Saturday, July 30, 2011

A look at local human rights issues in Accra

The past weeks have been busy and eventful, meeting with human rights representatives within the community. In order to grasp a greater context of human rights issues within Ghana -with a specific focus on Accra - we met with human rights organizations, advocates and representative stakeholders to identify common areas of importance and local initiatives.

By doing this, we have gained a stronger understanding of how to incorporate an honest and progressive approach of human rights into the workshops and curriculum we will be creating with local media and journalism/communications students. ____________________________________________________________________________________

Firstly, we met with Programs Manager of the Human Rights Advocacy Centre Daniel Asare Korang. He described the work of the HRAC as having a three tier umbrella - focusing in research, advocacy and legal representation.

Within these categories Korang described key human rights violations which are most dominant in Ghanaian society. These included false imprisonment, domestic violence – including assault and defilement, estates dispute, police brutality and employment abuse. The rights of homosexuality and those with mental health conditions were also highlighted as key issues and initiatives in which the HRAC has been increasing their involvement.

Homosexuality and mental health are issues in which the HRAC believes people are not receiving equal rights. People living with mental health conditions are often ostracized in Ghana, and in the continent of Africa as a whole, and are not seen as victims of a mental condition. Often people suffering from mental health problems will be sent to what are called 'prayer camps' and although not always, are commonly reported as tortured or abused in an attempt to 'rid the demands' within them.

The issue of homosexuality within Ghana has proved to be controversial with many religious organizations and government officials opposed to the notion entirely. In Ghana, carnal sex is an illegal act and just last week Ghana's Western Region Minister Paul Evans Aidoo ordered all homosexuals to be arrested. Although numerous non-government organizations and human rights advocacy centres are not in support of this action, there were little who came public in support of homosexuality.

The HRAC is one of the few who has come public with their initiatives which support the rights of homosexuals and they are working closely with individuals who have publicly announced their sexual orientation. The goal is to build a solidarity network within the homosexual community in order to progress their rights and bring awareness and education to the public on the issues and concerns related to homosexuality. The HRAC says regardless of sexual orientation people deserve equal treatment.


Many people in Ghana believe same sex orientation is a choice and a sin in reference to the bible. Many also believe same sex partners, specifically men, are the leading cause of Ghana's aids rate, which sits at a prevalence rate of 1.7%, the lowest rate so far in West Africa, according to statistics from the Ghana Demographic and Health Survey (GDHS).

With these arguments and more, the issue is not culturally accepted and is strongly opposed by the public. The controversy and legal rights of homosexuality within Africa has received international media attention and continues to be a heated topic of debate.

For further information, read Ghana rights groups warn of anti-gay hate campaign by local reporter William Yaw Owusu and jhr trainer Paul Carlucci.

We paid a visit to Numo Blafo III, Public Relations Advisor of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly to gain an understanding of the process of decision making in Accra. In comparison to Canada, the AMA is equivalent to our city council.

Similar to Canada, the AMA is separated into departments, each with staff of specific expertise. When we asked of current projects and initiatives in Accra by the AMA we received word on a new bylaw in effect which states hawking is now deemed illegal and all hawkers, if caught, may be arrested and jailed.

Hawking is a form of street vending. Men and mainly women and children parade the streets carrying cargo of goods to sell balance on their head. They weave in and out of traffic in an attempt to catch commuters, especially during hours of high traffic when cars are unable to move for extended periods of time.

Blafo says this bylaw has been passed in an attempt to 'lower the rate of vehicle related accidents'. In the meeting Blafo said the number of people getting hit by traffic was high and continually on the rise and so the bylaw was created and passed. As the number of street hawkers is often extreme, we are unsure of the process of arrest but understand the AMA will have officers patrolling high traffic areas.

A greater issue, in my opinion, would be the alternative to income for this large group of people. The majority of hawkers live in and around the city of Accra and rely on the income from hawking to support themselves and their families. If the arrest of hawkers become strongly enforced, I struggle to see an economic alternative for many of these individuals and families especially with lack of access to higher levels of education and training.

In relation, the finances necessary for full implementation of this bylaw would be substantial. Police officers would deal with hawkers as opposed to more severe crimes and the justice system would have to accommodate the trials of hawkers before their sentences. The jails would then need to accommodate the number of hawkers arrested, which can be up to 90 days.

A related issue is the process of the justice system in Accra and throughout Ghana. Often, people will be charged with minor crimes and without money for bail, wait in jail cells until their trials. Because the current justice system is not able to tend to the trails at a fast rate, the accused are forced to wait months and sometimes years before their trial begins. When they receive their crime sentence they must pay in full, without taking into account the time of imprisoned while awaiting their trial, which is often months to years.

Although the bill was put in effect as of April 2011, it is not fully in practice and hawkers are evidently present on road sides throughout Accra. For further information, read Accra Mayor declares war on street Hawking.

Friday, July 22, 2011

So, I moved to Africa?

Since arriving in Accra things have been interesting - and different than my other experiences of travel. In ways it doesn't feel like travel, it feels like we have moved to live a different city in a different country.

We have been looking for a home, identifying parts of the city, figuring out transportation, establishing frequently used routes and choosing the markets to buy our groceries. We have had to learn about garbage disposal (or removal as there is no proper waste removal system in Accra), where to buy water, what to do when the house water supply runs out, how to sufficiently bucket-shower, how to hand wash our laundry, where we can withdraw money, where to buy a mattress, a phone, internet stick, additional converters, beer and anything else we realize we need.

We have learned how to haggle taxi drivers for fair prices, how to flag down a tro, how not to get stuck on a tro, how not to get entirely lost in general, where the 'obruni' (white/foreigners) spots for food are (when our tummies are telling us not to be too adventurous), where locals gather and of course deciding on our favourite places to celebrate the day with a beverage.

We have begun new jobs, met new colleagues, made new friends - all the while adjusting to an entirely new culture. Each time one moves they must adapt to a new sort of culture - changing neighbourhoods, towns, cities, provinces, states - each signifies it's own identity and culture. For us, we have left the continent in which was home and the differences in culture can seem extreme.

The differences are great, although at times intimidating. We are surrounded by new sites, new people and new language (the official language is English, Ghana was previously conquered by the British and originally inhabited by tribes each with their own dialect). To us, everything is new.

It is interesting to live your life the way you would at home – have breakfast, brush your teeth, shower, get to work, get home, have dinner, go out, go to sleep – but do it in a new continent.

Everything is new, exciting and comes with difficulties.

It took me time to establish why this round was different and then it hit me – like my semi-daily cold water showers – I had moved to Africa!

Something you'd think was apparent and obvious yet somehow easily forgotten. Each of my other long-term travel experiences had some aspect of support – when I moved to Spain as an Au Pair I went through an organization and lived with a family, when I backpacked through Europe we were going day-by-day, when we stayed in Mexico we travelled as a group through an NGO and had logistical details arranged – when all of those things are taken care of it is much easier to focus on the tasks ahead and even then can be exhausting. It is an incredible experience to re-teach yourself how to live out your day.

In respect to all mentioned, I have noticed instances of personal growth since my arrival. I have over come fears, questioned my purpose, identified my needs and integrated to the best of my ability while still staying true to myself.

Now that we have established the functions of our daily routine, I am looking forward to what the next leg of our journey will hold. We have made trustworthy friends, established an understanding of the logistics of the city, entered our work places and have confirmed final living accommodations to begin August 17th. We have gained insight into Ghanaian culture but have yet to begin grasping a full understanding of the true complexities.

We have touched the surface and I am eager to learn more, dig deeper and go upstream.

David - Our good friend and staff of the Kokomlemle Guest House in Accra.
If you ever come to Ghana and want to stay in the city, he's your man!

Our attempt at buying and bringing home a new mattress.
half way through mission taxi runs out of gas.
He runs ... we wait.

Zions -Thai Food Restaurant. Off Oxford Street in Osu, Accra

Surprising image of dinner in Africa?
There are many options of middle to upper class restaurants located throughout the city of Accra. You can find almost anything if you are willing to pay the price.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The journey is half the adventure

A personal update from Ghana

As many who live in the city know, it can be nice to get away. We spent our first weekend in Ghana by heading out of the ever busy city of Accra in search of a beach and a beverage.

A group of us headed to the city centre to find a bus, car or tro-tro that could take us to our chosen destination - Estuary Beach Club at Ada Foah. When we arrived to an African style bus terminal, we were blown away by the organized madness. There were hundreds of vehicles, driving in every direction, men yelling here, women selling there. From a first-timers eye, it almost impossible to figure out even what direction you were facing let alone which vehicle was heading where. The locals, however, navigated around like it was nobody's business.

After attempting to locate signs, time tables or travel information, we finally accepted the guidance of one of the many local drivers who had been nagging and gabbing at our arms to give us a ride. We followed the driver to his car and negotiated a price. For 15 cedis each he would take us all the way to Ada Foah, which is located about 2 hours east of the city of Accra.

Once arriving in Ada Foah, we laid eyes on a busy street market. Similar to those in Accra, locals were selling items of all sorts - garments, tools, fresh fruit, burnt Cds, shoes and more. As we weren't in the mood for spending money we continued on to the beach side, and for an additional five cedis each we were driven directly to where we would catch a boat to the beachfront where we would be staying at Estuary Beach Club - where the Volta River meets the Atlantic Ocean.

As we grabbed our bags and exited the car, we decided to purchase some water to quench our thirst. As we did, we saw what is called a “chop bar” located beside the store, and thought 'Hey, what better way then with an ice cold beer!' Surely enough, it seems no matter where you are in the world, there is always cold beer.

We decided to be adventurous and try a taste at the chop bar, which is a small family run road side eatery. It's nothing fancy, usually extremely cheap and only has one dish on the menu. Today's choice: fufu in soup with meat. Fufu is a dough like substance made from pounding cassava while adding water.

Cheryl, friend and jhr intern, decided to give it a go, which the locals found quite entertaining. We made friends with one of the children as well as the owner, George. Once our meals arrived - feeling not as bold as we did when ordering - gave it a shot.

It was a ball of fufu, a piece of goat (chicken for Megan), covered in a soupy-like liquid. They provided us with a bowl of water to wash our hands and we were instructed to dig in – using our hands as utensils and the fufu to absorb the soup.

The only word to describe it was SPICY. By far one of the spiciest things ever – ever, ever!

We did our best, but unfortunately were not champions. We were unable to empty our dishes, which can be found as quite disrespectful (although clearly not our intention). We explained to the cooks how wonderful a meal it was, but that we filled up fast and, as newcomers, we were not quite used to the strength of the pepe (spice).

The chop bar had won.

We finished our beverages and followed George to the waterfront, where he said we would ride on a small boat, to a bigger boat, which would take us to our final location. As we set off we noticed we were heading towards a dredger ship, which was clearly not the boat that would be taking us anywhere.

As we climbed aboard we were introduced to two friendly Lebanese men who had been working on the dredger for the past seven months and would continue to for numerous months more. Staying vigilant, as always, we accessed the situations and agreed it was safe to stay. We discussed their work, past travel experience and opinions on Ghana.

Soon enough we decided it was time to go, as the sun sets early in Ghana, often as early as 6:30pm, and we wanted to be off the water well before then. We climbed off the dredger and headed towards the beach where we would be staying.

We pulled up and were greeted by a group of our local friends and jhr trainers. We ordered a delicious plate of chicken and rice - the everyday meal staple of Ghana - and enjoyed the sounds of the waves the bongos, the smell of the fresh air and cooked fish, and the company of good people.

Estuary Beach Club was breathtaking. We were surrounded by water and entertained with routines of local dance and music by the campfire.

As always, morning came to soon and it was time to go.

Which is an adventurous tale for another time :)

Ghana jhr crew at the chop bar in Ada Foah.

Owner of chop bar, George and friend.

Cheryl gives the fufu process a try.

The final product: lunch at the chop bar.

Myself and George on the boat to Estuary Beach Club.

Waterfront at Ada Foah.

Estuary Beach Club.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Our first week in Ghana and what a week it was!

July 7, 2011

Until I arrived, it was difficult for me to imagine what my time in Ghana would be like.

What did Accra look like, sound like, smell like? Were the people friendly, was the city dark and dangerous? How should I dress, where do I go, how do I get there? What would we eat and how was the night life?

These of course, were all concerns in relevance to my personal life here in Ghana as opposed to my professional life and work load, we will have time to get into that later.

Since arriving only a week ago a lot of these concerns have been answered and any anxieties associated with them have calmed.

As mentioned in the previous blog, the traffic here in Accra is hectic. It was also the first thing I found completely mind boggling. The city is loud, very loud and all the time. There is a high level of pollution and each night I clean out my nose – thoroughly. The streets smell of exhaust and fire stoves and although lined with garbage, what I will remember most of Ghana is the beauty of the people. Pleasant and easily approachable, the locals value relationships and spend a lot of time communicating with one another. They do not hold back and verbal exchanges of agreement and/or frustration are openly expressed, and loudly. Many people will stop you to talk and I can't count how many times I have been asked, “can we be friends.” When unsure of where to go, as most streets do not have road signs and often people don't remember them anyhow, locals are always willing to guide you in the right direction. Even if the best they can go is insist on “ you go straight, straight,” they do their best and in many ways are right. For a short period of time, we must always walk straight.

On a personal note, we have spent the last week running in and out of appointments. We have met with the previous jhr interns and have been introduced to staff and students at the African University College of Communications (where I will be working with my colleague from Global News, Cheryl Oates), the reporters and news editorial staff at The Daily Guide (a private daily newspaper where Paul Carlucci, a Canadian colleague who worked in magazine and news writing, will be working), as well as staff from two local radio stations Joy FM and Citi FM. We have had the privilege of meeting staff at the UNHCR and staff of the non-profit organization The Peoples Dialogue. Both which are locally based international non-profit organizations working on poverty reduction and human rights issues within Accra.

Some of the week has been a blur – but we are coming around nicely. We have been meeting many interesting personalities, both in our placements and out and I am extremely looking forward to beginning work at the AUCC on Monday.

Tomorrow we hope to be moving out of the Kokomlemle Guest House, which has been amazing and is where we have been staying since our arrival, and into the house in which we will be staying for the remainder of our time in Accra.

View from our Guest House in Kokomlemle

View of average, everyday traffic from our cab window in central Accra

Garbage surrounding a stream heading through the city

Canada Day at the Canada High Commissions Office

July 1, 2011

Just because we weren't in Canada didn't mean we weren't going to celebrate Canada Day.

Every first Thursday of the month the Canada High Commissions Office hosts an international get together, geared towards introducing expats from around the world and welcome them into the community. The July gathering was dedicated in honour of Canada's birth.

The Commissions office hosted a BBQ with Canadian beats and trivia. The property was great with a roofed patio, indoor bar and outdoor swimming pool. They had paper boat races and it was an opportunity for us to meet fellow Canadians working in Ghana.

As friends and family celebrated the festivities at home, we raised our glasses in Accra and gave thanks to our homeland from afar.

Cheryl and Michelle - celebrating Canada Day, eh!

Megan and Paul - Happy Canada Day from Ghana.

Spending my birthday in Ghana!

June 29, 2011

One thing I must insist on highlighting is the way in which we celebrated two extremely important events; the days of birth for both myself and Canada.
The day we arrived in Ghana was June 29th, also my 23rd birthday. At first we were quite tired after a long term of travel and were not going to plan anything spectacular, especially since we had just arrived and were unaware of where to go.

Lucky for us we ran into former jhr intern and current freelancer with the Toronto Star Jessica McDiarmid, who was very familiar with Accra and was willing to show us the ropes. We made our way to Tawala, a beach side bar with straw tiki huts and tables in the sand. Every Wednesday is Reggae night and so the place was surrounded with the beats of musical heroes such as Bob Marley and Lee Perry. We drank Ghanaian beer and watched the locals gather around campfires made on the ocean's sand.

As the evening passed we were introduced to the local gin in celebration of the festivities. Although quite tasty, many compare it to a state of petrol.. let's just say it can be a little potent. Our crowd had grown and more locals had joined us, a good friend and jhr colleague Megan Ainscow, who will be travelling north of Accra to the city of Tamale to work at Diamond FM radio, thought it would be a great idea to restate the fact that it was my birthday. As I was sitting down a Ghanaian named Thomas reached across the table, for what I thought, was to cheers. To my surprise, beer started tipping out of his glass and onto my lap. Small at first, then a little more, and then a bit in my hair... Silly me, I thought he was simply intoxicated and failing at a toast so I stood up to help steady his glass. This is when the remaining content fell directly over my head and soaked my entire upper body. As the local crowd cheered and clapped, I saw the jaws of the interns drop and heard, “Thomas, no!! She's new!”

This is when I learned the local birthday ritual of pouring any liquid content over the head of the birthday girl or boy. Soaked and sticky, I still laughed. It was an interesting welcome to Ghana.

As the night continued the music got louder and the crowd grew larger. The tide moved in and began grabbing at our feet and the legs of our tables and chairs. Before we knew it we were dancing with our feet in the Ocean. It was a fantastic birthday celebration and great first impression of what the next six months in Accra hold in store.

Cheryl, Michelle and Megan. New jhr interns in Ghana.

Aftermath of being covered in beer. Sticky but smiling.

Celebrating my 23rd birthday with new friends at Tawala Beach, Accra, Ghana.

Monday, July 4, 2011

We've made it!

After a week long of training, over 20 hours of travel and 5,000 miles we have reached what will be our home for the next 6 months in Accra, Ghana.

Accra is one of Africa's most democratic and modernly advanced countries. With an estimated population of 3,963,264 in 2011 with an estimate of an additional 3 million extending into the shanti communities surrounding the city center. Accra is internationally recognized as a leader of it's continent and was the first African country to gain independence in 1957 and was rpeviously known as the Gold Coast under the ruling of the United Kingdom.

As a first timer in Ghana, or Africa for that matter, stepping off the plane and being driven through the chaotic city streets of Accra was fast, exhilarating and chaotic. All of the streets are connected by one main road called the Ring Road and the traffic that builds here is unreal! There are next to no working street lights and the roads are rarely patrolled by police or law enforcements for safety purposes. It is not uncommon to be cut off, nearly sideswiped or approached by beggars and street vendors knocking on your window. From your vehicle window you can purchase anything from CD's, newspapers and soda to belts, posters and cell phones. Children ride in the front, the back and on laps without seat belts or car seats and there is no regulated emissions test furthering the extent of pollution.

Here in Accra the vehicles always have the right away, so pedestrians look out! African nations have the world's highest road traffic injury mortality rates in the world and traffic related accidents are one of the largest causes of injury related mortality in Ghana with 29.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year. Between watching for oncoming cars, potholes and open sewers and persistent street vendors, commuting through town can be a journey all of its own. With the consideration of these facts and many more, it is true what they say, everything in Ghana takes at least three times what it would back at home.

As previously mentioned, the city streets are filled with vendors and panhandlers. This serves as a main source of income for many families and is a large portion of the informal market and lower class economy. You can buy anything from jewellery, clothing, shoes, street food to electronics and more (especially cell phones and TONS of them!). We purchased our phones from a business who partners with a company in the UK and receives ship loads of used cell phones and resells them. This is a huge industry within Accra and throughout Ghana and is a useful way of recycling cellphones. Often many people have numerous phones as some service providers can be more or less accommodating based on your location. It is also extremely common to exchange digits, even with first time strangers and on average you may be asked a minimum of 5 to 10 times.

Strangers may also declare their love to you in the streets and ask you to wed. The requests are usually harmless and can be veered with a simple, “no thank you,” “next time,” or “my husband wouldn't like that.” But don't hesitate to be stern and assertive if your new friend is not getting the point.

The nightlife in the city is one which flourishes with energy. The music industry is quite active with local artists often taking the stage to perform. All music can be found depending on your taste and within the three nights we have been here we have danced with our feet in the Atlantic Ocean listening to Raggae music at a beach bar, jammed to the Bare Naked Ladies at the
Canada Day Celebration held by the Canada High Commissions Office and sipped wine while enjoying the sounds of local jazz and the most bad ass clarinet player I've ever heard!

Needless to say, Accra is full of life. Although it will take some getting used to and I will face many challenges along the way, I have no doubt I will adapt quickly and love it. My time here has just begun and I look forward to the adventures each day in Ghana will bring me.

My journey has just begun.

Please Note: Photos to come