by RAQUEL FLETCHER
I am standing on a human grave.
When my colleague at Skyy News in Takoradi says he received a story tip about plans to turn Monkey Hill, an inner-city nature reserve, into a cemetery, I had no idea bodies were already buried here.
But the lone caretaker who does double duty as the night security guard of the three-hectare reserve, Ghana’s only forest and eco-tourism site in the middle of a city, has taken me and the other reporter I am working with to the very gravesite he stumbled upon three days ago.
Alex Tetteh was doing his routine rounds when he came across the mound of dirt. Upon closer inspection, he saw body parts.
“I called my boss and he says I should call and Skyy Power will come,” he says. “I’ve been waiting since yesterday.”
The caretaker tells us the park used to attract many foreign tourists, but now it’s quite literally a dump. As we can see, trash is scattered everywhere. Almost all of the Olive Colobus monkeys and spot-nosed monkeys the park is supposed to protect have been killed for local delicacies. Plans to turn the hill into a formal nature sanctuary have been postponed, according to Friends of the Nation, the local NGO in charge of the reserve’s maintenance, because the money to build a fence around the reserve isn’t available.
Residents of New Takoradi, a suburb of the Western regional capital, use it as a place to throw their garbage, defecate and party. Now, Tetteh is furious they are also using it to hide bodies.
But, I wonder, why has no one informed the police? I can’t seem to make anyone listen to me – not even my colleague who is worried about making his pressing noon deadline with a phone-in report.
This isn’t my first challenging day since coming to Ghana with the Journalists for Human Rights summer student internship program, but it’s a wakeup call as to my real purpose as a journalist here.
Ghana has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Twenty years ago, over 50 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line; today the country is flirting with development. In the last two decades, the small West African nation has halved its poverty rate (28 per cent in 2006) and is one of the most promising countries to meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
In the coastal city of Takoradi, new establishments like restaurants, bars, hotels and even a casino boast a Western feel and ambience along Beach Road, the city’s wealthiest neighbourhood and home to a new influx of expats and beachfront properties.
But despite the burgeoning real estate market and the trendy million-dollar condos along the beach line, the average annual salary is $1,500 and most Ghanaians are well aware of the country’s trailing progress and status as a developing nation. A sales manager of a local radio station told me a joke about a Chinese scientist who came to Ghana with a new type of brain-scanning technology. His “brain-o-scope” analyzed the brain patterns of a test group of Ghanaians. When he reported his findings to the president, he concluded a local cuisine, called fufu – a dense mixture of maize and cassava that has the consistency of melted cheese and is a staple of the Ghanaian diet – could cause IQ’s to drop. When the president heard this, he was alarmed.
“I just ate fufu this morning!” he says.
Part of my role as a JHR summer intern in Ghana is to navigate through this land that seems to be in two places at once. Here primarily to learn, I also contribute to the newsroom in producing human rights stories. However, for the past few weeks, I’ve spent most of my time overcoming culture shock and getting my bearings in a city with no directory or postal addresses. On my first day at the station, my colleagues introduced me as the “white lady” and many asked to marry me. Strangers on the street also ask for my hand in marriage or at least to be my friend, and many are insistent I give them my number before they quit following me.
Meanwhile, I can’t find a bank machine that will accept my debit card and I’m flat broke.
In the newsroom, journalists are eager to tell human rights stories and contribute to constructive editorial meetings. Reporters are expected to arrive at work on time everyday with two original story ideas. Many of them bring ideas from their own small communities.
“We have people in my area who need someone to reach out to them,” says Leticia Esi Anaman, a practicum student. Her rural village is the reason she became a journalist. “I thought if we get someone who is a journalist in my area, that person could speak out with their views and what they need.”
Another reporter pitched an investigative piece into a suburb that’s been without clean, running water for nearly a decade – something that might never have come to public attention if she hadn’t introduced the idea.
However, faced with a lack of resources, the assignment editor has to make tough decisions everyday about what stories to pursue, which is why we didn’t unearth the covert activities happening on Monkey Hill for two whole days.
Police in Ghana respond slowly, I’m told, even to possible crime scene investigations. The fastest way to get anyone’s attention is to call the media. People will call the news first because they know they will listen to their concerns. In the case of the bodies found on Monkey Hill, the human rights issues run deep and have gone almost completely unnoticed.
“This is not the first time I’ve heard of this,” says Donkris Mavuto, Executive Director of Friends of the Nation.
The assemblyman of the area says burial procedures are rife for corruption. “When somebody dies, there are a lot of things they have to do.” John Kingston Koomson says it is the responsibility of the police and the coroner to examine the body, but often they insist family members of the deceased pay them for their time or give them transportation money.
“You have to pay a lot of bribes for them to come and do this. So people see it is frustrating … Even the lawyer, who will sign for confirmation that it is true the person died on certain grounds, you have to pay. So the only option is to go and bury them and avoid all these frustrations and expenses,” says Koomson.
Originally, only 14,000 people lived here, but now the population of this industrial neighborhood has more than doubled.
“We are living in a total slum,” the Poasi and Upper New Takoradi assemblyman says. They are concerned about sanitation and the spread of diseases and want to draw the government’s attention to the pollution from the manganese and bauxite industries.
Several days after breaking my first lead with the bodies on Monkey Hill, I pitch a story that requires us to go back to New Takoradi. An out-dated slaughterhouse has been slated to be replaced with a new up-to-date facility, but construction has been delayed and butchers are still using old car tires to sear meat hide, a local cuisine called worley. The carcinogenic fumes are smoking out a health centre across the street. The story idea gets praise from my editor, as well as many of my colleagues, but for three days the story sits on the docket.
Part of the problem is a lack of resources – no news vehicles, not enough computers, no working internet modem, one newsroom phone and no way to properly record phone interviews. These are all common in a country with a developing media. Another equally difficult problem is an overabundance of human rights stories. In one day, we needed to cover a story about a boy, who was trapped in a shop for 15 hours overnight with no food or water because he was suspected of stealing from the shop owner. The boy had apparently “appeared” there after a fetish priest performed some rituals that included firing a gun in the air three times, drawing a crowd and prompting the Ghanaian human rights commission to speak out against the incident.
In covering this event, we weren’t able to hold the municipal government to account for failing to install a proper drainage system at a public school. We failed to interview village fishermen about the threat to their livelihoods from a new offshore drilling rig. We didn’t report on a number of other important issues like illegal logging or my slaughterhouse story. Any one of these issues could prompt a full investigative report, but we simply don’t have the time or manpower to cover everything.
When we do seem to have the resources on a particular day, our human rights stories are often neglected for a type of self-sabotage, what the news station calls “paid assignments.” Companies and other organizations pay the station to run promotional stories on the evening newscast. They are essentially “advertorials.” These paid assignments are a source of revenue for struggling news agencies, but compromise the credibility of the news organization.
As a reporter, they are hell. Public relations personnel are condescending and bossy. The events are long, often running late. The consolation is soli – cash paid to reporters “for their time and transportation.” At one event where we were required to wait for two hours for the program to begin, I took the downtime to coach Jones, another intern, in his stand-up delivery. Jones was nervous in front of the camera and after three tries, the videographer grew irritated. “This is a waste of time and we’re running out of tape. It’s good enough.” I could tell Jones was discouraged.
“You just need to keep practicing and own what you’re saying,” I hoped my advice would help.
But even when bribery or payment isn’t an issue, someone is always trying to manipulate the news. As the summer comes to a close and my internship is nearing its end, I accompany another reporter to a senior high school to interview students about the stress of end of term exams. After seeking permission from the principal, we are escorted to a classroom and told which students to interview. A small girl, who is unusually short for her age, sits in the front row. Her legs dangle from her seat, not long enough to touch the floor. Watching the reporter and videographer with avid interest, her smile is captivating. “Bernard,” I call to the reporter. “Talk to this girl.”
At first, she is flushed and at a loss for words, but with Bernard’s encouragement, the girl delivers a refreshing, unrehearsed and sincere response – in other words, she’s TV gold. When we turn to go, the teacher says, “Let’s give Rosemary a hand,” and the class begins to clap for her. She blushes, and smiles happily.
In the following day’s editorial meeting and one of my last at Skyy, I have a few comments to make. First, Congratulations Jones, for a stand-up job in his previous day’s sign off – he finally mastered his on air performance, and another congratulations to Bernard for a great interview.
End of term exams isn’t hard-hitting journalism; it won’t make story of the year or uncover government corruption and tomorrow, it will be forgotten. But today, it made the difference in someone’s life, it empowered someone and it set a precedent for searching for voices that have never been heard. And that deserves a round of applause.