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The drive to protect Ghana’s youth

Two schoolchildren start their walk home down Secondi Road in Takoradi, Ghana. Photo by Alyssa McDonald

 

 

Francis Donkoh waited on the meridian while a police officer stopped a busy street full of afternoon traffic for him to cross the zebra crosswalk. He was walking home from school with with a group of friends, including his sister Anne Marie and cousin Melissa.

It was then that a vehicle leapt onto the meridian and crushed eight-year-old Francis, taking his life.

Road accidents kill and injure more children in Ghana than disease and conflict combined. It kills more children than diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS worldwide. It is an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), injuries caused by road traffic are the leading cause of death worldwide among youth aged 10 to 24 years old.

On January 21, 2011, Chris and Fanny Donkoh heard a commotion outside of the house they share with their extended family and went to investigate.

“As a young couple, we didn’t expect for this to happen to us,” Chris said.

Chris and Fanny Donkoh in their house in Takoradi. Photo by Raquel Fletcher.

He walked no more than 20 meters before realizing it was his children lying on the road in front of him. Fanny was right behind.

“When I got to the accident site, everyone who knew us… everyone who had seen what had happened… they were just looking at me,” Fanny said, recalling the day of the accident. “I went over to the scene and saw Francis was in Chris’ hands, dead.”

Fanny was brought back to their compound which they share with Chris’ parents and brother’s family, while Chris stayed with his son’s dead body. At this point,  they had not heard news of their daughter Anne Marie and niece Melissa. With rumours starting to circulate that the girls had died, Chris went to the hospital.

“Anne Marie was there and alive but she was still recovering from the shock,” Chris said.

Someone who had seen the accident helped Anne Marie and Melissa get to the hospital. Knowing an ambulance would take too long, they tried to convince a taxi to take the girls for help. Numerous taxis refused to take the them because they were bleeding so much. They resorted to a tro-tro, a long public mini-bus to take the girls to the hospital. The Donkoh’s say they still are unsure of who this good Samaritan is.

Anne Marie with the Donkoh's youngest son Antonio. Photo by Raquel Fletcher.

Thirteen-year-old Anne Marie walked away from the accident with non-life threatening injuries and remained in hospital for three months. Melissa was flown to a military hospital in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, but died a few days later. As far as the Donkohs know, Anne Marie is the only surviving child of this traffic accident.

The Donkohs decided to take action by founding the Francis Donkoh Memorial Road Safety Foundation. “We want to spread awareness to youth to save our future leaders,” Fanny said about the foundation in Francis memory.

According to Chris, the foundations main message is “if you are not trained to drive, please for heaven sakes, do not drive.”

Their voice joins other awareness campaigns about the importance of road safety. The WHO and United Nations have named the next ten years the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’, spanning from 2011-2020. They have started the Make Roads Safe campaign, which reaches out to countries all over the world, but specifically to developing countries where 90 per cent of these deadly crashes occur.

Ghana’s National Road Safety Commission (NRSC) has already started making changes to their educational programs under the campaign. Along with their traditional school visits, they are also talking to Parent Teacher Associations (PTA), holding community outreach nights and advocating for road safety to be put into primary school curriculums.

Henry Asomani, NRSC Western Region planning officer, said 23 per cent of all pedestrian fatalities in Ghana involve children below the age of 16 years, most happen while children are walking to or home from school.

“We are visiting [PTA] meetings and telling them, ‘Please don’t allow your children to cross busy roads. If possible, take them to school, if you can’t, let an adult bring them to school,’” Asomani said.

Chris now drives Anne Marie to and from school every single day. He said this is not just for her safety but she finds it difficult to forget the accident. “Every time Anne Marie gets to the junction, naturally she just remembers the moment of the vehicle, speeding off. Its not easy,” Chris said.

The family has remained in their house and therefore is close to the memories of that day. “Where we stay, right where the incident happened, the memories will forever be there,” Fanny said. “Anytime we go outside, to go to work or to church or wherever… you still have to recall what happened on that day.”

A road safety billboard in Northern Ghana. Photo by Alyssa McDonald.

The crash that killed Francis and Melissa was caused by one large truck not recognizing all the other vehicles were stopping to allow the children to cross. The vehicle kept going full-speed and pushed the vehicle in front of him onto the meridian, which trampled the children waiting to cross the street. A total of six people were hit, including Francis, Melissa, two school friends and a grandmother walking her grandchild home from school.

The man who caused the accident ran away from the scene. The truck was traced back to his employer who told the Ghana Police’s Motor Traffic and Transport Unit (MTTU) the identity of the man who was driving the truck.

Chris and Fanny say the driver was arrested, went to court and has since been released out on bail. They chose to not go to the courts

“I am not really sure who killed our children, whether he was a liscened driver or not. But I don’t want to know that,” said Chris. “We don’t know his fate, but whatever happens to him does not bring my son back. That is our mentality now.“

The Western Region MTTU says they will charge those who they believe cupable for road accidents. The top reasons for the crashes are speed, inexperience, alcohol, and bad road conditions. Takoradi used to be a quiet city but with the recent oil dicovery has changed it into an ‘oil city’. There are now workers coming in daily with tankers, large truck and all other automobiles. The falling down city now has traffic jams that clog residental streets.

The crosswalk where Francis died. Photo by Alyssa McDonald

The road where Francis was killed is one of the busiest in Takoradi, it connects suburbs like Airport Ridge to the main market circle. The Donkoh’s home is the second compound off the street in Airport Ridge, one of the most expensive areas in the city.

Although Ghana has the fastest growing economy in the world according to Economy Watch, its infrastructure does not meet its economy. Many of the roads have potholes that make traffic slow to a crawl. This combined with unlicensed drivers and no control of alcohol consumption makes for a deadly combination.

When I was traveling in Ghana, we would drive quickly down the windy roads that cover the countryside. There were always families walking or children selling goods on the shoulder. On more than one occasion I looked over to see how fast the vehicle was going only to see the speedometer was broken.

Most people travel in a tro-tro, Ghana’s most widely used form of transportation that holds upwards of 15 people. If the tro were to crash, the 15 people in the aboard’s fate would not be a happy one. All, including myself, were not wearing seatbelts and small children sitting on the laps of their mothers.

The highways in Ghana are undivided and take steep turns. Every 15 kilometres or so, a red Toyota sign appears at the side of the road which says ‘Overspeeding Kills. ‘x’ number of people died here last year’. I saw the ‘x’ range from four to thirty.

The NRSC teaches children how to protect themselves from car accidents. Indira Apronto, head educator at the NRSC, goes to Ghana’s Western Region schools to teach children how to walk or play near roads. In the classroom, she asks them to show her how they walk by the roads and then the class acts out scenarios where cars would veer at them. This is how children are taught to protect themselves.

Melissa (left) and Francis (right) graves in the Takoradi Cemetery. Photo by Raquel Fletcher.

“They admit that they do some of the wrong things and then we talk about it,” Apronto said. “We follow up and we get to know that they are changing their route. It takes some time to change behavior, but they do change.”

NRSC teach them the school children lessons like always walk on the outside of a parent or adult. Then, if a car does veer at them, the adult is more likely to get hit than the child. Although this may sound horrifying to most Canadians, this is what Ghanaians have resorted to in order to save their children.

Every time a child is hit, their right to education, to play, and to live is in jeopardy. Mothers like Fanny have lost their child forever and will never forget.

“Definitely with this experience, there will be that kind of… missing your son, day in and day out,” she said.

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