Tag Archives: Ghana

Obruni Chief

Rod McLaren, also known as Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen, is dressed in traditional regalia for a funeral. After moving from Canada to Ghana, he was given the esteemed title Nkosuohene. Picture supplied by Rod LcLaren.

Ghana is full of people who came to the country, fell in love with it and its people, and ended up staying.

Rod McLaren’s story is a little different. Like many others, his journey took him back and forth between Saskatchewan, Canada and Ghana, but he’s also received a distinctive accolade – Nkosuohene. He is now a chief in charge of the progress of roughly 200 villages.

After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with an English degree in 1971, a 23 year-old McLaren went to Ghana on a two-year teaching contract with the then Canadian University Service Overseas, a Canadian development organization.

“When I was nearing the end of my degree I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and the idea of working overseas appealed to me. I had no idea where I wanted to go, so when the posting came up for Ghana I just took it,” he said.

He finished his contract and headed back to Canada, but returned to Ghana for a couple weeks in 1976 to pick up his future wife and take her back to Canada. They soon were married and had three children while McLaren worked for First Nation’s communities, farmed, and even opened a hardware store.

In 2001 they sold their business and moved back to Ghana to open the African Rainbow Resort in Busua, on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in southern Ghana.

Three years later, an old friend and Asante chief approached McLaren to offer him the title of Nkosuohene. It is a relatively new position in the ancient tradition of the Akan Chieftaincy – the long-established power structure of the various Akan people that populate the area around Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The Chieftaincy is a pre-colonial institution of governance with judicial, legislative, and executive powers. “The chief of a village or a town was the leader, politically, spiritually, militarily, judicially. He spoke for his people, led them in battle, and heard the cases of his people,” explained McLaren.

Although the traditional chieftaincy is active only in history books in other countries, it exists alongside the presidential system as a parallel political structure in Ghana.

Its survival can be linked to the fact that while the neighboring countries were French colonies or protectorates, Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was British. Because of the British colonial system of “Indirect Rule,” they relied on chiefs and elders to help govern the Gold Coast and the chieftaincy survived.

When the Republic of Ghana was founded in 1957, because of the Chieftaincy’s historical and cultural significance, it was agreed that the chieftaincy system should be respected. Its relevance was again guaranteed in the 1992 constitution.

The chiefs work with sub-chiefs and elders to aid the development of their areas, making provisions for water, education, roads and other infrastructure. It is an especially important role in the more rural areas where the other government has less of a presence. Once a chief dies, the elders select a successor from the region’s old families. Although their role has somewhat diminished, chiefs remain hugely important and powerful people.

“The chief is assumed to be the embodiment of the ancestors. He embodies all his people and all the spirits of the people who have gone before,” explained McLaren.

The position of Nkosuohene was the brainchild of the Asantehene, the king of the Ghanaian Asante people, a sort of chief of chiefs. The Nkosuohene is a “sub-chief” responsible for the development of the region. The title was created to honour someone who does not have to be member of a royal family and is meant to bring in people from outside the area who have a different education and new ideas.

“He [the Asantehene] was trying to incorporate people who were not necessarily members of the royal but whose education and experience who could help the people develop,” said McLaren.

It is a lifetime appointment that comes with prestige but responsibility. Along with the title, McLaren was given the name “Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen.” He is charged with overseeing development in the Edubiase Traditional Area, an area comprised of about 200 villages in the Asante Region.

“There’s quite a difference in the expectations on the chiefs in the Asante Region opposed to others. The Asante take the position a lot more seriously and don’t give it out haphazardly,” he said.

The position has been challenging; there was a steep learning curve that he was responsible for overcoming on his own.

“I really thought I’d have a vigorous training and orientation, but I ended up doing almost everything myself,” he said.

He took an active role for the first five years after the appointment, appearing at various functions, attending funerals, meeting every 40 days, and applying for countless grants.

“I tried my best to find them funding, but the proposals have never really gone that far,” he said. “I don’t know if I deserved to get the position at all. Although I’ve worked hard at doing things, I’m not sure I can show any results that can justify the hope that people have had for me.”

However, there have been successes. He says the accomplishment he is most proud of was the successful establishment of a daycare.

Currently, he divides his time between Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Busua, Ghana.

Mob justice in Northern Ghana

Men argue over the fate of the alleged thief.

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Northern Ghana is a powder keg, waiting for a fuse. Whether it’s a dispute over the enskinment of a chief or over a bad left turn in traffic, things turn violent quickly.

This week, as I was reporting on mob justice, the violence turned to me.

Walking through downtown Tamale on a sunny afternoon, I hear a commotion outside a small mosque. It isn’t time for afternoon prayers, so I am surprised to find 100 people gathered outside the doors. I look on bemused, wondering what the fuss is over. A friendly bystander gives me some context.

“There’s a thief. He’s inside the mosque. You see, them with sticks? He must stay inside or he will be beaten.”

Innocent until proven guilty. It’s a fundamental human right and the basis of Commonwealth law. Yet something tells me the mob wouldn’t be too impressed with my paltry legal knowledge.

“But the police station is just there,” I say gesturing down the street. “Why don’t they take him there?”

We are 100 metres away from the biggest police station in Northern Ghana, the district offices of the Ghana Police Service. The irony is not lost on me.

I want to start taking pictures, but first I have to assess the risks. In Ghana, violence against journalists is not unheard of. My bulky Nikon SRL is not easy to disguise. The crowd’s anger is reaching its zenith.

Comforted by the daylight and proximity of female bystanders, I start photographing. My journalistic instincts take over. I take wide shot of the crowd from a safe distance. Some women gesture at me and try to jump out of my shot, but I ignore them.

The alleged thief emerges from the mosque and the crowd swarm him, some brandishing sticks. Nursing a fresh head wound, he somehow manages to evade them by climbing into a taxi.

Bystanders observe the violence outside the mosque

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Undeterred, the mob surrounds the car, rocking it back and forth. It’s all happening so quickly, it’s impossible to see what’s happening. A few minutes pass before the car is allowed to leave.

The crowd starts to disperse. Pulses are raised and the crowd needs a new scapegoat: me. I have been ignored until this point and am surprised when a young man approaches me.

“Why are you snapping pictures?” he demands, his brow drenched in sweat

“I am just watching,” I shrug and smile. I am hoping my characteristic, wide grin will diffuse the situation.

He laughs, as if to say “silly foreigner” and rejoins the throng.

“You shouldn’t be snapping. Close.”

This advice comes from a man in a tan suit, who looks to work at the hospital.

“Why?” I ask earnestly.

The man draws closer, inches away from my face. A crowd of onlookers is now joining around us.

“Things will end badly for you. They will snatch your camera and spoil it.”

My temperature is rising. Now I am getting reckless

“Are you threatening me?” I ask. “Who are you anyways?”

The tan-suited gentleman backpeddles.

“No, I am not threatening you. You are not permitted to snap photos. Where will you put them?”

Despite his assurances that he is not threatening me, he and four onlookers are closing in on me.

Emboldened by the fact I am leaving in two weeks, I tell them what I think of their advice.

“I don’t care.”

I loop my camera around my neck, swing my backpack onto my stomach and start to walk away.

The jeering crowd follows. I hear sandals flopping against the pavement, running towards me. I brace myself to be hit from behind.

One of the women who didn’t want her picture taken is following me. She’s tall, wearing a flowery blue blouse and is livid. Thankfully her friend is holding her back, a safe 10 metres away.

Nurses observe the scrum outside the mosque

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Sal’minga,” she hisses.

She starts yelling expletives at me that I can’t print here.

I beam at her and say, “Bye bye now”.

I continue walking away.

A nurse walks alongside me and gives a reproving look.

“You cannot show those pictures,” she says, chastising me. “It is a shame to the hospital.”

“I’m a journalist,” I explain. “I am here to witness what’s happening. If you have security problems you need to fix them.”

Behind the nurse, my bullies continue to taunt me.

“Your ugly legs! Your ugly legs! Look at your ugly legs!

I continue to walk away and escape the crowd in an internet cafe.

Somehow I thought I was immune to the violence and threats; that my Canadian passport and white skin meant that the mob couldn’t come after me. I was wrong, but I am grateful I discovered this before it was too late.

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“Lutte Traditionnelle:” a photo essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Burkina Faso coach comforts a competitor after a loss.

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

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

 

 

Defending sexual minority rights

Homophobia is endemic to much of Ghanaian society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road from Jacobu to Abuakwa - Photo by Luv FM.

“The Road Not Taken”: maternal mortality in rural Ghana

My colleague and I took a two hour journey to a village outside of Kumasi to conduct interviews for his documentary on maternal mortality in the Ashanti region; we stopped at a hospital in Jacobu where the matron pointed us in the right direction.

“It’s only thirty minutes from here,” she kindly informed us.

An otherwise smooth journey began to change: potholes, ridges, unintentional speed bumps. The final thirty minute stretch felt like hours, and not just for me. My colleague, Kwabena Ampratwum, had traveled to many rural areas on similar roads but few were as rough as this.

At last, we pulled into the village of Abuakwa. Until two years ago, most pregnancies there were managed by traditional birth attendants – TBAs – who were usually untrained; then the Abuakwa Health Center opened.

Maternal mortality is seemingly low in the village: since 2010, we were told that one resident died of pregnancy complications. While this statistic sounds promising, it unfortunately does not reflect the grim reality of maternal health in the area.

The Ashanti region had 253 maternal deaths in 2011, the highest recorded in Ghana. 154 of these deaths occurred at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. Last month alone, KATH had 17 maternal deaths – including the one from Abuakwa.

Many of KATH’s cases are referrals from villages outside of Kumasi. By the time patients reach the facility, it is often too late. Part of the solution is having smoother, more efficient roads and access to vehicles. The Abuakwa Health Center does not have a car or ambulance so they depend on surrounding villages.

“The bias towards large-scale transport still exists in national governments and donor agencies, and is reflected in terms of budgets, personnel and professional training,” found a recent study from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology.

We spoke to Vida, a midwife at the center. “It becomes so difficult. Sometimes we have to send a motorbike from this town to the next village, which is almost an hour, before we can get a car to transport our clients.”

“Two weeks ago, we had a lady who was delayed in the second stage of labour,” the head nurse of the Health Center told us. “We referred her at 1 pm… we were waiting for a car, making calls… the car got here at around 5.”

They put her in a stretcher headed toward St. Peter’s Catholic Hospital in Jacobu, the first referral point. In addition to the pain of being in labour for four hours, she was taken on a turbulent route that can induce other complications for her and the child. Approximately forty minutes later, she reached Jacobu.

“The uterus could no longer contract. The lady started bleeding, so Jacobu had to refer her to Komfo Anokye,” the nurse continued.

She was then taken for an hour-long journey to Kumasi. The roads are paved but the traffic is often congested. Even when the roads are wide open, the trip is long enough to worsen critical conditions. She arrived at the hospital over six hours after her complications began.

Sadly, her story ended there.

There were multiple moments throughout the story where her life could have been saved. Inadequate resources, poor communication, and lack of personnel all likely played a role. Transportation is a particularly troubling factor, and addressing it will require a heavy reallocation of funding towards rural development.

Road from Jacobu to Abuakwa - Photo by Luv FM.

Ending Ghanaian child labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

The politics of being gay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Repatriating Ghana’s “Witches”

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

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

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

Forced Out

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

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

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

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

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

Open Arms

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

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

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

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

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

Ghanaian journalist lectures JHR chapter about rights media

Francis Npong speaks at the jhr-IIJ media forum

Photo by Robin McGeough

On May 19, the JHR chapter at Tamale’s International Institute of Journalism hosted a community forum about witchcamps.

Among the speakers was human rights journalist Francis Npong, the northern correspondent for The Enquirer newspaper. When Npong addressed the students, he gave a solid introduction to rights media in the Northern Region.

Here is an abridged transcript of his speech. For un-edited audio, listen here.

On choosing a career in journalism

“Now as journalists, if I asked this question: ‘Why are you here? Why do you want to be a journalist?’. If your answer is ‘I want to be rich’, you have chosen [the] wrong profession. I am telling you. If you say ‘I want to be loved by everybody, because journalists are supposed to be popular’, this is the wrong profession or the wrong idea … You are not supposed to be loved by any other person or to be rich. Journalism is … a profession that does reward [financially].”

On journalists’ loyalty

“The journalist[‘s] loyalty, should not be to the state. It should be to individuals and the public. I define my public as the weak, the poor, the sick, the marginalized. Let’s talk about the marginalized; those who do not have any power or the voice to say whatever they feel like saying.”

On the role of journalists in Ghana

“Now, the world is changing. The role of the media or journalists now goes beyond just the traditional role of informing, educating [and ] entertaining. The world needs journalists today more than 30 years ago. This century needs more dedicated journalists than any other century.

Why am I saying all [this]? You can see a lot of things happening… We used to say people didn’t have education, now [someone in] every house somebody has completed [secondary school] and the probability that the person reads or writes is very high.

So why are we still reporting on human rights abuses? And a whole lot of issues that do not speak well of us. That is why there is the need for us to step up [with] our profession, our education to be journalists so we can [correct] the situations that are all over … even within our houses.”

On protecting the identities of survivors of human rights abuses

“People put images of abused children, women or whoever in front [pages] without regard for their dignity… That is very bad. Recently … I published a story on allegations of witches … I put a picture and when you look at it, you will see an image but you cannot see the face. That is an aspect of human rights journalism. You see, you put the picture there and people should not be able to identify the image vividly. Because if I see the woman walking on the road, I’ll say ‘Ah, is that not the woman I saw in the papers?’. So that marginalization will continue.”

On the intentions of journalists

“Society is dynamic. Norms, regulation and rules in society can be changed depending on the activeness of journalists… But we are doing this consciously … in line with professionalism. In journalism, we call it the big five principal. In everything that you do, there must be:

  • The truth
  • Accuracy in what you are doing
  • You must be independent, do not allow yourself to be influenced.
  • In all that you do, you must be fair
  • Commitment to minimize harm in all that you do.

In Rwanda, all the genocide that happened was just [from] the pen of a journalist, who caused that mess … What have you gained from the [genocide]?

In journalism, we are writing, not because of writing’s sake. If you … want to write as a journalist, because you can to write and get a main by-line, forget it! That is not the motive for a journalist … ”

On the dangers of human rights reporting in Tamale

“When I came to Tamale, people asked ‘How can you leave Kumasi … and come to Northern Region to do what, you want to be killed?’. I said no, I want to be part of the change. If there is a change today, I am happy to be part of the change.

In 2004, when were writing issues of corruption, bad governance, women’s rights abuses … For years, I was not sleeping my house. I am telling you, some of us [journalists] survived the storm.
I came here under flying bullets, flying stones and we were there to cover live [events].

It came to a time that I was accused by a police commander … of stealing a document in his office. Look at your safety. How [safe] are you? So it was a bad time to operate as a journalist and human rights journalism was very difficult to practice. But some of did it under a disguise.”

On interviewing survivors of human rights abuse

“You don’t ask silly questions. You must know what you are all about. You must be free to let anything to go through your ears and stay in your mind. But you must be able to sieve it, to be able to make an impact that you want to.

In the witches camp or refugee camp, you will not see them smiling. [So] you should not enter there and start to smile. Look at the mood of the situation and adjust yourself to that mood. Make sure that your lifestyle attracts the person closer to you. If not, they will shy away from you. Those are some of the tricks that when you are going to approach a victimized person you must learn to adopt this style. If not, you will go and you will not come away with the story.

You must build trust between yourself and the victims.

You must never reveal your source of information.”

On gender

“You go to every sector in society and you see that men are on top. And any woman who makes it to the top, they call her a ‘witch’, ‘iron lady’ or a whole lot of names. Do you ever see a man nicknamed like that? No. We are giving our women hell.”