October 13, 2008

Bawku 2008: Peace One Day, Ghana

We have a new site www.g-lish.org where you can read all articles from This is Ghana in a much more organised fashion. Read Bawku 2008: Peace One Day, Ghana there.

Inspired by Peace One Day UK, we held an event in Bawku on the 20th of September 2008 to mark the United Nation’s International Day of Peace and Ceasefire. Although the official date is the 21st, we chose the 20th as it was a Saturday--this would allow both Muslims and Christians alike to take part. This year the theme was: One Day, One Goal. What could be better?

Peace One Day founder, Jeremy Gilley, a self-confessed failed actor but successful documentary film-maker, made the film Peace One Day about his struggle to have the UN recognize one day of peace and ceasefire. It was that film which spurred me to do something to mark the day in Ghana this year.

The question of why Ghana is peaceful has been plaguing me for the three years since I first came here. Because of the negative portrayal of African countries in the international media, I had the impression that poverty and peace were mutually exclusive, especially in Africa. That’s not so here, except for Bawku and a few other pockets of conflict.

After watching the film in May and deciding that I could do something to celebrate peace in the most peaceful country in Africa, I couldn’t help but wonder about Bawku in the Upper East Region; it made the news again in April for clashes between two warring ethnic groups, the Mamprusis and Kusasis. The conflict has flared intermittently throughout the past fifty years since independence. I felt as if celebrating peace in Ghana was not right if we didn’t acknowledge Bawku. And then I wondered, during a weekend bout of Malaria (during which the best ideas are conceived), whether we could hold an event in Bawku itself.

I asked a friend if he knew anyone from Bawku. He introduced me to the director of programs for YPWC who happened to have grown up in Bawku. I explained my idea and told him he could call me mad if he so wished - afterall, why celebrate peace in the middle of a conflict zone? He agreed that we should do it.

We devised an action plan that included meeting politicians at Parliament House in Accra, students from the warring ethnic groups studying at Cape Coast University to seek their opinion about the planned activities, and many more individuals besides.
Everyone, without exception, that we spoke to was supportive.

Our aim was to hold a game of football in keeping with Peace One Day’s theme for this year: One Day, One Goal. We envisaged the two sides comprising all ethnic groups playing together. The ball would be inscribed ‘conflict’ and the goals would be labeled ‘peace’.

Against all odds and efforts to shut us down, right up until the morning of the day itself, we made it happen.

This is how it went.

20th of September. Despite the ominous storm clouds rolling overhead, students, local residents and keen spectators started arriving at Winamzua Park at 7.00 am in central Bawku in anticipation of an event that many said could not happen: a game of football between two sides comprising all the tribes of the Bawku Municipality. A few glitches aside – have you ever tried to get a PA system the night before an event an hour before curfew kicks in at 10 pm in a military patrolled town because the guy who promised to deliver pulled out due to political pressure? – by the time kick-off came at 10.00 am, the field was teeming with children, students and adults.

‘We are here to mark the United Nation’s International Day of Peace and Ceasefire,’ announced Mr Godwin Yidana, Programs Director of Young People We Care. Directing his words towards the two teams, he cautioned, ‘The game is an opportunity for you to come together as brothers. We’re playing fifteen minutes a side. The football represents “conflict” and the goals are “peace”. You are not in the pitch to compete against each other. It doesn’t matter who scores a goal or who wins; in this game everyone is a winner.’

Indeed, the ethnic diversity of Bawku was represented in the two teams of this symbolic match. The majority of the Daduri Catholic Park team, sparkling in their green and red jerseys, were Kusasis, supported by Mamprusis, Bisas, Moshis and Hausas. The majority of the Winamzua Park team were Mamprusis with Kusasis and other ethnic groups making up the balance, sporting the blue and red jerseys of the Barcelona Unicef Football Team.

The referee tossed for the goal and the teams took their respective positions on the field for the kick-off. Contrary to most expectations, the game proceeded for fifteen minutes with both teams putting in a valiant effort, and spectators crowding both goals and the sidelines, cheering on whichever team looked like scoring a goal. The first half ended as a draw, no goals scored.

Both teams scored one goal a piece in the second half, children streaming onto the field in celebration. The game proceeded without a hint of violence or even a cross word.

Players on both sides pleaded with the referee to play thirty minutes in the second half; no one wanted the dream, the momentary freedom provided by the game, to end.

The referee finally blew his whistle on a one-all draw and gathered the players together around the goal posts for the penalty shoot-out. Ten-deep, the crowd jostled for position as the two teams lined up, children standing on bicycle seats to get a better view.

The Daduri Park team took their first kick at a goal, the ball flying between the posts. Four ‘peace’ goals later, they were in the running to win. It was hard to tell who the spectators were following since they cheered all four goals and the save. The Winamzua team took up their position for the second round of penalty shoot-outs. One after the other, their players scored. Five goals later, the Winamzua team were declared the winners and both sides came together with handshakes and friendly pats on the back.
We called both teams and the audience together to award prizes and certificates to the winners of the game and an essay competition which we celebrated peace in Ghana, the idea being to include the children of Bawku in finding an inclusive and sustainable solution to peace. The themes were: 1. Why is Ghana Peaceful and 2. How can we, as Ghanaians, achieve sustainable peace in Bawku? We awarded prizes to the winning students of Bawku Senior High School, Mother Teresa Educational Centre, and Bawku Senior High Technical School while their parents and other children looked on.

We also awarded prizes of new footballs to the two football teams for their participation in the day, thanking them for their efforts and spirit of goodwill and explaining that games of football were being held in 182 countries around the world to mark the day and the theme of “One day, One goal,” using football to unite communities in conflict.

Finally, we handed over a cloth to the Bawku Literary Society made of pieces of fabric that the women of southern Ghana had contributed to symbolize peace for the people of Bawku. The cloth included an especially batiked piece -- “Live in Peace” -- and a patchwork piece representing the diversity of Bawku’s ethnic groups.

Afterwards Godwin Yidana, a founding member of the Bawku Literary Society and current Program Director of Young People We Care, explained, “This was a personal initiative of my partner who thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could hold a day of peaceful activities in Bawku to mark the UN’s day of Peace and Ceasefire?’ As someone who grew up here and experienced the conflict, and lost friends in the conflict, I knew it was the right thing to do, and we could do it, and that’s how this came about.”

“We wanted to show that the people of Bawku are good, especially that the youth of Bawku are united and see each other as brothers and sisters and as young people ready to solve their own problems.”

We received word from some of the BLS members that opinion leaders had quietly come to observe the proceedings and that they spoke favorably on the smooth flow of the program, although they declined, understandably, to comment officially given that relations between communities are still on a path to normalizing.

I managed to speak with Reverand Isaiah Joel, a Board Member of the Bawku Literary Society, about how he felt about the match during play. “I want to commend the organizers for bringing the two sides together to climax the peace we’re yearning for. Without peace there is nothing we can achieve. Only a few of our JSS students passed their exams as a result of the conflict. At Kpalwega school only eleven of forty students passed. That shows that conflict has a negative impact and, for us, this occasion will send signals to feuding factions that there is heat to bring peace and that without peace there can be no success.”

He continued to explain that Bawku can achieve sustainable peace, “if all the feuding factions, if all the ethnic groups in Bawku work together to ensure it, especially in election times and not allow politicians to divide us again. Elections will come and go but we, the people of Bawku, will always be here. Another thing is to bring employment to the people as people don’t have anything to sustain their lives. The lack of livelihood makes conflict spring every now and again, but conflict does not profit.”

I also interviewed Mr Muhammed Umarfarouk of the winning Winamzua side after the game about how it felt to have been part of this event. He paused for thought and then carefully explained: “The game was very interesting; it brought competing factions together for the first time and we played as the rules of the gamed demands. I hope that next time we can come together and play as the same people in one town. We never thought this could happen this way. I would describe this as a dream come true. I hope that we can all live together as one people so that development will come to our municipality.”

This seems to be a sentiment shared by many in Bawku.

“We have shown that, when given a chance and a little push, young people can do things that politicians can not do,” said Abubarkar Yussif Maako of the Bawku Literary Society. “That game was like a dream come true. It was everything we planned and we got all factions to play. Our plan was that we organize two teams comprising all tribes so that the winners will equally share that gift (of playing together) among themselves. And they played successfully. We are grateful to Allah that our dream became reality and to young people for the peace process. This will symbolize peace from today and beyond. We pray that this hullabaloo in Bawku will come to an end.”
I was most excited when a young girl grinned, gave us the ‘thumbs up’ and shouted ‘Organizer!’ as we flew past on a motorbike a few hours later; it's the first time I've been called anything other than obruni, solomia or yevu since I've lived in Ghana. Then, I knew we’d made a good impact. I know it won’t change the world overnight, but the youth, the leaders of tomorrow, will remember that they made this happen, and they can do it again in future.

The success of the day compels the rest of Ghana to sit up and take notice. And in this election year, that the community and politicians should keep in mind that “peace, not politics” is the order of the day.

No one believed that Mamprusis and Kusasis would come together and play without any violence. No one believed that the spectators would refrain from some kind of scuffle, if not something more serious. Everyone asked whether security would be present. We checked, double-checked, consulted, visited security forces, served letters and received countless assurances that they would, indeed, be present to ensure a smooth program.

We showed that the human spirit can soar when you believe it can.

Life in Ghana

We have a new site www.g-lish.org where you can read all articles from This is Ghana in a much more organised fashion. Read Life in Ghana there.

A funny thing happens when you mention having lived in Ghana to someone who’s never been to Africa full-stop. Often they give you a funny look and you realise that they don’t know where it is. West Africa, you explain. Then they give you a certain fascinated stare as if you’re some kind of fearless traveler. ‘West Africa,’ they utter, imagining all the conflict they’ve seen on TV. Can you blame them?
I do it myself. When I meet someone from Sierra Leone I think of the warlords and child soldiers. My companion is probably thinking that it’s not that bad...the war is over...things are getting back on track. The media has a lot to answer for.
The point is that treating Africa and Africans as if they’re one big, homogenous, cultural blob is like assuming that Lithuanians, Swiss and Greeks are one and the same. Africa boasts one-third of the world’s nations and more than two thousand languages. Ghanaians alone speak about forty. Most people speak three or four on average and English. (English deserves a whole other post..).
Many times I’ve made new friends only to discover that they hail from yet another region and I have to learn the basics of another language. My head now spins with Fanti, Twi, Ewe, Hausa and Frafra...all mixed up.
If you did live in Ghana then you smile on the inside knowing that the myth of ‘scary Africa’ doesn’t apply here. You remember hanging out on endless empty beaches with some of the friendliest people on earth, eating fresh fish caught just off-shore and coconuts from the trees dotting the beach. You remember dancing on the side of the street in front of six-foot high speakers blaring the latest highlife with whoever decided to stop and join you and, invariably, someone does. You remember navigating the country in an ingenious system of cheap, if death-defying, mini-buses that reach all corners and often generate the best travel stories. You remember arriving at midnight in a new city and asking the young guy sitting next to you, who’d just been debating the democratic process in Ghana with his neighbour, the way to your hotel and him showing you the way and not asking for anything other than your phone number or address.

You wonder why this island of peace and friendliness is such a big secret. Of course, it has its downsides like everywhere else (definitely not for the impatient or high maintenance luvvies). On balance, though, it has a lot going for it, particularly for the nervous first-time traveler to Africa.

Below: up in Bawku where donkeys rule the roads

So, if you're wondering ‘what Ghana is really like…’

[Whispers] It’s not that bad.

It’s not the Africa you see on TV – war, famine and endless disease -- that Africa is half the story.

The much-neglected half of the story is that there are countries like Ghana (and Botswana and Malawi, for example) where citizens live in peace – poor, but peaceful. No war. Very little violence.

I recall an anecdote that my boss tells about such thing. An acquaintance of hers was accosted by a potential armed robber who held a knife up and demanded the backpack. The acquaintance, a traveler in Ghana replied, 'Oh, but I want to be your friend.'

'OK,' replied the suddenly demure armed robber who lowered his knife and accompanied the acquaintance to his destination. They don't say 'West Africa for the people' for nothing...(having your wits about you helps too).

Every day I see little kids charged with carrying full buckets of water on their head for the family’s needs grooving uphill all the way to the ubiquitous hip-life that plays along most streets all over the country. I don’t know if people are happier – happiness is rather relative – most don’t have much in the way of material possessions, but they certainly know how to eke joy out of thin air. ‘Why not?’ as your average Ghanaian is likely to retort if you ask why they love to dance.

Do you really need a reason?

October 10, 2008


We have a new site www.g-lish.org where you can read all articles from This is Ghana in a much more organised fashion. Read Malaria there.

You delude yourself into thinking it wasn’t that bad. When you don’t have it, you can’t imagine how debilitating and painful it is. Then, you feel the tell-tale prickling, burning sensation skimming across your skin like a sunburn -- only you’ve been stuck in an office for the last five days. And then you sneeze once or twice and your legs start to ache and you just want to sleep…

You wake at 3 am as an indiscriminate pain pierces your legs, your buttocks, your spine, and your skull. You roll yourself up in three sheets to keep ‘warm’ in the twenty-two degree cool, shaking for hours while the parasites boil in your blood. I wonder if Dante ever had malaria. Soon, your temperature hits forty degrees while you vomit the contents of your last meal over the side of the bed, in the bed, or all over yourself.

When you do experience malaria, you can’t imagine how you ever had energy; you can’t even walk to the bathroom. You can’t imagine ever walking to the front gate, let alone function as a human being in this world – even in laid-back Ghana.

It does not surprise me that most of Africa is still developing when a great proportion of the population suffer from malaria at some point in their lives, if not regularly. I will think twice about taking a 'sickie' for a headache/PMS/random day off in future.

The drugs won’t always prevent it – no, not Doxy, not Larium, not Malarone – but they will reduce the severity of an attack and even save your life. If you don’t take your drugs…well...welcome to the seventh circle of hell – a river of boiling blood.
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