Viewing by month: September 2010

RE: Star Post

I Can still hear you saying you will never break the chain….



No, I’m not humming Fleetwood Mac…I can’t even sing right now. I am speaking of the first encounter I have had with a blatant human rights abuse I feel, will take a long time to change. I could not give my full opinion on what I saw at a Prayer Camp in rural Ghana on my jhr blog. All I can say is I felt for this woman you see in the photo. I felt for her in a way that detached me from the story I was supposed to be doing. I became personally connected when I am meant to stay impartial.

This woman who’s name is not even known was brought to a prayer camp like millions of others before her. Prayer Camps are aptly named to imply that if you come, your soul will be cleansed by Jesus and whatever impairment you have will be exorcised out of you more or less. That which is fixed with a bottle of prescription Paxil cocktails in North America is fixed by chaining or cuffing the ankles of the person suffering from mental illness. They are kept encased in iron while they are given cocktails of their own-Oil tinted with red food coloring that represents the blood of Jesus, Leaves that are crushed into a “cure”. You name it, it’s injested. MOst of the people who treat the problem have no background in Psychiatric care though even if a “crazy” person wanted that assistance they’d be hard pressed to find it in a country where there are 9 working Psychiatrists. Some of the women brought to theseprayer camps suffer from no more than being left at the alter. To get personal,I went a little crazy when I had a breakup….but my family didn’t bring me to a secluded village where I don’t know a soul and leave me in the hands of some crack pot herbalist. Below is a posting from before I lose my internet connection.

Revision of Health Law Wanting in Ghana’

‘Oh, sister cover your eyes’

I’m grabbed by the shoulder, spun 180 degrees and I feel the coverlet of darkness on my eyes.

I can hear the rattle of a dog chain, that’s it. I unravel myself and turn to look at what I’ve been ordered to block.

Standing with her left foot chained to a tree is a girl of about 22-years old.

‘Cover yourself’ yells herbalist Atete Atempon, barely stifling his smirking face.

I don’t know why he’s smirking when there’s a human being with her legs, and life bound by iron.

The girl stands, legs akimbo with her cloth loosely hanging from her hips. Her breasts are exposed and she’s trying to show me the rest of herself. She smiles a doped up smile as two servants of Atempon rush to unchain her. They know I’m quizzically wondering ‘Why?’ and are industrially making her go away before I start asking questions.

We’ve come to the Herbalist Centre to interview Atempon on his supposed cure for AIDS. I now want to repurpose my trip to include this woman, and the reason she’s been chained to a tree. If I get my wish it will mean losing the interview Edem Srem, the reporter I am paired with, prepared.

Ethics. Fairness. I decide to stay mute and once the girl is covered up, unchained and led away screaming. I sit down in the chair that’s been put before me as Atempon mutters ‘sorry uh.’

We conduct the interview, the entire time I am wondering if my camera captured this…seemingly unthinkable act against a mentally ill human being.

Dr Akwasi Osei is Acting Chief Psychiatrist of the Accra Psychiatric Hospital In Ghana. According to him about 2.4 million of the country’s population are persons with disabilities and most live on the peripheries of society. Fringes like Suhulm, a small village in the Eastern Region of Ghana where Atempon works his ‘magic’ by concocting oils, and drinkables, he says, can cure AIDS and make the insane, sane. I’m not sure how chaining or encasing one’s ankles in an iron prison does that…Dr.Osei isn’t sure either. He says a Disability Bill was passed in 2006 that called on government to conform to treaties and conventions they had signed to make crimes against mentally ill illegal. As it stands, Osei sites only two percent of the 2.4 million people living with mental illness have access to adequate treatment and care. There are a meager none practicing Psychiatrists in the whole of Ghana, and they are stifled when it comes to reaching even half the cases they want to through the healthcare system.

That’s why this girl is chained to a mango tree in the backyard of a herbalist.

Though the World Health Organization has hopped on board to assist chief psychiatrists like Dr. Osei in eradicating mistreatment in all of West Africa, human rights violations proliferate, especially in rural communities. In Ghana, the spread of spiritual churches, prayer camps and other unorthodox institutions has become a threat to patient’s rights and appropriate treatment and the WHO knows it. Still Dr. Osei and others like him say they have a long road ahead convincing the public and government to erase the stigma attached to the mentally ill, and even those that work in the field.

I go out on a limb as we cross the threshold of Atempon’s laboratory of blood red oils that are ingested and smeared on patients brought by family members who say someone has become possessed or witched. I ask him if he has any background in mental health.

‘I know how to cure anything,’ he says. As he jerks his head in the direction of the tree he mumbles ‘in two weeks the girl that was there will be fine.’

Another two weeks of being chained and exorcised it seems will cure this girl…magically.

Though I am feeling slightly turned off by this man’s entire approach to health in general, I am optimistic that Ghana, as a country, must have its finger on the pulse of progression in the area of mental health. Dr. Osei told the World Health Organization Ghana has come a long way since its Lunatic Asylum Order was instituted in 1888. Until 1972 the mental health laws of the country virtually criminalized mental illness. He notes that though there have been many revisions to the mental health law not much has been achieved in terms of protection and reduction in the level of treatment of the mentally ill.

Dr. Osei continues to work tirelessly with the WHO and Ministry of Health to revise current laws that allow anyone with a backwoods degree in Psychiatric Health to practice any kind of inhumane ‘cleansings’. He says a revised has gone through 10 drafts and the hope Parliament would pass the Bill into law by the end of the year.

As we leave the compound I hear the girl screaming as she is doused with cold water and barked at by her two keepers.

‘I’m not sure that’s exorcising her demons,’ I say to Edem.

‘ We needed to get the interview’, he shrugs….’but it is sad.’

Getting it to Press


When Ibrahim Barkho walked into the TV Africa newsroom two weeks ago, he was a man on a mission.

Tall in stature and one of the more energetic Ghanaians I’ve encountered, Barkho was a force.

“I wish to speak to the head of your newsroom,” he said to a reporter who was idly ignoring him. The reporter thumbs him in the direction of newsroom editor Fred Chidi’s office.

Barkho walks toward the office with a sense of urgency and almost prostrates himself before Chidi. Two minutes later I’m beckoned into Chidi’s office. I learn that Barkho is founder of an NGO called the African Trust Foundation (ATF). The organization was founded by four men to advocate for the rights of poor and ignored villagers across Ghana. ATF set its sights on Abramkum in the Upper East Region four years ago but they haven’t been able to move beyond it since. The plan was to start in Abramkum and spread access to clean water, education and health care to neighboring communities but it’s been an uphill battle for Barkho and his team—that’s what’s landed him in the TV Africa newsroom.

Children in Abramkrum gather dirty water daily for drinking, cooking and bathing.

“I have tried calling every media agency I can, I tell them to come and see what is happening in this village, but no one comes, so I am using my own money to come to the media,” Barkho says with a sigh. “They are the only ones that might be able to help.” He believes the media is the conduit for change and has a more modern approach than many village elders who simply pray for aid.

TV Africa’s policy is that unless reporters pay out of pocket to venture to regions outside of Accra, they’ll not be leaving Accra. Still, Chidi seems taken by Barkho’s plea and offers to at least watch the tape he brought. The film, shot my Barkho, reveals images of life in Abramkum.

We see children drinking murky water from a back road pond.

We see AIDS-infected pregnant women pleading for anti-retrovirals so their children stand a chance at not being born with their death already imminent. They sit and talk to the camera from the only hospital available to 48 villages in the area.

We also see vacant school buildings that haven’t been occupied by a teacher in years.

“We will try and send someone there,” Chidi says in a gruff tone that covers his look of sympathy for the people in the amateur video.

Meantime, I work with Edem Srem, a TV Africa journalist desperate to report in the rural regions, to file a story that night with rushes from Barkho’s tape. The first shot is of a child jumping into soiled water his family cooks, drinks and cleans with. The broadcast journalist in me thinks it makes for a great sound-up.

Two weeks later, Srem and I are heading to the village in the Upper East to meet again with Barkho. Waiting for us when we arrive are village chiefs from Abamkrum and more than 45 surrounding villages. All tell us they face the same challenges—accessing water and adequate education—and say government officials have come and gone over the years, but little action has been taken.

Eighty-six-year-old Thomas Yao Tonyeviadzi is Abamkrum’s head chief. Tonyeviadzi says ATF is his voice now, adding that elder chiefs no longer know how to follow politics in this country. They’re also not equipped to deal with new challenges, like HIV/AIDS, and need to rely on outsiders for help, he says.

We get to work filming children drinking lime green-colored water, the town midwife speaking of needless maternal deaths that happen on her watch due to lack of resources and a dust-collecting cocoa field that has remained untilled without funding from the Ghana Cocoa Board.

Srem has paid for his trip by pairing a story he is doing about AIDS in rural Ghana with this one. He applied for the reporting grant six months ago from Ghana Health Service. He needed to ask for outside financing in order to leave Accra and do stories on AIDS in the rural area—it’s an unfortunate reality for most journalists in Ghana, since newsrooms rarely have enough resources to send reporters out of town on assignment.
Srem says media interest in AIDS has waned and he wants to show Ghanaians how patients are still stigmatized and how access to proper medical care is a far cry from where it should be. He received enough money to produce a piece for the National Aids and STI Control Program. We agree that material we gather from interviews with HIV/AIDS patients in Abamkrum will compliment his AIDS documentary while providing human rights content we can also air on TV Africa.

It only took Ibrahim Barkho traveling down to Accra, shooting his own tape and pleading with the station, to get us here. But we’re here.