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

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A WOMAN IN THE EASTERN VILLAGE OF SUHULM SHOWS HOW SHE CAN’T GET FREE OF HER SHACKLES

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 jhr.ca 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

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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.




The Many Ways it just Ain’t the Same

As I sit here and wait for what I know will be an hour, I’ve decided to blog.

Waiting…to wait is to pass time in expectation of some events occuring.

Things I have waited for this week:

  1. A bus or tro tro as we call it here- it arrives but it will not drive until it is full. So A) the driver can make as much money as possible off of his paying patrons and b) because this is a society where crowding is nothing. IT’s nothing to be squished against a portly African queen on one side of you, have her baby plunked onto your lap ( or her goat….I shit you not this has happened), have her arm around you ( for balance) and on your other side have a man…who more than likely has a goat ( and it bleets. This is the kind of stuff I wait for….and then embrace as part of my experience…every day.
  2. Interviews. I jump for joy because someone finally answers my call when I phone ( answering machines literally do not exist here so having someone pick up is a victorious moment. Once that person does pick up we haggle back and forth in our respective languages until I hear something to the effect of ” Fine fine, 2 o clock, next friday ( it’s usually a monday of the week before when I call so that’s my first set of waits), I concur….call to confirm about 3 days later ( and trim my growing beard…), then I show up for a meeting…wait for 2 hours and am usually told….” Oh sorry, he says you need to come tomorrow.” I know what you’e thinking…you’d lose it right? Well….I did some deep yoga breaths the first 7 times this happened….but I have since put my gloves on and when said journalist I am with simply accepts the fact that in his country people can just keep blowing you off I stand up and shout ” NOT ON MY WATCH.” So, lately I have been saying ” Oh you can’t meet? Well maybe the president of you country will explain to me why that is.” And sadly, they believe me because this president will in fact jump at the chance to speak to a Westerner about the many ways his country extolls greatness. I have been pulling some real live ones out of my ass lately: Like: ” Oh, well if you don’t talk to me I’ll have no choice but to , GASP, write news about the fact that your refused comment ( done tons in Canada…not so much here). So….waiting + S.J= Gloves off.
  3. The internet-Now, I wait, I will be waiting for maybe another hour ( That’s if the power doesn’t disconnect as it so often does) while some video I am trying to send to the Toronto Star http://www.thestar.com/ so that I can maybe show just a GLIMPSE ( A glimpse is all I can manage unless I revert to doing print and sending things that go to Canada with less hassle) of what we are doing over here.

I will wait for this blog to pose now

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
Carl Sagan




Personal Update

My home and community have been without water for 5 days. I shower with a bucket and sponge and cannot do laundry….ergo I smell.

My camera is gone…..devastated but working on a solution….it involved spending as little money as possible.

Work done this week below. Love and the greatest appreciation for all of you that take the time to read this. SJ

When Kwami Minkah was little he’d take material from his mother’s sewing pile, tie it around his neck and fly around the house imagining he was Superman. He says he thinks of Superman at least once a day when he’s reporting and it reminds him that he chose this gig, journalism, because he wanted to help–he certainly didn’t get into journalism for the money.

When I went through the process of casually interviewing reporters at T.V. Africa to see who would accompany me to report on human rights stories, Kwami, or “Prince” as he’s affectionately known, was the last reporter I thought would come forward–he was too confident, I’d never bag him.

“I just want to use my journalism to help people who cannot help themselves,” says Prince. “That’s why I became a journalist.”

Prince stands at about five foot one–he’s a short stalky 22-year-old reporter with a grin that seems to take up his whole face. His smile fades, however, when I suggest walking into the slums of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Fred Chidi, T.V. Africa’s station manager, says he wants to see his journalists more inspired to go out and get more human interest stories. Half of the reporters in the newsroom have not received journalism training and as such they are often assigned stories. Though Prince and I don’t don capes, we’ve begun reporting together–a Lois and Clark of sorts–we’re going beyond today.

On this particular morning Prince was assigned a story about a public park that has become run down, I tagged along.

The park happens to be in the slums of Sodom & Gomorrah (a.k.a Old Fadama)–a settlement of over 23,000 people (according to the last census report), which lies by the bank of the dead Korle lagoon now undergoing a $67 million reclamation exercise. We were there about the lagoon and park but we stayed for a bigger story.

There’s no brimstone in the air of Sodom and Gomorrah but there’s fire. Big steaming piles of burning garbage, electronics and waste. We traipse through what the ruling political party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), tried to establish as a green space over eight years ago. Since then, an influx of illegal squatters have made their way in and the slum’s name and reputation were born. Gradually the park has deteriorated into a badland of burning garbage, human waste and slum land. Prince wasn’t even aware the area was nicknamed Sodom and Gomorrah.

After two hours through the perpetual dump, gardens that double as washrooms and slums we decide on conducting Prince’s standup in front of a fire with billowing smoke enveloping his small frame, to show the viewer what conditions children dig garbage in and what type of soil some of their produce is grown in. I stifle a pleased laugh as we walk out of the “zone.” I’d managed to convince a T.V. cameraman to go from taking wides of an area to walk through the thick of stench and squalor to get some tight shots. To go over the river and through the garbage to observe the rows of lettuce growing in fecal matter mixed with soil was powerful and immortalized through a lens. By the end, I could not help but notice the cameraman’s face–he was happy. Now, we had to go take on the boring…government.

President Atta Mills’ government has pushed to have the squatters of Sodom removed by force but various tribal leaders have banded together in a united front to combat military that has come in.

I attempt to speak to a local NDC member of parliament about why this is, it ends in him pressing 50 Ghana Cedi (roughly $40 CAD)in my palm, which I promptly press back into his hands. He responded with an expression of shock mixed with insult.

I’ve heard “chequebook journalism” referred to as discreet and I’m sure this is so. What Prince experiences almost daily is blatant, out in the open, and accepted. He says most reporters give in to the practice but with a little encouragement in the “right” direction he thinks reporters would choose integrity over money.

As we walk away from Sodom Prince jokes “ Now that’s some cabbage growing in garbage a “garbage cabbage,” he laughs. Prince has decided he’ll call me “animal” because I navigated the slums and dump in high heels. I consider the story we worked on together victorious.I wonder how he feels about the money that was pressed into my hands and my polite declining of it. I wonder if he ever feels what the average Canadian journalist can sometimes feel–overworked and underpaid.

“Superman Never Made Any Money,” a song by the great Canadian band Crash Test Dummies, is one I remember well. I quote a line of the song to Prince, he smiles at me and tells me he really is in this gig to help people. I believe him.

As the first month of my television in Africa induction closes–I am looking ahead to the workshop components jhr includes as part of each stations jhr experience. I’ve met some journalists who have maintained an integrity and inpeccable sense of reponsible, bribe free journalism. Journalism that extends beyond the politics and onto the front lines of human rights reporting. It’s my hope that senior, seasoned West African reporters will come with me to T.V. Africa and discuss maintaining integrity even in the throws of “chequebook journalism.”




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