In October 2008, I flew to Ghana, West Africa, where I lived and worked for three months as a volunteer in a human rights centre (a Non-Governmental Organisation). It was a terrific country to visit, but frequent power-cuts and limited personal funds often meant having little to do except read books and write a diary — both of which I did in abundance.
The following posts were composed mainly by torchlight on hot, sticky nights. I published them online, but subsequently took them down to avoid any risk of breaching confidentiality at the time. However, having discovered some of the posts saved to an old keyring drive, I was surprised by the passion which my words seem to convey, and felt the time had come to share these words again.
And so, with a few minor tweaks, I present this collection of writings which, I would like to think, mark an awakening in my life. Sadly, only the first half of my diary is reproduced as I stopped backing-up after week seven. Still, those first seven weeks were action-packed, and my reporting of them captures the full essence of my time in Ghana.
My method was to compose one main entry per week, plus ‘supplemental’ entries on an ad hoc basis, whenever inspiration struck. I have edited some of the supplemental entries for convenience, grouping them into an additional weekly post.
I hope you enjoy reading.
[originally posted Nov 1st, 2008]
I’ve been in Ghana for one week, so it’s time to open my weekly diary.
Stepping-off the plane last Saturday, the first thing that struck me was the intense, muggy heat of Accra. I was met by Nyame who drove me to a house in Labadi where I’m staying with two great guys of similar age, who are also volunteering. Fabian, a law student from Germany, is working as a human rights intern (like myself), whilst Dominic, a sportsman from Switzerland, is here to help coach Accra’s young footballing talent. Our house is owned by Mrs Kyei, a retired school-teacher and sweet old lady who likes us to address her as ‘Aunty.’
There is no television in our house. Nor is there a phone. Nor is there internet access. However, there is an internet café not too far away called ‘Sharpnet.’ Paradoxically, mobile phones seem to have caught-on, although the services on offer are exclusively pay-as-you-go, since the vast majority of Ghanaians do not have a bank account, thus making direct debit pointless in the main.
The streets are pitch dark at night, since street lighting is reserved for major routes only. I have already fallen into a giant hole whilst taking an outdoor stroll. A local man hurried to my assistance, pulling me up whilst repeatedly saying “sorry, sorry, sorry…” (as though to apologise for the condition of his country). I wasn’t hurt, luckily, but thank heavens I’m here with medical insurance, as I don’t think my crutches could withstand many more mishaps like that!
My placement at the human rights centre has started well. Working with Fabian, my week was spent on various projects, such as…
For a long time, the law in Ghana has been unfair with regards to male intestate succession — that is, where a man dies without leaving a will for the distribution of his property and assets. Parliament has finally drafted a new Intestate Succession Bill. However, before the Bill passes into law, it must be reviewed to ensure it eliminates the old problems and achieves the new objectives. That task has fallen to me and Fabian, and already, we’ve spotted a potential shortcoming:
The Bill provides that 40% of a man’s assets must be divided equally between all surviving children (bearing in mind that a man in Ghana may take multiple wives). But what if one of the children is disabled, thus requiring special care? Or what if the ‘children’ from an earlier marriage are now fully grown, while the most recent child is still very young? Should the law be applied literally in such a scenario (so a vulnerable child receives the same as an adult), or should the Court be allowed a margin of discretion to achieve equity in individual cases? We are recommending some changes, and will submit our proposals in a report.
Also, me, Fabian, and some other interns have just returned from two days on the road, presenting advocacy workshops in Cape Coast and Takoradi.
The theme of our workshops was Freedom of Information, and these were intended to raise awareness of this fundamental right, and encourage citizens to come forward and assist in our campaign for change.
The Constitution of Ghana states in Article One that sovereignty resides within the people, meaning the people own their Government. But, in reality, this is not the way it works. There is a strong sense here that Ghanaians are the ‘subjects’ of their Government, not its master.
The Right to Information Bill is a welcome addition to the law, intended to empower citizens to demand information (e.g. on how public money is used). But there are concerns. For instance, as things stand, if the Bill passed into law tomorrow, much discretionary power would be concentrated in the hands of the Attorney-General, who is chief legal adviser to the Government. Hence, there is high potential for corruption. We propose re-drafting this discretionary power into concrete, statutory provisions, thus enabling the courts to adjudicate over disputes that arise.
In terms of comfort and convenience, Ghana is a million miles from home. Water is prone to simply cutting-out at peak times during the day, which is most annoying when one is about to shower. The bus (called a ‘tro-tro’) is little more than a transit van fitted with rows of car seats, or even wooden benches. These sweatboxes on wheels will be my main mode of transport in the coming months.
Amazingly, the dreaded mosquitoes seem to be taking little-or-no interest in my flesh. I share a bedroom with Dominic, and each night before sleeping, I watch, bemused, as he coats his face and limbs with a strong-smelling repellant… though still, he wakes up scratching and cursing! But not me. I feel fine. In fact, I wish I’d saved the money spent on three months’ supply of repellant, plus a ‘deluxe’ mosquito net (for draping over one’s bed) which has yet to be removed from its packet. I might donate my net to Dominic if our flying invaders continue to overlook me. Then again, I would miss his hilarious bedtime routine, so we’ll see!
Joking aside, malaria (transmitted by mosquito bite) is a serious, potentially lethal disease. Hence, I will avoid becoming too complacent, and will be sure to take my weekly anti-malaria pill without fail. Indeed, I know I am fortunate to have such preventative medicine at hand, as the vast majority of Africans do not. Dominic also has the medicine, so I know he won’t contract malaria if I fail to offer my mosquito net. This makes me sleep easier.
I discovered that “obrune” (oh-broo-nee) means “white person!” Ghanaians, especially the children, shout this word whenever we’re around. It’s meant in good fun, though. And in Ghana, as throughout the entire African continent, the land is red! Sometimes it almost seems as though we’re walking on Mars!
Last night, the lads and I went to a reggae party on the beach, which was awesome. Now our bellies are collectively rumbling, so we’re off to seek Ghanaian food.
(week one, supplemental)
It’s 2:50am and I can’t get to sleep. I find myself reflecting on a true story told to me recently. The story is about a hustler whom my mother and and younger brother encountered on a recent trip to New York City.
As my brother, Tony, and my mother, Karen, walked along Times Square, they were suddenly confronted by Spiderman, who offered to pose with them for a photo — a snip at two dollars. The magnificent, brightly-coloured costume concealed a youthful, bounding man, who proclaimed enthusiastically:
“Get ya picture taken with Spiderman! Just two dollars!”
But my brother and my mother declined.
A short way ahead, they encountered another superhero — this time Batman. “C’mon now” he bellowed, “show ya friends and family ya met Batman in Times Square… two dollars!”
But again, my brother and my mother passed the impressive figure without stopping for a photo.
A little further on, they encountered an old man sat quietly upon some stacked beer crates. It was obvious to anyone that the old man was disabled, and suffered with bad legs. He wore some kind of mask, plastic and dark, with an old, tatty blanket draped over his shoulders — as though to give the appearance of a black cape. The man held a handwritten sign, and it read:
“Get Your Picture Taken With Darth Vader – Two Dollars.”
Apparently, the man could have passed for Darth Vader’s great grandfather, as he looked so old and pathetic sitting there, perched awkwardly upon those crates. But my brother and mother gave him two dollars each (no photo). The old man said “thanks.”
And that’s it — the whole story. So why has it touched me so? Perhaps it’s the fact that behind his cheap black mask, there sat a proud man who, even at his most desperate, found a way to retain some dignity by offering a service rather than begging… however poor that service might have seemed. Or maybe there’s a lesson we can all take from this story:
In life, for better or worse, play the best you can with the hand you’ve got.
There is a great vibe around Accra right now, as Barack Obama won the US elections to re-claim the White House for the Democratic Party. Ghanaians seem to be rejoicing on account of the new president’s African-American heritage, and a sense of inspiration abounds as Obama’s president-elect speech plays constantly on radios everywhere. In fact, I can’t go anywhere lately without hordes of smiling locals shouting “OBAMA!!!” — making me feel that, despite being a Brit, this man has become my president by default!
That’s all for now.
Think I’ll have another go at sleeping.
[originally posted Nov 8th, 2008]
Another humid week has passed. I wish to start by saying ‘WOW!’ The coconuts here are amazing! To quote Rico Ratzo, a character from ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (my favourite film):
“There are two items necessary to sustain life… sunshine, and coconut milk.”
… and boy, was he right! Luckily, Ghana has both items in abundance! Fabian, my housemate and colleague, told me this morning: “Man, you’ve gotta try this”, so we stopped by a local coconut stall. For only 40 pesewas (that’s 20 pence!) you get an enormous coconut, expertly opened by a machete-wielding local. After swigging delicious, cool milk straight from the shell, you hand it back to the nice man who then chops it into manageable chunks for one to devour. Sheer heaven!
The Ghanaian sun remains unforgiving to us “obrunes.” It’s now Saturday, but there has been no running water in our house since Wednesday. We wash using buckets of old water stored by our landlady in giant containers. I don’t want to know where she gets it from!
The Ghanaian girls are quite possessive. If you’re at a beach party and a local girl talks to you, she’ll soon tell everyone that you’re her BOYFRIEND to keep them away! This has the potential to get awkward. But happily, we human rights volunteers are far too busy fighting injustice to concern ourselves with such things. And speaking of injustice…
Last week, Fabian and I succeeded in helping local journalism students defer their graduation ceremony, originally planned for today, so that proper account can be taken of work experience undertaken during the final term, which was not assessed by the University as the students expected it would be. Consequently, many students would have graduated with lower grades today, had they not approached us (bravely) to ask for our help.
Fabian and I have also been given a case of unlawful detention to investigate. A former officer of a certain State body (one of Ghana’s armed forces) claims to have been held as a prisoner for almost two years, despite regulations specifying a maximum hold-time of ninety days. The officer was finally released when he became so sick and jaundiced, having contracted Hepatitis B in custody, that he required urgent medical attention. However, since being released, no record of any charges brought against this man can be found — which, on the face of things, would suggest either that record-keeping within the armed forces is terrible, or there has been a cover-up. Either way, the State should not be allowed to simply ignore this man’s complaint.
Two new volunteers joined my house last week, bringing our number to five. Tom from Manchester (aged 21) will also be working at the human rights centre. He has completed his law degree and now hopes to gain some voluntary experience prior to training as a barrister.
Bill from Canada (aged 30) is here to help coach football. He must have a lot of energy considering the nights he has already spent away from the house, dancing at the beach! Bill makes no bones about his appetite for young, black ladies. I’m even wondering if that’s not his true motivation for coming here!
Arriving last month, I imagined there would be days when I would long for the comfort of my car and those facilities we Europeans take for granted. But no. Instead, I’m experiencing an on-going sense of accomplishment with each passing day. Yet, for the people of Ghana, there is no such feeling. For them, this is home. It’s all they know, and for many Ghanaians, it is all they will ever know. So, the next time you stock-up at the local supermarket, or even turn on a tap, take a moment to consider how luxurious your life is by comparison.
… I do miss a drop of milk in my tea, though!
(week two, supplemental)
Violations of human rights occur in every democratic society, and the UK is no exception. In the UK, however, we are fortunate to have an evolved and reasonably responsive system of laws and politics. Hence, where suspicion of official corruption arises, there are defined legal and political channels through which the citizen can seek clarification or justice, and within a reasonable timeframe. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ghana.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was ratified by Ghana in September 2000. This provides, in Article 19, that everyone has the right to seek and receive information, regardless of frontiers. Furthermore, the Constitution of Ghana, in Article 21(1)(f), states:
“All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society.”
Quite simply, this means that the citizens of Ghana have an unquestionable right to the information stored within the files and minds of officials, who, after all, are elected by the people to serve the people. The only exception to this rule is where access to information could harm the public interest — for example, where certain information might compromise national security, were it to be revealed.
Despite these clear assertions of law, sadly, there remains a strong culture of secrecy in this country, whose many poor citizens are frequently denied access to information which could help to improve lives and living conditions. In turn, citizens tend to distrust the very officials who could (and should) be instrumental in effecting positive change.
Ghana is a good country, beautiful in parts, and home to a peaceful, kind people. Yet, one need only spend a single day here to witness such hardship as extreme poverty, water-shortage, power-cuts, lack of assistance for the disabled (etc). But when financial provision is made to help remedy such problems, the intended beneficiaries find it difficult or impossible to discover how the money is supposed to be used.
Without access to expenditure information, citizens can play no part in influencing and enforcing public expenditure. For example, suppose that a water company receives a cash injection from the Government to help improve its services. HOW will the company use the money? WHAT will be the benefits? WHO will enjoy those benefits? And WHEN will the plans be implemented? Citizens have the right to ask such questions… and the right to be answered in a timely fashion. Yet, for citizen and Statesman alike, this proverbial penny just doesn’t seem to be dropping.
The Right to Information is not only a human right, it is quite possibly the touchstone of all human rights, as without proper, timely access to public information and records, how can citizens realistically hope to receive all that they are entitled to? However, hope is in sight.
The Right to Information Bill is awaiting its passage through Parliament. But as things stand, the Bill contains some highly questionable provisions which must be amended if the new law is going to be fair. I am currently assisting in the delivery of workshops intended to raise public awareness of this issue. In fact, towards the end of today’s workshop, a (squeaky) radio microphone was passed around the venue to any person who simply wanted to speak their mind, ask questions, or say something positive. After a few local people had spoken, I could scarce believe the sight and sensation of my own hand rising. And, suddenly, there was the thick, black mic, clenched within my lily-white hand.
I rose from a plastic seat, balancing on one leg, steadying myself by placing my free hand on the rear of the seat in front. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say, but I spoke for a good minute or so, remarking that we take so much for granted in Europe (etc), but the way to positive change in any democratic society is for people to unite, putting the sheer weight of their numbers behind a goal (etc), which is what these workshops are about. Democracy in action!
I don’t think that I said anything particularly special, but my input received strong applause, and the village chief (invited to chair the workshop) called-out something like “commendation” — which, apparently, confers a special honour. Fabian, whose job was to capture the entire event in photographs, snapped a terrific shot of me in action — speaking into the mic with a determined face and a clenched fist, having momentarily raised my free hand from the back of the seat in front. It looked as though I was giving the speech of my life! Unfortunately, after showing me this wonderful image, Fabian then accidentally clicked the camera’s ‘erase’ button instead of ‘save’… thus, you will have to take my word for it, reader.
I will close this entry with a quote from a distinguished workshop advocate who spoke today, summing-up the situation far more effectively than this mere poser:
“Officials do not create information for their own good, but for the benefit of others. Information is our lifeblood. It is our raw material. It is our stock-in-trade.”
Hence, I am fast discovering that knowledge really is power. So stay informed… about absolutely everything in life!
And sleep well, my friends.
[originally posted Nov 15th, 2008]
Sitting here, pleasantly reeling in the wake of a delightful Ghanaian coconut, I feel juiced-up and ready to compose my third weekly report. And boy, what a week it’s been.
It’s almost TWO WEEKS since running water graced the taps in our house. Can you imagine?… five sweaty guys all sharing a place together. Add a little diarrhoea to the mix (me, Fabian and Tom — the victims of some nasty chicken), and perhaps you will appreciate the stress that a non-flushing toilet can create.
Our washing water (stored in giant tubs) is beginning to turn brown. If the taps don’t resume normal service soon, I might start washing in Volvic! In fact, on Tuesday, it rained so hard that I took the opportunity to have a shower outside in the refreshing, tropical downpour! But, are we ready to quit and go home?… Not a chance! This is Africa. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the continent.
My job goes well. Without a doubt, the work I’m doing here with Fabian exceeds any task a mini-pupil or intern could expect to receive at home. For instance, we have begun our investigation into the case of unlawful detention (mentioned last week). We, and we alone, have so far met with the client; taken his statement; compiled a timeline of events with documents necessary to back things up; researched the relevant law (tricky in a Ghanaian law library), and drafted an opinion as to why the client’s detention was unlawful. At home, on so-called work experience placements, we would have been lucky just to watch a lawyer do what we have done.
However, our efforts are driven by more than a desire to impress. The underlying tragedy in this case is real. The client contracted the Hepatitis B virus during his unlawfully-long detention in a disgusting, intolerable dungeon, entrusted to negligent guardians. He sits before us with yellow eyes, and smelling of death. Yet, this utter gentleman goes home to a loyal wife and beautiful children, whose only wish is to see him get better now that he has been returned to them.
Make no mistake, I hope to improve my future employment prospects by volunteering in Ghana. But I also want this man to receive the money he needs to buy medicine and take care of his family. I am determined to do all that I can in the time I am here. It is bad enough discovering that a citizen can become so ill whilst in the charge of the State, but it defies belief that any State which purports to be civilised would then try to wash its hands of the situation, as seems to be happening here.
This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I told Aunty (our landlady) the story of Anne Frank — the Jewish girl forced to hide with her family during the war. I recently visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam (now a museum), and standing in that single, tiny room, was astounded to think that young Anne had managed to survive there for so long, with so many other people.
Aunty and I discussed poverty, and how amazing it is that in the United States of America, a land of enormous wealth, there is still poverty for some people comparable to that which can be witnessed in Ghana. Always one to end on a positive note, however, she rounded-off by telling me:
“Anyone, anywhere, can improve their situation at any time. All it takes is hard work and vision.”
… Well said, Aunty!
I’m off with the lads tomorrow to explore Ghana’s Volta Region. Apparently, a friend of Dominic’s (named Lukas) will be joining us.
(week three, supplemental)
I have managed to get into a tiff with both Fabian and Tom. I suppose when three people live together, work together, eat together, sleep in the same room and travel together at weekends, it’s inevitable that there will be friction.
The lads think I’m becoming too cynical and untrusting towards the Ghanaian people. I disagree, but having personally suffered a few scams, and witnessed the blatant robbery of some of my friends lately, I just think it’s better for us to be cautious, and to question peoples’ motives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that the vast majority of Ghanaians are kind people, going about their business with good intentions. It’s a sad reality, though, that in the midst of this extreme poverty, a few locals have learned how to use manners and social customs against us newcomers, and often to our detriment. For instance…
A friendly, well-dressed Ghanaian man (aged about 30) joined our table on a night out recently. We were sat outside a local bar and the atmosphere was electric. Loud music and street-dancing surrounded us. The man who joined our table quickly acquainted himself with everyone present, including myself, then made friendly, light conversation with all. Someone even bought the guy a beer.
After a while, our housemate Bill came along. Bill took-out his mobile phone to send a text. Seeing the phone, the friendly Ghanaian man asked if he could borrow it for just a moment to make a quick call. Not wishing to appear rude, Bill agreed. Minutes later, the man disappeared with Bill’s phone, never to return. He simply walked away with it while we were distracted.
Tom and I disagree about the correct way to view this incident. I think this man’s behaviour was deeply immoral, so perhaps a word to the police would not go amiss. Tom, on the other hand, seems to think that his actions were understandable in light of his poor circumstances, so telling police would be taking things too far. I shan’t tell police, although, personally, I think there is being understanding, then there is being taken for a fool. And I see no virtue in the latter. Moreover, having now seen how this thief operates, I’m quite sure that he will repeat his cheeky crime in future, taking advantage of other volunteers who come here to help.
Another incident involved a volunteer I know being robbed at gunpoint after using a cash machine. A local man convinced the volunteer that he was lost and in need of directions. Not wishing to appear rude, the volunteer reluctantly entered the man’s car at his behest, but once inside, was ordered to hand-over his cash if he wanted to live.
My recent tiff with the lads concerned an extortionate taxi fare. I tried to warn them, but was dismissed off-hand as being too cynical. Turns out my prediction was right, as we ended-up paying well over the odds for a very short journey. Admittedly, in my frustration, I provoked them by playing the “told-you-so” card — and obnoxiously at that!
Bottom line: I just think we need to be more careful during our stay in this foreign country.
Anyway, Lake Volta was beautiful. We visited a restaurant there, and, whilst overlooking the lake, enjoyed fried Voltic fish captured straight from the water! It was tasty, if a little too boney for my liking.
Walking back from the restaurant, Fabian noticed a strange, fluorescent blinking in the grass by the roadside. The blinking was caused by these extraordinary insects (fire-flies, I believe), who, apparently, enjoy flashing in the night like tiny disco lights. Heck, this is Africa, folks!
I met a charming older woman from South Africa this morning. Her name was Christine. She told me that she was born to English parents, but has lived most of her life on the African continent. Christine was impressed to learn of my voluntary efforts with the human rights centre, and remarked that people of my enthusiasm can make a difference to countries such as Ghana. However, she also warned:
“In Africa, the deeper you get, the more care you must take to avoid stepping on certain toes. Your life may depend on it.”
I replied that, with the exception of my housemates, I don’t think I’ve managed to ruffle any prominent feathers… yet!
[originally posted Nov 28th, 2008]
It’s been a long week. Ever wondered what it feels like to be on the road with a travelling rock band? Well, I now understand that feeling — only, instead of concerts, we delivered workshops on women’s reproductive health rights.
The workshops are necessary in order to raise awareness of the various abuses endured by women in Ghana. But the long hours spent on a bus with ten other volunteers were ‘testing’ to say the least. In fact, as I type this, my backside is numb due to seventeen hours spent in transit, returning from Tamale in the north (a trip aggravated by lack-of-tarmac on most of the roads). We’re home now, in muggy Accra once again, and such is our exhaustion that we’re planning on sleeping all day tomorrow.
Many Women, especially in the rural parts of Ghana, continue to endure shocking abuses at home — in particular, the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation, which entails the surgical removal of all or part of the clitoris (and not always under hygienic conditions). This practice continues despite its criminalisation. The problem seems to stem from peoples’ ignorance of, and indifference to, the law. To quote a distinguished workshop advocate:
“Belief is a hard thing to change. Our people need to become involved in the making of our laws. Simply handing-down laws from above does not work.”
In addition to these workshops, we drove-out on Tuesday to a small village called Gushegu. Our purpose was to collect statements and investigate a violent political incident that occurred some months ago, upon which the police have taken no action. The incident started with a nasty confrontation between rival supporters of political parties NDC and NPP. It ended in deaths, shootings and homes set ablaze. Hopefully, the evidence collected by us will be instrumental in putting pressure on police to do their job.
Election Day in Ghana draws near, and tension remains high. If a party wins fair-and-square, by a clear voting majority, then there shouldn’t be much trouble. But, if evidence of electoral corruption surfaces (as it has been known to in the past), or if one of the parties wins by a very narrow margin, then further violence can be expected in villages like Gushegu. It’s a regrettable situation. One man I interviewed in Gushegu told me:
“I never used to have political beliefs. I never liked politics. Then the NPP people came. They killed my grandfather — shot him to death. They killed my brother. So now I support the NDC.”
To me, it seems as though the prominent political figures of Ghana are being fostered as mere badges in the rural areas, used by villagers to demonstrate their tribal and family allegiances — and often to tragic effect, as evidenced in Gushegu. It is unclear why police are taking such a slack approach to the problem of politically-motivated violence, but one possible theory centres on party bias.
Whilst in Gushegu, we saw the former Ghanaian President, Jerry John Rawlings, who drove through the village amidst a flurry of minders and flashing police cars. Then today, on the drive back to Accra, our bus had to pull over to allow the current President, John Agyekum Kufuor, to pass at high-speed (again, encapsulated within a flashing vehicular entourage). So, it’s all ‘go’ right now! Let’s just hope that Ghana can soon enjoy peaceful and fair elections.
It was nice to escape the office for a week, but my other projects await. In particular, the unlawful detention case is progressing, and our boss has expressed a keen interest in taking the matter forward. “It’s time an example was made” we were told, and I hope to be instrumental in doing just that.
For now, a nice cup of tea (WITH MILK!) awaits.
(week five, supplemental)
Depending on one’s perspective, today was either the best so far, or the worst.
Fabian and I were summoned to the boss’s office. It seems that our dedicated, combined efforts are not going unnoticed, as confirmed by the great faith placed in us today. We have been delegated the preliminary handling of a most chilling and sensitive case.
The story begins with one good citizen who felt it incumbent upon himself to bring to our attention photographs and details of a violent incident which, to say the least, is not getting the attention it deserves from the press and authorities.
Picture a village, reader, which is inhabited by two tribes, A and B, each living alongside one another in reasonable harmony — or without too much friction, at least. Until, one day, a new village chief is appointed. The chief belongs to Tribe-A. This upsets the members of Tribe-B, so a period of hostility ensues.
Before long, there’s fighting in the streets and the Government is forced to decree a local curfew. Hence, nobody is allowed outside their home after 6pm.
One evening, at around 7pm, a man from Tribe-A is seen walking through the territory of Tribe-B. Outraged by this apparent show of disrespect, the men of Tribe-B run outside and murder him. Soldiers soon arrive and remove the victim’s body. An investigation into the killing is promised. However, overwhelmed by grief, and wanting swift vengeance for their brother slain, Tribe-A dispatches seven men, cunningly disguised as soldiers wearing army uniforms (although it’s a mystery where these uniforms came from). Seeing the arrival of the supposed soldiers, and fearing that they are about to be arrested for murder, the men of Tribe-B flee the village, leaving behind their wives, children and elderly relatives.
In England, we have a proverb: Needs must when the devil drives. It seems that sometime during July 2008, these words found perfect expression in northern Ghana, for the men of Tribe-A brutally slaughtered 14 people (mostly young children). The concerned citizen who brought us this news provided photographic evidence, craftily captured by a soldier with a camera-phone during the aftermath. What the photographs revealed was truly awful…
A baby with its skull caved-in (stoned to death, no doubt).
Two twin brothers lying side-by-side, each with his little throat ripped open.
A mother clubbed to death.
The list continues.
What beasts to do such acts. But most disturbing is the subsequent lack of interest shown by the authorities. More baffling still is the sheer dearth of media coverage. What explanation could there be for this hush-up? Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the upcoming elections have something to do with it, since the majority of residents in the district, constituting both tribes, support the incumbent political party (apparently). This is just my opinion, but perhaps the Government is concerned about losing many votes by getting on the wrong side of either tribe, hence the Government’s desire for inaction… and silence.
Fabian and I have compiled a timeline of events and presented this to our boss along with the photographs. Hopefully, our boss can exert some influence and raise public awareness of this appalling crime.
I’m off to bed. It’s time to end this, my best, or worst, day on the job so far.
Love to everyone back home.
[originally posted Dec 7th, 2008]
As the half-way point of my trip approaches, I hear it’s sub-zero degrees in England. Indeed, my heart goes out to the poor folks of that freezing country. Meanwhile, as our European pals spend their nights tucked-up in bed, us volunteers in Ghana can dawdle down to the beach most evenings sporting shorts and sandals, there basking in the delight of reggae beats and ocean breeze.
In fact, just two days ago, Fabian and I were sat in the back of a slow-moving taxi, sweating profusely as the 38-degree humidity penetrated our business suits, when suddenly, from out of the blue, Fabian began to sing:
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…
But the fire is so delightful…
And since we’ve no place to go…
Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”
And it dawned on me… IT’S DECEMBER! We too should be feeling the nip of Jack Frost at our toes. Instead, we’re here, battling injustice by day and beaching in sandals by night!
Clearly, though, West Africa isn’t for everyone. I recently met a girl named Brooke, a volunteer from New York City, who insisted on staying in plush hotel rooms in Ghana — at $295 per night. Madness! Needless to say, the home comforts proved to be too much of a necessity, so she flew home on Wednesday (nine weeks earlier than planned).
Today is Election Day in Ghana. To help ensure free and fair elections, the EU has sent a team of observers who are to be deployed to polling stations across the country. Baroness Amos, a UK House of Lords peer and former government minister, is present as part of this monitoring team. She requested a conference with my boss on Friday in order to receive some input from a human rights perspective.
Fabian and I were invited to attend the meeting and share with the Baroness our thoughts and concerns arising from the recent visit to Gushegu, where we investigated incidents of politically-motivated violence. Our input was warmly received.
Afterwards, as we stood with the Baroness for a photo, I smiled to myself, realising that the ‘dynamic’ is much different out here. Anything can happen. You just never know who you’re going to meet — especially when moving in political circles. I’m loving that aspect of it!
No doubt, the work here is inspiring, but it also forces us to confront the more ugly side of human nature. For instance, in the UK, if a man was to throw acid into the face of a young woman, disfiguring her for life, he could expect swift prosecution followed by a lengthy prison sentence. However, this is not necessarily the situation in Ghana, for me and Tom are now confronted by this exact crime in a case where local police are refusing to investigate.
Whilst the victim in this case suffers, her attacker (whom she can identify) remains at large, and free to repeat this offence at any time. Therefore, our job is simply to make the police do their job. I know, reader, that this must be a lot to swallow. If it seems unbelievable, or ludicrous, that mere law students like us can be involved in such cases, that is because you come from a place where, by-and-large, the law is enforced.
Tom and I have seen disturbing photographs taken at the hospital, but we may soon be asked to visit this woman in order to record her statement. We will then write a letter to the Police Commander (subject to our boss’s approval, of course) urging him to begin an investigation into this horrendous attack. Perhaps most shocking is that the woman knows her attacker, and where he is likely to be found. Yet, infuriatingly, the police will not take action based on her evidence. Frankly, the word ‘bribe’ springs to mind.
In any event, I intend to do all that I can to help this poor woman get justice.
My case of unlawful detention has hit an obstacle. Me and Fabian are arguing, based on the relevant law, that the officer should have been released after ninety days if a hearing was not convened during that time (which we now know it wasn’t). Instead, the officer was held for nearly two years and only received a hearing at the end of his detention period.
We managed to track-down the lawyer who represented our client at the hearing, and contacted him by phone requesting that copies of all relevant paperwork be faxed. However, the lawyer, realising that perhaps he should have spotted this issue long before us, is refusing to co-operate. He told me over the phone:
“You’re a professional, so be professional. If you want documents, come and collect them in person.”
Helpful guy. The trouble is, his office is located a four-hour drive from Accra — as he well knows. All is not lost, however. As luck would have it, I recently met a girl named Reena (a volunteer from Canada) who is situated close to the lawyer. She is willing to collect the documents on my behalf. But will the lawyer honour his word and provide us with the requested information? We will find out soon enough.
As December 12th approaches, I feel that familiar tightening of the guts which only exam results can induce. Before flying-out to Ghana, I sat exams on criminal law and public law. And I promised the lads in my house:
“If it’s 70% or better then the drinks are on me!”
It might prove expensive, but that’s a problem I’m hoping to have.
Here’s also hoping for trouble-free elections.
(week six, supplemental)
Me and Fabian were invited to write an article on behalf of the human rights centre, which might even be used as the basis for a speech that is soon to be given by a very prominent speaker.
So here is the article, which we composed as a joint effort:
This is a crucial time for Ghana, as this December, we face what is possibly our most important elections since gaining independence as a nation. It is a time of big speeches and grand gestures, particularly with respect to human rights issues. Many new promises are being made, and many old ones renewed, but all too often, such promises result in little positive action.
In May this year, Ghana became the first African country to be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council under its Universal Periodic Review System.
On first glance, the results of the review reveal exemplary progress in Ghana. There is evidence that Ghana is moving forward with her fundamental human rights obligations. To date, Ghana has ratified several core human rights instruments. Ghana has also taken legislative steps at the national level to implement many of the obligations prescribed by these treaties. Accordingly, specific laws now exist in Ghana to provide substantive protection for individual rights; for example, the Domestic Violence Act, the Children Act, the People with Disabilities Act, and the Human Trafficking Act. In addition, numerous bodies have been established to promote human rights in Ghana, and to further their practical realisation, such as the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit.
But even with all this effort, there is still much work to be done. Regrettably, social injustice and human rights violations remain prevalent throughout many aspects of Ghanaian life.
Police Services in Ghana frequently resort to violence and disproportionate measures in the course of their duty. This has led to a situation of basic distrust between public and police, preventing the co-operation needed to ensure truly effective policing. Proper human rights standards have yet to be implemented within the Police Service. Corruption at official levels also continues to be a problem.
Forced evictions in Ghana are on the rise. Recently, there have been many situations in which authorities, often with help from police, forcibly remove Ghanaian citizens from their homes, and without providing alternative shelter or adequate compensation. Clearly, this is a violation of human rights.
The situation is further aggravated by a general lack of access to justice in Ghana. Currently, there are insufficient judicial structures situated throughout the country. This is especially true of the rural areas. Also, the legal aid system is poorly resourced and fails in its objective to secure adequate legal representation for vulnerable citizens.
Discrimination against persons with disabilities continues to be an issue within the home, the community and society at large. Frequently, these people endure segregation at their places of education, chronic unemployment, poor access to public facilities and widespread disdain or paternalism. Likewise, the support for persons with mental health problems remains woefully inadequate. Due to a lack of clinical resources, they often find themselves being treated in so-called ‘prayer camps’ where abuses of human rights are commonplace.
Despite the legislative successes mentioned earlier, many guarantees enshrined in our Constitution have yet to be realised. For instance, the Right to Information held by our Government, which is a cornerstone of all human rights. The Right to Information Bill, yet to complete its parliamentary passage, still falls short of acceptable standards, thus contributing to the endemic problem of corruption in Public Office.
In practice, the death penalty is no longer carried out in Ghana. However, the Government has yet to ratify the Second Protocol of the ICCPR, which requires signatory states to abolish capital punishment in all its forms. This raises concern amongst the human rights community.
And finally, we are expressing concern over delays in concluding the investigation of the fifty West Africans killed and/or disappeared in the Gambia during July 2006. We continue to implore the African Commission to use its good offices to bring this matter to a close, and hopefully bring justice to the families of the victims.
There is a local man who insists on causing us trouble. He’s a young painter who sells his work to make a living. We have nicknamed him ‘Black-Africa Man’ in our house — since that is what he says his paintings are about.
There are many street-sellers around here, and all are more pushy than we are used to back home. This is understandable, of course, since many of the white people you see have come as tourists, and usually have money to burn. But not all of us are here as tourists. Some need to be more frugal with their funds, so stopping to buy paintings and handmade souvenirs is just not an option. And it is not possible to stop simply to view items out of politeness, as this causes sellers to spring into action with a full-blown sales pitch, often involving a hint of emotional blackmail. So, unless one is actually looking to buy something, it is easier to say “no thanks” and walk on.
The trouble with Black-Africa Man is that he gets aggressive with those who refuse to stop. His stall is located on Oxford Street (very African-sounding, I know), which is the main route through the busy Osu area. Hence, we cannot avoid seeing him, and whenever we do, he points at us, shouting repeatedly: “There go the sons of slave-masters!”
I’ve also seen him harassing other volunteers in this manner. I’m not sure how much longer I can emulate the philosophical attitude which Fabian and Tom have adopted towards him. I feel guilty about coming from a country which, in the past, has literally raped this man’s land. Then again, I’m here working for free, trying to do a bit of good, and I don’t plan on letting one angry local persecute me for the sins of my ancestors. If I must stand-up to this man in order to make him back-off, then sooner or later, I will.
Coming home from work today, I clambered out of the tro-tro and was confronted by an upsetting sight. A guy no older than myself, who was obviously suffering with mental illness, lay in the street, taking partial-shade under a tree. His trousers were pulled down to his knees, and his nimble fingers could be seen picking at his backside as he stared ahead with a blank, faraway gaze. He didn’t even flinch as this one-legged obrune walked right by him.
When I saw the guy lying there, my first feeling was revulsion at the sight of him touching his ass. But now I feel bad for not dropping him a few cedis, which is the very least I could have done. Heck, I’ve handed my change to beggars round here who’ve asked, so why didn’t I think to help someone who was clearly too sick to ask? He might not have noticed the gesture (so distant were his eyes), but at least I would’ve done something kinder than simply overlooking him the way I did.
I wonder where that man is tonight. Has he eaten? If so, how? Does someone, somewhere, prepare a regular meal for him, or does he simply resort to stealing when his hunger becomes too great? I fear that if this man was to be arrested, he might be punished to the full extent of the law — his mental illness being overlooked as a mitigating factor, just as his very existence was overlooked by me today.
I will try to live with my eyes wide open from now on.
[originally posted Dec 14th, 2008]
This past week was an experience. It began with the worst bout of diarrhoea I’ve ever experienced, accompanied by high fever and violent puking. I lost a day from work which was spent dithering miserably in bed.
Strangely, I endured a constant longing for cans of Coke, but had to make-do with blackcurrant ‘Dioralyte’ — a rapid rehydration agent mixed in water. Finally, in the determination to purge my body of the invasive virus, I resorted to the age-old family remedy of sweating the nasties out… and it worked! All I had to do was climb into bed (in West Africa) wearing two pairs of socks, some tracksuit bottoms, the jumper I left England in and a fleece jacket. Piece of cake, really.
On returning to work, I accompanied my boss to a police station in downtown Accra. A desperate mother had sought our help. Her son is being detained in custody, but two months after his arrest, he still has yet to be charged with any offence.
As we walked through the more ‘civilised’ areas of the station, prominent officers warmly acknowledged our presence. One could almost believe that these folks perform an honourable duty, taking great pride in their work. Until one arrives at the prisoner holding cells, that is.
WHOMP! … As the steel door swung open, the soothing air-conditioning vanished, replaced at once by a wave of stinking, moist heat, which hugged our bodies tight as we passed along a narrow, stone passage, moving toward some bars. There, on the other side of those bars, fifteen men (at least) stood crammed together in darkness, half-naked, dripping wet with sweat. Each man’s eyes appealed to us, as if to say:
“Please get me out.”
The word ‘dignity’ held no meaning in this vile place — a putrid, claustrophobic, State-controlled dungeon, reminiscent of a nightmare scene. Or a circle of Dante’s hell.
An officer shouted our client’s name and he appeared at the bars, eager to speak with us, but somewhat more desperate in his demeanour than the other prisoners surrounding him. Perhaps because he is innocent? Or perhaps because our arrival sparked an almost cruel ray of hope? Maybe it was both.
My boss went to speak with a superior officer, leaving me the task of taking-down the client’s information, which was no easy thing. As I concentrated on the anguished sound of his voice, trying hard to capture every word on paper, globules of hot, salty sweat dripped down from my forehead, wetting the page I jotted upon. As the paper became soaked, I had to write with progressively less pressure to avoid tearing through it with my pen. Friends, this is no exaggeration.
The client told me that his detention began two months ago. He was arrested as a suspected accomplice to a robbery, although the evidence against him is weak and based on just one person’s say-so. He has a good job and is an upstanding member of his community, with no criminal record.
Under the laws of Ghana, every detained suspect has the right to be put before a court within 48 hours of arrest, but this did not happen in the case of our client — nor in countless other cases, I shouldn’t wonder. On returning to the human rights centre, I typed his comments into a coherent statement for my boss, who will hopefully succeed in springing him from that dreadful dungeon. Or, at least, in pushing for a swift trial to determine his fate promptly.
On the drive back to our office, I was further shocked to hear that the Police Service does not feed its detainees, nor provide them with drinking water. These things must be brought-in by one’s relatives during visiting hours (assuming one has relatives that are willing). And this is Accra, the capital. Can you imagine what it must be like in the rural, more remote parts of Ghana, where human rights monitoring occurs far less frequently?
I am appalled by what I have seen. Surely, even prisoners have the right to expect minimum standards from the supposedly ‘morally superior’ in society. After all, it’s quite easy loving the loveable, but is not the true measure of humanity to be found in the compassion we show to all human beings — whether they be loveable, or not? Didn’t Jesus even say something along these lines?
I didn’t used to consider myself a political person, even though I have felt drawn to the subject of human rights since my very first lesson on it. However, since coming to Ghana, I am realising that human rights are political; they are not simply rules of law to be cited in cases. Yes, the world needs good lawyers to fight for human rights in courtrooms, but the world also needs good politicians to recognise systemic abuses of human rights, then act on a desire to fix them. Hence, as voting Ghana anticipates a new Government, let us hope that the next wave of politicians will take some steps to improve conditions at police stations, for as this mere foreigner has observed, there is a great deal of room for improvement.
Tomorrow I’m travelling to Cape Coast with Fabian and Tom. Doubtless, the highlight of this trip will be our visit to the infamous Cape Coast Castle, from where the British orchestrated the slave trade. This so-called trade amounted to kidnapping men and women from their villages at gunpoint, locking them in windowless dungeons for up to three months (where they would stand in their own excrement), until such time as the North American slave ships would arrive to carry them away.
Once money had changed hands, the stinking human cargo would be led out, chained and shackled, through the ‘Door Of No Return’ (literally) and onto the docked ships for a gruelling voyage across the Atlantic.
It occurred to me recently that Fabian, being German, must occasionally tire of the frequent association of Germany with the Nazis, even today, by the narrow-minded who insist on defining countries by reference to their past, not their present. For instance, whenever England plays against Germany at football, jibes about war are inevitable. But what about the Brits? We, too, own our share of historic atrocities which we ought to feel some shame for — Cape Coast Castle being a major example. So why, then, hadn’t I heard of this terrible landmark before coming to Ghana, the scene of our heinous crimes?
There is a great deal of racism in my country. I think one positive way to tackle it would be to teach our children about the sheer cruelty and pain, not to mention the mass robbery, that we have inflicted upon countries such as Ghana — once magnificently known as The Gold Coast for its abundant supply of that resource. And our children should know the devastating effects of our actions, which left permanent scars upon these lands, and contributed to the great inequality between Africa and Europe that exists today.
Perhaps we can deflect much racial hatred in Britain by instilling an early sense of racial empathy for the wrongs our race has done. Indeed, if our schools are going to teach British history at all, they should teach the whole of our history, not just those chapters most flattering to the British sense of self.
This is Fabian’s last weekend in Ghana. He’s flying-out to Canada to begin a Masters in International Human Rights Law at a university there. I’ve shared some insightful projects with him, and, where possible, we’ve had a few laughs along the way. No doubt, I’ll be sad to see him go.
I’m feeling quite pleased after receiving my exam results. I achieved a ‘Grade 2 Pass’ for my paper on public law and crime (which is great). I also scored highly in a beginners’ French course which I took last year, whilst living in Belgium. This news should serve as one-in-the-eye for Fabian, who rather unhelpfully suggested that I sound more like a dog barking in French than a Frenchman actually speaking it.
Anyway, as promised, the drinks are on me this weekend.