Friday, 23 December 2011

The Value of Travel

I recently had an interesting conversation with a young but well educated, professional Ghanaian man that both troubled and inspired me. Upon hearing about my extensive recent travels, he asked me, quite simply, 'Why? Why do you want to go to so many places?' While I was pondering how best to answer this huge questions, he went on to explain the issues he has with people like me (people who travel, in other words).
'People like you, you come to a place, and you meet people, and you have an impact on those people. And then you just leave, and you don't consider this impact you've had and the effect that your leaving can have on the people you've met. You just leave. It's not right.'
I have now been travelling for the last five months. During this time I travelled Europe for 2 months as a tourist and had countless fun-filled experiences in the 21 countries I visited. I have also lived in Ghana for three months as both a volunteer and an intern, but made the most of my time by travelling around the country on weekends. This has included a week-long trip to neighbouring Togo. Needless to say, I've packed a lot into the last few months and seen and experienced a lot.
So when this man asked me 'why?' - not because he was interested in my personal motivations, but because he honestly didn't understand why anyone would want to see a country other than their own - it took me a while to gather my thoughts.
I have never before been asked this. Sure, people have asked why I have chosen particular places, but never why I generally have a desire to travel. It's a difficult question because the desire to travel has always been second nature for me, as it is for lots of my family and friends. It is more common for me to ask someone why they do NOT want to travel, as this is a more foreign concept.
I can now identify that before I left Australia I wanted to travel for the following reasons: I wanted to see the places I had learnt about in the course of my studies, I wanted to experience different cultures and I wanted to learn about the people, the history and way of life in the exotic places I would be visiting. I knew that while being interesting in their own rights, these things would all help me greatly in my studies of journalism and international relations and my (hopeful) career in these fields.
As corny as it sounds, I can admit that I also wanted to travel because there are just some things that have to be done in life. A night at the Moulin Roge, climbing the Eiffel Tower and shopping on the Champs Elysees, and that's just Paris (can you tell I spend too much time watching Hollywood films?). I'm also ashamed to say food was a motivating factor - baguettes and chocolate croissants in France; pizza, pasta and gelati in Italy (thanks, Eat, Pray, Love); yiros in Greece; chocolate in Switzerland and Belgium... the mouth watering list goes on.
Now, at the end of my travels, I can see that while I can tick the box for each of the these things I hoped to achieve, I have infact gained much more. People told me that in the course of my travels I would change, and I would come back a different person. I thought they were wrong; there was nothing wrong with me, nothing I wanted to change. I was not naive, I knew what to expect, so I didn't see how it could change who I was.
And I maintain this. I'm still the same, but I have learnt a lot about myself. Again, I know this sounds corny, but it's hard to be more specific. There is something about living in and immersing yourself in a different culture like that in Ghana which can teach you a lot about your own beliefs and about the resilience of your character. It's much more than simply appreciating what you have at home, a common assumption of people travelling to developing or Third World countries.
But it's the people I've met throughout my journey that have made my experience so memorable, both the kind, welcoming locals and other like-minded travellers. So I guess in one way, the Ghanaian man who asked me 'why?' was correct. Saying goodbye to the people you meet along the way, knowing you may never see them again because they live on the other side of the world, is by far the worst part of travelling. It sucks. But saying goodbye and moving onto the next place is all part of travelling and part of life. I wouldn't give up a second of my travel or forsake meeting any of the people I have, just to avoid saying goodbye.
In another respect, this man was far from the mark. In my travels so far, I have not just left the people I have met without a second thought. When I leave Ghana, I do not plan to simply leave. It would be impossible because the people I have met have had just as much impact on me as I have had on them. Leaving is difficult, but it's a part of travel.
I realise that I'm very fortunate to have travelled the places I have, but it has occurred to me that not everyone appreciates the value of it. It would be unfortunate to not experience this for fear of leaving.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

A Different Sort of Journalism

This one I didn't submit for publication...

As a third year journalism student in Adelaide, I have had some exposure to the operations of the media in Australia and the principles and skills that are expected of a working journalist. I have experienced working in journalism at a television station, a radio station and an online magazine. I have now experienced work as an intern at the Daily Graphic, the highest-selling national newspaper in Ghana and have been stunned by the array of differences between journalism at home in Australia and here in Ghana.
My first day in the newsroom presented me with a few of these. Firstly, I noticed the disparity between the number of journalists and the number of (working) computers. There are not nearly enough computers available for every journalist to be able to work, even with a number of staff bringing their laptops to the office. On top of this, there are often computers not working, network problems with the internet and a very temperamental printer. The interns have been denied access to the internet – how we are supposed to research for stories is beyond me. I also learnt that despite events starting anywhere from 8am to sometime in the evening, the one and only driver always leaves at 9am. And when I say 9am, we must factor in ‘Ghana Man Time’ (GMT) so it is usually closer to 9:30 or 10am when he leaves. Often journalists must simply catch taxis and pay with their own money if they wish to arrive at events on time.
Invitations arrive at the office for events, including press conferences, meetings, conventions, ceremonies and launches in the weeks beforehand, and I often wonder why the organisers of the events have even invited the media. I went to a conference last week that consisted of a four hour presentation on how to perform heart surgery and liver transplants. Not exactly news. Obviously these organisations want publicity, but you can be hard pressed as a journalist looking for an angle that is actually newsworthy. A graduation ceremony or product launch is not exactly newsworthy where I come from. Many stories that are reproduced from press releases are closer to a public relations job than journalism. And then there is the added bonus of events starting late. You can often experience Ghana Man Time at its best while waiting up to two hours for an event to begin.
The house style at the Daily Graphic is another thing I have had to adapt to. Firstly, the writing style and language used would cause riots if printed in Australia. Front page headlines over the last couple of weeks have included ‘Lesbians Invade Accra Shopping Mall’ and the use of the word ‘homo’, language that is most certainly taboo in Australia. The writing of stories often involves copying lines directly from press conferences and reproducing press releases; sentences are used that simply don’t make sense due to poor English and complex words and phrases are copied by journalists who do not understand it themselves – the average Ghanaian would certainly not understand, especially those who struggle with basic English. Perhaps the house style is due to culture. Perhaps the content of the paper is due to restrictions caused by the paper being state-owned.
And then one must consider the images used to accompany stories. It is not uncommon to see a dead body plastered across the front page, or an unconscious child lying in a hospital bed. This is not something you would see in Australia as it violates two principles of ethical journalism – respecting privacy and considering the sensitivities of the reader. Again, this is probably due to differences in culture and different expectations of the media by Ghanaians developed over many years.
Despite all these differences between journalism in Australia and Ghana, by far the most shocking is the receipt of what is known as ‘brown envelopes’ in Western Africa’s media circles. Journalists here in Ghana do not just accept, but expect to get paid at the conclusion of press conferences, conventions, meeting and other events. They will actively hunt down the organisers of events to collect their payments – Ghana Cedi (GHC) notes often placed in brown envelopes - before they leave to complete their stories. Inside the envelope, a journalist can expect to find anywhere from GHC10 to GHC200.
In the business, they like to call this payment ‘travel money’ as organisers are aware that journalists have to pay for their own transport to and from events. But the amount of money often received is far too much for this to be a justification. Some journalists admit this, but justify their acceptance of the payments by saying they rely on this money as their wages are very low. Some like to call it a ‘tip’ and compare it to the money received by workers in hospitality. But you cannot compare a journalist receiving payment at the end of an event to a waiter receiving a tip for his services. It is a waiter’s duty to provide the best service possible to their customers, and there is no problem if, at the end of this service, they are rewarded for their efforts. A journalist, on the other hand, has a responsibility not to the organisers of an event, but to the general public and the readers of the news. Their responsibility should not lie with the person paying them their ‘tip’ as a waiter’s responsibility does. A journalist has a duty to provide unbiased, uncensored and transparent news for their readers.
 The payment given to a journalist comes with strings and expectations which play on the mind of the journalist whether they are aware of it or not. The acceptance of money for a story undoubtedly conjures some sense of responsibility for the journalist. It is possible as a journalist to block this out and write an unbiased story, but there is still an uncomfortable sense of guilt that comes with the ‘brown envelope’. And of course, not all journalists choose the moral high ground to remain unbiased.
Then of course there are the strings that come with the money that are not as easy to ignore as your own conscience. Upon registration at events, media are expected to provide contact information. It is not uncommon on the days following the event to be pestered with phone calls from organisers, asking if their story has been written and why it has not yet been published. They want to know when they will see it in the paper and sometimes even ask to check the story before it goes to print. As I have had to explain on numerous occasions, I have no control of what is published, payment or no payment. Even after being warned that bribes – yes, I said it, they are bribes – are a part of the culture of journalism here in Ghana, and after being exposed to the practice for over four weeks now, I still find it incredibly uncomfortable. It truly makes you question with whom your responsibility lies, and whether you can actually trust the news.
Overall, journalism in Ghana is a completely different experience to what it is in Australia. I struggled to accept many of these differences at the beginning and found it incredibly frustrating to work for an organisation whose inefficiency was so typically Ghanaian. But I can now see the immense value of working in the Ghanaian media and the lessons I have learnt about the country, the culture, the people and journalism… even if it’s what not do in Australia.

Religious Rubbish (Features)

Religious Rubbish (FEATURE)
STORY: Zoe Darling
Ghana is a country that takes religion and religious duties very seriously. With sixty three per cent of the population Christian, one only needs to pass a shop called ‘God’s Gift Salon’ or ‘By His Grace Chop Bar’ or ‘Jesus Loves You Dressmakers’ to realise this. It would be difficult to miss the religious slogans, such as ‘Jesus Lives’ and ‘Why Deny God?’ plastered on the back window of every trotro and taxion the road. Travelling the streets of Accra on a Sunday morning, one can experience relative peace and quiet due to the majority of Ghanaians attending lengthy church services.The presence of preachers on television, on street corners and even on trotrosreveals just how passionate Ghanaians are about their religion. Ghanaians have even explained that their beliefs are not a religion they follow, but they are a way of life, an unquestionable part of their being.
But one must wonder if it is all just talk. Admittedly, many of the Christian values and principles are upheld by Ghanaians with the greatest commitment and dedication. ‘Love they neighbour’ for example is an important part of Ghanaian culture and is obvious from the warmth and friendliness of the people. Values such as giving, sharing and welcoming others are also Christian values that are second nature to many Ghanaians. ‘You are welcome’ and ‘you are invited’ can be heard whenever entering someone’s house or when in the presence of someone eating a meal.
It is, however, difficult to ignore the blatant contradiction when it comes to love of God’s creations, particularly the earth. Rubbish and pollution is a serious problem in Ghana, and it is a wonder that a people so committed to their religion, their God, and God’s creations could disrespect their environment without hesitation and to such great extent.
The issue of pollution is most evident in Accra, where the city streets are littered with scraps, the open drains are filled with discarded water sachets and plastic bags tangle around your feet as you walk. Everything, even if you are buying something already wrapped in plastic, is placed in a plastic bag for your convenience. Sometimes you will even be provided with two plastic bags for your purchase. And with no public rubbish bins to be found anywhere in the city, it is no wonder there is such an abundance of litter on the ground. People simply throw their rubbish in the gutters or out the windows of cars. It is little wonder how the beaches and ocean along the stunning coastlines of Ghana have become so filthy – it is not uncommon to become tangled in plastic while swimming in the warm water at beaches in and around Accra.
While navigating a clear path through the rubbish on the ground, the smell of burning rubbish can also be smelt, further polluting the air that is already full of fumes, smoke and unpleasant smells. It is troubling to watch the black smoke emanate from piles of rubbish along city streets, in school yards, on private properties and even on the beach. And the pungent smell makes it impossible to enjoy a stroll through Accra.
But apparently some Ghanaians know the value of keeping the country clean. It’s almost a joke when you visit tourist areas like Kakum National Park where they ask you to not only place your litter in the bin, but to separate your waste for recycling purposes. Why do Ghanaians that are not in the tourism industry, not have the same respect for their environment?
In the West, there has been a strong movement in recent years to minimize pollution and curb the effects it has on the environment. Many people try to not only minimize the amount of waste they produce, but also dispose of the waste that is produced in a way that is sanitary and environmentally friendly. Businesses attempt to use packaging that will create minimal waste, can be recycled, or is biodegradable. In Australia, some states now even charge customers for the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and shopping centres because plastic is seen as a threat to the environment. Road users buy special environmentally friendly cars to minimize their output of pollution into the atmosphere, and in some places, taxes have been introduced to control the amount of pollution produced by business. Recycling is a part of the culture, and those that make an effort to recycle their waste are rewarded through schemes and reimbursement. It is accepted that there must now be a conscious effort by everyone to reduce pollution and its impact on the environment.
It is frustrating, then, to see the abundance of rubbish that litters Ghana, and to see the rubbish that is collected simply burned and not dealt with in a productive manner. The issue of pollution in Ghana is a blatant contradiction to the outpouring of religion and love of God and His creations.
The apparent indifference to the consequences of pollution could be a lack of education of the effects that rubbish has on the environment, and the effects that burning of waste has on the atmosphere. It is a serious issue and education on the dangers it poses to the health of animals and the inconvenient and unsanitary conditions that are created from blocked drains needs to be addressed.
Ghana has such an abundance of natural beauty in the diverse landscapes that cover the country. It is a pity then, that there is such an abundance of waste polluting this beautiful land, especially from those who claim to love all God’s creations.

HelpAge Ghana (General News)


HelpAge Ghana (GENERAL NEWS)

STORY: Zoe Darling

It has been revealed that the sustainability of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) is under threat, according to its Projects Officer Mr Huduissah.
Mr Huduissah said the challenges that face the NHIS are numerous and are contributing to the risks for the future of the organisation.
At a workshop on local government and ageing issues for local representatives of older people, organised by HelpAge Ghana in Accra today, he said the main challenges facing the NHIS include fraud and leakages, governance structure and poor claims management.
He said the issue of the low renewal rate of NHIS members was due to “lack of information in the system”.
Discussions at the workshop, which focused on the Older Citizens’ Monitoring (OCM) Project and the Department of Social Welfare’s Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) Cash Transfer Programme, addressed the issues surrounding these two schemes and particularly the problems in healthcare for the aged.
Mr Huduissah said the way forward had begun with the establishment of a Clinical Audit Division and strengthening of the Internal Audit Division at NHIS to conduct both financial and operational audits and therefore promote efficiency and effectiveness.
Speaking at the workshop, the Executive Director for HelpAge Ghana, Mr Ebenzer Adjetey-Sorsey addressed the key issues in the area and said the problems start with Ghana’s lack of definition of who an ‘older person’ should include.
Mr Adjetey-Sorsey expressed concern for the increasing number of older people in Ghana, where the number classified as such has more than tripled in the last thirty years, in line with worldwide trends.
He said men and women in this category face different challenges and this necessitates the need to address ageing issues from a gender perspective.
HelpAge Ghana, an affiliate of the global network of age care organisations HelpAge International, is a non-governmental, non-religious and non-profit making organisation established to promote the prospects of older people in Ghanaian society.
The importance of older people and their contribution to family and community development is not recognised as valuable in Ghana, a mindset that needs to change according to Mr Adjetey-Sorsey.
He highlighted the issue of social change, including modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation, saying we mist consider its effects on the older people and the way we approach their issues.
He identified the national challenges affecting the aged in Ghana as unemployment, inadequate income and poverty, discrimination, exclusion and bad attitudes of Ghanaians towards the aged and rights abuse or denial.
He added that inadequacy of suitable and specialised health care for the aged is an area needing attention.
HelpAge Ghana is involved in the advancement of the welfare of older persons in Ghana at a number of levels, including advocacy for policy and programme development, awareness creation to both older and younger Ghanaians, promotion of the rights of older persons, research, the building and support of day centres and the provision of healthcare for the aged.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A cloud over Accra Sports Stadium (Features)

Published 5/12/11
A cloud over Accra Sports Stadium (FEATURES)
STORY: Zoe Darling
Waves of cheering, shouting and chanting flow across the crowd, while the screech of countless vuvuzela pierce the air. The constant thrum of bongos and maracas provides a backdrop for the entirety of the 90 minute football match. Accra Hearts of Oak fans belt out their club anthem, while Asante Kotoko supporters sing equally as loud, both sides frantically waving their flags and brandishing banners and other paraphernalia. The cries of ‘pure water!’ and ‘fan ice!’ are even more common inside Accra Sports Stadium than on the streets of the city, a feat I didn’t think possible. The stadium is full to the brim, with few seats vacant and the energy and excitement of the crowd more than making up for any absences.
It is an atmosphere that I have never experienced before. Football matches are exciting anywhere in the world, but the atmosphere present in Accra Sports Stadium on Sunday for the much anticipated clash between Accra Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko Football Clubs was enthusiasm to a greater extent.
Then the game begins. If possible, the crowd lifts even further. Two minutes in, we see the first stretcher taken onto the field for an injured player. It is an occurrence the crowd is accustomed to, and we see the stretcher emerge several more times throughout the match. Unnecessary? Maybe. Over-acting? Probably.
Despite this, the game continues but with little to report. There are no goals scored, a disappointment for both teams. Probably the most exciting point of the match is when, unhappy with a referee call, supporters start hurling water bottles, rubbish and anything else that comes to hand onto the field. Unluckily, one of the players is in the line of fire and gets pelted with the debris, but the carnage doesn’t stop. Eventually the police get called in, and trot across the field with their batons. The flying rubbish eases, but not before the damage is done.
 Meanwhile, fights are breaking out between disgruntled and over-excited fans. The more sensible members of the crowd hold back those that appear to be eager for a brawl. Eventually, this too subsides and the crowd returns to its seats, once again happily chanting and singing as the game continues. Quarrels, arguments and disagreements, especially over referee calls, are to be expected at any football match and often even add to the atmosphere. For a game of the scale seen on Sunday, it was positive to see, in general, a very well behaved and united crowd.
There was, however, one cloud that hung over the stadium on Sunday. It was a cloud of smoke, smelling very strongly of marijuana. And the many members of the crowd participating in the taking of drugs showed no signs of discretion as they passed around their joints. At one point I was even offered one, and when I politely declined, my donor seemed quite disappointed.
The prevalence of the illegal drug among supporters insider Accra Sports Stadium on Sunday makes me wonder firstly, how it is allowed through the gates, and secondly, why it goes unnoticed or ignored by officials inside the stadium. The smell of marijuana is not exactly hard to miss. At an event as prominent as an Oaks versus Kotoko match, I would have thoughy security would be much tighter. I was, after all, searched and man-handled by two separate security officers as I came through the turnstiles. What are they searching for if it’s not the illegal stuff? A tightening of security, it seems, is highly necessary.
The experience of a football match in Ghana was exciting, fun and eye-opening, despite the cloud of smoke and lack of goal scoring. Hopefully next time I will witness the enthusiasm of the crowd when a goal is scored.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Progressive Movement Institute (Education)

Progressive Movement Institute (EDUCATION)
Story: Gloria Bamfo & Zoe Darling

THE Director of Pre - Tertiary Ministry of Education Mrs Mary Quaye has stated that the governmenet is working on on a national program to change the curricullum in schools especially at the secondary level.
At a conference on Career development addressing the theme “Effective strategies in career development - a tool for national development” in Accra today (Friday), Mrs Quaye said the government is working on a realignment of the curriculum and supports the work of non-government organisations (NGOs) in the education sector.
She said the curriculum is supposed to shape students to reinforce their God-given talents and is important because the education and training of students is essential for Ghana’s development.
As part of the government’s support for students and particularly those studying in the technical and vocational areas, the government has established a Council for Technical and Vocational Education and Training and will be distributing 3600 laptops to students.
The Ministryof Education is also working on a national program to bring in entrepreneurship at a social level and train teachers in the field of counselling so they are better equipped to guide students, she added.
Mrs Quaye expressed concern for students in the technical and vocational fields, saying the mindset of society is a challenge, particularly the perception of parents and grandparents.
In Ghana, technical and vocational areas are often “no-go areas” for students and there is pressure to avoid certain subjects.
Mrs Quaye added that these are the areas that generate money, independence and self fulfillment for our children.
She advises parents to change their perception on courses like Home Economics and Visual Arts, addding that students should also feel free to swap courses if they are not content in their current studies.
“It is never too late to change courses” she said, urging students to not be influenced by the choices of their friends.

Africa Fairtrade Convention (Business)

Fairtrade (BUSINESS)
Story: Zainab Issah & Zoe Darling

The Minister for Trade and Industry, Ms Hannah Tetteh has expressed the government interest to partner with Fairtrade International to improve the livelihood and standard of living of Ghanaians especially in the agricultural sector.
“Access to markets is still a problem and some producers do not have organised markets and therefore there is a need to work together to help people understand that agriculture is still a very valuable career choice”, she said.
Ms Tetteh said this at the opening ceremony of the Africa Fairtrade Convention in Accra to discuss papers for the benefit of Africa Fairtrade producers.
The Africa Fairtrade Convention is an annual event that provides a platform for African small-scale producers, international traders, policy makers, partner organizations and Fairtrade stakeholders to discuss how better trade conditions can help improve the livelihoods of African farmers and workers.
It also provides the opportunity for African producers to meet Fairtrade buyers and other stakeholders to do business.
The Executive Director of Fairtrade Africa, Mr Michael Nkonu said Agriculture is at the heart of Africa’s economy but lack of access to markets under favourable conditions was a major problem for many producers.
He said  this, coupled with trade liberalisation and underinvestment in agriculture has trapped many local farmers in poverty.
“We need to invest more in our farmers to ensure that they can compete on a level playing field,” he added.
Mr Nkonu urged participants to use the convention as an opportunity to interact, connect and strengthen their network not only to see where they could invest and support producers, but also observe firsthand how their support for Fairtrade will make a change.
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Fairtrade International, Mr Rob Cameron said  in order to sustain livelihood and strengthen partnerships in Africa, there was the need to  improve connections between producers and businesses.
He said this would make work across borders easier and more efficient and producers would be able to create more customised businesses and development plans as part of their Fairtrade certification.
 Fairtrade International also has programmes, policies and partnerships which are targeted to enable millions of people to overcome the challenges that keep them locked in poverty and create opportunities for greater impact for those who need it most.
Chairman of Fairtrade Africa Mr Yorokamu Abainenamar, said there was the need to create the awareness and increase solidarity as a movement in improving the livelihood of the producers.
He called,for more participation in the convention in order to discuss ideas on how to impact the lives of people especially in the agricultural sector.
This year’s convention comprises of a General Assembly of all 270 Fairtrade producer organisations in Africa and is attended by more than 100 Fairtrade buyers and stakeholders.