Hand in marriage for the “upper hand”

“Sssstttt. Sssstttt.” I looked back.

Hissing is socially acceptable in Ghana. Unlike in Canada, a forceful push of breath through open lips and locked teeth gets you service, not a dirty look. Intended targets are often cab drivers, street hawkers, waiters or waitresses.

But, even though I don’t roam the streets of Accra, the country’s capital, driving a taxi or selling goods, I get “sttt’d” at all the time. My supposed “service” is valued, and noticed primarily by Ghanaian men.

As common the hissing, this particular punter came as a surprise. He ran towards me dressed in uniform. A helmet on his head, tall black boots on his feet, and a gun strapped to his back. “Am I in trouble?”

Far from.

“Obruni, I want to marry you,” the policeman said. Obruni is the Ghanaian term for a person from outside of Africa, usually white.

This was my fifth proposal. That day, I mean. And all asked before hearing me speak. The policeman’s ticket number, issued by me and not him, and his disregard for his supposed authoritative role, marked this as a watershed moment.

Reasonable visa process

It’s when I started investigating why some Ghanaian men obsess over marrying not me, but the colour of my skin. I initially assumed it had to do with border regulations. Rigid protocols might make marrying an obruni the easiest way to travel beyond Africa. I made my way to the Canadian High Commission to confirm my suspicions.

There, Michael Opoku Gyebi, 21, was nearly in tears after a man handed him his passport through the pick-up window. He dropped it off two weeks earlier in hopes of getting a student visa to study accounting at the University of British Columbia come September. He wasn’t sure if the Commission approved him when he left his house that morning.

“I’m just excited,” he said, staring closely at the keypad on his cellphone to compensate for his trembling hands trying to dial home. “My dad is going to be so happy.”

Although meticulous, he said the process to get his visa was reasonable. He had to verify his school’s acceptance, and that his family can financially support his education. He spent CND$125 on an affidavit to confirm the above information.

His medical exam, about CND$100, had to confirm he is in good health. This included an x-ray of his chest and blood tests. Finally, he paid his CND$150 application fee when handing over his passport for a multi-entry visa. Single entry is CND$65.

U.S. universities also accepted Gyebi for admission. “I chose Canada because I know it is peaceful,” he said after being told by friends already studying across North America. They also value Canada’s education system, he said. “It’s practical.” Gyebi wants to return to Ghana to run his family’s road construction business when he completes his degree in four years.

Like Gyebi, other Ghanaians stood in line at the Commission waiting to retrieve their passports. Aside from the common grumble about paperwork, all had positive feedback on Canada’s visa application process.

Anthony Teye, accompanying his brother applying for a visa, said he has already been to Canada three times: “I didn’t go through any hassle.” A few years ago, he obtained a single entry visa to attend a conference on water management in Ottawa. “It was approved the same day,” he said.

Teye has also been to the U.S. and said he prefers the Canadian application process. In-person interviews are mandatory for U.S. visas, unlike the Canadian system.

“I usually don’t compare apples with oranges, so I take a country on its own” said Teye, who has been interviewed for both countries’ visas. “But the U.S., sometimes they don’t really want to listen to you and look at your actual circumstances. They base their decision on how they feel. I find the Canadian interview to be much friendlier because the questions were related to personal issues.”

Despite this subtle difference, both processes are quite similar and fair, said Teye.

“White is better than black”

Evidently, you don’t need to marry an obruni to travel to Canada or the U.S. Not knowing what I was still missing, I swallowed my pride and headed to Ghana’s Immigration Service to interview the head of public affairs, Francis Palmdeti, the next day. We shared a laugh when I told him about my investigation.

But, his response wasn’t as funny.

“A black man’s fascination is a result of seeing a white lady as of a certain prestigious level,” Palmdeti said. “To have a white woman is of ultimate status. He thinks that white is better than black.”

This outlook, stemming from the country’s demoralizing involvement in the slave trade centuries ago and now perpetuated by poor education, is specific to certain “social circles,” said Palmdeti: “It has to do with upbringing.” A lot of “unpolished” men believe in myths about obrunis, he said, they think white women come to Ghana looking for husbands.

Gulp.

I would almost rather my potential fiancés be motivated by unrealistic visa processes. They’re a lot easier to remedy than individual mentalities on race.

But, realistically, tighter border controls would only further perpetrate the problem, as travel is a part of the solution.

Sitting at his desk in his military-like uniform, Palmdeti’s face lit up when I told him my nationality. “My wife wants to move to Canada!” he said.

And seeing she has visited Canada and is married to a Ghanaian, it’s not to find a white man. It’s because every time she returns from Canada she raves about how friendly people are and how everyone there is treated equally, Palmdeti said.

Perhaps something she wouldn’t have learned without travelling there, and now something I aim to show my hissers during my travels here. How a person is valued should never be based on race.

“For me, if I were to settle with a white lady, I must love her. I should find qualities in her that I wish to spend the rest of my life with,” said Palmdeti. Closed borders won’t let my hissers realize that, but an increase in cross-cultural interaction might.

This article was originally written for New Canadian Media:
http://newcanadianmedia.ca/item/6878-looking-in-proposing-their-way-out-of-ghana-africa

Oh Be the Brave

His name is OB Nartey.

But I call him OB the Brave.

OB Nartey

He’s a host at Pravda Radio in Accra, where I spent my first two of six months in Ghana media training for jhr: Journalists for Human Rights. (I am now at Radio Gold).

Pravda recently hosted a conference to celebrate the African Union’s 50-year anniversary. In respect to the Union’s mandates, organizers invited guest speakers and people from the community to discuss ways to mitigate the barriers between African countries, and better yet, unite the continent.

At the conference, OB proved why and how he is different. His mentality far surpasses the average in Ghana. In fact, it surpasses those of many. He believes in something that can change the world:

Love.

Sounds corny, doesn’t it? You might have even laughed. But please, come take a seat next to me at the conference, and you will soon see why this might be the secret to overcome all development issues.

And, Action:

Dressed in his traditional African gown standing at the podium, Osofo Kofitse Ahadzi points to a tall vase of artificial flowers sitting on the floor. He asks the crowd why they are in the room.

“They were only made for places with cold weather,” he says. “Where flowers can’t grow.”

He then asks why the room is air-conditioned. It wouldn’t be necessary if “we didn’t dress in suits like the white man,” he says. It’s Friday evening. The sun is down. It’s 30 degrees.

As common as they might seem, the guest speaker from the Afrikania Mission, a research group encouraging Africans to live traditionally, says fake flowers and air-conditioning symbolize how much the West, and other foreign countries, subliminally control Africa. Amenities such as these would otherwise not be here.

These influences, says Ahadzi, are worrisome.

Kwasi Pratt, the editor-in-chief of Insight Newspaper in Accra, takes over the podium and shows, like Ahadzi, he is skeptical of the West.

“Europe and North America have become what they are because of Africa,” says Pratt. “They stole our resources, and we need to protect them.”

To do this, he says, children need to be conditioned: “Schools de-emphasize our history. It’s a huge flaw.” Teachers need to remind students how the West treated both this country, and continent, he adds.

Ahadzi nods from the front row.

In the 15th century, Ghana was colonized by the Portuguese and used as one of the main ports in the slave trade. The Dutch and British were also involved. All profited selling Ghana’s gold.

Meanwhile, Ghanaians and other Africans were shipped to the West as slaves. Their free labour was the catalyst to the West’s 18th century Industrial Revolution, the inauguration of Western financial domination for centuries to follow.

Today, Ahadzi and Pratt base their developmental approaches on these catastrophic events. As a result, they seek to unite Africa externally, and not internally. Defense and security from foreigners will aid Africa’s development.

“You have to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going,” says Ahadzi. Adding, foreign exploitation is still very much an issue in Africa.

Fair point.

Since May, for instance, the Ghanaian government has arrested almost 200 Chinese visitors for illegal gold mining. And in other African countries with profitable resources, similar cases aren’t hard to come across.

But as paradoxical as it might seem, this, right here, is why OB Nartey says when it comes to African unity and development, thinking defensively is actually not the answer.

Let’s watch what happens next.

The speakers conclude their talks and open up the discussion to audience. People, fueled by the lecturers’ comments, stand to ask questions about “the white man.” One goes as far to conclude, “Haven’t they done enough?”

Intensity grows.

“I would never date a white woman,” a colleague says to me when I ask his thoughts on the conference.

Angst, as a result of fear of the West and other foreigners, isn’t bringing people together. It’s furthering segregation.

“We’re looking back, not forward,” says a disgruntled OB, standing at the microphone just left of the audience. “History is in the past. It is time to get over it.”

Looking forward would allow Africa to build, not resent, relationships. Relationships that could benefit all parties involved if formed respectfully. And, unify not only Africa, but the globe.

“We all bleed the same blood,” says OB.

A dream, but a possible one.

OB says development shouldn’t focus on security, or even countries or continents. Instead, it should focus on the individual: the development of people’s psyche, mindsets, and attitudes. Children shouldn’t be bombarded with teachings of past, but rather, taught to be a good person through their awareness, “relationship with themselves.”

“It should be about how we all are as people,” he says.

If development became about relationships, and not security, approaches would shift from the defensive to the collaborative.

Which, right here in Ghana, is already happening.

Dressed in his military uniform, Francis Palmdeti, head of public affairs at the Ghana Immigration Service, leans back in his office chair as he crosses his arms behind his head. He shows great ease as I ask him about the 200 Chinese men arrested for illegally mining Ghanaian gold.

“The Chinese have investments in Ghana,” says Palmdeti. Focusing on illegal miners over their beneficial support, like the Chinese-built theatre, gas plant, and the Bui dam, would be a shame, he says.

“So I can tell you the Chinese are supporting us fully to get them out.”

Together, they are collaborating to overcome wrong doings done by individual people, not a collective place. People that just have to wake up a little bit. Just like cataleptic that operated the slave trade so long ago.

Some think it’s silly to dream of oneness.

But I say, oh be the brave one fearless enough try. First with yourself, and then with others. Out of respect, love, and awareness.

Like OB, OB the brave.

Pure water, pure innocence

Theodora

She has water in her eyes, and it isn’t because she is selling it from the top of her head.

Theodora Bortey is eight-years-old. But instead of going to school like all children her age should, she sells small packs of water to people in Nungua market in Accra, Ghana.

“Why aren’t you in school?” my colleague at Pravda Radio, Mercydalyne Lokko, asks Theodora.

Struggling to find the words, Theodora looks down at her fist. She opens her hand to show us her palm full of small coins. She jingles them around.

“My grandmother says I should come,” she says once Mercydalyne asks again.

She is the only child out of her five older siblings that sells water, she says. The rest live with her parents outside of Accra. But Theodora helps financially support her grandmother: “My father says I should come.”

After cost, selling water makes Theodora two cedis a day, which is CND$1.

“I want to go to school,” she says, after admitting she doesn’t know the last time she went to class. “They [her classmates] laugh at me.”

The tears in her eyes become more apparent.

Kwame

Kwame (who doesn’t know his last name), 11, sells water in the same market as Theodora. A year ago, he left his family in eastern Ghana to live with his great aunt.

Speaking in Ga, one of the local languages, Kwame tells Mercydalyne he moved to Accra because the city’s school systems are better than in his village. Schools in his village, for instance, don’t teach English.

He sells water because he got bored at home. His great aunt tells him he can’t go to school until his uniform is ready.

He has been waiting for it to be finished for an entire year.

“School is important so you get educated so you don’t get cheated,” the boy says in Ga to Mercydalyne because he still doesn’t know English.

Ironically, Mercydalyne says there is no way a school uniform would ever take a year to make: “The boy just isn’t being told his great aunt doesn’t have the funds to send him to school.”

Mercydalyne asks the boy if he has anything to add before we end the interview.

“They just have to finish the zipper on my uniform’s pants,” he says. Then continues on his way yelling “pure water, pure water!”

Kwame

Agenlina

Angelina Okyere, 17, also strolls the Nungua market selling water sachets.

She moved to Accra this month to live with her sister. She left the East in hopes of starting a business in the city as a seamstress. She wants to make clothes because its hands on, a trade she can learn without a classroom.

“I don’t feel comfortable in school because I never understand,” Angelina says to Mercydalyne in Twi, another local language. She says she can’t remember the last time she went to school.

So far, her best daily earnings are five cedis, about CND$2.50. She gives her money to her sister who is helping her save for her business.

Angelina

These are the faces motivating Abdul Razak Yakubu. The president of Youth Movement for African Unity (YMFU) says he wants to get children off the streets, and back into classrooms.

But not just any classroom.

The traditional daytime schooling system doesn’t meet the needs of all youth in Ghana, he says. Too many have to work during the day to support family members, or, they see the quick cash benefit behind self-teaching a trade over investing in a formal education. Trades are not associated with government curriculum in Ghana.

Public school systems also appear to be free, he says, but are associated with hidden costs like book fees.

Until the government adjusts education systems to meet the needs and interests of such children, youth will remain out of school, and selling items on the streets, says Yakubu.

Meantime, Yakubu wants to start “mobile schools,” he says with a chuckle: “Schools on wheels.”

He plans to buy vans and outfit them as classrooms.

“Instead of sitting under trees for shade to take a break,” says Yakubu. “The students can come into the van to learn from the teachers.”

He says he thinks it is a good idea not necessarily because of the educational aspects, but to simply motivate the children selling goods on the streets to find their way back into formal (and hopefully adjusted) education systems in the future. Government action just has to happen first.

The YMFU is an organization in Ghana lobbying for youth empowerment. The key to African development lies in educating youth, says Yakubu.

Youth like Theodora, Kwame, and Angelina.

____________________

This story was also published on the Toronto Star’s blog: http://thestar.blogs.com/africa/2013/06/pure-water-pure-innocence.html

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

He was a friendly fellow.

“Why are you in Accra?” he asked with a smile as we sat next to each other on the trotro.

“I am a journalist here from Canada,” I replied.

He closed off.

“You people make Africans look like monkeys living in trees,” he grumbled, as he stood to get off of the minibus.

That was the second time I heard this exact statement since arriving to Ghana in April as a media trainer for jhr: Journalists for Human Rights.

This comment initially upset me. But very quickly I found myself searching for an explanation:

What do journalists do to have Ghanaians think western media so strongly misrepresents them, and their lifestyles?

My local colleague suggested I don’t question this accusation. This has nothing to do with western media, she said, and everything to do with the Ghanaian mindset.

“Ghanaians know this country has issues, they just don’t want other people revealing them first.”

I don’t buy it. Not fully, anyway.

With this explanation, journalists bear no responsibility. There are multiple sides to every story.

Despite my colleague’s recommendation to let it go, the comment stuck with me. I thought about it the entire bus ride. And every one since. I take four trotros a day. Only now do I understand why Ghanaians question my presence in Accra.

Trotros are privately owned minibuses that serve as the city’s form of public transportation. You jump on, pay a small fee, and away you go. Most days, I spend my journey listening to a preacher onboard going on about God and the ways we should all live our lives.

“You will die if you have sex,” is what one of them once went as far to say.

Believe it or not, I have yet to witness another preacher top this one’s earnings. People on the bus gave him a sum of 10 cedis for five minutes of nonsensical banter. This is only about CND$5, but in Ghana, that amount of money goes quite far. To put it into perspective, my morning trotro rides combined are over an hour long. It costs me CND$1.20 to get to work.

When I get tired of the preachers, I peer outside. People selling goods swarm the bus. Many of them are kids.

“Pure water!” “Pure water!” the children yell as they run around with baskets of bagged water on top of their heads, taking the equivalent of five cents for each “sachet.”

Water is actually the least bizarre item you can purchase from the top of peoples’ heads. The assortment varies from sunglasses, to spring rolls, watermelons, Kleenex boxes, DVDs, and even scales. The kind you put on your bathroom floor to weigh yourself. I could go on.

“Why aren’t you in school?” I once asked a 14-year-old boy selling sunglasses in a group of other, older salesmen. “I would rather be making money,” he said.

On average, he says he makes 40 cedis a day. But after I asked how much he personally bought the glasses for, I realized his 40 cedis are more like 20 cedis, which is about CND$10.

Ten dollars a day is more valuable than his education.

When I hop off the bus, I usually see my fellow trotro riders toss their empty plastic water packs, which they purchased through the window just moments before, on the ground.

These end up in the gutters.

And even, the waterways.

JHR asks its trainers to publish two blogs on their website (www.speakjhr.com) a month. All three phenomena – preachers, school absenteeism, and the state of the environment – ran through my head as potential topics.

The pressure in my chest to meet my deadlines started to grow. It was like I couldn’t breathe. I questioned how I could tell these peoples’ stories in an accurate way.

I feared all three publications could simply make Africans look, as the man put it, like monkeys living in trees. Or, like bible thumping, uneducated, environment-hating people perhaps.

Not publishing anything would risk my journalistic credibility, professionalism, and perhaps, upset my bosses. Publishing meant I would confirm my skeptics’ accusations, shame Ghanaians, and misinform Canadians.

I said to hell with it.

I missed my deadlines. Something all journalists are told not to do. But, getting it right just means too much to me. Or at least, not getting it wrong.

So, I just continued taking the trotro to work.

April turned into May and May turned into a new perspective. What I was observing changed.

I started to see that people on trotros give money to preachers not because they are ignorant. Religion is all some have to get through the day. Others are responding to the immense societal and cultural pressures in Ghana to be, or appear to be, religious. That, and most don’t know preaching on minibuses is actually illegal.

The children who sell goods often want to go to school, but many have to work in the morning to afford their transportation fees. In other cases, their teachers aren’t showing up to class. Some have family members they are trying to financially support. In the end, you can’t fight hunger.

The garbage is overwhelming, but not necessarily because the people don’t care about the environment.

Nuumo Blafo III, the public relations officer at The Accra Metropolitan Assembly, which is in charge of waste disposal in the city, said public garbage cans get stolen. Instead of replacing them, they give everyone a free garbage can for their homes. This is the government’s only garbage service subsidization. Despite income levels, everyone in this city is expected to pay for garbage pick-up. Not everyone can. And no one wants to carry their garbage to their homes to dispose of it. It ends up in the streets, and those free garbage cans are sometimes used to collect rainwater instead of trash.

I was initially misinterpreting Ghanaians because I was riding the trotro like a westerner.

I drew comparisons and made judgments: Ghanaians versus Canadians. Africa versus North America.

But, true and genuine understanding does not come from comparison. Knowledge comes from acceptance.

People say, “Think outside the box.” I say, get in the box before you think outside of it. Which ever box that might be.

So, I started assessing life here through a local lens. Life that seemed bizarre became real. First impressions and reactions magically transitioned to identifications, sympathies, and, empathies.

Getting to this continent is easy. So is acting on sensationalized first impressions, and publishing them to meet deadlines and to wow editors who might not ever come to the country you’re writing about. Consequently, they assume everything you say is true.

Why wouldn’t they?

You’re the reporter. You’re present, see it happen, and so, you must know how it is.

Well, I am here. Physically, at least.

But wasn’t wholly – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally – until I simply forgot where I am not.

I am no longer in the West, a place where it is safe to jump to conclusions. My first impressions and reactions lie akin to a western reality. I had to shed what comes with that mentality, immerse myself completely to get the full story. Get involved to gain perspective, lose bias. Admit subjectivity to gain objectivity.

I had to learn life here in actuality, and accept it as my own.

The Ghanaian reality is a lot of things: hardship, corruption, chaos and struggle.

But it isn’t living in trees like monkeys.

The little Big people

They stood in a cluster along the sidewalk. All huddled around the one with a kite. The kite was made of plastic, like a lot of things in Africa. Amongst my travels through this continent, I have seen children make soccer balls, hats, and now, kites.

All of plastic, plastic bags.

They were lost, and only steps from their homes. Just lost in the moment in front of them on a Saturday afternoon in Ga Mashie, outside Jamestown, Ghana.

It was like they forgot they were on a traffic-filled road for hours.

Honk. Honk. Honk.

First Kite

Some might read this and think: “Wow, kids in Ghana have ‘nothing’ to be playing with such things.”

But while I watched these children play, they showed me something different. I saw what they do have.

Their innocence.

They have a good time with a homemade kite. As all kids should, no matter where they grow up.

No Call of Duty on their PlayStations to virtually shoot each other, or, satellite TV to see a Western life juxtapose their own. No sense of high-end fashion or even simple trends to separate the “cool” kids from the…not so cool kids.

Meaning, they have immense amounts of creativity. Psychedelic cartoons or video games don’t expand their imaginations. They have to think outside of the box, all on their own.

Or for this kid, inside the box…

Some live in homes made of no more than four boards and a tin roof. As the sun sets and the day is nearly done, the kids bathe in the streets. I saw it for myself on Saturday. Some might not have washrooms in their houses, so they strip right down outside with buckets of soapy water. Better to be outside than to make a mess of where they will sleep at night. But, from what a friend told me, it is also because youth cannot share washrooms with the elderly until they are a certain age.

Butt naked, in the streets, just to bathe. No shame.

Yes, having less allows them to harness their innocence and inner-child. But in a completely paradoxical way, it makes them that much more grown up.

Some of their parents aren’t really around. So they travel as packs and look out for each other.

And if they’re not playing, they’re working. Selling bagged water on top of their heads to people sitting in traffic in their vehicles. Or, fish, juice, gum, the list goes on.

But, they’re some of the coolest people, little people, I have ever hung out with. They’re like little Big people. Adults in children’s bodies with creative minds that never shed their innocence, never stop being free. Not caring what people think of them, and yet, so sure of who they are.

They just are, and they just be.

They don’t ask Santa Claus at Christmas for a brand-new kite. Instead, they just get it for themselves. At the ripe old ages of…well…it doesn’t really seem to matter.

Photos by Jessica Campbell

Students take a trip to learn about their rights

Some schools take fieldtrips to theme parks. Others, the zoo.

Mercy Dabor and her classmates went to a theatrical performance Wednesday. She is 14-years-old and goes to school in Ngleshi Amanfrom, a town about 30 kilometres west of Accra, Ghana.

Mercy Dabor

Mercy Dabor (front right) and her classmates attending an event on gender-based violence in schools and rural communities, hosted by Ghana’s Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC).

Now, even though a play is a typical outing for a school group, the topic of the show was not. At least not in the past.

She and the other students followed the blaring music from their campus to the centre of the town. What they found was an event on gender-based violence in schools and rural communities, hosted by Ghana’s Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC).

HRAC staff put on skits for the crowd on topics such as: teen pregnancy, rape, and domestic abuse.

IMG_1495

HRAC staff performing a skit Wednesday on domestic abuse and teen pregnancy.

Tall standing tents were setup around the performance area by the people in the town. The children made a dash for the remaining chairs under each tent. They all wanted the best view of the show. The other chairs were already filled with men and women from the town anxiously awaiting the start of the performances. Ngleshi Amanfrom’s priests and the chief’s wife were also in attendance.

IMG_1525

The crowd burst into hysterics at multiple parts of each skit. Everyone was engaged. And after each performance, the HRAC staff let people in the crowd ask questions about each topic.

“What happens if I cheat on my husband and then he beats me?” one woman asked. “Is he allowed to do that because I was unfaithful?”

IMG_1534

HRAC staff answered the women’s questions by letting them know their rights. How they can and cannot be treated.

But, despite their best efforts, HRAC had obvious obstacles to overcome in answering such questions. In places like Ngleshi Amanfrom, cultural norms conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In many cases, it is culturally acceptable for women to be treated unequally to men. Getting women to demand equality is not just about informing people of their rights, but changing cultural tendencies.

IMG_1471

HRAC’s Wendy Abbey talking to the audience about human rights.

Mercy stood in a circle with her girlfriends after the show.

“I learned a lot today,” Mercy said with a smile. “I am happy we came.”

What were once contentious issues not long ago in towns like Ngleshi Amanfrom are now discussed openly and freely amongst all demographics and both sexes.

And, although this field trip wasn’t to a theme park or zoo, everyone there seemed to have just as much fun.

_________

Ghana’s Human Rights Advocacy Centre is based is a non-partisan research and advocacy organization based Accra. They provide a free legal clinic that is open to everyone with a human rights claim. Since they opened in 2008, they have helped about 700 people with legal issues.

To visit their website, go to: hracghana.org.