Tag Archives: poverty

Digging up the future

In Hollywood “romcom” movies, you’ll sometimes see the male lead whisk away his lady in a blindfold for a surprise holiday. When they arrive, he removes her blindfold and she gushes in delight. Maybe that was an episode of The Bachelor, but I think you know what I’m talking about.

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

If such a thing were ever to happen to you, and you were brought to Bureh Beach, you would almost certainly think you were in the Caribbean. Along Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula, below Freetown, there are a dozen-or-so beaches like this. The beach known as River Number 2 was used in a classic Bounty chocolate bar ad.

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Some of these beaches are just 30 minutes from the capital. For a country as poor as Sierra Leone, the potential benefits from tourism are huge. But before that can happen, the country needs to improve its infrastructure. Freetown’s international airport is currently in Lungi, at the opposite side of a wide estuary. It’s a $40, 40-minute ferry ride to Freetown (cheaper ferries take longer). Getting to a beach from the airport is a long and cumbersome affair.

The government recently announced plans to build a new airport south of Freetown, quite close to the beaches. A new road is also under construction to bypass central Freetown, giving even quicker access to the beaches. Sierra Leone is a six-hour flight from Europe, the same as the Caribbean. It would seem as though all the pieces will soon be in place for a tourism boom. One obstacle remains. Sand Mining.

Legal sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach

Sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach – where mining is allowed on a limited basis.

The recent economic growth in Sierra Leone has seen a jump in the number of public and private construction projects. Sand is an important ingredient in this building industry, and free sand is just sitting on the beaches near Freetown. For years, trucks would head to the beaches and teams of men with their shovels would spend the day filling them up. Back-breaking work, but work nonetheless. Recently, this practice has been mostly outlawed. The government now only allows mining during daylight hours at one beach at a time. But the sand mining still happens on most beaches at night time.

A guest house owner told us that these rocks were once covered in sand.

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts told us that these rocks were once covered in flat sand.

Radio Democracy Journalist Keziah Gbondo and I headed down to Lakka Beach to find out more about the effect of the mining, and the extent to which it still continues. Guest house owner Marcus Roberts took us on a tour of the beach and showed us how the landscape had changed over the past decade. He told us how visitors now complain of sprained ankles because of the unnaturally sharp slope on the beach.

Around the corner he took us on a tour of a swanky seaside house, abandoned by its Lebanese owner about a decade ago. Its pool now half-collapsed into the sea. Other residents nearby told us they now fear for the future of their own houses, large and small.

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Later that night, we walked the beach, looking for miners. For hours, all we could see were flash lights in the distance, but when walked on we saw no one, just some tell-tale trenches feshly-dug in the beach. Eventually, at 1:30 a.m. we found one miner, filling a bag and lifting it off the beach

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

He looked petrified, but agreed to speak to us if we kept his identity secret. He was in his mid-twenties and had a weak-looking right leg – an injury picked up during his days as a child soldier in the civil war. He told us he had no education, so this is the only way he can earn a living. He gets two or three dollars a night. He says police sometimes catch miners like him. They ask for a bribe rather than issuing an official fine.

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

The local police unit commander blamed a lack of resources for not being able to stop the miners. The Executive Director of the EPA told us how she values the beaches as a vital part of the country’s environment. But for now, the mining continues, and locals dig up their future, to feed themselves today.

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Keziah Gbondo’s story aired this month on Good Morning Salone on Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. The producer said it had a remarkably high response from listeners, in support of protecting Sierra Leone’s “Taste of Paradise”.

When Household Chores become Human Rights Abuses

A young girl carries a load on her head in Kejetia Market

At eleven years old, Thema, a native of Kumasi, hopes to be a nurse when she grows up. Currently, however, she is employed wandering between taxis and tro-tros at rush hour, carrying packs of ice water on her head and selling them for 10 pesewas apiece. Though in the mornings she attends school, her afternoons are spent maneuvering through traffic with practiced ease; she has been doing this for four years.

Child labour is on the rise in Ghana, and particularly in urban areas.  According to UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children Report, 34% of Ghanaian children aged 5–14 years are engaged in child labour. That figure is up from 23% in 2003, as recorded in a Ghana Statistical Survey. In Kumasi, 8% of children engage in regular work, though its harmful impacts are widely acknowledged.

“It infringes on the rights of children, it affects their health, and it may result in injury,” explained Emilia Allan, a Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Ghana. “It prevents and interferes with their education, and it leads to other protection concerns such as sexual exploitation, violence, [and] child trafficking,” she said in an interview with me for Ultimate Radio.

But many families in Ghana must depend on their young ones for financial support, and the government does not take a zero-tolerance stance on it. Instead, the recently launched National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, based on the ILO Convention No. 182, recognizes that immediately eliminating the phenomenon is not feasible, and aims to protect those children who do work from physical, moral, and mental harm. And though the minimum age of employment is 15 years, the 1998 Ghana Children’s Act in fact states that children aged 13 and older may engage in some forms of light work.

[pullquote]“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour.”[/pullquote]

The legislation is therefore realistic and rational, but does it go far enough to protect working children from harm? Should it apply to those engaged in household work – cooking, cleaning, running errands, or caring for younger siblings? What about children like Thema, who work part-time and attend school on a shift system? Are they considered child labourers, and protected under the law?

“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour,” Allan explained.

“The Ghanaian Children’s Act ensures that every child has the right to be protected from engaging in work that constitutes a threat to his health, education, or development,” she said. “So if a child is . . . going to sell and then going on the shift system, the child goes to school tired and sleepy. That is affecting the child’s education, because it is not performing,” she explained, adding, “They don’t have time to do their homework.”

She also noted that, when a child is given a load to carry on her head, though considered light labour, it can affect her physical growth and pose a threat to her development.

Legally, then, children are protected from doing any kind of work – whether “light” or “hazardous” – that might cause harm.  And as part-time and light labour can inhibit a child’s development, these should be regulated as well.  So why is child labour still rampant?

According to Mr. Jacob Achulu, the Ashanti Regional Director for the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, the root of the problem is poverty.

“The legal framework is there,” he said.  “The problem is the enforcement, and I think it’s because poverty is widespread in most parts of our country. So the ILO interventions and NGO interventions are welcome, but there is the need to have sustainable activities that will make sure the families are able to keep their children in school.”

He pointed to some district-level programs in the Ashanti region, designed to work with the parents of child labourers and help them earn additional income, rather than sending their children to work.

So while the government acknowledges that, for many families, children are important breadwinners, and continues to pursue a pragmatic approach to reducing child labour, it might be prudent to develop new ways of addressing household poverty and stymying the problem at its source.

Children in Malawi run away due to lack of food

Tikhala Chilembwe - former street kid turned aspiring doctor

Tikhala Chilembwe used to be one of many street children in Malawi, but he has since returned to school. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

Co-written with Sibongele Zgambo from Zodiak Broadcasting Station 

Its 10 p.m. in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and the nighttime vultures that characterize the city at night are out in full force.

Prostitutes prey on drunk men stumbling out of dimly lit bars, while stray dogs are on the hunt for scraps leftover from the hustle and bustle of daylight hours. These desolate streets are no place for a child to grow up, yet many often do.

A 10-year-old boy who didn’t want to give his name says he has been sleeping in a gutter outside a popular grocery store for the past three years. He says poverty pushed him into the streets after he lost both his parents to AIDS.

“Most of the time, I beg for money to buy food because I have no one to look after me,” he says. “The problem is some men at night will beat us up and take all that we have sourced throughout the day, leaving us with nothing at all”

Chimwemwe, 12, also left home with dreams of finding a better life in the big city, but his experience has been more comparable to a recurring nightmare.

“Some men rape us night,” he says “Others beat us and tell us to go away saying that we are thieves in town”

According to UNICEF, there are approximately 8,000 children living on the streets in Malawi’s major urban centers. Most of them are boys, and 80 per cent are AIDS orphans. These youngsters are often labelled by locals as purse-snatching, thugs, but the reality is that many of them have suffered unimaginable physical and sexual abuses.

Dr. Joseph Bandawe, a clinical psychologist at the Malawi College of Medicine, says that homelessness disrupts the sense of safety and security that children need, and as a result, they wander through life lacking self-confidence and being wary of adults.

“The trust and confidence that good things will happen to them is not there,” Bandawe says.

“This affects their social interactions – defining the way they’re able to relate to other people, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.”

Bandawe’s explanation might explain why many of Malawi’s street kids are tempted by a life of crime, but he also suggests that building trust and restoring family ties is imperative when returning troubled kids to school.

Chisomo Childrens Club is a local non-profit working on child poverty issues, and their main mission is to integrate youth back into an ordinary way of life. According to Irene Ngumano, a senior social worker for Chisomo, the biggest challenge in terms of rehabilitation is working with families who were willing to let their children go in the first place.

“Many families that we are working with are poverty stricken families who typically don’t have three meals a day,” says Ngumano.

With Malawi’s escalating economic problems, inflation now stands at a staggering 10.9 per cent, causing the prices of essential commodities like bread and sugar to skyrocket. This implies one thing: the number of street children is set to increase unless there is radical policy change.

But Ngumano adds that if families are facing financial difficulties, Chisomo provides monetary assistance which enables them, at the very least, to feed their dependents.

Such was the case with 17-year-old Tikhala Chilembwe who ran away from home in Grade 3. He slept under a bridge for years, until he was discovered by Chisomo social workers who reunited him with his legal guardians and resumed his education.

“My life is okay right now,” says Tikhala, with a smile. “When I’m finished school, I want to become a doctor and I am going to work hard to achieve my goals.”

Rationing Out Equality

Dakurah Rubby at Sankana Junior High School

Dakurah Rubby is from Sankana, a small rural community in the Upper West region, where many families(including her own) depend highly on agriculture and small-scale farming as their primary source of income. Dakurah is 14-years-old and the eldest girl in her family. Typically, she would have been withdrawn from school over her brothers to work for the household or the farm. Instead, she will be entering her final year of junior high school (JHS) in September, leading her closer to realizing her hopes of becoming a nurse one day. Dakurah is one of the 10,000 JHS girls from food-insecure communities benefitting from monthly take-home rations (8kg of cereals, 2 litres of oil and 1kg of iodized salt in each package) donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) over the past two years.

The Upper West region is one of the least developed areas in Ghana. Its population, along with the Upper East and Northern region, makes up 70 per cent of the 28.5 national poor living on one dollar US or less a day. Factors such as a low, or “lean”, production season (March- September) and susceptibilities to adverse weather conditions (floods and droughts) prevent abundant year-round harvests in the region, leaving many families unable to access sufficient and nutritious food or meet their other basic needs. For many, education is considered a luxury, and not a necessity when battling these realities. When sacrifices need to be made, it is most often the girls who bare more of the burdens.

Matilda Bannerman Mensah, head of the Girl Education Unit at the Ghana Education Services, adds , “there are also traditional socio-cultural practices that put preference on boys’ education rather than girls’.” According to Mensah, arranged and early marriage, female genital circumcision and bondage are degenerative practices that are still predominant (particularly in the deprived rural areas) and constitute some of the other barriers preventing a girl’s access to education.

Food assistance in the Upper West aims to alleviate the effects of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and the inequalities such conditions can lead to. Therefore, WFP’s take-home ration programme not only provides an income transfer and food relief to girl recipients and their families, but encourages their equal access and regular participation in school. In order to qualify for the ration package, girls are obligated to attend school 85 per cent of each month. According to the WFP, girls’ retention rates have doubled to reach 99 per cent attendance, with significantly fewer girls dropping out of assisted schools and continuing to higher education. The programme gives many females the chance to receive an education and pursue their dreams; opportunities many of them in the rural areas normally do not have. Even families who maintain very traditional beliefs are beginning to see the importance in formally educating their girls. “Most parents know that they will benefit more by sending a girl to school,” says Rosalia Babai, the Upper West Regional Coordinator of the Girl Education Unit.

Male and Female Students at Sankana Junior High School

As helpful as it is, the programme is unfortunately in its final phase and is supposed to be replaced by the National School Feeding Programme by the end of the year. Vital programs such as school feeding, that help address basic human needs, and that improve people’s access to equal participation and opportunity in society are crucial to the development of the country. As the National Government aims to develop Ghana into a middle-income country (by reducing poverty and accelerating the country’s economy), it (together with development partners) will need to strengthen the systems supporting its people, particularly the youth, who make up 50 per cent of the country’s population- Ghana’s capable workforce and it’s future leaders. For the northern population, further social support is needed to alleviate the burdens of poverty and to allow people (young and old, male and female) to live dignified lives.