Thursday, January 12, 2012

Remembering Visit with Chair of Toronto Star

From left: Michelle Newlands (me!), Mr. John Honderich, Sandra Ferrari and Cheryl Oates.
With high standards, Journalists for Human Rights brought chair of the Toronto Star Mr. John Honderich to Ghana. During his ten day visit, Mr. Honderich lived with us. 

By 'us', I mean three of four jhr trainers in Accra, and all ladies. For the first three months of our stay we didn't have flowing water, which meant everything we did was done by retrieving buckets of water from an outside polytank and filling a smaller tank inside. 

Upon Mr. Honderich's arrival, we had finally negotiated with our landlandy, or Auntie, to let us fix the water pump. Yes, all of this time it was an easy fix but it was convincing our landlady to let us which was a struggle. She says she wanted us to experience 'real Ghana' and not all Ghanaian's have access to running water. 

Fair enough.

So, we managed to fix the tank the day before the grand arrival and we would soon have running water for the first time in three months. But not quite yet!
What this meant, was for the first few days of Mr. Honderich's visit he had to endure the enticing process of bucket showers at the jhr residence. 

In addition, he ate Talapia with his hand, shopped on Oxford Street, met with students at the AUCC, worked with local journalists and editorial staff at Ghana's largest independent newspaper and spend every evening on the front porch catching up on daily events.

It was an incredible opportunity to share an experience with such an acclaimed media professional and show him a little bit about our lives in Ghana.

Thanks for the visit, and thanks for being great!

To read a blog of John Honderich's visit in Ghana visit JHR's Field Notes blog or click here.

To read a column on gay rights written by Mr. Honderich during his visit click here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Faces of Prestea - Impacts of Mining

 A JHR-AUCC Rights Media Production

Over the course of the past six months, members of the Journalists for Human Rights student chapter at the African University College of Communications have worked tirelessly to organize the production of a multimedia project highlighting impacts of mining in Ghana's Western Region.

The mutltimedia project titled Faces of Prestea, tells the stories of members living within the mining community of Prestea and is meant to serve as an opportunity for those being effected to express themselves to the greater public.

The process was vigorous and included advanced fieldwork, four-weeks of preparatory workshops, endless organization, a seven hour bus ride, four days fieldwork with 30 students, three weeks of post-production and a community launch.

All participants worked extremely hard to successfully complete this project in order to bring to light the experiences and concerns of those living within Prestea. 

As mining continues to be a growing industry within Ghana and around the world, it is important citizens become educated in the development of the industry and participate in dialogue with stakeholders to establish and maintain safe and ethical practice.

Featured above, is the 23 minute video documentary created by JHR chapter members at the AUCC in Accra, Ghana.

For those interested in learning more, I encourage you to check out the JHR-AUCC Rights Media blog at

Nzulezo - the village on stilts


Our guesthouse in Nzulezo.
In early December, I travelled west of Accra for some seven hours in search of a village of stilts. I had seen photos, read articles, heard stories, but nothing compared to the actual experience of sleeping in a remote village held up solely by wooden stilts.

Like all of our weekend getaways, this too was filled with adventure. For the first time we decided to stray away from tro-tro travel and invest in renting a car. Although the price was a steep, we decided to go ahead and spoil ourselves.

Turns out our decision worked in our favour, as we've been told the area is extremely difficult, and expensive, to get to. You have to take approximately three different tro-tros plus a taxi that can cost up to 80 Cedis. Plus we got to come and go as we pleased, stop whenever we wanted to AND sing aloud and be silly.

Based on all instances mentioned above, we didn't reach Beyin, the town closest to Nzulezo on land, until evening. It was already dark and of course, the only accessible accommodations were overpriced resorts. One of which had no vacancy anyhow.

One more thing I love about travelling in Ghana is the ability to make a deal. Although we weren't able to work our way into a cheaper room at the resort, we made friends with the security guy who had friends living alongside the Ocean.

He introduced us, and once we checked out the accommodations, made sure the 'friends' were indeed, trustworthy 'friends', we locked our valuables in the car and walked down a path to the beach where we would be staying.

Our accommodation was a raised, two bedroom structure made of bamboo. There was a bed in each room and surprisingly with electricity. Another raised structure a few yards away held the toilet room.

We walked up and watched two Rastas gather their belongings, plop them into an overnight bag, change the bedsheets, grab a tent, say good-night and head down the beach.

I eagerly admired their simplistic lifestyle and ability to fit everything they own in one bag and proudly relocate themselves along the sandy shoreline in order to offer their accommodations to a stranger.

Thanks, Rastas.

Waking to the sound of the Ocean's crashing waves was a feeling I will never forget. I woke up, and Francis and I strolled along the coast, feet in the sand. I was completely speechless.

As soon as everyone woke up, we gathered the one or two things we brought with us and got ready to go to the stilt village. In order to get there, you have to arrange a canoe ride with the Ghana Wildlife Society.

And so, as we did. We arranged our canoe ride and enjoyed the 45 minute paddle to the stilt village.

Nzulezo is exactly what it is known for being, a village on stilts. Cool right? Yes! Too cool! Incredibly cool.

Main strip of the stilt village. Extending from this lane are the aisles belonging to the individual families.
Paddling in, it looks interesting, original, unique. You pull up, step out of your canoe and walk along the wooden pathways dividing the houses like streets. Usually, tourists will come and go, staying for roughly 20 minutes to an hour. During our time there we didn't see anyone stay longer, or order food, or ask to stay the night.

We did. A colleague was doing a video on the village and so we were required to set up interview appointments with community representatives for the following day. And since we had travelled seven hours from Accra to this incredible community, absolutely we were going to stay the night.

During our visit we spoke with community members, the village maintenance man acting on behalf of the chief and in doing so learned about the history of Nzulezo. Once upon a time, migrants from neighbouring African countries had come to Ghana, for whatever reasons, they were being chased and managed to escape by building themselves a village on stilts.

As rumours have it, as the enemies tried to approach the village by boat, the Gods controlled the water to close in on them. Protecting the inhabitants of Nzulezo from their attackers.

In current day, each of the 24 wooden rows represent a different family, and each time a member gets married or has children they build their own house along the same row as their elders. They have one school and two official church buildins representing two of the four to five religions practiced in the village. 

Although the village has a well constructed school with funding provided by the government for employment of educators, the community struggles to find and especially keep, a teacher for extended periods of time due to the difficult living conditions of the village.

Nzulezo does not yet have electricity although on 13th December 2011 an article was released by the Daily Graphic announcing an extension of power, costing $200,000 would reach Nzulezu with the purpose of boasting tourism in the area. This project is funded under a $16.5 million package given to the Government of Ghana by the World Bank for the purpose of electrification projects in the Jomoro District in the Western Region under the Ghana Energy Distribution Access Project (GEDAP).

For tourists wanting to spend in the stilt village, there is one option for accommodations. Otherwise visitors will stay in the nearby village of Beyin. A two-room lodge, two single beds in each, with access to a public toilet down one of the wooden lanes. We paid for the rooms and pulled the mattresses outside to sleep under the stars in this enchanted stilt village.

Coming for a visit is a must for all travellers touring through Ghana, but I do believe there is something magical about spending the night in this remote place. You experience more than a museum-style walk around and canoe ride. You get to know the community members and witness how they live. You find out what games the kids play, where they gather their food, the locations they canoe to bathe.

Although one night was enough, and we were extremely grateful for remembering to bring a deck of cards, it was an experience I will never forget.

View from our window in Nzulezo, the village on stilts.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Totally Togo

Francis and I with cousin Franky, in the village of Sevagan, Togo.
The crossing of borders, motorbike taxis, drinking Togolese beer, defecating into a cement hole, greetings with spiritual readers and sleeping under the stars – for me, this was totally Togo.

Recently I travelled to Togo, alright, it was a while back now (early October, 2011) but life has been just too wonderful and I forgot to post this blog. It was done though, I swear.

For those of you who don't know, Togo - officially the Togolese Republic - is the West African country bordering Ghana to the East. It gained independence from France in 1960 and the official language remains to be French, although the majority of locals communicate in their native languages.

With a population of approximately 6.7 million, Togo is home to over 37 tribes and 99 per cent of its population is of Native African descent. 

The country is highly dependent upon agriculture and is known for being a regional commercial and trade centre. Cocoa, coffee, and cotton generate roughly 40 per cent of export earnings, with cotton being the most important cash crop. Togo is also the world's fourth-largest producer of phosphate.

Although a significant minority can be found of those who practice Christianity and Muslim, the largest religious group in Togo is of those who practice indigenous traditional beliefs, often referred to as traditionalists, making up over 51 per cent of the countries religious status.

As mentioned, in early October 2011 I needed to get out of the city, and so, headed to Togo. It was an approximate four hour drive on public transit (tro-tro) to the Togolese border in Aflao. I purchases my Visa at the border for 60 cedis and literally, walked across into the capital of Togo, Lomé.

I travelled with my partner Francis, whose grandmother is Togolese. Neither of us fluent in French, it definitely helped being with someone who spoke Ewe, one of the many local dialects.

Once in Lomé, we walked the roadsides lined with hawkers, vendors and tables for currency exchange. Our plan was to travel further inland to visit an uncle in the small village of Sevagan, so  we each grabbed a motor-taxi and headed towards the next station to pick a car the rest of the way.

Similar to Northern Ghana, Togo relies heavily on motorbikes as a main means of transportation. There was something exhilarating about sitting on the backside of a stranger's motorbike, driving alongside the Ocean's shoreline deeper into a West African city I had never been to before.

I was loving it.

Once making it to the station, we grabbed a shared taxi and travelled for roughly another two hours. By the time we arrived in the village of Sevagan, the night had grown dark. We made a phone call, were told where to be dropped, and stood at the side of the road looking rather silly. A man soon came and gestured us over, introducing himself as the uncle we were coming to meet.

The size of African families tend to be larger than in North America, sometimes having more than 10-12 siblings. With lack of resources, opportunity and poor communication networks, when family members migrate to larger cities or neighboring countries, it isn't unusual for family members not to meet until later in life, if ever.

This was the case for Francis and his uncle. Our visit to Togo would be their first meeting.

One of my most admirable characteristics of African culture is their relationships. Family is family, and friends are family too. You are always welcome and what you have, you share. Even if you don't have the same mother or father, or aunt or uncle, when someone is in need, you are the same family.

Our uncle greeted us warmly and took us on the back of his motorbike to his house, where we would be staying for the duration of our visit.

As it was late, the family was asleep. We entered the self-contained compound, with no electricity and no running water, and were directed to our room. There was a wardrobe, a window, a clothes line hanging vertically across the room and a straw-stuffed mattress for us to sleep on.
I was still loving it.

At the break of dawn, we woke to the sounds of the roosters. Got up, had our bucket shower and shared the tea, milo and bread we had brought for the family. We ate in a small sitting room and were only joined by the man of the household, while the mother, one of two wives, ate outside with the children. 

As polygamy is common in West Africa, this came as no surprise. 

We spent the morning getting to know the family (with my lack of French and Ewe I really just smiled, held a lot of hands and played with the children) and then it was time for us to explore.

We were given Uncle's motorbike for the day, and after fixing a flat tire within the first two seconds of our journey, we knew it was going to be an adventure!

We drove down red-dirt roads, surrounded by green fields and palm trees. Past hut-homes made of dried clay and crowded village water pumps. We smiled at mothers hand washing their clothes in buckets and waved at the children chasing our bike, laughing while they sang 'Obruni,' or white lady.

We had nearly made it to a nieghbouring village, the village Francis' mother had grown up in, when our tire popped. After pushing the bike to a mechanic to fix popped tire number two, we continued on our way.
Spiritual father performing a consultation.
In honour of traditional spirit, we decided to visit the home of a spiritual leader for a consultation on our way the river. Upon our arrival, we were offered water and I was instructed to drink, but “not to much, your stomach might not handle it.”

We presented the spiritual leader with some coins and in return he laid out a bag of ornaments upon his mat on the dirt floor. The ornaments including beads, shells, stones and wood pieces of all shapes and sizes.

He then began chanting to the gods on our behalf. We were each given a token from his clothe and told to hold it tight, and ask a question or think of an issue we would like guidance on. 

We did as we were told, then returned our ornaments to his mat. Rhythmically, the spiritual leader shook a string of beads above the ornaments on the blanket, lightly chanting in Ewe to the Gods. 

He would touch a rock, pick it up and replace it in a different location on his mat. He would run his fingers through the small mound of beads beside him, then blow into a seashell.

Then, in Ewe, would translate to us what the Gods had said to him.

As mentioned, I clearly don't speak Ewe, so Francis would translate the information being passed on to me through the spiritual leader, from the Gods.

It was my first spiritual consultation and I found the process incredible. The spiritual leader was offering insight in connection to the thoughts, questions and concerns I had meditated on while holding my token, or ornament. 

He gave me insight on my family, friends, profession. He discussed with me possibilities of following my passion and what would happen if I chose to stay in Africa. He warned me of things, and people, to be cautious of, shared advise on personal attributes and warned me not to consume groundnuts for the next 16 days.

Although he did not provide a crystal clear, 'yes' or 'no' through the consultation, what he did provide was even greater. He provided wisdom, insight and an opportunity that allowed for spiritual growth and intellectual expansion. 

Togo is the origin of Voodoo, and often people speak about traditionalism as a form of voodoo. Even so, it is not the same as often imagined in the sense of rag dolls and push-pins. It's a spiritual connection to that which is greater than you, and a belief that through concentration and devotion you can communicate with the Gods. 
It is seen by people around the world as a dangerous practice, as 'black magic' and witchcraft. Perhaps the only thing frightening about it, is that which is unknown or understood. What we are not custom to and therefor fear.

I left feeling empowered. I was thankful for this new experience and felt I had become a wiser person because of it. It doesn't matter if you believe it or not, if you practice or don't – to me it was the ability to be a part of the experience that made it real. Isn't that the one thing that always does.

After saying our thank yous and goodbyes, Francis and I drove to the nearby river. We turned the corner on our motorbike to the most incredible view. A sandy shore merging into clear water, surrounded by fresh green fields being grazed by a heard of traveling cattle. Children playing in the river on jerrycans while woman hand washed their clothes and the men fished with handcrafted nets.

It was so, so beautiful. 

Children playing amongst jerrycans alongside the riverbank.

The sun began to set and Francis and I set to return home. When we returned we saw the family curled up, laughing together in the yard on straw mats under the cool night sky. We went and grabbed of our own and lay a few yards away enjoying the clear dark blue sky, filled with stars. 

You can't see stars like that in Accra.

I lay still; completely content, completely at peace. I layed staring at the sky for as long as possible, fighting the urge to close my eyes. I wondered how many others were laying with their backs on the ground, admiring the same star filled sky, enjoying the feeling of tranquility and appreciation. 

Thanks universe, I totally love Togo.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chair of the Toronto Star Visits Ghana

Above and Below: John Honderich delivers his speech to media representatives at the Ghana Journalists Association, Accra.

Please Note: This blog was first published on jhr's Field Notes blog on November 26th, 2011
To view original post, click here

Newspapers are intended to deliver information, educate the public and beyond that – bring community together.

This is what former publisher, editor and current Chair of the Board of the Toronto Star Mr. John Honderich shared with local journalists on his visit to Ghana as part of a Journalists for Human Rights initiative. During Mr. Honderich’s ten day visit, he delivered a presentation to over 20 of Ghana’s leading publishers, editors and reporters at the Press Centre of the Ghana Journalists Association.

The presentation focused on the role of the media in community development. Honderich described much of the media scene within Canada and the role of the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest national newspapers, in communicating news and information within the most diverse city in North America and around the world. Toronto, with a population of 2.48 million people, is home to over 20 per cent of Canadian immigrants and has up to half of its population, 1,237,720 people, being born outside of Canada.

In Mr. Honderich’s presentation, he acknowledged The Toronto Star’s commitment to covering issues of public interest for such a large diversity of people. He recognized the challenges of cultural values and belief altering one’s perspectives on a particular subject or issue, but says it is essential to reflect these issues in mainstream media.

Mr. Honderich called this interaction, ‘the dialogue on diversity'.

Topics have been featured in the Toronto Star that have created heated discussion, not only within Toronto’s multicultural environment but nation wide. Some of the issues discussed within the presentation included the debate on whether Sikhs within the RCMP should be allowed to wear their traditional turbans while on the job to whether the singing of Christmas Carols in public schools should be banned.

To some, these issues seemed unimportant but were seen as essential in the eyes of Mr. Honderich in regards to the dialogue on diversity.

Although these topics were not specific to Ghana, the discussion of dialogue on diversity is taking place within Africa and here, local media has its own cultural conversations to report.

A recent example is Ghanaian President John Atta Mills’ refusal to legalize homosexuality in exchange for the continued support of foreign aid from British Prime Minister David Cameron – a leading news story which has been causing heated reaction and debate nationally and internationally.

Although many Africans strongly oppose homosexuality and believe it is a foreign concept brought in by Westerners, a minority of the population support gay rights or claim to be gay themselves.

This includes gay rights activist who goes under the alias of Prince.

Prince met with Mr. Honderich during his visit to Ghana and described the circumstances under which homosexuals live in the country as a ‘difficult thing’. In a column written by Mr. Honderich inspired by his visit with Prince, he writes “[Prince] no longer feels safe, adding police harassment has spiked dramatically.”

In regards to Ghana’s dialogue on diversity, Chair of the Ghana Journalists Association Ado Yeboah-Afari referred to the press reaction to the homosexuality debate as ‘hysterical’.

When asked by participants to share his own opinion, Mr. Honderich explained that homosexuality is legal in Canada and described the process it took to get there – highlighting that many people in Canada were also opposed to the notion. Nonetheless, it is the media’s job and responsibility to cover the issue unbiasedly from both sides.

In addition to the presentation held at the GJA Press Centre, Mr. Honderich was kept busy with multiple media engagements. He paid visit to two of Ghana’s leading radio stations, Joy FM and Citi FM and spent time speaking with young professionals of the Journalists for Human Rights Student Chapter at the African University College of Communication.

He also facilitated a panel discussion at the residents of the Canadian High Commissioners and met with over 70 students from Communication Studies of the Islamic University College, Ghana and worked alongside management at Ghana’s leading independent newspaper, The Daily Guide.