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Mentoring media managers in South Sudan: starting conversations, finding solutions

By: Ron Waksman

Six days is just long enough to absorb the initial shock of arriving in Africa, an experience that is an all-out assault on all of your senses. My 22-hour journey ended when my Ethiopian Airlines Q400 bounced hard then settled on a crumbling runway that would likely be closed to air traffic anywhere else in the world. I stepped off the Bombardier-made plane that delivered me from Addis Ababa and inhaled a breath of 41 degree Celsius air. Exhausted and completely out of my element, I did what most of the passengers on my flight did, blindly follow other people who seemed to know their way across the chaotic ramp.

Jets at Juba Airport (Ron Waksman/JHR)

In Juba, the planes are parked like they used to be parked on game nights in the lot across from Maple Leaf Gardens, no one leaves until the guy blocking you decides to leave. I confess to being an aviation geek. If they made an air freshener or a cologne that smelled like jet fuel I’d buy it. Which is why I almost got whiplash on my way to the terminal after I spotted a dozen or so incredible Soviet-era heavy-lift cargo aircraft that I’ve only ever seen in pictures on the internet. They only fly in Africa where the climate helps preserve them and emissions standards are well, shall we say, more relaxed.

I was warned weeks before I left that people in South Sudan don’t like having their picture taken. That apparently goes double for soldiers and security officials. As I stared at these cold war era relics, I reflexively raised my camera and pointed it in the direction of the nearest Ilyushin-76. All I could think about was showing the pictures to my eldest son who is in training to become a commercial pilot.

Six days is one of JHR’s shorter ‘missions’ to Africa, but after clicking the shutter just a couple of times I came this close to becoming the first JHR trainer to arrive and be deported in under four minutes.  A 7-foot tall security officer came up behind me and yanked me backward by the camera strap so hard I almost fell to the ground. In broken English, with angrily contorted facial expressions and a death grip on my camera strap he fully intended to take my camera away. The journalist in me took over as I regained my footing and got into a tug of war with the security giant as he barked demands to know who gave me permission to take pictures. I muttered something about being an aviation enthusiast just trying to take pictures of rare Russian aircraft. For some reason that was lost on him.

Just then, the jet lag, oppressive heat and adrenaline released control of my senses long enough for me to have an ‘aha’ moment. It occurred to me that not every one of these vintage Russian cargo jets was toting powdered milk and flour, some of them, without registrations, were likely hauling weapons. In South Sudan everyone has access to an AK-47, including traffic cops.

Lucky for me, a U.N. peacekeeper from Uganda came to my rescue. The Ugandans are responsible for perimeter security at the airport. The soldier defused the situation by telling the South Sudanese security officer that I would happily erase all the images I shot, so there was no need to take the camera away. At least I think that’s what he said, because just then the security officer released his grip on the camera strap. DSLR cameras have electronic menus you call up on the LED screen in back of the camera. I brought up the menu for erasing images and showed the security officer that I had put the cursor right over the ‘erase all images’ function. Funny thing about DSLR cameras, it’s not enough to move the cursor, you also have to press enter. Thankfully, I was able to capture at least a couple of the rare Soviet aircraft to show to my son when I got home.

After I got past security on the ramp, my next stop was the Ebola testing table where I waited for 15 minutes to fill out a declaration that I didn’t come into contact with Ebola on my way from Toronto. It’s a funny thing, if you wait in the blazing hot sun for 15-20 minutes just about everyone will register a fever when they stick a thermometer in your ear.

I was met at the airport by Grant McDonald, the JHR rep on the ground in Juba. Grant is the right guy for the job. Cool as a cucumber and connected to everyone, he greeted me and arranged for a driver to meet us outside the terminal. I was so relieved that my bags actually made it from Toronto through Addis Ababa and to Juba that I didn’t mind the 30 minute wait for the driver. Grant understood what arriving in Juba must feel like to a white middle-aged guy from suburban Toronto. He put me at ease right away handing me a local cell phone so I could call home and let my family know that I hadn’t been eaten by a hyena. For many people, going to see The Lion King is the extent of their African experience. I was no different.

Everyone in Juba knows and respects Grant, from the Canadian ambassador to the local stringers and NGO representatives. Grant organized the two-day JHR event and I believe almost everyone showed up as a result of the great work he’s been doing there. I couldn’t have asked for a better host, organizer and fixer. He even arranged for some sightseeing, with very little photography, and made sure I brought home some real African souvenirs. BTW, you can transport tribal spears in your checked baggage.

Challenging roads in Juba, South Sudan. (Robin Pierro/JHR)

South Sudan – the world’s newest country – lags far behind most of Africa in economic development, human rights, the establishment of legitimate government institutions, a transparent judiciary and the emergence of a free press. Infrastructure is almost non-existent. The roads were among the most challenging dirt tracks I had ever seen. Very few are paved and the ones that are have to be evacuated when the President drives by.  Most roads in Juba are just reddish brown dust with embedded rocks, boulders or potholes holes that require drivers to move over to the other side of the street to get by or drive carefully over the obstacles. Vehicle suspensions need to be replaced often.

There is no power grid, you either have a diesel generator or you have no power. There are periods when the generators are shut down, like over the lunch hour. There is no system of delivering drinking water to the citizens. That’s why one of the first things you notice when you move around Juba, the capital city, is that the country is literally knee deep in light blue plastic water bottles. This is by no means an exaggeration, they are everywhere. Think of Tim Horton’s cups and other fast food litter multiplied a thousand times. Bottled water is the only water people have to drink unless they collect rainwater in rooftop tanks.

Diesel exhaust hangs heavy in the air, a situation exacerbated by the generators, large trucks and thousands of three seat mini-bikes that weave and dodge their way through traffic. On my final morning in Juba I was visiting a radio station for a couple of hours, when my driver didn’t show up to take me back to Logali House where I was staying. I was so afraid of missing my flight that I suspended all good sense and accepted a ride on one of these crazy motor bikes driven by a complete stranger. It was 5 minutes of sheer terror and easily one of the dumbest things I have ever done.

There is something in South Sudan that makes all the other conditions I’ve described tolerable, and that is the warmth and optimism of the South Sudanese people.

Ron Waksman in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

Ron Waksman at the Juba Telegraph. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

In South Sudan everyone shakes hands, a common and polite greeting everywhere in the world. But you notice almost immediately that handshakes in Juba linger just a couple of seconds longer than the North American or European comfort zones allow. In South Sudan, a handshake is not just a formality when people greet each other for the first time. Even people who know each other shake hands warmly when they meet again. The handshake is always accompanied by a welcoming smile and eye contact that engages you. After a couple of days in Juba, I also started to linger when I shook hands. People are genuinely interested in who you are and where you come from.

My JHR mission was different in a number of ways. Instead of the great work JHR staff do in training local journalists to do their jobs more effectively through various techniques and strategies, I was in South Sudan to work specifically with more senior media managers including publishers and managing editors. This was the first time senior media managers were assembled by JHR for this kind of training. Based on the discussions and ideas that came out of the two-day sessions, I hope JHR will continue along this path if for no other reason than to get all these senior people into one room on a regular basis to discuss solutions to common issues.

There are a multitude of seminars and training programs offered by media agencies from around the world in South Sudan. My focus on day-one was to reinforce important journalistic principles that are absolutely necessary for the development of democratic institutions and good governance. We spent some time discussing who in society journalists are supposed to represent. The concept of reporting news in the ‘public interest’ has not really taken hold yet in a country where most citizens don’t give much thought to a free press that is supposed to represent their views and hold those in power accountable. There is even a segment of society in South Sudan that takes the government’s position that any criticism at all of ministers and officials is tantamount to treason and not in the interest of peace. It’s almost as if the media exists to defend public interest, without the public really being aware of it.

Ron Waksman teaching media managers seminar, Juba - photo credit Grant McDonald

Ron Waksman teaching the media managers seminar in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

I’m very fond of saying that a journalistic principle is not really a principle unless it’s tested every so often. As a basis for discussion, I provided all the media managers with copies of the Global News Journalistic Principles and Practices. I wanted to be very careful about coming across as the ‘Great White Hunter’, there to teach ‘primitive’ South Sudanese journalists about how we do things in Canada.

I learned that while western nations occasionally invoke journalistic standards to address ethical problems, my South Sudanese colleagues live these challenges daily. For them, journalistic independence isn’t an intellectual exercise, it means successfully making it through another broadcast day or publishing another edition of the paper. Instead of lecturing, I felt it was my place to moderate a discussion whereby all the media managers felt assured they were in a safe place where they could honestly express their feelings and frustrations.

Those frustrations had to do with the dedication and commitment of their own journalists, suppression by the government and the sometimes overbearing ideologies of the aid agencies and NGOs that fund them. For much of the discussion the group talked to each other, sharing their experiences and offering solutions. Sometimes there just weren’t any solutions to be had and members of the group just appreciated the opportunity to vent. In listening to their back and forth discussions, it became apparent that for the most part each media outlet was fighting the same battles on their own. The discussion turned to the need for a ‘college’ of journalists that would represent the media industry as whole on common issues. This college would govern journalists in South Sudan by requiring educational/training standards to become a journalist, bestowing official press credentials and serve as a dispute resolution body to handle complaints from the public and government officials. An umbrella organization could also offer ‘safety in numbers’ so that individual media organizations would feel empowered and supported when the government threatened them with reprisals.

Media Managers Seminar, Juba. (Ron Waksman/JHR)

This college of journalists could also be helpful in setting out a new strategy to shift the funding model from individual journalism projects to the overall sustainability of the media industry in South Sudan. In two days of seminars we also looked at whether current media models that operate in South Sudan are sustainable over the long term. One of my observations early on was that the dozens of individual media projects underway in South Sudan may be hurting the industry there as a whole by fragmenting available funding. There are, in my opinion, too many individual journalism projects operating in South Sudan funded by the good intentions of aid and non-governmental organizations. There are too many newspapers, radio stations and TV stations operating in South Sudan as individual journalism projects. These outlets have little autonomy, unable to determine how funding dollars are spent, especially when the money originates with ideologically-driven aid agencies and NGOs. These ideals, and in some cases political agendas, do not necessarily support the goal of overall media sustainability for the future.

One of the important issues I addressed with media managers was whether they would like to have a greater say in determining where and how to invest funding dollars in their own organizations to build them as sustainable businesses. The obvious question was what happens when funding dollars for individual projects run out? Difficult decisions will have to be made in South Sudan about which projects and media outlets have a reasonable chance at succeeding as stand-alone businesses if and when funding dries up, which it inevitably does. That’s why more self-determination in where to invest available funding is so important. It was clear early on that advertising is not likely to be a sustainable model for media in South Sudan. The primary advertiser currently is the government, not commercial businesses. In a country where the government has shut down radio stations for even mild criticism, giving the same officials more economic leverage creates a clear conflict.

South Sudanese medi managers with Ron Waksman (center) after the training workshop. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

One of the strategies we discussed was a ‘media tax’ that would be levied on any and all communications companies licensed to operate in South Sudan. This would include wireless operators, who could also be required to provide push notification and text messaging services as another channel for reaching the audience with news and information. The ‘media tax’ remains an unlikely scenario because there is little motivation for the government to levy such a tax to assist media organizations critical of government services and ministers, more reason to reassess whether the funding given to individual media projects would be better spent on improving the overall sustainability of the media industry.

I thought that one of the most interesting ideas to come from our discussions was the importance of media training, not just for journalists but for government officials.

Ron Waksman and Ambassador Nick Coghlan in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

Ron Waksman and Nick Coghlan, Canadian Ambassador to South Sudan, in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

In South Sudan, Ministers often contradict each other and even the president because there is no consistent messaging. This creates confusion among the population as to who is in charge and leads to policy decisions that create chaos. Government officials would benefit from media training that would teach them why it’s in their best interest to speak with the media instead of avoiding them entirely or retaliating when they are criticized.

If the government had a more sophisticated communications apparatus the flow of information to the public would vastly improve and create more engagement in the political and democratic process. JHR could play a very useful role in educating and training the government on proper communications practice.

Thanks JHR for a life-changing experience. It was an honour and a privilege to work with Grant and the rest of the journalists and managers who attended our seminars.

Ron Waksman is the Director, Online News & Current Affairs, Editorial Standards & Practices at Global News. He travelled to JHR’s program in South Sudan as part of a partnership between JHR and  Global News, with support from Shaw Media.

JHR’s program in South Sudan is generously supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund

 

In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The three stories were about allegations that an iron ore mine company has caused flooding on farmland; allegations that a biofuel company mislead landowners about its intentions; and the issue of gender inequality in rural Sierra Leone.

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining Iron Ore site in Marampa

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining iron ore site in Marampa.

Day one did not start very well. The fan belt snapped just before our first interview. We had to wait two hours for a mechanic to fix our SUV. The heat was intense. When we did get to the village of Manonkoh, the Chief told us he has decided not to talk to the media, because he was suspended by his Paramount Chief the last time he did so. We tried to find the Paramount Chief back in Lunsar, but he was out of town.

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh.

So, onto the biofuel story. We visited the village of Warreh Yeama. Like in Manokoh, many villagers knew Fatima Sesay by name. This is her beat. These people did talk, and explained at length why* they feel mislead by Addax Bioenergy. Addax is leasing tens-of-thousands of hectares in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for biofuel.

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team.

We headed for our base of Makeni and set-up interviews for the following day with a food rights activist and the biofuel company Addax.

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they removed from fertile swampland nearby

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they say that they removed from land near the village.

On Wednesday morning we spoke to the Programme Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. It helped frame the questions* for our next stop at Addax in remote Mabilafu.

Construction is well underway at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu

Construction is well under way at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu.

We spent another hour with the company’s Health, Safety, Social & Environment Manager, who gave his side of the story. He made his case for the company’s practices, but it did not tally fully* with what villagers had told us. There was a mismatch somewhere. A mismatch that makes for a story. Things were looking up.

Centre-Pivot irrigation on one of the fields leased by Addax to grow sugar cane

Centre Pivot Irrigation on one of the sites leased by Addax to grow sugar cane.

On Thursday we started work on the gender inequality story. Logistics meant we couldn’t head to rural Koinadugu District to the northeast. But what seemed like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. First we found a school in Makeni, where the Vice Principal told us of the high drop-out rates among girls. We then went to a nearby village and met a 16-year-old girl who dropped out when she got pregnant. She told us about her family’s strong reaction*.

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba, JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba and JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo at Makeni City Hall.

As luck would have it there was a gender empowerment conference in Makeni that day. We got to interview the Minister for Gender Affairs and prominent female politicians about what can be done to improve equality for women and girls. All those hard-to-reach politicians, rounded-up in one place.

We returned to Warreh Yeama on our route back to Freetown. Villagers stood by their side of the story. Either someone was lying, or communication between the company and villagers was not what it could be. And that wasn’t all*.

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama.

Finally we managed to track-down the Paramount Chief in charge of the area containing Manokoh and the London Mining Iron Ore mine. In the space of 20 minutes he said a number of things that raised more questions* for our visit to London Mining’s office back in Freetown.

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom.

We headed back to Freetown on Thursday evening with three stories in our back pockets and a lot of transcribing ahead of us.

*Listeners to Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown can find out more when these stories air over next week.

The school chaplain, mathematics teacher, and some science students of Prempeh College.

No faith in science: a Homo sapien rights issue?

Evolution is accepted by 97 percent of scientists in the United States but by only 61 percent of the public, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2011 poll approximates that 14 percent of Canadians think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. In 2007, The Council of Europe adopted a resolution on the dangers of creationism: it “is worried about the possible ill-effect of the spread of creationist ideas within our education systems and about the consequences for our democracies. If we are not careful, creationism could become a threat to human rights.”

Africa is noticeably not playing a huge role in this discussion.

Ghana Education Services includes basic evolution in its biology syllabus for senior high schools. However, there is sparse data on public opinion.

Information from other countries indicates males with higher levels of education are the demographic most likely to accept evolution. With this in mind, I headed to Prempeh College, a prestigious all-boys school in Kumasi: they have produced the highest number of doctors in Ghana. Alumni include prominent professors, engineers, politicians and former President Kufuor.

The school chaplain, some science students and a mathematics teacher at Prempeh College.

“Everybody has the right to acquire whatever knowledge [they desire]… it makes the students more dynamic, having received from the religious point of view and then learned from the secular point of view, then the student can make an informed decision,” said Reverend Adomako, the school chaplain and government teacher.

Admittedly surprised by his liberal stance, I proposed a scenario to him: what if one of his students rejected Christian creationism?

“Me, as a minister who knows the right thing, I must use whatever knowledge which I have in order to convince student to change their mind… with reason. So it is up to me to prove that his or her view on that subject is wrong.”

Despite his firm belief in the Bible, he supports teaching both evolution and creationism. Eugene, 18, a hopeful surgeon, disagrees.

“We should be learning only creationism, because there’s only one truth. You can’t blend the two together.”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to answer the evolution question. Evolution is in contrast to what the Bible teaches: it says nothing was created out of love, but by chance,” added Richie, 18.

I raised the possibility that God created the mechanism of evolution, an idea that is increasingly popular in the West.

“The Christians who are embracing evolution… they’re getting it all wrong. They don’t know their Bible very well… if they want, we the Africans can teach the Bible to them,” offered John Danquah, a mathematics teacher.

“According to the Big Bang theory, the universe started at a mathematical point. That is nonsense… The Bible makes it clear it was God who created heaven and earth – science will never have any explanation for that,” he continued.

The conversation kept returning to the limits of science. Even if the origin of the earth is not known in full detail, is it possible for science to uncover it?

“It’s impossible. If it becomes possible for them to find out, they are getting to spirits, and science does not deal with spirit matters,” said Emmanuel, 17, aspiring engineer. “I believe religion more than science.”

As I interviewed the students, the Reverend and Danquah both made it clear that my efforts were futile because all the students agree with them.

They had a point, to some degree: approximately 63 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, and most Muslims believe in creationism as well. It is taught in Sunday schools, primary schools, and junior high schools. Most people I spoke with at Prempeh College gave me identical responses. Who would disagree with something so widely accepted as truth?

Manu, 18, an aspiring astrophysicist.

“I’ve learned that the world came into being through particles coming together and human beings evolving from unicellular organisms and progressing further to become who we are now… I do believe it. With evolution, we are able to learn more about living organisms.”

Like most devout Christians in the world, most Ghanaians believe in creationism. However, such a belief is an anomaly within the international scientific community, and it could be an indictment on the future of the nation’s scientific progress – it doesn’t have to be, Manu insists.

“Science and religion are not enemies. There are just some things that science is slow to understand, so religion [helps us] wait. Be patient, get knowledge, understand things.”

Zen and Goats: Last impressions of the little things in Tamale

I checked my phone – 9:30am. Half an hour had passed since my last meeting in Tamale was due to start. No sign of the big boss. Having waited up to 2 hours for meetings to start in the past, this was business as usual. This was my last day in Tamale and after a quick meeting with the principal it was back to packing, writing reports and saying goodbyes. I had planned for every moment to count, but this being Ghana, you have to go with the flow of the unexpected.

Rather than roll my eyes and carry on counting the goats in the courtyard, I figured this moment of calm in the warm Tamale sun on the balcony at my school was a keepsake of the bureaucratic tango of meetings in Ghana. “Remember this,” I whispered to myself.

“I am SOOOO sorry!”

I turned as I heard feet pounding and giant palms slapping the metal railing up the dusty staircase to the balcony I was leaning over.

“I had a problem with some guests. You know how they are, always rushing you around.”

It was the big man on campus, Al-Hajji Razak Saani, the recently appointed principal at the IIJ. I like Al-Hajji – he joined the school as principal at the same time I was preparing to leave.  I was gutted to have met such a welcoming man only to leave a few weeks later.  A man of the world, he spent much of his time in the US studying Communications, and the way he so authentically said “Chicaaaago” always cracked me up.

I assured him it was no problem. It had rained heavily the night before and the breeze was cool on the skin. I could have stood on that balcony for much longer, contently playing the tapes from my last six months in Tamale. But it was time for business.

Dusting off the couches with a flick of the rag, we sat down and asked each other about our families, the last meals we took and if our houses had survived the rains. All the boxes were checked.  I made a move for my bag and told him I had a gift. I handed over the tactile culmination of my time at the school: a curriculum document and guide for the jhr chapter for the next semester.

“I’ve been working on this for a couple weeks and I think it could be really useful for the school and the chapter. You guys can reference it and keep up the amazing work you’ve started.”

He brushed the cover with his hands and turned to take mine. I was taken aback but held on to see where he was going.

“You have given us so much. This book is so important to us, I can’t thank you enough.”

Being someone who is almost allergic to one-on-one praise, it was all I could do to squirm in my seat and just return the sentiments. I made a move to open up the book and walk him through it but his giant palms pressed it firmly shut.

“This program you are working on, I can’t thank you enough for the vision you have given our students. The worst thing in the world I could imagine would be to have this momentum come to a close.”

“So would I,” I said.

A montage of our workshops, brief moments in the hall, laughter, taps of chalk on board all came flooding back to me. I would have burst into tears if I hadn’t  bitten my lip so hard. “You guys have given me more than anything I could have asked for,” I stammered. “If you can keep this program going, then we will have all done our jobs.”

“I will do just that. Now tell me about this curriculum thing,” he said.

Just like the breeze on the deck and the taking of someone else’s hand in an unscheduled moment of zen, it’s the little things that have taught me can bring the biggest impact. While there was many a moment I was unsure of my impact, of what I were here to do, I’ve learned from my time in Ghana that no act is too small. Just as much, it has been in the little things, the little gestures and comments that have lead me to believe that jhr is making an impact on the lives of those it works with. Not always as grand and not always in the manner you expect, but if you keep your eyes and ears open like every good journalist should, you’ll see it.

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.

When beggars should be choosers – How the promise of remuneration is heading off freedom of movement and free choice of employment in Malawi

Not long after cutting their teeth, North American children are encouraged to call forward their dreams and consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The kindergartners’ query is not a foreign concept in Malawi – in fact, up to December 2010 Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s (BNL) Saturday paper Malawi News regularly ran a “When I Grow Up” piece encouraging parents to help their children picture and pledge their ambition for the future.

At the same time the query is not yet ubiquitous – as a country that ranks in the lowest group on the Human Development Index (171 out of 187 countries in 2011), problems such as poverty and underdevelopment mean that for many, filling their stomach is difficult enough to do without considering the most fulfilling way to do it.  And for 21-year-old Alinafe Phiri and her friends at the Nkhata Bay boma, it means that when you ask what they want, they simply tell you how it is instead.

According to Phiri, it isn’t uncommon for girls to be taken from their homes in Nkhata Bay to “faraway places” where they work as house girls.  Others are taken from their homes to work in bars.

“This is considered normal because they are paid something at the end of the day,” she said.  “Isn’t it normal for someone to be taken from their homes for work in faraway areas?  What about those that leave their villages and work elsewhere in cities or otherwise?”

No mention is made of the use of force implicated in being taken to faraway places for work – a form of human trafficking – or of unrealized universal human rights to free movement and free choice of employment.

On May 16 Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre to discuss where and why human trafficking occurs in Malawi. Photo by Karissa Gall.

To raise awareness of such rights abuses, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre on May 16.  Three panellists were on hand: Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) District Manager for Nkhata Bay Wezzie Mtonga, Nkhata Bay Police Station Community Policing Coordinator Brown Ngalu and NCA Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman.

During the discussion, Mtonga said that the area is a “hotspot of instances of human trafficking” for the purposes of labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, or domestic servitude, and that Malawian women like Phiri are the most vulnerable to being victimised “because of their vulnerability when it comes to economic issues.”

“One of the reasons people fall victim to human trafficking is they are looking for greener pastures, and when they go there, things are different,” she said.  “Malawians are vulnerable and they don’t have access to (anti-trafficking) laws.”

Osman, one of the commissioners involved in the drafting of an anti-trafficking bill in 2007, took the opportunity to stress that “the bill is ready, cabinet approved it, so what we need is parliamentarians to discuss it and pass it into law to give us a framework on what should be done and who should be doing what.”

Norwegian Church Aid Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman. Photo by Karen Msiska.

“The problem is huge, it is diverse,” she said.  “We need awareness, we need a lot of capacity building not only for the police but other service providers, and we also do need proper data collecting mechanisms.

“We do not have people coming to report on cases of human trafficking because they have been not been trained to collect data, they have not been trained to identify the victims; they have not been trained to identify the traffickers,” she continued.  “Even our parliamentarians also need training on these issues.

“A new cabinet means that new people are in place.  We need to put pressure on them to tackle these issues.”

In the interim, Osman cited Section 27 of the Malawi Constitution, which prohibits slavery, as a standing protection against human trafficking or “modern-day slavery.”  She also cited the Employment Act, the Penal Code, the Corrupt Practices Act, Immigrations policies and the Corrupt Practices Act as statutes that criminalise certain transactions appearing in the various forms of trafficking.

***

Despite Malawi having adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005 and making progress towards the guarantee of protections for children with the launch of a universal and compulsory birth registration process this March, the International Trade Union Confederation 2011 report for the World Trade Organization on Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Malawi found that, “Trafficking is a problem and is conducted mainly for the purposes of forced labour for males and commercial sexual exploitation for females, as well as child trafficking which has also been steadily rising.”

“Typically the traffickers deceive their victims by offering them false promises of employment or education in the country of destination.  In Malawi there are also estimated to be between 500 and 1500 women and children who are victims of internal trafficking,” reads the report.

“In 2009 the authorities arrested and prosecuted child traffickers who intended to deliver boys to cattle herders.  Other usual destinations of internally trafficked persons are the tobacco plantations, domestic servitude, and small businesses.”

The United States Department of State 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report for Malawi further found that while government “is making significant efforts” the country still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“Adults in forced prostitution or forced labour and children exploited in domestic service and prostitution still did not receive adequate attention and the government prosecuted no such offences during the reporting period,” reads the report.

“While one trafficking offender received a short prison sentence, most convictions resulted in sentences of fines or out-of-court settlements with compensation to victims, both of which failed to provide an adequate deterrent.”

While comprehensive anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics were unavailable, the report found that some individual districts provided data on their actions, totalling 18 prosecutions, 11 of which concluded with convictions.

“Although the government prosecuted and convicted offenders using existing legislation, only one of nine convicted offenders served jail time and sentences varied widely across district courts,” the report continues.  “Additionally, labour inspectors and child protection officers were trained to seek remuneration for workers in labour dispute cases – including forced labour – rather than to refer to law enforcement for prosecution.”

According to the report, “the government’s continued failure to seek criminal prosecution of forced labour offenses with significant prison sentences hinders an effective response to Malawi’s trafficking problem.”

In Malawi, the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Human Trafficking, led by the Ministry of Gender, Child Development and Community Development; the National Steering Committee on Orphans and Vulnerable Children; and the National Steering Committee on Child Labour have responsibility for trafficking issues.

***

Individuals who are aware of any incident of human trafficking in Malawi can contact the YONECO anonymous National Help Line for assistance by calling 8000-1234.  YONECO encourages victims of human trafficking to call the help line as the centre will mobilise to free them and provide counselling and support.

***

With files from BNL-Mzuzu Bureau Chief Karen Msiska

Witchcraft forum focuses on gendered solutions

On May 19, the International Institute of Journalism and JHR hosted a community dialogue on the issue of witch craft allegations in Northern Ghana. Twenty IIJ students, members of the Ministry of Women and Children, local media outlets and NGOs debated the role of the media concerning allegations of witchcraft in the North.

Ghana’s Upper East and Northern regions are home to seven witch camps – more than any other region. The largest camp, Gambaga, was established over a century ago and is now home to 83 women and over 45 dependent children and grandchildren.

As guests began their presentations, the bottom line became clear: accusations of witchcraft are based on gender.

“The debate is beyond whether there are witches or not. The issue is that witchcraft allegations have become a feminized issue,” said I.P.S. Zakaria, of the Department of Women and Children.

Women, often elderly and widowed, are accused for misfortunes in their villages, leading to lynching or banishment to camps far from their communities. The banishment of these women directly affects their access to hygienic facilities, education and economic independence. For many women, discrimination and the emotional stigma attached to being accused limit their ability to speak out against the issue.

“When a woman is 30, she will fight the allegations with all her power,” explained Fati Al-Hassan, president of the Anti-Witchcraft Allegations Campaign Coalition (AWACC). “But when she gets into her 50s and 60s, she begins to accept these powers and confess to these allegations.”

Zakaria finds many women are unable to act independently from their husbands, keeping them vulnerable to allegations. Many widows are accused of witchcraft so they are not entitled to their husband’s inheritance.

“If it looks like you killed someone with witchcraft, you are not entitled to the use of the property,” explained Al-Hassan.

She is no stranger to allegations, having been accused of being a witch herself.

“I love my powers,” she said. “I love the assumption that people have that I have these powers, because it gives me motivation to do the work that I do.”

Allegations follow similar trends, says Ken Addae of AWACC. Working with members of the witch camps since 2000, he has found allegations often occur in areas with high poverty levels and low education. The largest indicator is the structure of social and cultural systems that make women vulnerable, said Addae.

However, Al-Hassan finds this no reason for justify the accusations.

“Culture is dynamic,” she said. “We can’t cling to a culture and justify our actions when we abuse someone.”

Journalist Francis Npong echoed Al-Hassan’s concerns, targeting the media as those most responsible for influencing public opinion on the issues.

“The world is changing,” said Npong. “The role of the media or journalists now goes beyond just the traditional role of informing, educating and entertaining …This century needs more dedicated journalists than any other century.”

Panelists encouraged journalists to make their messages accessible to communities most likely to banish women for witchcraft. Addae suggested creatively engaging communities with traditional Dogon drum and drama troops to shift public opinion.

Addressing the crowded room of students, panelists encouraged the audience to be assertive and balanced with their reporting. They also emphasized the importance of minimizing harm.

A journalist herself, Al-Hassan envisions the media as the public face of the fight for human rights awareness.

“When people have rights, they must be made to see that they are working for them,” she explained.

The forum topic was chosen by the students themselves who have shown an interest in addressing and educating themselves on issues specific to their region.

Talking to the students, the impact of the forum is obvious.

“I have learned so much on how to report gender issues and women’s rights,” said Yakubu Gafaru, the JHR vice-president. “It was interesting to see the majority of the camps are within our region. Why not down south? It means there is something behind it, something we need to address.”

Others found the chance to work with prominent female journalists inspiring.

“We need more female role models like Madam Fati [Al-Hassan],” explained Yahaya Niamatu. “I admire the courage she has. I want to be just like her.”

Why we do what we do: rights media in Northern Ghana.

“Always leave your office door open, because you never know who will walk in,” a kernel of wisdom from my father that has always stuck with me. So when I arrived at the International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) in Tamale, the first thing I did was prop my door open with a blue plastic chair and wait to see who would walk through.

The power of an open door.

The power of an open door.

2012 marks the first year that jhr has partnered with the IIJ on a rights media program. The IIJ is the first journalism college of its kind in the Northern Region of Ghana. A campus of two rooms, 12 staff and 40 students, their aim is to educate students on professional journalism with a focus on issues specific and often underrepresented in Northern Ghana. While still the younger brother to schools such as the African University College of Communication in Accra, the number of students enrolling is growing steadily at the fledgling school in Tamale.

Mohammed is a first year student at the IIJ and was also the first student to walk through my door. He had come by to pay his fees and check his class schedule and was eager to have a chat when he knocked on my door. A former secondary school teacher and development worker, Mohammed enrolled in the IIJ to add a practical component to his passion for spreading awareness in his community.

“My goal is to give a voice to the voiceless and journalism with a purpose is my best effort to do that,” he informed me.

Only a few months earlier, a small group of IIJ students established a jhr chapter looking to bolster its presence on campus and the role of rights media in the Tamale community. I explained the concept of rights media and that there was a place for him in the jhr chapter if he wanted to join.

Mohammed grinned and placed his glasses on the table. “I knew there was a reason I came into your office today.”

He expressed a great interest in coming to our meetings and the skill set he could contribute to getting the chapter off the ground. Having only met one student so far, I was thrilled to meet such an enthusiastic student eager to get involved with rights media. We shook hands, parted ways and I went back to my desk, buzzing with anticipation for the next five months.

Later that afternoon, there was another knock on the door. Mohammed was back and he had a group of other students in tow. Their professor hadn’t shown up for lecture. Not wanting to waste time, Mohammed rallied the group and brought them to my office, asking me to lead workshop on human rights to give them a head start.

After spending my first few weeks in Tamale while the students were on holidays, I was taken aback by his initiative on his first day. Despite only just arriving on campus, he explained that he was very interested in what jhr was in Ghana to do and was just as keen to get other first year students involved in rights media on campus. I jumped at the opportunity to introduce them to jhr’s rights media pillar PANEL and discuss how we could make the most of this semester. After wrapping up our workshop, they all expressed that they would attend our jhr introductory meeting next week. Mohammed turned and thanked me for taking the time to come and talk to him and I insisted that the pleasure was all mine.

“Same time tomorrow, ok?” he said.

I nodded, trying to hide the ridiculous grin on my face. The work we are doing is meaningless without people like Mohammed  who believe in the cause of rights media. Building rapport and strengthening rights media education is a process, one that is made much more meaningful and enjoyable with students like those at the IIJ.

The success was not leaving the door open, but being inspired by who walked through it.  To see students taking initiative and seeking out knowledge, eager to see what jhr can do for them, that is where we are building success together.

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Down the road to BASCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade ‘A’ Empowerment

In June 2009, Accra High School partnered with Amnesty International (AI) for an initiative called the ‘Human Rights Friendly School Project’ (HRFSP) – a program that attempts to integrate human rights values and principles into key areas of school life.

Amnesty International has programs in 14 secondary schools worldwide, in countries like Benin, Israel, Morocco, Denmark and Italy.

According to AI: schools that work towards becoming human rights friendly institutions will act as examples – microcosms, if you will – that such a culture is achievable.

Recently I met with program coordinator Isaac Kwame Nyanteh about the program while the kids prepped for a competition they call the “Constitutional Games”.