a few blocks to a small hospital. I was too zoned out to figure out my travel health insurance, so I walked past the line for “insured” patients and joined the much longer line for the “uninsured.” I was diagnosed within a couple hours, immediately treated, and, within 24 hours, felt significantly better.

For me, and anyone else who has easy access to proper treatment, Malaria really isn’t that big of a deal. Amazingly, however, Malaria continues to kill more Ghanaians than any other disease.

The idea for the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) first surfaced as a campaign promise in the 2000, in order to improve access to basic health care services and eliminate the widespread “out-of-pocket” payment for health services. The idea became law in August of 2003, and, in December 2004, the NHIS was established.

Since then, the NHIS has always been on the political radar. In 2009, President Atta Mills and the National Democratic Congress vowed to improve the struggling system, striving to make publically funded basic health care universally available.

The idea is that Ghanaians contribute to a fund so that they are financially supported when they need medical care. Formal workers pay a percentage of their income to the system and informal workers- about 80 per cent of the Ghanaian workforce- pay a flat rate to the NHIS. In return, they qualify to have their basic medical expenses covered by  NHIS. In practice, however, things are quite different.

“The concept is good, but the reality isn’t. It doesn’t really help many people,” one Ghanaian friend told me.

In 2008, there were only 1,500 health care facilities to service the entire Ghanaian population of 24 million people. According to a 2008 Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) report, these facilities are not evenly distributed and the average Ghanaian lives about 16km from a health care centre.

Plagued by chronic funding and personnel shortages, the NHIS doesn’t cover the very people it was designed to serve.

On May 2007, the NHIS covered under half of its targeted people. That’s only 19-65 per cent of the population, depending on the region, said the same ACCORD report.

OXFAM estimates the numbers to be even lower – around 18 per cent. The same 2011 report maintains that most people covered are rich, not the poor who the system was designed to protect from the high user fees.

Whatever the numbers may be, the reality is that most health care spending Ghana continues to be “out-of-pocket.” In 2005, out-of-pocket expenditures amounted for over 65 per cent of all spending on health care, according to the ACCORD report.

The “out-of-pocket” expenditures are not cheap. For my visit, I paid one cedi for my file, eight for my consulting fee, 15 for the blood test, and 10 for the treatment. For me, the total cost was 34 cedis, about $18 USD. The minimum wage in Ghana is only 4.48 cedis per day, about $2.66.

Due to the high cost associated with health care, and the failure of the NHIS to offset this cost, many Ghanaians seek traditional treatments or self medicate. That means people aren’t going to get the same quick, effective malaria treatment I was privileged to: the reason why a curable disease is, sadly, the disease that claims the highest number of victims in the country.

Children walking from school

The drive to protect Ghana’s youth

Two schoolchildren start their walk home down Secondi Road in Takoradi, Ghana. Photo by Alyssa McDonald

 

 

Francis Donkoh waited on the meridian while a police officer stopped a busy street full of afternoon traffic for him to cross the zebra crosswalk. He was walking home from school with with a group of friends, including his sister Anne Marie and cousin Melissa.

It was then that a vehicle leapt onto the meridian and crushed eight-year-old Francis, taking his life.

Road accidents kill and injure more children in Ghana than disease and conflict combined. It kills more children than diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS worldwide. It is an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), injuries caused by road traffic are the leading cause of death worldwide among youth aged 10 to 24 years old.

On January 21, 2011, Chris and Fanny Donkoh heard a commotion outside of the house they share with their extended family and went to investigate.

“As a young couple, we didn’t expect for this to happen to us,” Chris said.

Chris and Fanny Donkoh in their house in Takoradi. Photo by Raquel Fletcher.

He walked no more than 20 meters before realizing it was his children lying on the road in front of him. Fanny was right behind.

“When I got to the accident site, everyone who knew us… everyone who had seen what had happened… they were just looking at me,” Fanny said, recalling the day of the accident. “I went over to the scene and saw Francis was in Chris’ hands, dead.”

Fanny was brought back to their compound which they share with Chris’ parents and brother’s family, while Chris stayed with his son’s dead body. At this point,  they had not heard news of their daughter Anne Marie and niece Melissa. With rumours starting to circulate that the girls had died, Chris went to the hospital.

“Anne Marie was there and alive but she was still recovering from the shock,” Chris said.

Someone who had seen the accident helped Anne Marie and Melissa get to the hospital. Knowing an ambulance would take too long, they tried to convince a taxi to take the girls for help. Numerous taxis refused to take the them because they were bleeding so much. They resorted to a tro-tro, a long public mini-bus to take the girls to the hospital. The Donkoh’s say they still are unsure of who this good Samaritan is.

Anne Marie with the Donkoh's youngest son Antonio. Photo by Raquel Fletcher.

Thirteen-year-old Anne Marie walked away from the accident with non-life threatening injuries and remained in hospital for three months. Melissa was flown to a military hospital in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, but died a few days later. As far as the Donkohs know, Anne Marie is the only surviving child of this traffic accident.

The Donkohs decided to take action by founding the Francis Donkoh Memorial Road Safety Foundation. “We want to spread awareness to youth to save our future leaders,” Fanny said about the foundation in Francis memory.

According to Chris, the foundations main message is “if you are not trained to drive, please for heaven sakes, do not drive.”

Their voice joins other awareness campaigns about the importance of road safety. The WHO and United Nations have named the next ten years the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’, spanning from 2011-2020. They have started the Make Roads Safe campaign, which reaches out to countries all over the world, but specifically to developing countries where 90 per cent of these deadly crashes occur.

Ghana’s National Road Safety Commission (NRSC) has already started making changes to their educational programs under the campaign. Along with their traditional school visits, they are also talking to Parent Teacher Associations (PTA), holding community outreach nights and advocating for road safety to be put into primary school curriculums.

Henry Asomani, NRSC Western Region planning officer, said 23 per cent of all pedestrian fatalities in Ghana involve children below the age of 16 years, most happen while children are walking to or home from school.

“We are visiting [PTA] meetings and telling them, ‘Please don’t allow your children to cross busy roads. If possible, take them to school, if you can’t, let an adult bring them to school,’” Asomani said.

Chris now drives Anne Marie to and from school every single day. He said this is not just for her safety but she finds it difficult to forget the accident. “Every time Anne Marie gets to the junction, naturally she just remembers the moment of the vehicle, speeding off. Its not easy,” Chris said.

The family has remained in their house and therefore is close to the memories of that day. “Where we stay, right where the incident happened, the memories will forever be there,” Fanny said. “Anytime we go outside, to go to work or to church or wherever… you still have to recall what happened on that day.”

A road safety billboard in Northern Ghana. Photo by Alyssa McDonald.

The crash that killed Francis and Melissa was caused by one large truck not recognizing all the other vehicles were stopping to allow the children to cross. The vehicle kept going full-speed and pushed the vehicle in front of him onto the meridian, which trampled the children waiting to cross the street. A total of six people were hit, including Francis, Melissa, two school friends and a grandmother walking her grandchild home from school.

The man who caused the accident ran away from the scene. The truck was traced back to his employer who told the Ghana Police’s Motor Traffic and Transport Unit (MTTU) the identity of the man who was driving the truck.

Chris and Fanny say the driver was arrested, went to court and has since been released out on bail. They chose to not go to the courts

“I am not really sure who killed our children, whether he was a liscened driver or not. But I don’t want to know that,” said Chris. “We don’t know his fate, but whatever happens to him does not bring my son back. That is our mentality now.“

The Western Region MTTU says they will charge those who they believe cupable for road accidents. The top reasons for the crashes are speed, inexperience, alcohol, and bad road conditions. Takoradi used to be a quiet city but with the recent oil dicovery has changed it into an ‘oil city’. There are now workers coming in daily with tankers, large truck and all other automobiles. The falling down city now has traffic jams that clog residental streets.

The crosswalk where Francis died. Photo by Alyssa McDonald

The road where Francis was killed is one of the busiest in Takoradi, it connects suburbs like Airport Ridge to the main market circle. The Donkoh’s home is the second compound off the street in Airport Ridge, one of the most expensive areas in the city.

Although Ghana has the fastest growing economy in the world according to Economy Watch, its infrastructure does not meet its economy. Many of the roads have potholes that make traffic slow to a crawl. This combined with unlicensed drivers and no control of alcohol consumption makes for a deadly combination.

When I was traveling in Ghana, we would drive quickly down the windy roads that cover the countryside. There were always families walking or children selling goods on the shoulder. On more than one occasion I looked over to see how fast the vehicle was going only to see the speedometer was broken.

Most people travel in a tro-tro, Ghana’s most widely used form of transportation that holds upwards of 15 people. If the tro were to crash, the 15 people in the aboard’s fate would not be a happy one. All, including myself, were not wearing seatbelts and small children sitting on the laps of their mothers.

The highways in Ghana are undivided and take steep turns. Every 15 kilometres or so, a red Toyota sign appears at the side of the road which says ‘Overspeeding Kills. ‘x’ number of people died here last year’. I saw the ‘x’ range from four to thirty.

The NRSC teaches children how to protect themselves from car accidents. Indira Apronto, head educator at the NRSC, goes to Ghana’s Western Region schools to teach children how to walk or play near roads. In the classroom, she asks them to show her how they walk by the roads and then the class acts out scenarios where cars would veer at them. This is how children are taught to protect themselves.

Melissa (left) and Francis (right) graves in the Takoradi Cemetery. Photo by Raquel Fletcher.

“They admit that they do some of the wrong things and then we talk about it,” Apronto said. “We follow up and we get to know that they are changing their route. It takes some time to change behavior, but they do change.”

NRSC teach them the school children lessons like always walk on the outside of a parent or adult. Then, if a car does veer at them, the adult is more likely to get hit than the child. Although this may sound horrifying to most Canadians, this is what Ghanaians have resorted to in order to save their children.

Every time a child is hit, their right to education, to play, and to live is in jeopardy. Mothers like Fanny have lost their child forever and will never forget.

“Definitely with this experience, there will be that kind of… missing your son, day in and day out,” she said.