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Mamas know best: an organization in Ghana profits with fair trade

Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Gloria Amanful of Global Mamas working on an order. Ashley Terry, Global News

Gloria Amanful of Global Mamas working on an order. Ashley Terry, Global News

ACCRA & CAPE COAST, Ghana – The Bangladesh factory collapse has forced Canadians to look at their closets a little more closely.

The discovery of Joe Fresh garments in the rubble has also brought renewed calls from NGOs and labour groups to improve conditions for garment workers in the developing world.

Currently, there is no existing fair trade certification program in North America for apparel, only for commodities.

“It started with coffee, then chocolate, sugar… But it’s so expensive for businesses to go through certification so it falls on the producer’s shoulders,” said Carrie Hawthorne, former board member of the Fair Trade Federation, a non-profit based in Washington, DC.

Fair trade screening does exist for apparel, but is entirely voluntary. Expenses to remain “fair trade” increase production costs, putting companies at a competitive disadvantage to those not operating at the same standards.

The only incentive is to appeal to the small market of fair trade consumers. This incentive isn’t enough, for most.

“Can you really keep up with Walmart?” asks Hawthorne, who is now working for a fair trade organization in Ghana called Global Mamas.

This organization might be an exception to the rule. It is a Ghanaian-based clothing company with a formula to trade fairly and make a profit.

“The model that Global Mamas is setting up is to be large scale,” says Hawthorne.

The women involved essentially own their own businesses – each “Mama” is responsible for managing her own finances and hiring help if needed.

This approach means the company is dealing one-on-one with Ghanaian entrepreneurs rather than a company in Bangladesh, for example.

Women are employed in seven different locations in Ghana. The organization provides raw materials and orders for batiking, sewing, bead-making, assembling, weaving and soap-making.

Gloria Amanful, a seamstress in Cape Coast, has been working with Global Mamas for the past nine months. She is saving money to buy land, and is now thinking of buying a knitting machine to expand her business.

Amanful says she is gaining confidence in herself through her work. “Global Mamas has helped me by giving me something for my children and my family,” she said.

It’s something that Global Mamas co-founder Renae Adam said is an advantage of working with women.

“You can be assured they’re going to invest their money in their family,” she said. “Women are definitely the best investment for the betterment of an entire community.”

“They even start employing other women,” said Adam.

Mary Koomson is proof: since she started taking on contracts with the organization, she’s been able to purchase her own plot of land, pay for her niece and nephews to attend school, hired two workers and one apprentice, and is now thinking of expanding her business.

“I want to open a store to make my new things in,” she said.

 

Koomson batiking an order for Global Mamas. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

Koomson batiking an order for Global Mamas. (Ashley Terry, Global News)

 

Koomson lives in Cape Coast, and has been working with Global Mamas for five years. She does “batiking,” an ancient process of stamping and dyeing fabric that has been practiced in Ghana for generations.

She said she has benefited from training provided by Global Mamas on fair trade, how to manage your business and how to save money.

The organization was founded in 2003 with six apparel producers in Ghana. It now has over 600 producers and is building a fair trade campus in Ashaiman, just outside of Accra.

Global Mamas hit the $1-million sales mark for the first time in 2012. Adam said that the organization is getting requests from all over the world to establish organizations there, but that Global Mamas will stay in Ghana until, she said, “we’ve helped Ghana to its extent.”

But the Global Mamas model is proving to be a success, according to Adam, in more ways than numbers.

“I think [the fair trade] approach is so amazing to be able to empower people in the workplace. It’s the opposite of what you read about China and other parts of the world.”

Secret Women

In Chichewa, the widely-spoken language of southern Malawi, being pregnant or “kunkhala ndi pakati” translates to being in the middle of life and death.  For many pregnant Malawian women, however, death comes much sooner.

As the African country with the second highest maternal mortality ratio, Malawi is struggling to eradicate a crisis that in 2006 claimed the lives of would-be mothers at a rate of 807 deaths per 100,000 live births.  And while 2006 figures showed an improvement on those of 2004 – 984 deaths per 100,000 live births – the 2010 Malawi Millennium Development Goals Report has already projected that Malawi will not achieve the targets of the fifth MDG to improve maternal health by 2015.

Contributing factors identified in the 2005 Ministry of Health (MoH) “Road Map for Accelerating the Reduction of Maternal and Neonatal Mortality and Morbidity in Malawi” include shortage of staff and weak human resource management, limited availability and utilisation of quality maternal health care services, and weak procurement and logistics systems for drugs, supplies and equipment.  Underlying such problems of infrastructure and resources, the report reads, are harmful social and cultural beliefs and practices.

Naswit Chitalo of Namila Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlilima in Chikhwawa District is easily able to recall a time when “most pregnant women were dying from pregnancy complications” because of social and cultural beliefs, which include the belief that the firstborn child should be delivered by a traditional birth attendant (TBA) in the home as opposed to a health facility.

“I actually know of three women we lost in 2009 because they sought the services of elderly women from the village instead of rushing to the hospital,” said Chitalo, adding that TBAs would use herbs to make pregnant women “feel so confident about the outcome of their pregnancy” that professional maternal health care would be neglected altogether.

According to Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN) Executive Director Martha Kwataine, these kinds of social and cultural beliefs surrounding TBAs have done more harm than good when it comes to maternal mortality in Malawi.

“There have been several researches whose results have shown that traditional birth attendants have made cases on maternal death high because they are not properly equipped,” said Kwataine.  “We tried to train them so that they should handle referral cases but they did not comply.”

President Joyce Banda has also added her voice to the case against TBAs; on June 18, after laying a foundation stone for a maternity holding shelter at Mulanje Hospital, the first of 130 holding shelters pledged as part of the Presidential Initiative on Safe Motherhood launched in April, Banda told TBAs to stop offering delivery services to expectant women.

“Traditional birth attendants must stop giving delivery services,” she said at the function, adding that “traditional birth attendants can have a good role to play… because they are experienced they can be referral point.”

News of the ban on TBAs has been met with both controversy and commendation throughout the country.  But to women like Chitalo, the rationale behind the ban is not news at all; as one of the T/As where the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (CAVWC) has been working to realize the MoH Road Map objective of improving obstetric care, a new, “good role” for TBAs is already one of Mlilima’s best kept secrets.

Former traditional birth attendant Dalia Issa stands with her husband outside of their Namila Village home. In 2010, with training from the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children, Issa stopped offering village-based delivery services and took on a new role as a Secret Woman. Photo submitted.

In 2010, CAVWC identified two women in each village of T/A Mlilima and T/A Kasisi to be “Secret Women.”  The women, many of whom had been working as TBAs, attended three days of training on maternal health using a standardized MoH handbook.

According to CAVWC Project Officer Talimba Bandawe, women like Chitalo were trained to take on four main roles and responsibilities: referring pregnant women to antenatal facilities by carrying out door-to-door campaigns; educating women on family planning; collaborating with Village Health Committees to form Community Safe Motherhood Task Forces and conduct awareness-raising community meetings; and recording how many pregnant women deliver in the community or in a health facility.

“We depend on these Secret Women because they have been trained; they can convince a woman on the importance of delivery at a health facility with a skilled attendant, because in the rural areas they are used to having TBAs,” said Bandawe.  “We’re trying to change that mindset – that anything could happen with a TBA so it’s better to deliver at a health facility.”

Bandawe said the women are called “Secret Women” because of the social and cultural beliefs and practices surrounding pregnancy in Malawi.

“When you talk about traditions and beliefs, the pregnant woman is vulnerable,” she said, adding that traditional beliefs in witchcraft scare some women off of sharing how many months they are into their pregnancy.

“The concept of Secret Women is based on that whatever you talk about with a Secret Woman should be kept confidential,” she continued.  “Whatever issues that you discuss, the Secret Woman is not expected to go and disclose that anywhere because some of the things can be really private.”

According to Esnart Dzoma, who has been volunteering as a Secret Woman in Namila Village for two years, “the most important thing is confidentiality.”

“If I begin to shout that ‘so and so sought this help from me’ they will inform each other, and we will have the health problems that used to compound issues such as pregnancy again,” said Dzoma.  “I have an obligation to help these women with compassion, and without malice… the secret to being an effective Secret Woman is to be open-minded.”

Based on principles of compassion and confidentiality, Bandawe said the Secret Women project has helped to address some of the harmful social and cultural beliefs and practices, “especially through the door-to-door campaigns” as pregnant women have been comforted by and more likely to accept confidential counselling.

A bicycle ambulance donated by the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children being used in Namila Village. Photo submitted.

“The Secret Women were really successful in that a number of women were referred to the hospital,” she said, adding that other Road Map interventions such as the provision of bicycle ambulances and village bylaws enforcing fines for births that take place outside of a health facility have also contributed to the success of the initiative.

The data collected by the Secret Women also speaks to their success; in 2009, when CAVWC was working to reach out to practicing TBAs and provide safe-birthing training and equipment, approximately 30 percent of pregnant women in the two T/As were reportedly giving birth at a health facility.  In 2012, the Secret Women are reporting that 54 percent of pregnant women are now giving birth at a health facility.

But despite their success, Bandawe said that the new role for TBAs has not been implemented without resistance.

“Some women still resist the counseling of the Secret Women, and sometimes even the husband can be a challenge,” she said.

“There are some materials that the hospital recommends that you should have when you go to the hospital – a plastic paper, a razor blade and a basin.  Some of the husbands don’t welcome this idea, so (the Secret Women) have a negative reception from some of the families.”

For their part, Bandawe said that CAVWC will “revive the Secret Women” by holding refresher training courses at the end of June.

“It is really important to have these sorts of people in the communities, mainly in the rural areas where literacy levels are low,” she said.

“Maybe after there has been a lot of sensitization, when everyone even in the rural communities is aware of the health benefits of delivering at the hospital and when we have managed to reduce the maternal mortality ratio, that’s when we can do without the Secret Women.  But right now, they still have a major role to play.”

***

With files from Richard Chirombo and Madalitso Musa

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village.  Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone".  Photo by Karissa Gall.

“Mind the gap” – The crippling impact of HIV/AIDS on family composition and elderly Malawians

The old “respect your elders” adage has customarily been an important part of Malawian culture, with the elderly able to depend on the social and economic support of their children and the community.  However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a crippling impact on family composition and tradition.

While the 2012 Malawi Country AIDS Response Progress Report found that from the start of the epidemic the number of deaths per annum had been reduced from nearly 100,000 to approximately 48,000 in 2010, the report also found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS has been on the rise.

Antenatal Clinic sero-surveys (surveys of blood serum) found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS increased from 576,458 in 2010 to 612,908 in 2011.  And with over half of orphans being cared for by their grandparents, men like Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village will be celebrating their 70th birthday before that of their retirement.

At 68-years-old, Dimiano is still working three jobs to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.  He works as a guard from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at a nearby church, goes to the garden to get maize for his family, weaves baskets to sell at the market and then, does it all over again.

“I cannot sleep, so it’s hard,” Dimiano said.  “As a night guard, I need to always be awake because sometimes there are thieves in the dark.

Still working three jobs at 68-years-old to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village demonstrates panga knife techniques he uses as a night guard. Photo by Karissa Gall.

“When I knock off in the morning I go to the garden, when I knock off in the garden I eat and then I start making baskets so I can make more money, but it’s still not enough to care for all six grandchildren.”

In the same township of Chigumula, 55-year-old Mrs. Kandikole has also lost children to AIDS; her oldest daughter passed away in 2005 orphaning one grandchild, and her second oldest daughter passed away in 2010 orphaning three grandchildren.

“I’m the one who’s left looking out for them,” she said.  “And not only those four; I have other grandchildren at my home who have only a mother but not a father.

“It’s very difficult for me to look after these children because I’m very old.  I’m not working,” she continued.  “Things are very expensive here in Malawi.  Food is very expensive.  I cannot manage to buy clothes for them.  It is very difficult for me to take them to the hospital.  To get good medicine, one needs to pay money at private hospitals, but I can’t manage to do all those things.”

Kandikole said she had been working at a nursery school, but had to quit when her daughters died because “(her) grandchildren were alone, so (she) had to look after these children all by (herself).”

She said her husband, 57, is still working as a telephone operator but “he makes very little money.”

“I don’t think he will be able to continue working much longer because he is now 57 years old and his body is very weak.  He is very sick,” she said, adding that they both suffer from chronic bouts of malaria.  “Before, we could manage to do all those things, but not now.”

Without the proper means or support, Kandikole said she “couldn’t manage to send (her) grandchildren to school, because when you want to send a child to school these days, even a government school, you need to buy a uniform, pencils, exercise books and the child needs to eat porridge.”

She said her grandchildren “were just staying at home” until they were accepted at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Limbe, a free primary and secondary school in Malawi providing education and daily meals to orphans.

“If we did not have Jacaranda, these children would just be doing nothing at home,” she said.  “They go to school without taking anything.  If Jacaranda didn’t provide porridge I don’t know what we could do.  Before, I thought my children would go to school up to college and help their children by themselves.  But their deaths brought everything down.”

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village suffered in the same way.

Deaf and blind, M’maligeni struggled to care for herself yet alone her grandson, Vincent, who was orphaned by AIDS.  In March, at the age of 105, M’maligeni passed away and Vincent lost another primary caretaker.

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village waits with her daughter-in-law for her grandson Vincent to return from school. Photo by Karissa Gall.

According to M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law, M’maligeni and Vincent had been sleeping in a small hut.

M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law said her family was able to give extra food to M’maligeni and Vincent once a week, but “sometimes it (was) hard because there (was) not enough money.  Sometimes M’maligeni (could) not eat.

“Sometimes we just (bought) panado, because panado is cheap,” she said.

Dimiano, Kandikole and M’maligeni are each representative of the ways that elderly Malawians are struggling to survive in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  According to the Catholic University of Malawi’s December 2010 report “Impact of HIV and AIDS on the elderly: a case study of Chiladzulu district,” 59 percent of the enrolled elderly people had difficulty sourcing money for school uniforms, food and hospital bills for orphaned grandchildren; 55 percent were affected through the sickness and death of their children; and 22 percent had to halt their own development to take care of orphaned grandchildren, spending their reserved resources to make the lives of their grandchildren better while impoverishing themselves in the process.

When asked if there can be greater relief for elderly Malawians struggling to care for themselves and their orphaned grandchildren than panado, an over-the-counter pain medication, Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said that government has put in place safety net programmes that target both the elderly and other vulnerable people in the 2012/13 National Budget.

“These programmes are aimed at assisting the poorest in our communities to cope with life,” he said, adding that during the 2012/13 fiscal year  programmes will be scaled up to capture those that may have fallen below the poverty line due to devaluation.

“A total of K27.5 billion has been provided for four programmes, mainly the Intensive Public Works Programme, the School Feeding Programme targeted towards 980,000 pupils in primary schools, the Schools Bursaries Programme targeting 16,480 needy students, and the Social Cash Transfer Programme which will reach over 30,000 households across the country.”

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village. Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone". Photo by Karissa Gall.

But until social cash transfers can be expanded to cover the whole country or non-contributory pensions can be provided to ensure income security for the majority of elderly Malawians who have never worked in the formal sector, government will continue to miss men and women like Dimiano and Kandikole who are fighting for the survival of their family and against the intergenerational transmission of poverty, often without sufficient resources or physical strength to do so.

As Dimiano put it: “If I still had children that could help me, I could have just stayed home, but there is no one to help me, I’m only working because of my grandchildren.

“The only ones who can decide if I stop working are my grandchildren.  Maybe they will see that we are very old and cannot work anymore and they will help us.  But maybe they will finish school and go away.

“At the moment, I do not know.”

 

With files from Richard Chirombo.

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.”

Sierra-Leone-cultural-dance-troupe

Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe Fights to Return to Glory Days

I went along with my colleague at Cotton Tree News, Kevin Lamdo, to produce his program entitled “My Visit,” where he highlights the everyday life of different groups of people in Sierra Leone. The show has featured everyone from Paramount Chiefs to scrap metal collectors.

This week, the program went to the Aberdeen Cultural Village, the official centre for arts in Sierra Leone. Despite being located inside the city, it lives up to the title of “Village.” Generations of families live here, growing small crops and raising livestock. Chickens squawk running in between bathing children while pots of rice simmer on open fires.

This is the home of Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe, who tell me they are happy to be making a living doing what they love, even though their salaries barely allow them to make ends meet.

I visited the village in the morning and for hours they practiced singing, dancing, acrobatics and playing drums – traditional Sierra Leonean music from around the country. But, they tell me, they often can’t afford to maintain their costumes and repair their instruments.

For a time, the troupe performed everywhere from Canadato China. In 1963, the National Danced Troupe was founded by John Joseph Akar, a Sierra Leonean entertainer and repeat guest on the Merv Griffin Show. Under Akar’s leadership, the troupe was invited to the United States to perform at the New York World Fair, at the Negro Arts festival in Dakar, Senegal and went on a four-month tour of Europe.

Today, little seems to be invested in promoting the culture of a country that is best known around the world in popular culture primarily for blood diamonds and civil war.

The Troupe still entertains at foreign diplomatic events and, performs for state functions – including last year’s 50th Anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence. But this kind prestige didn’t last. Several corrupt governments and an 11-year civil war left little room in the government budget for the Ministry of Tourism and Culture,

Lansana Kelfala has been a musician with the dance troupe since 1963, and for a while, he says he felt the pride of traveling the world representing his newly-independent country.

“We used to travel, perform and get paid all the time. Now we can go two or three years without going anywhere,” said Kelfala. “We want the government to give us more help and we want the people to support us so we don’t starve.”

So, we have moved to Africa

Each time one moves they must adapt to a new culture of some sort – changing neighbourhoods, towns, cities, provinces, states – each signifies it’s own identity and culture. For us, we have left the continent in which was home and the differences in culture can seem extreme.

Since arriving in Accra things have been interesting and eventful. We have been looking for a home, identifying parts of the city, figuring out transportation, establishing frequently used routes and choosing the markets to buy our groceries. We have had to learn about garbage disposal (or removal as there is no proper waste removal system in Accra), where to buy water, what to do when the house water supply runs out, how to sufficiently bucket-shower, how to hand wash our laundry, where we can withdraw money, where to buy a mattress, a phone, internet stick, additional converters and anything else we realize we need.

We have learned how to haggle taxi drivers for fair prices, how to flag down a tro-tro, how not to get stuck on a tro, how not to get entirely lost in general, where the ‘obruni’ (white/foreigners) spots for food are (when our tummies are telling us not to be too adventurous), where locals gather and of course deciding on our favourite places to celebrate the day with a beverage. We have begun new jobs, met new colleagues and made new friends – all the while adjusting to an entirely new culture.

The differences are great, although at times intimidating. We are surrounded by new sites, new people and new language (the official language is English, Ghana was previously conquered by the British and originally inhabited by tribes each with their own dialect). To us, everything is new.

It is interesting to live your life the way you would at home – have breakfast, brush your teeth, shower, get to work, get home, have dinner, go out, go to sleep – but do it in a new continent.

Everything is new, exciting and comes with difficulties.

It took me time to establish why this round was different and then it hit me – like my semi-daily cold water showers – I had moved to Africa!

Something you’d think was apparent and obvious yet somehow easily forgotten. Each of my other long-term travel experiences had some aspect of support – when I moved to Spain as an Au Pair I went through an organization and lived with a family, when I backpacked through Europe we were going day-by-day, when we stayed in Mexico we traveled as a group through an NGO and had logistical details arranged – when all of those things are taken care of it is much easier to focus on the tasks ahead and even then can be exhausting. It is an incredible experience to re-teach yourself how to live out your day.

In respect to all mentioned, I have noticed instances of personal growth since my arrival. I have over come fears, questioned my purpose, identified my needs and integrated to the best of my ability while still staying true to myself.

Now that we have established the functions of our daily routine, I am looking forward to what the next leg of our journey will hold. We have made trustworthy friends, established an understanding of the logistics of the city, entered our work places and have confirmed final living accommodations to begin August 17th. We have gained insight into Ghanaian culture but have yet to begin grasping a full understanding of the true complexities.

We have touched the surface and I am eager to learn more, dig deeper and go upstream.

Dancing to the beat of Kete drums

Kete is a dance and drum ensemble commonly found in the Akan regions of Ghana. I managed to catch a live performance of Kete during the Jubilee Oil Exhibition’s opening ceremony at Kumasi’s Centre for National Art on May 24, 2011. Besides professional dancers in lapa cloths, students attending the exhibition also got a chance to showcase their own traditional dancing skills.

Two of them – one from Prempeh High School and the other from Ahmadiya High School – were crowned as the best dancers and were invited to hit the stage for one last performance. As someone who is deeply rooted in my own Malay culture, it was great to watch a young group of people proudly displaying their cultural heritage.

Watch the videos for a snippet of the event.

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Crashing the boy’s club

In Malawi's ubiquitous entertainment halls, women are often seen as unwelcome visitors

By Katie Lin

In the middle of Blantyre’s densely-populated township, Ndirande, sits Spencer Video Centre. It’s big, bright blue and blaring seriously loud music.

With featured shows ranging from Mexican wrestling to football to Asia’s best Bruce Lee films, these entertainment halls have become a “boy’s club”-type haven for so many men in the urban sprawl that is Blantyre.

But in a country where conservative gender norms are rule-of-thumb and even couples refrain from holding hands in public, it’s easy for certain behaviors to be misinterpreted—and entertainment halls are no exception.

Put simply, if a dignified woman does not want to be mistaken for a prostitute then she knows better than to go into one.

I arrived at Spencer and, having already missed the first four minutes of the Newcastle versus Arsenal game, was hard-pressed to find a seat. About 60 men were packed into the balmy room, perched on a dozen benches and sitting on the floor.

Sitting on a bed of wooden crates was the main attraction: a 24-inch television. A worn, red scarf was draped across the top crate—a reminder of the favoured team, Arsenal.

I sank lower in my seat as Arsenal rose to a 4-0 lead. Not only was I now a mortified Newcastle fan, but I was also the only woman in the hall.

Owner Baron Banda had only one thing to say: “No women. Don’t like women—unless they come with their friends, their boyfriends or someone they know.

“You see, this is a male place, with male entertainment.”

I had to inquire further. “So, are the halls strictly for men? Or are they a place for men to collect awayfrom their women?”

Banda chuckled and gave his head a brusque rub: “Yes…an escape for the men…”

I figured as much.

Steven Danger, a 15-year-old patron of Blantyre entertainment halls, explained: “Since women don’t normally fight, it’s irrelevant for them to go and watch these movies.”

That’s not to say, however, that women don’t enter the halls.

“Some women go in, but not those who are married because most married women watch it in their homes,” said Danger.

I gathered from this comment that married women stay away not because they aren’t necessarilyallowed inside, or even because the television content doesn’t appeal to them, but because it would do their image more damage than the entertainment was worth.

“If the woman is a prostitute, she has no problem getting into entertainment halls,” said Danger, “because that is how she gets her bread and butter.”

So, what happens if a regular, unassuming, law-abiding woman, like myself, does go inside?

“We give them pieces of advice [about how] women are not supposed to watch films in such places,” Danger says.

Well, nobody told me.

So there I was, glued to the television as much as my male company, as the game drew to an end.

In the 89th minute, Newcastle tied the game, and with that, noise levels peaked. Then, with just three minutes left in overtime…

Power out.

The crowd surged from their seats, like wasps from a hive, and poured out of the hall into the night, where the day’s dusty, bustling market had turned into an onyx expanse, peppered with makeshift paraffin lamps.

And so I moved through the dark market with a friend, recounting each play, each goal, each card.

Boy’s club or not, the excitement of a good game knows no gender.

Malawi’s theatre for social change

Tawonga Nkhonjera's play Malawi Kwacha tackles taboos surrounding sexuality

From the minibus to the newsroom, life in Malawi can be pretty dramatic.

“Everything in Malawi is theatre,” explains playwright Tawonga Nkhonjera. “The raising of the voice, the tones, the excitement—Malawians will always play with you. Even on the bus.”

From folk tales and traditional dance to bedtime stories passed on by grandmothers, Malawi’s culture is steeped in dynamic storytelling. During my first week working at the Daily Times in Blantyre, I was frequently captivated by my colleagues’ commanding personalities and lively oration.

But even in a society rich in oral tradition, some topics go unspoken. Compared to many African countries, Malawi is staunchly conservative. With a heavy Christian influence permeating all aspects of society, I quickly learned that exposed knees and shoulders were not acceptable—even on the hottest days.

“As Malawians, we like to pretend we are a good God-fearing nation,” Nkhonjera says. “And so we have all these taboos about sex and so on.”

Nkhonjera seeks to tackle taboos in his work. Homosexuality and prostitution are just a few of the issues addressed in Nkhonjera’s recent play, Malawi Kwacha. The show is a historical tribute to the life of John Chilembwe, an anti-colonial figure who is celebrated in Malawi every January.

In scenes punctuated by lively song and dance, the protagonist Chigaluka exchanges uncommonly progressive opinions with his prostitute costar.

“I don’t mind lesbians,” says the tube top-wearing actress with a matter-of-fact grin. “A female customer would be the easiest money I ever made.” For a country that condemned its first openly gay couple to 14 years hard labour in December 2009, such tolerance can seem pretty radical.

Later on, a well-received impersonation of Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika satirizes the government’s real-life announcement last month which called for Malawian police to shoot and kill robbers on site.

If the audience’s wild reaction is any indication, there is a healthy appetite for the perspectives explored in Malawi Kwacha. Such playful and engaging conversation about sex and politics is not often represented in Malawi’s mainstream media.

“Most of my plays address cross-cutting social issues,” Nkhonjera says, adding that sex education in particular is very slow to reach Malawi’s public schools. “Prostitution is happening in Malawi, so let’s address it.”

While debunking some common sexual attitudes and assumptions, Malawi Kwacha also offers a history of oppression in the region, and calls on Malawians to rise up and tackle all forms of injustice.

Nkhonjera isn’t alone in his efforts to use the language of drama to enact positive social change. Mufunanji Magalasi, dean of humanities at the University of Malawi, says theatre has been used to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, democracy and voting.

“When you talk about theatre in Malawi today, the bigger portion of performances are theatre for development,” Magalasi explains.

Fueled by non-government organizations in the 1990s, researchers found that community theatre was a much more successful way to spread awareness in rural Malawi.

“In the villages they prefer performance, or something visual—something they can see and comment,” Magalasi says, noting that one study found 92 per cent of village respondents could not read a newspaper. “In theatre, the idea of interpersonal communication is very strong.”

“Theatre is personal. It’s one-on-one human contact,” Nkhonjera agrees. “It’s the human content that’s really touching.”

And lucky for Malawians, the drama comes easy.

Ghana revisited

The author says revisiting a foreign country is like rereading a book—oddly familiar, but previously unnoticed details linger. Above is Accra'a main road, Oxford Street.

“I like the way you talk to me,” says Brian, one of the many young street hawkers lining Oxford Street, Accra’s main drag, as I turn down his offer to make me a bracelet with my name on it. “You have been here before,” he declared, after hearing me speak with a slight Ghanaian accent.

Brian is right. This is my second time in Ghana and I’m surprised by how natural it feels to be here. I was here last summer for a three month stint in Kumasi, so this time around feels a bit like I’m retracing my footsteps.

It’s a very interesting process to revisit a place you’ve already been, it’s like rereading a book—you know what to expect, but you pick up on details you never noticed before. I do miss the wide-eyed excitement and the shock and terror I felt as a novice visitor to Ghana, but I’m enjoying the cosy way I have already settled into a routine and that I’m already familiar with some of the county’s quirks.

I can navigate the city without a map or the luxury of street signs and names. I enjoy riding tro-tros (a local mode of public transportation) to get around town, though I’m fully aware the vehicles are overcrowded and would likely never pass Canadian safety standards nor emissions tests.

I find myself weaving through the tumultuous traffic like a game of Tetris and leaping over open sewers, pot holes and many other obstacles in the roads with relative ease. I know that streetlights are often more for decoration than illumination and I enjoy the game of chicken I play with drivers on a daily basis—they usually swerve at the last minute in an attempt not to hit you.

I get a kick out of the how amused locals are to hear me answer their questions in Twi (the major local language) or how happy they are that I know my Ghanaian name is Akua (born on Wednesday), that the two main political parties are the NDC and the NPP, that I pronounce “Danquah Circle” (a major transit hub in the city) properly, and have tried and enjoyed many local dishes.

I can negotiate with street vendors and taxi drivers to get a fair price, I know that if someone hisses at me like a snake they are just trying to get my attention and I could swear people yell obruni (white person) at me a lot less often (though this is very debatable).

I have embraced GMT (Ghana Man Time)—I know that ten minutes actually means one hour. I’ve accepted that if somebody tells me they are “not far” that they probably are. And, I’ve realised that most meetings are thought of as tentative.

I realise this sounds like an overly romantic account of the country and I know I’m no Ghana expert. I certainly expect some paramount challenges and days when I’d like to stow myself away on plane back to Canada. I am, after all, only three weeks into my entire six-month stay. Perhaps I am still in the honeymoon phase. Maybe I am, but I’m loving it nonetheless…for now.