Tag Archives: northern Ghana

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.”

Barriers to mental healthcare in Ghana’s Northern Region

Mami Sandow started hearing voices when she was nine years old.

“She used to roam, talking anyhow, climbing some kind of trees, ” says her brother, Fatawu Sandow. ” You asked her to stop, but she wouldn’t stop. She would just run and hit anything [and fall] down. ”

Mami is 16 years old now and is being treated for epileptic psychosis at Tamale Teaching Hospital She pulls down the left shoulder of her screen-printed dress to show deep scars on the shoulder blade. Her left ear is mangled; the lobe tattered and hanging loosely. Her injuries are self-inflicted; when she hears voices she throws herself at walls to get them to stop.

Seven years ago, when Mami first started exhibiting unusual behaviour, her family thought she was just misbehaving, says Fatawu. The severity of her symptoms increased until they realized she needed medical treatment.

“We thought it was jokes [but] it came to a time, we had to send her to the hospital,” says Fatawu.

Psychiatric drugs in Ghana

Some of the drugs prescribed to psychiatric patients at the Tamale Teaching Hospital.

When Mami first became sick, the family sent her to a hospital in Bolgatanga, about 150 km north of Tamale. A private hospital, her treatment cost over 3,000 GHC ($1,500 CDN). To pay the hospital fees, the family had to sell off property and rely on remittances paid from siblings in Accra.

“We sold everything, just to take care of her,” says Fatawu.

Mami needs around-the-clock attention, to prevent her from injuring herself or others. Fatawu is the sole caregiver, because his mother and father are too busy to help. Staying at home as come at a personal sacrifice to Fatawu.

“It’s even effected my education,” he says. “I was attending [the Tamale Islamic Senior High School] … but because of the sickness, I must come home to take care of her.”

Mami’s epilepsy is treated as a psychiatric illness because of the stigma attached to her behaviour, explains community health nurse David Agyarwa. He says poor understanding of mental health issues stops patients from getting treatment.

“Most people think that when somebody suffers from mental illness it is due to sin an individual committed or the individual is demon possessed,” says the native of Accra.

Agyarwa says there is a great need for psychiatric care in Tamale, yet the hospital does not have a ward. Today he’s conducting interviews in examination room 52; an overcrowded room that houses urological, pediatric and orthopaedic appointments on different days of the week.

“We are compelled to sit at any place [in the hospital] that we can get and do our [patient] history taking,” he says.

Agyarwa says this is problem for psychiatric patients with delicate temperaments. Also, if appointments are conducted in open waiting areas, it violates patient privacy.

The Tamale Teaching Hospital unveiled a new wing on April 30, with maternity, intensive care, neo-natal, radiology and surgical wards, but no provisions for psychiatric care. The $54 million CND building took two years to build and was funded by the Dutch and Ghanaian governments.  Psychiatric patients will be housed somewhere in the new facility, says the hospital’s public relations officer Gabriel Nii Otu Ankrah.

“Because of the importance we attach to psychiatric care, the space will be created for them in the new building, temporarily,” says Ankrah. “[But] the original plan didn’t include space for the psychiatric unit.”

The Ghanian government is prioritizing mental healthcare after the March 2 passage of the country’s Mental Health Bill. The bill promises to de-centralize treatment from the three mental hospitals in southern Ghana, to community hospitals across the country.

Unaware of the government’s new mandate on mental healthcare, Fatawu is simply grateful for his sister’s new course of treatment. Mami hasn’t had a psychotic attack for one week, he says.

“Now it’s good [since] we started coming here, collecting the drugs,” he says. “Now [the illness is] no more [affecting] her, so now she is free.”

African women in media: Making waves in radio

Bridget Nambah

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

“Mostly ladies are known to be shy … [too] shy to talk in public.”

This is a strange declaration from Bridget Nambah, a DJ and talk show producer at Tamale’s Diamond FM. The 19-year-old from Ghana’s Northern Region is fighting her own stereotyping. She has been broadcasting since high school, when she snuck into public speaking seminars to learn her craft.

“In Ghana here, most often ladies don’t report,” she says.” [Producers] want the ladies to be comfortable. When they are sending out reporters, they are mostly sending out the males. A man can easily defend himself from danger but a lady cannot do that.”

While female journalists are becoming more common in urban centres like Accra, Tamale is still an outpost for traditional gender norms, says gender expert Safia Mousah. She says leadership qualities are not fostered in Ghanaian women, so they do not pursue professions like journalism.

“In our culture, the women always takes the backstage,” says Mousah, who works for the anti-poverty NGO, Action Aid. “She takes all the instructions.”

Women who are outspoken are deemed “deviant”, according to Mousah. She points to the lack of women in Ghanaian political life as a telling example of this. Female politicians are scrutinized harshly about everything from their hairstyles to their husbands; scrutiny from which their male colleagues are exempt.

“Looking at the very few women we have in leadership roles, in journalism, it’s very clear that  [society] is hard on them,” says Mousah.

Nambah credits her strong personality for her success.

“Generally in Africa, women are perceived to be relegated to the background”, says Akosua Kwartemaa, the female manager at Tamale’s Fiila FM.

Since starting at Fiila nine years ago, Kwartemaa has seen a slow progression of gender equality in media.

“Of late, things are changing,” she says. “We feel, what a man can do, we can do and even do it better.”

Tamale’s rights media crusader: The story of Joseph Ziem

Choosing a pen and paper over a bow and arrow, Joseph Ziem is the Robin Hood of Ghanaian rights media.

Joseph Ziem - advocate, journalist, environmentalist.

“When I see something wrong, I start to ask questions,” says Ziem. “Who is supposed to deal with this situation? Why is it like this?”

A blogger, a radio host, a freelance writer – Ziem chooses not to limit himself to one title. However, the focus of his pieces are clear: giving a voice to the voiceless and holding those in power accountable.

“I am a human rights journalist, I’m a development journalist, and I’m an environmental journalist; human rights journalism is in all of them,” the 28-year-old explains.

What makes Ziem unique among other journalists in Ghana is not the quantity of his stories but rather their calibre. While prominent Ghanaian newspapers are headlining “Fisherman Kills Rival” and “Robbers Rape Student Nurse”, Ziem challenges the sensational with titles such as “Disbandment of Witches’ Camps Should Not Endanger Lives of Victims” and “Costly Disasters Created By Mining Companies in Ghana”.

Ziem has made his mark on a wide array of media outlets: as a radio host for Tamale’s FIILA FM, northern correspondent for the Daily Dispatch newspaper, staff writer for The Advocate and Free Press newspapers, and most recently co-founder of the development issues-oriented blog, Savannah News.

Ziem’s interest in journalism began as if torn from the script of a Hollywood childhood fantasy: nose pressed to the glass, fogging up the window with wide-eyed curiosity. It started in 2002, when a community radio station opened up in his hometown of Nandom.

“I peeked through the window of the station and saw gadgets,” he recalls. “I asked myself, ‘How can people sit inside this room and when they talk, people just tuning their radio sets can hear what they are saying?’ I was inquisitive. When I went to senior high, I nurtured this ambition to become a broadcaster.”

However, a crusader’s path is rarely without challenges. Ziem explains that he was unable to complete high school, only half a percent shy from making the minimum grade of 50 per cent to move up a grade.

“I was sacked. I think somebody was in there to get me out of school,” he confides.

Unable to make the grade, he was denied entry into his final years of senior high and moved south to Kumasi to recalibrate his future with broadcast journalism.  Not letting his academic standing stop him, Ziem was determined to carve a new path to his dream. Six months later and six cedi lighter for the application, Ziem enrolled himself in broadcasting school.

After four years in the industry, Ziem was awarded the 2010 Kasa Media Award for Natural Resources and Environmental Journalism.

He still remembers the call from Kasa Media.

“I just knew I had won. When they said congratulations, I said Hallelujah,” he says.

Ziem wrote the award-winning article in response to foreign gold mining activities in Northern Ghana. Mining is one of Ghana’s largest industries and yet the government only sees a fraction of the royalties.  His article highlighted the effects of desertification wrought by mining activities in the North and the impact on many surrounding communities’ ability to access to clean drinking water. Ziem advocated that the environmental and health risks to the nation were not worth the profits evidently escaping the country.

Word came back to Ziem about other stories as well. A community in the East Gonja region of Ghana faced constant power outages by the Volta River Authority (VRA). The community advocated several times to the VRA regarding their right to electricity, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Ziem wrote a story for the Daily Dispatch advocating that the VRA address their concerns. It was passed on to the Accra head office and the resolution caught the attention of the wider community.

He admits that there is not much money to be made in journalism in Tamale. Journalists in town earn between 50 to 70 cedi a month (around 30-40 CAD). However, Ziem’s affirms that his passion is rooted in the positive effect journalism can have on improving the standards of living in communities and the environment.

In journalism, he says, “if you want to be rich, do not come. But if you want to save humanity, you are welcome.”

Despite choosing silver-framed sunglasses and a well pressed shirt over a green cape and tights, the fervour for justice remains the same.

“Until I see nothing wrong around me,” he says, “I won’t stop writing.”

Alleged rape by Ghana’s joint military-police remains unsolved

Madam Adija says she was beaten while six months pregnant and as a result her child was born with a birth defect on his skin.

Two years after the military and police allegedly attacked, robbed and raped residents of the town of Nalerigu in northern Ghana the case remains under investigation by the Ghana Police Service.

On November 14, 2009, the community was placed under an illegal curfew by the joint military-police after the murder of a local politician. Ten days later, residents say, the situation spun out of control.

One of the victims said she was at home when military officers entered and began beating and interrogating everyone inside about the recent murder. The officers later cornered her and two other young women in their room.

“They said that we should all lie down. And they said that do we know something? And we said no. And they said that now, whether we like it or not, whether it’s false or we really like it they will rape us,” she said. She was 16 years old at the time and is one of five young women who reported being gang-raped by at gunpoint by officers that night.

The following morning the community reacted. The District Chief Executive picked up the alleged rape victims in his official vehicle and drove them to the hospital where medical reports and samples were taken. Interviews were given to a several national media outlets with footage showing injuries sustained from beatings and damaged property. The local office of Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) wrote a report based on victim testimony. The International Federation of Women’s Lawyers (FIDA) caught wind of the story and released a press statement demanding justice for the people of Nalerigu.

“No court, no anything, up to now, so we don’t know, the case just ended like that, we don’t know. But we can’t do anything, so we are just sitting we don’t know what is going on,” said Mahmoud Fuseini, who claims he was also beaten by the military that night.

When contacted the Ghana Police Service refused to go on record, but offered to give an update on the status of the case: the semen sample taken from one of the girls is still sitting in the National Crime Laboratory and they have yet to receive the results.

“They keep saying ‘we’re investigating’ but if an independent body is investigating than it means a policeman isn’t calling a policeman. If you see the manner in which people have suffered it will tell you that if it goes unheeded, if there is no action that is taken about it, the democracy in Ghana is a mere mockery,” said Sule Salifu Soya, East Mamprusi District Director for CHRAJ who wrote the commission report. Soya says the police should never have been put in charge of the investigation.

FIDA’s Northern regional coordinator, Saratu Mahama, said her office is still considering petitioning Ghanaian Attorney General Martin A. B. K. Amidu.

“We know that Ghana’s military and police are respected not only in Ghana but in the international circles. If such a thing should happen it should not be swept under the carpet,” she said.

On a recent visit to Nalerigu, Mahama said she was met with several inquiries from residents wondering how the case is progressing.

“They feel that the law has failed them, the system has failed them. It looks like somebody somewhere is not listening. So we want the people to listen,” she said.

Ghana’s youth leaders urged to resist inciting violence during 2012 election

Ghana has long been regarded as a beacon of hope in West Africa and the world will be watching in 2012 when it will mark its 20th anniversary of peaceful democratic elections. In the meantime, leaders here are taking steps to ensure youth activists aren’t lured into jeopardizing that landmark.

“(Politicians) say look at you all you have no jobs, when I come to power I will do A, B, C, D for you. Once you do that, it has the potential to incite the youth to engage out of lawlessness during election period, ” said Stephen Azantilow, Regional Director of Ghana’s Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ).

Azantilow chaired a workshop in Tamale in early October where youth leaders from Ghana’s three northern regions were invited to discuss the illegality of accepting money or favours for votes and the importance of integrity and peace during elections. The event was organized by the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition, made up of public, private and civil society groups from across the country.

Calvin Rashid Yahaya, Student Representative Council President at Tamale Polytechnic who participated in the workshop said election violence is a trickle-down effect. Politicians make promises to youth leaders, then those youth leaders in turn gather what are known as foot soldiers – mostly underemployed and illiterate – and pay them small fees to steal ballot boxes and cause other disruptions.

“Most youth they don’t even know what they are about. The law is not available, it’s not made available for them to read. They don’t know why they are fighting. They don’t know why they are lobbying for this person,” he said.

But Kojo Tito Voegborlo, Secretary for the National Commission for Civic Education who also spoke at the event, was quick to challenge him. “There’s a linkage between poverty and some of the ills that go on in the electoral system. But I can also tell you that a large chunk of those who are involved in malpractices are people who are well-to-do. The youth activists who are sitting here, many of them are at least university graduates others Polytechnic, they are well-to-do,” he said.

Here in Northern Region, where tribal violence is not uncommon, political affiliations often run along tribal lines. The 2008 elections saw an outbreak of violence in the region when foot soldiers for the two major political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) clashed at the polling stations. Meanwhile, all over Ghana foot soldiers recruited minors to register and vote in strategic regions, a practice called bussing. Nevertheless, after a tight race NDC leader John Atta Mills was declared victorious, and NPP leader John Kufour stepped down willingly after having served two terms.

Sandra Auther is the Programs Officer for the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition and is organizing these dialogue sessions with youth in trouble spots all over the country.

“Election without peace is chaos. So we’re looking at the fact that with the integrity that they build, they will not give themselves out to people to indulge in things that will destruct the peace of this nation. That at the end of the day, our election goes peacefully and nobody loses their life, we don’t want to be like other countries that we are experiencing around us,” she said.

Yahaya said he fully grasped the meaning of the event, quoting John F. Kennedy’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

“At the end of the day politics is not do or die, it’s not a win or lose affair. When you lose you need to sit down as a team and say – what actually lead to you being at the negative side? It’s about learning. The room for improvement is the best room,” he said.

Combatting botched abortions in Northern Ghana

Safia Zakaria works holidays and overtime to treat women coming in with abortion complications

On August 4 a teenage girl walked into Ghana’s Tamale Teaching Hospital (TTH) bleeding from her uterus. She had taken Cytotec, a drug meant for stomach ulcers that can induce abortion. Three hours later she had bled to death.

An average of over 40 women a month have been admitted to TTH with complications from at-home abortions in 2011. Their methods are numerous – some have inserted concoctions into their uterus, others have used broken bottles to try and remove the foetus or some ingest black market drugs. Abortion is a leading cause of maternal death in Ghana.

Safia Zakaria is the principal nurse in the gynaecology ward in the predominantly muslim Northern regional capital. Though at first she often counsels women to keep the child, she has chosen to loosely interpret Ghanaian law and performs abortions with NGO-donated equipment.

“Me in particular, I swore never even to do it, but there are instances that you put yourself in her shoe that you do, just to save life. They bleed and there’s no more blood in them you see only serum, in fact they just die. It’s so painful,” she said.

In Ghana abortion is a criminal offence with practitioners facing a penalty of up to 5 years in prison. The law was liberalized in 1985 making abortion legal if the physical or mental well-being of the pregnant woman is threatened, one of the most liberal policies on the continent. However the practice is frowned upon and many are afraid to seek safe abortion services for fear they will be stigmatized.

The lack of clarity in government policy is a reflection of the ongoing struggle in Ghanaian society – a race towards modernity running up against limited resources and deeply traditional beliefs.

Dr. Husein Zakaria is executive director of CODYAC, an Islamic youth centre in Tamale that seeks to address key issues affecting the lives of young people. He conceded that the young women showing up at TTH need medical care, but does not support offering them abortion services.

“The kind of legalization you are talking about is where everybody can walk to the doctor and say I’m pregnant I don’t want it please just quash it. I think that system is not the best for people like us,” he said.

Dr. Zakaria contends that if the Ghanaian government were to give full-fledged support to abortion, places like Northern region, where the majority of the population is illiterate, would experience mass abortion.

In the meantime, to curb the growing problem of teenage pregnancy his office encourages abstinence, he said, adding they do not promote the use of contraceptives. “Speaking from a religious perspective, we don’t see why we should prescribe mechanisms for people to go into sin,” he said.

However Safia is adamant that the only thing that will reduce the number of suffering young women coming into her ward is more education on the importance of using birth control.

In mid-August a mentoring camp funded by USAID was held in Tamale for 210 teenage girls shuttled in from all over Northern region. I watched as the young girls sat in rows, all with shaven heads as is the tradition for young women in Northern region, attentively listening to an educator beg them to be sensible with sex.

“If you haven’t tasted it before, my dear daughters, don’t taste it. Don’t even make an attempt. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” they replied in unison.

“If you have tasted it before, please, next time you are going to do it look for condom. Don’t do it raw. Is that clear?”


Safia said in the event of an unwanted pregnancy she wants young girls to come see her first before attempting abortion at home.

“There’s no point hiding something and it’s killing you. Anyone shun on them, I ask, are you free? Haven’t you done it before? It’s rather unfortunate that it’s come this way so let’s help them.”

The cynic in me gets a slap in the face

Every once and awhile the generosity of strangers can floor you.

The community of Fishula is a 15-minute drive outside the bustling regional capital of Tamale. Despite the nearby streetlights, restaurants, colleges and swimming pools in Tamale, Fishula’s water comes from a dirty well, there is no electricity and worst of all, an entire generation has not received any formal education.

An elder in Fishula shows Diamond FM's Maxwell Suuk the well they use for drinking water

Politicians in Ghana will often use distance as an excuse for depriving rural villages of basic services but clearly that wouldn’t fly in this case. I travelled to Fishula with a district assembly member and Maxwell Suuk, a reporter at Diamond FM.

When visiting any rural village in Northern Region it is customary to go and visit the chief to pay your respects. He usually lives in one of the larger mud huts and if he is Dagomba – the majority of chiefs in this region are – you enter, squat and clap your hands quickly and gently and say “naa…naa…naa” over and over again.

You inevitably are asked to offer kola. In the not-too-distant past, this actually meant a kola nut exchanged as a symbolic gesture, but with the influx of NGO’s to Northern Ghana and as modern comforts slowly seep their way into villages it usually means cash, especially if you are visibly Western.

I sat quietly on a goatskin waiting to be asked for kola. I huffed and puffed internally – at times I felt like a walking ATM. Pleasantries were exchanged in Dagbani for what seemed like an eternity and as Max tried to wrap things up I could sense he was anticipating the same thing as me.

Suddenly a procession of men entered carrying a heaping bowl of groundnuts, a bag of guinea fowl eggs and a huge duck.  It was a knobby, red, ugly duck that screeched and flapped as it tried to scramble lose from the man’s sturdy grip. I stared in disbelief at Max as it became clear the chief of this incredibly poor community wanted to offer us gifts for coming to hear their plight.

I put up my hands to protest. The district assembly member mumbled under his breath to me:  “you cannot refuse, you will insult him.”

My mind began racing wondering how I was going to carry the struggling duck as effortlessly as this man from Fishula. I couldn’t smile at Max, fearing one of us would burst into laughter.

We thanked him for the gifts and asked the man to carry the duck to our Tamale-bound taxi and stuff it in the hatchback. It squawked and kicked as we laughed the whole way home. I called my Ghanaian host family to tell them I was bringing home a surprise.

The following day my grandmother yelled for me to come outside. She wanted me to come see how well she had roasted my poor friend – here in Ghana animals are rarely recipients of generous treatment.

Monkey business in Northern Ghana

I snapped photos of the setting sun over Ghana’s Mole National Park, not wanting the day to end.  As I turned around I realized I was not alone.   About ten feet away on the path leading to my chalet sat a female baboon staring expectantly at me.  I let out a piercing scream and began pounding on the door.

Irrational reaction?  Maybe.  Conventional wisdom says I should have shown-no-fear and charged, but if you had seen those teeth…

As the sun sets, a baboon relaxes at Mole National Park.

We had spent the day touring what the Bradt Ghana guide calls the “linchpin” of Northern Ghana’s tourist circuit.  Mole National Park is known as one of the cheapest ways in Africa to go on safari, but also an example of failure on the part of government and local communities to capitalize on tourism potential.

The park is served by a bumpy dirt road that takes hours to travel by an unreliable twice-daily bus service from Tamale, the regional capital where I live.  Many locals have lamented to me that if only the government paved the road, more people from the wealthier, more populated South would visit the park.

The only accommodation available is the Mole Motel, built in 1961.  Lack of competition has allowed the motel to charge almost double the standard Ghanaian prices for meals, drinks and rooms despite the basic décor and only periodic running water.  These drawbacks are compensated by a viewing platform metres from the swimming pool that overlooks two popular waterholes often frequented by elephants.

Perhaps most frustrating is that the 4, 480 square kilometre park can only be visited by walking a small area around the hotel or driving along 40 kilometres of road, providing a mere peek at the landscape and its wildlife which includes elephants, hippo, buffalo, primates and several species of antelope and birds.  The lack of surveillance has also created a haven for poachers – during our short time we heard the sound of gunfire come from the park.

That’s not to say we had no encounters with the animals nor that our time was a waste.  Our foot safari had barely left the information centre that morning when we witnessed four male elephants gracefully lope within a few feet of us as if we weren’t even there.

The baboons, however, were very much aware of our presence.   We were warned not to carry the black plastic bags used to carry food in Ghana and that “they don’t like girls.”

Back at my chalet my gender status crossed my mind as I looked at my camera case – black bag.  Half-asleep, my boyfriend opened the door to the darkened hotel room and I charged past him.  The baboon was slamming against the door and turning the handle, trying to get in.  I felt something brushing against my leg and let out a blood-curdling scream.

“What are you screaming like that for?!”

I realized he had won the fight with the baboon over the door handle and it was my camera case strap I had felt.

Later on in the hotel restaurant we heard several similar stories. One man woke up from a nap to find a baboon in his bed. A fighting match ensued and he had bruises to prove it.   We witnessed another German man get  mugged by a baboon for the black bag he was using to carry a towel. Mixed feelings of humour, anger and fear prevailed – we were being ambushed.

The sole fearless warrior among us was Joshua, a seven-year-old who lunged at the baboons with fire in his eyes, whipping a stick on the ground and fiercely whispering nonsensical threats.  His hotel room was next to mine so we tasked him with escorting me to and from my door.

If there’s anything I noticed about Mole, it is the solidarity among tourists who sit bouncing and jolting along that road through Northern Region to be overcharged and under-serviced.   We all agree – the chance to walk among and in some cases clash with the animals makes it all well worth it.

How to make a comeback in Tamale

As we approached her small dress shop housed in a shed by the roadside, Fadila stood tall in her stunning dress and headscarf and welcomed us warmly in Dagbani.   Her attempts to help me reply in the local dialect were met with giggles all around from the young women sitting at her sewing machines.   Not all young women in Tamale have reason to carry the easy smiles they do.

There are many organizations here trying to empower women to earn their own incomes.  The dusty Northern town of Tamale is often referred to as the NGO capital of Ghana, a West African country known for attracting large sums of foreign aid.   Walk down any street of this regional capital and you will be bombarded by signs – UNICEF and NORSAAC, WFP and GIGDEV.  You have  now entered a world of endless development organization acronyms.   Walk down any street, though, and there are still signs of poverty at every turn.  It makes one question what these organizations really accomplish in this, one of the most impoverished regions in Ghana.

“Have you been to Kayayei before?” we asked Fadila behind a closed door away from her colleagues.

“Yes,” she answered calmly.

A glaring indication of this poverty are the droves of Kayayoo – Northern girls who escape scarce employment opportunities by migrating to the larger cities in the South to work as head porters.  In the capital city of Accra they weave in and out of traffic, artfully carrying heavy trays on their heads selling whatever products or produce people will buy.

Looking back, Fadila said nothing had prepared her, a 20-year-old girl from the rural community of Kakpayili, for the living conditions she would face over 600 kilometres away in Accra.  She described sleeping more than 20 girls to a room where the landlord had absolute power to squeeze as many girls as he wanted inside.  She was making a maximum of 5 to 10 Ghanaian Cedis a day ($3-$6 CAD), but sometimes nothing. Her dreams of saving enough money to buy goods to bring to her marital home were not being realized.  Her family didn’t even know she was there –  she was too ashamed to tell them she was working as a Kayeyei.

The girls she lived with were desperate.   Fadila’s tone became stern.  “It would sometimes lead them to do things that they didn’t intend to do…because you want to survive, in the night, you would definitely make yourself available to any man who wants to achieve his aim and give you some money, so that the following morning, you can get food to eat.”

It has been well documented that many of the girls end up living in unsanitary conditions and are often subject to physical and sexual abuse.  The Kayeyei migration phenomenon is the subject of much talk in Ghana, and these  young women have become a symbol of the socio-economic gap between the North and South.   Despite programs like the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA) introduced two years ago, experts say the government is not moving fast enough to improve the lives of those in the three northern regions of the country.

Fadila decided to return North and come home.  “I came because I knew I couldn’t sustain myself on that kind of income.  So I came to learn a trade which I believe can sustain me,” she said.

She managed to get herself enrolled into the Ghana Young Artisans Movement, an NGO run by locals and funded by international institutions. GYAM recruits underprivileged youth and teaches them how to sow, die cloth or some other skill in order to provide them with a form of sustainable income, and helps them set up shops.  Fadila said she thinks the government should fund more programs like this.

“Trying to compare the past and now, now is far far better,” she said, adding she has achieved financial stability and is able to save money like she never could before.   She  said getting accepted into the Tamale-based NGO program changed her life.

Fadila did not accept the fate of a kayeyei in the streets of Accra

Fadila did not accept the fate of a kayeyei in the streets of Accra