Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The politics of people

I’m more curious about the lives of strangers when I travel. For example, one day last week, Renee and I were eating lunch in a small restaurant in Ho, the town in the eastern part of the country where we were conducting workshops. A man sat down at our table because there was no empty one available, and before long we were engaged in conversation. He worked at the nearby credit union and was deeply interested in politics and journalism. We told him about our jobs and the work we were doing here in Ghana.

He invited us to tour the credit union after we finished lunch. He introduced us to his employees (he turned out to be the manager) and then we sat down in his office to chat further. He was interested in running for political office in next year’s parliamentary elections, as a member of the National Democratic Congress (NDC). The NDC is the Ghanaian equivalent of the Liberal Party (pro-business but socially left-leaning). The National Patriotic Party (NPP) is the equivalent of the Conservative Party. We left his office after about a good chat about the similarities and differences in Canadian and Ghanaian politics.

Later that afternoon, I struck up a conversation with the owner of inn I was staying at. He had been to Canada once, he said, when he visited friends in the U.S. about 20 years ago. He stayed in Vermont, a short drive from Montreal. He said he was studying at a university in the Soviet Union at the time, and was offered a chance to take a trip to the U.S. Most people that you meet here associate Canada with its big cities – Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. I explained to him that I was about 1,000 kilometres away from Montreal. He was blown away by the distance, a common reaction here because Ghana is geographically so small (not much bigger than New Brunswick).

He was a farmer as well as an inn operator, he told me. He had about 100 hectares of maize on land east of Ho. This led us into an interesting discussion about economic development in the country. He said it’s difficult to make money because so many people are growing maize. This is the case in Ghana and throughout Africa, so it’s difficult to sell it at home or export it. Commercial farming is small-scale; most people farm just to put food on their own plates (in fact, more than 50 per cent of the economy is based subsistence farming). He also told me that rural development is neglected in favour of the cities, a familiar complaint in Canada too. Many of the young people here move to Accra or other urban centres because that’s where most of the jobs are.

Party politics and out-migration…I crossed the Atlantic to sub-Saharan Africa just to have the same kinds of conversations I have with people I bump into at the City Market!

- Mark

Friday, February 23, 2007

A sorry spectacle

The open sewers are a real hazard here, as Janet and I have both mentioned in earlier posts. Janet accidentally stepped into one at night a couple of days after she arrived. I learned early on to keep a close eye on the road...or so I thought.

I was walking down the side of the road one night last week, heading toward a tro-tro stop. There were no street lights and I was keeping a close eye on other people nearby because there are muggings here at night, and you have to be careful. Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention to the ground below and stepped into a pothole. It was very dark so I really had that feeling of the ground disappearing beneath me. Though the hole was three-feet deep I didn't really hurt myself - a slightly twisted ankle and a nick in my shin.

As fell into the hole and then proceeded to pull myself out, three young guys came running toward me. "Sorry, sorry!" they cried, and helped me to my feet. I thanked them and went on my way. It struck me as odd that they apologized - after all, they didn't dig the hole or push me into it!

I thought back to this incident yesterday. I was conducting a workshop in Ho, a town in the eastern part of the country (pictures and a full report to come sometime next week!). On the last day of the workshop, I was cleaning up the conference table and accidentally knocked over a bottle of water. It fell to the floor and splattered all over my pants. One of the Ghanaian journalists came rushing over. "Sorry, sorry!" he said. No problem, I said. I'm ok. Again, I thought to myself, why is he apologizing. I brought this up with my colleagues over dinner. They told me it was customary for people to say that, but they weren't apologizing in the way I understood. Rather, they were sympathizing with me, as in "I'm sorry that happened to you."

I had thought it was some kind of Canadian thing. You know how we apologize for every little thing, even when we're not responsible or when it isn't even something worth apologizing for?

The next time something like this happens, I think I'll introduce them to two other Canadian mannerisms - self-deprecation and sarcasm.

If they say sorry, I'll say, yeah, I'm sorry too - sorry I'm always such a clutz!

- Mark

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Black Saturday

As our tro-tro pulled into the bus station on the outskirts of Accra, we were met by a sea of black. Women wearing impressive black dresses and men wearing traditional black cloth thrown over their shoulder milled about waiting for a bus to take them into the mountains, an hour’s drive from the city.

We had been invited to attend a funeral in the mountains by a man named Eric. The funeral was in a town called Larteh where his mother and father had grown up. He had been raised in the city, but because his father had five wives, and his mother had 14 siblings, he had many aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters residing in the area.

In Ghana, funerals are community events that only happen over weekends. They last three days, and during this time, anyone connected with the family or wishing to pay respect, wears black. We were told we were welcome to accompany Eric to the event as long as we wore black.

Mark and I searched our closets and came up with black golf shirts to wear. We weren’t nearly as elaborately dressed as everyone else, but at least fit the theme.

Following the flow of black onto buses, we too found a seat and started the journey into the hills. We arrived before 9 a.m. as we’d chosen to travel early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.

Larteh is perched on the top of a small mountain overlooking a large flat plain that stretches into Accra. As our bus pulled into the town, I was surprised to see a place that looked more like an ancient European settlement than an African one. Houses are built out of concrete and are closely connected to one another by a maze of narrow alleyways, also made out of concrete. Walking through the town was a treat following weeks of walking along dirt paths in Accra. The place seemed clean, prosperous, and friendly.

The streets were filled with people dressed in black. It was clear the entire town had come out for the funeral. We were soon told there were three different funerals all happening on the same day. People from the same tribe will travel up to 5 hours to attend a funeral so the town had likely doubled its weekday size to accommodate all of the travelers.

Eric led us to his grandmother’s house where we met some members of his family. We were then ushered to a local bar, where other relatives, including his mother, were gathered together drinking Guinness. The bar was full of people dressed in black. We were offered a drink, but as it was only 9 a.m. declined the invitation and settled instead for a Fanta.

Eric guided us around the town, pointing out places of interest and introducing us to a continuous stream of relatives. There didn’t seem to be any kind of schedule for the day, and everyone seemed to be casually strolling from one place to another without any clear direction.

Mid morning, Eric told us we should follow him to meet the family in mourning. We followed him blindly through narrow alleyways, past throngs of people in black, until we reached a small room. Inside the room lay the body of the dead man. He was covered with luxurious cloth and surrounded by plastic flowers.

We were ushered into the small room and stood on one side of the bed. On the other side of the bed was what I presumed to be two of the man’s wives. We were instructed to approach the bed and touch the man’s chest three times. Each time we touched the chest, we were to say “I’m sorry”. My eyes widened at the instructions, but I did what I was told. We were also told our words would help whisk away the spirit. I looked back at Mark hoping he could go through with the ritual without fainting. (Editor’s note” Little did Janet know that Mark had grown up Catholic and been exposed to dead bodies at funeral homes at a very young age. His uncle John works in a funeral home. He can still remember the time, when he was very young, that he stumbled upon a body being prepared for burial).

Near the end of the day close to 500 people gathered at the town cultural centre. At one end of the square, five men on various sized drums beat out a rhythm to summon people to the ceremony. The drumming became more frantic as the crowds grew. Once the area was full of people, a woman dressed in elaborate clothing danced around the square. Her goal was to collect money from the mourners to help pay for the funeral. She would move in and out of the crowd, while people placed money in pouches she had hanging from her dress. Funerals are very expensive because of the number of people who attend, and we were told if they don’t collect enough money, the eldest son is handed the burden of covering the shortfall.

During the drumming ceremony, periodically the dancing money woman would take a break, and a group of women would come forward with gifts for the family. All the gifts were elaborately wrapped in shiny steel pots. They included things like candy, alcohol, and various other food items. We were told the groups of women coming forward are often the dead man’s wives and her children. It appeared that women from other families came forward as well.

The last group we saw offer gifts brought a goat. The goat’s eyes were covered with a blind fold and he frantically tried to run away. At one point a man came forward, grabbed the goat by the fur and thrust it in front of the family. Mark and I were worried they would sacrifice the goat in front of us. Thankfully the blind fold was only intended keep the goat calm.

It looked as though the drumming and dancing ceremony would go on until the early hours of the evening. We needed to head back to the city, so after a quick visit to meet the Chief, we boarded a bus back to Accra.

Editor’s note: Janet omitted the story about our visit with the local chief. Just as we were about to leave town, I whispered in the ear of Eric’s uncle, “is the chief here?” Eric’s uncle took this to mean that I would like to meet the chief. The next thing I knew we were being led through alley ways and into the courtyard of a housing complex. We sat down in Chairs lined up in a row. Ten minutes later, the chief emerged from behind a door that had strings of beads from the top of the door frame to the ground. He sat down beside us and we were introduced by the uncle. He made a point of chastising his nephew, saying he should have known to bring us over the moment we arrived in town.

In a communal gesture, we all had to down a shot of Schnapps. We were told that if ever we came and ran into trouble, the chief would be there to help us out. He was also the go-to guy if we wanted to acquire a piece of land for a house, a school, or anything thing else we might want to construct (one of the responsibilities of the chief is distributing land to citizens and newcomers).

We were ushered out when people from the funeral party popped in for a visit.

- Janet

Janet gives her address to a few children in Larteh who want to write to Canada

Eric, our host, sits beside Mark on the porch of a house his uncle is building

One of Eric's uncles at the local bar

A young boy moves to the rhythm of the drums during the funeral ceremony

Crowds of people watch the drumming ceremony on the main street of Larteh

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Chocolate Day

I woke up this morning, prepared some coffee and went out to the porch to join Janet for breakfast. On the table was a plate of pita, bowls fruit, and…CHOCOLATE! Three boxes of it – fudge cookies, mini-bars and a chocolate key! Yes, a chocolate key. Presumably to dear Janet’s heart! On the box it said, “Happy Chocolate Day” Not Happy Valentines Day. Happy “Chocolate” Day. I was feasting on cookies as Janet was leaving for work. “Save some for me,” she said.

This year, the Ghanaian Ministry of Tourism and the Ghana Cocoa Board launched a public relations campaign to change Valentine’s Day to Chocolate Day to boost cocoa sales across the country. Cocoa has long been one of Ghana’s biggest export products, but it’s not consumed much at home.

In today’s edition of The Statesman, a daily paper in Accra, the tourism minister blames the dieting industry for giving chocolate a bad name. “Ghana produces the best chocolate in the world,” said Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey. “We as a country have been very remiss at attacking the enemies of chocolate.”

He goes on to say that chocolate goes well with spirit of Valentines’ Day. It activates our endorphins, he said, the same that are produced when you are in love. “So if you eat lots of chocolate, you have the same glow that you get when you fall in love,” said the minister.

Many of the newspapers and radio stations are going along with the new theme. “Chocolate is the food of love,” reads the headline on the front page of The Statesman. At the top of every page, it reads, “Special Chocolate (Valentine’s) Day Edition.

The Heritage, another daily paper, wrote an editorial that said eating chocolate was a patriotic act. “Let the authorities utilize the chance well this and subsequent years. Today, as many as possible school-going children should be given chocolates to enjoy.”

The paper also talked about an added social benefit of phasing Valentine’s Day, which encourages young people to get a little too friendly with each other. “It would do our nation a lot of good, if we did away with the practice whereby out students and other youth…take their friends out for amorous acts most of which end up in unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases.”

I’m reluctant to make fun of this argument because this is a serious subject here, with half a million infected with HIV/AIDS. It just seems like a clumsy way of trying to manipulate kids into not having sex – but aren’t adults everywhere a bit off the mark in their well-meaning, but ill-considered efforts to keep kids in line?

One Ghanaian thought promoting chocolate on Valentine’s Day dishonoured the man who introduced the cocoa bean to Ghana – Tette Quarshie. He should get a day all to himself, said Nathaniel Davies in a letter to The Daily Graphic. “I humbly propose, as a more patriotic alternative, that Tette Quarshie’s birth date or some other significant date connected to him, should more conveniently and satisfactorily be made Chocolate Day. That, I think, would be more relevant and also serve to deservingly honour his memory.”

Let’s not quibble over which day to honour the cocoa bean and the legacy of Mr. Quarshie. Let’s make every day Chocolate Day.

- Mark

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Labour of love

Last week, I wrote about visiting a town called Sogakope with reporters from a paper called The Statesman. They were working on a story about child trafficking and we visited with some children and parents that had participated in a rescue and rehabilitation program. Here is the story that appear in The Statesman last weekend:

"Trafficked children in desperate need of rescuing"

By Albert Oppong Ansah, Fred Tettey Alarti-Amoako and Eva Salinas

The Statesman, February 10, 2007

David Gozey wants to be a doctor. The 13-year-old, who lives in Vume with his Aunt, is quick to reveal his future plans. But for now he will settle on attending school, where his favourite subjects are mathematics and English, and playing football.

Already it is a life starkly different compared to his earlier years, when David was one of thousands of Ghanaian children who are trafficked and forced to work at a young age.His is a typical story – he spent years working long hours for fishermen in the Volta Region.

David remembers his time spent scooping water from the boat; and working with other children whose main tasks were preparing fish, mending nets and diving to the deep bottom of the lake – the latter job putting the lives of young boys at serious risk.

Fortunately for David, these are memories that have begun to fade. It has been four years since he was rescued and reintegrated into his family as part of the African Centre for Human Development (ACHD)'s anti-child trafficking programme.

The programme, which started in 2001 and continued until its $300,000 in private funding ran out in 2005, rescued 1,560 children between the ages of four and 16. At present, the organisation is looking for new financing in order to continue. It estimates that there are upwards of 200,000 Ghanaian children that have been trafficked and are in desperate need of rescuing. Most of whom are denied schooling, over-worked, and abused physically or sexually.

"All those children you see selling ice water, they are all trafficked children. All those children are working for people. Accra is one of the recipient areas of trafficked children, and most of them turn into street children," said Mr Wilbert Tengey, the programme's executive director.

Programmes such as his, and others like that run by the international organisation for migration, under the United Nations, have tackled the problem by checking borders, interviewing children and negotiating with employers for the safe return of the children, at times with cooperation of local authorities.

However, despite the 2005 Human Trafficking Act, many authorities close their eyes to the problem, Mr Tengey said, making the task of rescuing children more challenging.

"There are not many organisations that are interested in this kind of job," he continued, "Why? Because it's difficult, it is very frustrating and sometimes, it can very emotionally taxing."

The rewards, on the other hand, are plenty. Last week, a number of rescued children, including David, sat down with The Statesman in Sogakope, where the ACHD ran one of three rehabilitation homes, and recounted their stories.

"We met strong winds and if we were unable to paddle, we were beaten," David recalled of his time working.

His aunt said she is not sure how David ended up in the hands of fishermen, though she knows it happened sometime after his father died when he was around five years old. Both she and staff with the programme were unable to locate his mother.

Also present was Abigail Anafle, 16, and her mother, Juliana Amehlor, who have been reunited for three years now. Abigail was sent to work in her grandmother's home, where she was prevented from attending school and from seeing her mother.

14-year-old Edem Tamekloe's story resembles David's, as he also worked on boats in Lake Volta when he was just seven years old.

One mother, Mary Amlalo, came to tell the story of her two children, though they refused to attend the gathering. Their classmates tease them about being trafficked because it means their family is poor, Mrs Amlalo said, so they avoid associated with the rehabilitation group.

Mrs Amlalo, a potter with eight children, admitted she felt obligated to send two of the children away to help finance the family. She was promised 200,000 cedis per year for the labour of each child.

"I was aware it was hard work but I had no choice," she said.

Two years later, an older son visited the children and returned to tell Mrs Amlalo that they were suffering. "The dreadful things they saw" were reason enough to bring them home, Mrs Amlalo said, adding that her son has since told her how he would see the bodies of other children when diving in the lake.

In the end, the family received only a quarter of the payment promised.Mr Peter Debrah, supervisor of the Sogakope house, said after educating the community, many parents like Mrs Amlalo came forward, requesting that the organisation help find and rescue their children.

He added that the majority of families allow their children to be taken away, as they cannot afford to look after them and need the extra income. Because poverty remains a factor, he continued, there have been cases when rescued children were trafficked again.

To prevent such an event, families were provided with school supplies and financial support. Watch groups, made up of teachers, assembly members, chiefs, social workers and members of the local social welfare department, have formed to continue educating the community and check in on the families.

"Child trafficking can be reduced but not totally eradicated," Mr Debrah said. "The first step should be education and awareness…The law is there. You pass the law and it is just sitting there."

Monday, February 12, 2007

School Again

Approximately 3% of the population in Ghana is infected with HIV. Compared to other African countries where rates are as high as 25%, this is low. Because of the threat of HIV/AIDS, people are frightened of the disease and those who are infected face severe discrimination.

Education of HIV/AIDS is limited amongst the general population. I am working at the West African AIDS Foundation (WAAF) for the next five months, and during a training seminar last week, one of my colleagues said some of the people in the training seminar still thought you could get HIV/AIDS from touching someone.

Billboards throughout the city remind people to use condoms, and encourage young people to abstain from sex until marriage. For a highly conservative, Christian region, the messages can be pretty direct.

Starting this Monday, I am going to be working with a group of 15 people living with HIV who are involved in an income generating project. It is difficult for them to find work because of the stigma attached to people with HIV. Once employers find out they are HIV+ they lose their jobs. And, it is difficult for them to hide their status because of the regular trips to the clinic for anti-retroviral drugs.

To help them build sustainable lives, WAAF has developed an income generating project that will hopefully provide the participants with some form of financial independence. For the past couple of months, in groups of 5, they have been trained in one of three areas: Jewellery making out of Ghanaian hand-made glass beads, sewing textile products from hand-made batik cloth, or bread making for the local market.

By the end of March, it is assumed they will have the skills necessary to apply for a loan, and start their own businesses. My role is to help them build business skills so they’ll know how to find markets for their work, sell the products, and manage the business.

Early on I realized the group had some barriers to overcome before I could start teaching business skills. More than half the group has trouble speaking English, (they only speak their native languages Ga or Twi), and three quarters of the group cannot write much beyond their names. When asked if they’d gone to school, I learned that about half had gone to school until they were 8 or 9 years old, and the other half had never been to school.

My plan quickly changed from one where I’d be teaching small business workshops, to one that focused on adult literacy and teaching English as a second language. The business skills could follow or slowly be incorporated with the ESL teaching, I decided.

When I told the bead and sewing groups that we would start with English lessons, all of the women were very excited. They want to be able to speak English, and read and write. It will give them confidence and freedom. One woman, Vyda, smiled shyly as she struggled to show me she could write her name. Her situation is difficult. Vyda’s husband died recently from AIDS and both of her children are infected with HIV. She faces eviction from her apartment next month because her lease will be up, and she doesn’t have enough money to pay her rent for two years in advance – the norm here. Still, I could see in her eyes, the thought of learning to write more than her name, and learning to read, gave her hope.

The bread group all came running when they saw me for the first time. I was greeted with huge hugs. When they found out my name was Janet, the same name as one of the group members, two women threw their arms around my neck and hugged me again. When I told the group I would teach them English, I could see tears well up in one woman’s eyes. She looked straight ahead, and nodded approval.

An older man, Ibrahim who is part of the jewellery group, decided his English was good enough that he wouldn’t take the lessons. “I think I can express myself,” he said.

I want the lessons to be voluntary, so didn’t push it. When I told the staff of WAAF that Ibrahim would not be taking lessons, they were disappointed. He really needs help with his comprehension, they said.

I went back out to the front garden where Ibrahim was sitting with his cane; a white crocheted hat covering the top of his head. He was concentrating on stringing a small white glass bead.

“Ibrahim”, I said slowly. “We would really love to have you as part of the English group. It might be too easy for you, but it would be a good chance to practice your writing and learn some new words.”

I watched for his reaction as he sat up in his chair. He leaned forward, gripping his cane between his fingers as he thought about his answer. “So we go back to school,” he said.
- Janet

Friday, February 9, 2007

Play ball

The kids are so cute here - shy but very friendly. Last Saturday morning, we got up early to go to a baseball clinic, of all things, here in the soccer-mad country. It was organized by Major League Baseball, to be held in Tema, a city just north of Accra.

To get there, we caught a tro-tro near our apartment, and woman with a one-year-old strapped to her back. He kept pointing at me and then hiding his face in his mother’s back whenever I looked his way. No shy smile – a deadpan look on his face, but nonetheless curious.

At the next stop, a woman with two young kids boarded the tro-tro. One of the boys – maybe two years old – began giggling the moment he saw me. They sat down behind us, and a few minutes later, he tapped on my shoulder and said, “una una” and giggled madly when I turned around. Joseph, who was accompanying us to Tema, said “una una” was just babble, didn’t mean anything at all. He was just making a sound. This continued until we got off at our stop – one tapping me from behind, the other pointing at me from the front.

I enjoy the interactions with kids here because the adults are very standoff-ish, much like Canadians - warm and friendly when you get to know them, but a bit aloof or reticent in the beginning.

We arrived in Tema at nine o’clock, and took a taxi to the field. This is a soccer-mad country (even more so after their World Cup appearance last year). Almost no one plays baseball, so I was very curious about what a delegation from Major League Baseball was doing here. There were a lot of big wigs – Omar Minaya, general manager of the New York Mets, Dusty Baker, former manager of the Chicago Cubs, and Dave Winfield, a member of the Jays when they won the World Series in the early 90s.

The U.S. baseball people were there on a “goodwill” mission, not a scouting one. They came with equipment to donate to schools and league teams. There was one player that could play in the States someday, but the MLB people know Ghana – like the rest of Africa - was a long way from producing major league players. The event was organized by a well-connected Ghanaian ex-pat living in New York.

It was a blazing hot day. I got a really bad sunburn because I got so caught up interviewing people for a possible newspaper story back home. I talked to little league kids and older players who dreamed of playing in the big leagues, Ghanaian baseball officials, Winfield, Minaya…probably 10 or 11 people in all. Anyone back home who knows how much I love baseball can imagine how much fun I had.

It’s difficult to say whether baseball can catch on here and eventually produce really good players, ones that could play pro in the states. There is no real baseball field anywhere in the Accra area, although a politician showed up at the event promising to build one at the University of Accra.

The field where we were on Saturday had no outfield fencing, though it did have a backstop. The infield was on uneven ground, and full of rocks. The baseball people were impressed by the quality of the players, though. “Can you imagine what they could play like on a real field,” Winfield told me.

In the little league game, they played much like little leaguers at home – full of enthusiasm, making spectacular plays one minute and botching one the next. One kid made a spectacular catch on a line-drive grounder to third, and then couldn’t figure out when to throw the ball!

It was harder for the older players – the ones between 17-19. The little kids get equipment and uniforms though schools and community sponsorship. They have organized leagues with a lot of teams. There is no league for the older ones because they can’t get sponsored – this despite the fact that Ghana won a bronze medal in baseball at the all-Africa games in 1999. I talked to the minister of sport and he said they couldn’t guarantee funding a team for this year’s games in June, despite enthusiasm at Saturday event. There were hundreds of people on hand to watch.

A couple of highlights: a spirited but botched rendition of 'Take me out to the ball game' by the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, Pamela Bridgewater. The public address announcer called the game like he was a Hockey night in Canada commentator. No sounds of the game - crack of bat, the ball hitting the glove - because he never really stopped talking. Now I know why I can't watch HNC!

- Mark

P.S. the lovely photos were taken by Janet

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Bread Winners

On Friday, I visited a town called Sogakope (pronounced shooga-kopay) in the southeastern part of the country, near where Lake Volta meets the Gulf of Guinea. I was there with Renee and Eva, and two interns from The Statesman, the newspaper that Eva is working for. They were working on a story about child trafficking, to be published in next Saturday’s paper. We had come to meet a man who runs a program to rescue children who had been sold off by the parents to work in the fishery mostly, but also to work on cattle farms or as servants in people’s homes.

We arrived in Sogakope after a two-hour bus ride from the city. The landscape was flat, and the roads dusty. A tree-lined boulevard cut through the town, with street vendors and shops on both sides of the road. Most of the vendors sold loaves of homemade white bread, and it was a mad scramble every time a bus or a tro-tro passed through town and stopped to pick up or drop off passengers. The bread business was fiercely competitive because so many people were doing it; they came running from every direction, swarming the bus or tro-tro on all sides, sticking the loaves of bread through the windows at potential customers.

This aspect of Ghanaian life reminds me very much of India. Street vendors are very common in both places, and many of them serve people passing through places on buses and trains, in the case of India. They’re very aggressive generally and have to work fast because the buses are only making a very short stop. It’s common for them to be running along the bus as it takes off, collecting money from a customer or frantically trying to make a last-second sale.

From the bus stop we walked about a kilometer to the centre that rescues and reintegrate trafficked children into their families and communities. Peter Debra, the supervisor of the program, met us there. Peter is 68-year-old retired schoolteacher with nine children and 14 grandchildren. He told us that his retirement project was helping rescue children from a slave-like life and getting them to their families and into school.

The program was currently suspended because they had lost their Danish funding partner, but Peter was hopeful that he could continue his work once a new one was found. The Catholic Church leased the land to the centre, which resembled a summer camp. It had two dormitories – one for the girls and one for the boys. We saw the boys’ house, which had bunk beds and no fans, I noticed. The heat must been unbearable when this place was full, though that would probably have been overlooked by them, so glad would they have been to escape the misery of their lives in slavery.

There were no children living there at the time, so Peter had asked some mothers and their children to come meet with us. They were all families that had been reunited with the kids.

The program had many phases.

It conducted education campaigns in towns and cities around region, informing people through media stories and community meetings that selling kids into slavery was both illegal and very harmful to the children.

They conducted searches for children who had been sold off, and went on rescue missions to bring them back and locate their families.

Before they returned home the kids came to the centre and stayed there for a period of time, which could be weeks depending on the child. They got them back into kid-like routines – eating three meals, getting a good night’s sleep, playing with each other, getting used the idea of school again with lessons in the one-room school house on the grounds.

They also got medical check-ups and treatment for things that happened to them while they were away. Some of the boys had damaged eardrums from diving too deep to free nets from rocks and tree stumps in the water. Some of the girls had been raped. They were also given psychological counseling, depending on the emotional issues they were still dealing with. “A lot of the kids were rough, not well-adjusted, because they had been mistreated,” said Peter.

When the kids went home, the centre gave the families a sum of money. It also bought them school uniforms, books, and paid their school fees.

All of these kids came from very poor families that didn’t mean to harm them. They weren’t greedy for money and uncaring for the plight of their children. They were desperate in most cases, and the fishermen, cattle farmers, et cetera, offered them a way out of poverty by giving them money in exchange for their kids. They also consoled them by saying that the kids would learn a trade, and be better able to provide for themselves and their families in the future. It was a generations-old practice that was hard to stamp out even though it was now against the law.

The women and children that agreed to meet with us were shy and didn’t speak much English, a sign that they hadn’t received much formal education. Peter had to translate our questions and their responses, which made it difficult to learn their stories in great detail. I studied their faces and expressions, but they were very shy and didn’t betray much emotion. They were kind to us, though, and warm. Most of the Ghanaians I’ve met – except the practiced ones like politicians and NGO workers – have been very shy of media interviews.

A brief sketch of one of the children (next week I’ll put up a link to the article that’s published in The Statesman): One little boy was taken away from his mother by his older stepbrother. This was more common than I thought – kids being enslaved by family members. I found this surprising and difficult to understand because we all tend to think (or hope) that family members will do right by each other, something we know isn’t always true no matter where you come from. The little boy worked from 3 in the morning until late at night, repairing nets and diving to free lines. He had been beaten regularly, and nearly drowned many times from diving in deep, wavy waters. He appeared emotionally scarred to us, because he slumped in his chair during the interview and talked reluctantly, rarely making eye contact. You had to be careful not to read much into his behaviour, though, because we were journalists conducting an interview. One family refused to come out for an interview because they feel the media exploits their stories, and makes them feel ashamed for what they’ve done.

We left the centre about one o’clock, and walked toward town for lunch. As we headed off down the street, I heard the clip-clop sound of little feet running up from behind me. Suddenly there was a little boy – maybe two or three years old – walking alongside me holding on to my baby finger. He was too shy to look at me; he stared at the ground instead. He had an un-inflated pink balloon beween his teeth that he chewed and blew on. I tried to lean over and talk to him, but he was too shy. He walked along and swung my arm until we hit the end of the street. His mother called him back before he could disappear around the corner with us.

Before we headed home, we had lunch at a chop shop (the name for restaurants here). I had rice, noodles and fish.
As we were about to leave, I saw a malnourished little kitten wandering around the restaurant. I walked back to the table and my plate was still there. I scraped flecks of fish off the bones and fed them to the kitten.

- Mark

Cultural Sign Posts

Malaria kills thousands of children in Ghana every year

This place looks like it needs some divine intervention.
It is common for businesses to use religious messages to sell products and services.

3% of the population in Ghana has HIV/AIDS

More Power to the People

Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations are March 6th. The government will spend the equivalent of $20 million dollars to herald the countries 50-year severance from Colonial rule.

Malaysia, a country on a similar geographic parallel to Ghana, is also celebrating 50 years of independence from Britain this year.

Educated Ghanaians who have expressed their thoughts to us on the March 6th celebrations are furious with their government. They don’t believe there’s much to celebrate. Malaysia, they say, has made huge strides since 1947 and deserves recognition. Ghana has only stepped backwards.

There are two things most often cited as examples of Ghana’s lack of development and poor management. The first is electricity. This year Ghana is back to regularly scheduled blackouts, something that last happened ten years ago. In 1996 the same situation caused the power shortages. Lake Volta couldn’t handle energy production for the entire country so the people were forced to ration electricity. One angry Ghanaian said, “If the government can’t learn from problems of the past, how can we expect them to lead us into the future.”

Ten years ago, he said, there were planned blackouts every three days that rotated throughout different neighbourhoods. At the time there was a popular TV show that had taken the city by storm. On blackout nights, people could be seen running from neighbourhood to neighbourhood carrying their TVs to homes with power.

The solution this year is to stop supplying energy to Togo and Benin. Nigeria is supposed to take over this role so that Ghana can focus on providing power to its own country. People are skeptical that this will work. Nigeria has worse problems than Ghana with even more frequent blackouts.

We’ve also heard that many small villages and towns have been promised access to power for almost a decade. Much of the mineral resources are found in rural areas, but due to lack of power, once mined, they are shipped by rail to the coast, and then brought by ship to Accra, where they are processed. With regular power, the minerals could be processed in the areas where they’re mined bringing jobs and prosperity to desperately poor parts of Ghana. Instead, many young people who can’t find work in their home towns leave in search of work in the cities. This relocation causes resource problems in the cities, and high unemployment levels.

Joseph, a new friend of ours, is from one of these small villages. He told us that every four years prior to an election, a government official makes an announcement that power will come to his village. One time they even put up electrical poles to suggest progress. Still, he said, there is no power, and he along with many others, have been forced to leave for the city.

The second example cited is the case of the Palm Oil. Palm Oil production is huge in Ghana. In the late 40s the Malaysians asked to come in and learn about Palm Oil production. Ghana opened its doors and taught the Malaysians how to process Palm Oil. At the time, the majority of Ghana’s Palm Oil exports went to Malaysia.

Malaysia took its new found knowledge and started developing its own Palm Oil industry. Now, Malaysia not only supplies all of its own Palm Oil, but it has also found multiple uses for this product and is exporting these products internationally. Ghana, we are told, is still only using Palm Oil for its primary purpose - to make Palm Oil soup.

The 20 million dollars the government is spending on the Independence celebrations could be used to take electricity into villages and towns in the country, and to encourage industrial innovation, we’ve been told. One cynical Ghanaian, who works for the BBC and CNN said with a wry laugh. “I’d like to see what they celebrate.”

When asked if they have hope for the country, people we meet hesitate and then say they have faith in the people, but not the government. Ghanaians, we are told, are resilient, and will keep going.

Still, one of the most common expressions I hear every day is “Let’s wait and see.”

At a Jubilee lecture last week celebrating Ghana’s upcoming 50th anniversary, the Chairman of the Council of State stood up and spoke pointedly to the audience of 2,000 of Ghana’s elite. He was following Kofi Annan, who had given a very positive, inspiring speech on Ghana’s progress over the past half century. The Chairman obviously didn’t want people leaving thinking everything in Ghana was okay. He looked into the eyes of everyone in the room and said seriously, “We must work harder, we must work quicker.”

Every day I wake up with these words in my mind. He’s right. I’m just not quite sure how to manage this effectively in the heat. Do they have more air conditioning in Malaysia?

- Janet