Author: AFP

In Ghana’s gold country, Chinese miners flee crackdown

When he saw the trucks full of police and soldiers rumbling across the muddy field where he mines gold, Emmanuel Quainn ran. But they weren’t coming for him.

They came for his Chinese counterparts, who had turned up about a year ago to dig into the earth around the central Ghana town of Dunkwa-on-Offin in search of gold.

The business was lucrative. It was also illegal.

“Most of the Chinese people went very far from here, because when they get them they’re going to be under arrest,” said Quainn, who quit his job installing satellite dishes for the more reliable pay of small-scale gold mining.

Ghana’s government last month sent a task force of soldiers, police and immigration officers into the country’s gold country to root out foreigners who have flooded mining districts in recent years.

A small-scale mining site once mined by Chinese miners in Dunkwa-on-Offin in the centre of Ghana. (AFP)
A small-scale mining site once mined by Chinese miners in Dunkwa-on-Offin in the centre of Ghana. (AFP)

In a series of raids this month, the task force arrested and repatriated 218 Chinese nationals, along with 57 others from west African countries, as well as a handful from Russia.

Over 200 other Chinese citizens voluntarily returned home under an agreement organised with the Chinese embassy.

But in interviews with AFP, some who witnessed the raids accused Ghana’s security forces of heavy-handedness and indiscriminate arrests.

Liu Long Fei, a restaurant worker at a hotel in Dunkwa-on-Offin who was arrested and spent over a week in custody, said soldiers carrying out a nighttime raid kicked in doors and arrested everyone who looked Chinese.

“It doesn’t matter if (the immigrants are) financial worker or other job, they just come here and their duty is to catch the Chinese,” he said in broken English.

The raids created an awkward situation for China, which has been investing heavily in African nations in its search for new markets as well as oil and other natural resources.

In Ghana, China has been awarded infrastructure projects and plans a $3-billion loan backed by Ghana’s oil production.

The west African nation is eager for Chinese money but says foreigner-backed mining operations are ruining its heartland.

“It’s not about targeting any particular nationality,” said Francis Palmdeti, a spokesperson for Ghana’s immigration authorities.

“The task is to ensure that the degradation that is going on, in terms of our environment and waterways, is halted.”

Called the Gold Coast during British colonial rule, mining remains a driving force in Ghana’s economy. The country of 25-million is the second-largest gold producer in Africa, producing 4.2-million ounces last year.

Along with Ghana’s vibrant cocoa industry and nascent oil production, gold production helped grow the economy by 7.9% last year.

Ghana’s laws allow for citizens to mine small-scale plots up to 25 acres, but ban foreigners from the practice, commonly known as “galamsey.”

Dunkwa-on-Offin has long been a mining town, said local official Peter Kofi Owusu-Ashia, but changes have occurred in recent years.

Ghanaians began foregoing the hand tools they had relied on in favour of excavators and other heavy equipment brought in by Chinese businessmen, he said.

It turned what was once small-scale artisanal mining into something much more destructive.

Many of the Chinese came from Shanglin county in China’s Guangxi province, which too has a tradition of gold mining.

By 2009, the people of Shanglin had heard there was money to be made in faraway Ghana, says Yang Jiao, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida in the United States who studies Chinese investment in Ghana.

The Chinese often worked with local brokers to assist their entry into the country and pay off local officials for land access, Jiao said.

“All these brokers and local elites, local chiefs … also have vested interests in this kind of illegal mining,” Yang said.

‘When they leave, we do it ourselves’ 
Isaac Abraham, a spokesperson for Ghana’s Minerals Commission, estimates there are over 1 000 licensed small-scale mines, though many small-scale miners simply forgo paperwork.

As the Ghanaian countryside became pockmarked from the pits dug by miners and rivers ran with brown sludge, pressure mounted on newly elected President John Dramani Mahama.

In early June, soldiers in Dunkwa-on-Offin descended on the Takyiwa Memorial Paradise Hotel, a hangout for the town’s Chinese population.

Liu said he was awakened late into the night by security forces pointing guns and torchlights at people in bed.

“They are saying ‘get up,’ ‘get up,’ so rudely,” Liu said. “I told them, ‘I’m legal, I’m managing here, why did you spoil my door?'”

Liu said the hotel was emptied out and anyone who looked Chinese was put on to buses and sent to immigration headquarters in Accra.

Security forces ignored those who tried to show visas and work permits, Liu said, and confiscated phones and money before throwing the arrested into packed jail cells.

Pan Yuan Hua, the manager of the hotel’s restaurant, showed an AFP journalist what he said was a photo from a phone smuggled inside the prison cell. It showed people sleeping on top of each other on the overcrowded cell’s floor.

Palmdeti, the immigration spokesperson, denied allegations of mistreatment.

“We haven’t brutalised or used [force] on anybody,” Palmdeti said.

Dunkwa-on-Offin’s Chinese miners are now mostly gone, but the excavators are still around, as is the know-how for finding gold in the deep, sun-scorched pits.

“We plan to continue mining. When they leave, we do it ourselves, because we have learned most of their techniques,” Quainn said. “So it will be easier for us.” – AFP

World’s first tablet cyber café opens in Senegal

Among the washer women, carpenters, busy waiters and squabbling children sweltering under the midday sun on this dusty Dakar street, an internet revolution is taking place in the world’s first tablet café.

Next to the workshops, meat stores and barbershops on what could be any bustling street in sub-Saharan Africa, a grey concrete building stands out with a garish sign advertising the Tablette Café.

“This is the first tablet café in the world, a café that works with tablets,” said Tidiane Deme, the head of Google in French-speaking Africa.

The concept, introduced by the internet search giant, is a simple twist on the traditional cyber cafés which have been springing up across Africa as the internet boom takes hold, ditching PCs for tablet computers.

People outside the Tablette Café, located in the Medina area of Dakar. (AFP)
The Tablette Café opened on May 27 2013 in the Medina area of Dakar. (AFP)

When Medoune Seck (33) opened his Equinoxe cyber café six years ago, he quickly discovered that frequent power cuts and exorbitant electricity bills were a major headache for him and his customers.

Then along comes Google which offered funding last year to turn one cyber café in Africa into a pilot tablet café. Seck applied and his café was picked as their guinea pig.

While tablets have taken advanced industrialised countries by storm and pushed cyber cafés further to the margins, in the developing world they could lead to their renaissance.

Tablet cafés could take hold in Africa because most people cannot afford to buy the devices, and tablets use batteries and mobile data connections which make them not vulnerable to power cuts.

The Equinoxe now sports 15 tablets and has installed cabins for private video chats, while a corner of the café is given over to a shop selling various items of electronic equipment.

Three PCs remain enthroned on boxes near a wall, but they do not generate much interest among clients, who recline on the café’s bright orange and blue sofas, jabbing at their touch screens.

Seck says his tablets cost more than PCs but they save on power bills as they consume 25 times less electricity.

Customers browsing the web on tablets. (AFP)
Customers pay 80 US cents per hour to browse the web on tablets. (AFP)

He believes they can help revive cyber cafés which, according to Google, are in something of a slump precisely because of the high cost of electricity and frequent power failures cutting into business.

“Tablet computers will revolutionise Africa, and Senegal,” said Seck.

The simplicity of using the touchscreen devices could help bring computing to scores of new people.

An elderly grandmother in a billowing bubu robe, headscarf and sash from the house opposite the café was among the first through the doors to “bless” her neighbour’s business, and she left amused after being given an introduction to using a tablet.

Mamadou Camara, a 16-year-old Facebook and Skype user, enthused about the improved computing experience of tablets.

He complained about “cyber café PCs which are very slow and exhaust your credit”.

Upon arrival, customers hand over an ID card and pay in advance for a set connection time before they are given a tablet.

When they leave the device is reset, wiping out any data from their session, and it is ready for the next customer.

The Tablette Café charges the same price as its predecessor did for PCs: 300 CFA francs (80 US cents) per hour.

“Our hope is that cyber cafés attract new customers interested in a more simple and interactive way of going online, and make significant savings on their number one operating expense: electricity,” Alex Grouet, Google’s business development manager in Francophone Africa, said in a blog post.

Café owners should be able to invest the savings on electricity costs into improving their connection speeds, he suggested, thereby boosting their clients’ experience.

“We look forward to finding out as the project unfolds, and hope that people living in Dakar will stop by to try out something new.”

Coumba Sylla for AFP.

Amina, the Tunisian activist who sparked a scandal

Amina Sboui, the young Tunisian arrested for an anti-Islamist protest, has become a symbol of resistance to religious intolerance for Western feminists, but opinion at home is divided over the activist who is inspired by topless protest group Femen.

Under the pseudonym Amina Tyler, she sparked an uproar in March by posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook, defying Arab-Muslim convention.

Her action provoked angry threats from radical Islamists who were repressed under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and have become increasingly assertive since the revolution that ousted the dictator in 2011.

Amina appears handcuffed at the courthouse in the central city of Kairouan on June 5 2013. (AFP)
Amina appears handcuffed at the courthouse in the central city of Kairouan on June 5 2013. (AFP)

“Everyone has the right to express themselves in their own way and I chose my way of doing so in the style of Femen,” she told AFP in April.

She condemned the “conservative restrictions, on civil freedoms especially after the rise to power of Ennahda,” the Islamist party that won a post-revolt election and heads the coalition government.

“I would be happy to see the fall of Ennahda,” said the 18-year-old rebel, as she smoked a cigarette, adding she welcomed her new-found fame.

“Of course I’m happy to become a celebrity and attract media interest.”

With her short hair, dyed platinum blonde, and thin, delicate features, Amina explains how the topless pictures shocked her family, who she says abducted and beat her, trying to force her back into line.

‘Psychiatric problems’
Her mother denied the accusation, saying she wanted to protect her after threats from Islamists, and insisting that her daughter, who has suffered from depression since she was 14, should remain at home.

“My daughter has suffered psychiatric problems since 2009 and has been examined by doctors in the [psychiatric] hospital in Razi,” near Tunis, she explained.

Medical documents shown to AFP appear to confirm her claims.

One, dating from March, says she “has for several months shown a relapse with insomnia, sadness, irritability with explosive reactions, delusional ideas, self-deprecation and guilt, behavioural problems including suicidal and self-harm tendencies”.

Amina says she had a difficult childhood, partly spent in Saudi Arabia, and that she was molested when she was very young.

Her mother also disputes the claim, insisting the Femen movement has exploited her vulnerability without caring about her future.

Amina rejected her mother’s warnings and ran away from home in April, deciding to continue her protest campaign while waiting for a visa to France where she hopes to finish her studies.

On May 19, she was arrested in the holy Islamic city of Kairouan for painting the word “Femen” on a wall near a cemetery, in an act of protest against a planned Salafist gathering that never took place, after it was banned by the government.

She is due to appear before an investigating judge on Wednesday, and could face charges of indecency and desecrating a cemetery, crimes which carry possible prison sentences.

Feminists in France have hailed her as a heroine, with the topless protest group Femen sending three European activists to Tunis to bare their breasts in support of her. They were arrested after they staged the group’s first demonstration in the Arab world outside the main court house on May 29. Their trial begins on Wednesday in Tunis, and the trio face a six-month prison sentence if they are convicted.

Women from the Femen activist group take part in a protest calling for Amina's release on May 30 2013, in front of the Tunisian embassy in Brussels. (Pic: AFP)
Women from the Femen activist group take part in a protest calling for Amina’s release on May 30 2013, in front of the Tunisian embassy in Brussels. (Pic: AFP)

“Clearly it’s easier to incriminate a child who does not lack boldness or courage … A child who knows what she doesn’t want and is trying to wake up these people who wish to remain deaf, dumb and blind,” French blogger Caroline Fourest wrote.

In Tunisia, Amina’s support from the anti-Islamist opposition is more measured.

Feminist activist and MP Nadia Chaabane says she backs the young Tunisian in getting herself acquitted, but frowns on the Femen protests.

“I think that she is an adolescent who is slightly lost, but the fury directed against her is not justified,” she said.

Mounir Sboui, Amina’s father whom she is close to, said he was “proud” of his daughter for her ideological commitment, while also describing her acts as excessive.

“Her actions were excessive but she defends her ideas,” he said.

India’s Africans hold fast to ancient traditions

The tiny Sidi community, descendants of ninth century African migrants, have lived quietly along India’s west coast for hundreds of years while never losing touch with their ancient traditions.

A Certain Grace,  a new book by Indian photographer Ketaki Sheth, reveals how the community, many of whose members live in poverty, has assimilated in India while keeping its distinctive culture alive.

At the book’s launch in Mumbai last month Sheth recalled her first brush with the community during a 2005 holiday in Gujarat state in western India.

“I first saw the Sidi in Sirwan, a village in the middle of the forest given to them by the Nawab [Muslim prince] … in recognition of their loyal services,” she said. “I was intrigued.”

Estimated to number between 60 000 to 70 000 in a nation of 1.2-billion, the Sidi originate from a swathe of East Africa stretching southwards from Ethiopia.

The fiercely proud community discourages marriage to non-Sidis and outsiders are unwelcome, as Sheth found out when she was greeted by a group of young men eyeing her suspiciously at the entrance to another village, Jambur.

“If looks could kill, honestly, I would be dead. I could sense irritation, hostility, perhaps even resentment to this very obvious ‘outsider’,” she said.

Two of those boys – “still angry and daunting” – would later turn up in a portrait shot by Sheth, their resistance apparently having faded over the five years she spent working on the project that blends portraiture and street photography.

Jambur would become an occasional backdrop to her photographs, all shot in black and white using a manual camera.

Sidi children play outside their homes in the village of Jambur. (AFP)
Sidi children play outside their homes in the village of Jambur. (AFP)

Often described as descendants of slaves brought to India by Arab and other troops, the Sidi mostly live in villages and towns along India’s west coast, with a few groups scattered across the rest of the country.

Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at New York’s Columbia University, says many came to India not only as cheap labour but also as soldiers, with some rising quickly through the ranks and even acquiring royal titles.

Successive waves of migration saw Portuguese invaders bring slave-soldiers from modern-day Mozambique to India, Mamdani writes in an introductory essay to Sheth’s book.

“Their main attraction was not their cheapness, but their loyalty. In this context, slaves are best thought of as lifelong servants of ruling or upper caste families,” he writes.

Those deemed most loyal were given land that is now home to villages inhabited exclusively by Sidis.

Reinventing African tradition
US-based academic Beheroze Shroff, who has studied the Sidi for years, told AFP that they, like other migrants, “have reinvented their traditions”.

Some customs have disappeared, while others, involving music, dance and the addition of Swahili words to the Gujarati dialect spoken in Sidi settlements have survived.

Shroff said that Gujarati Sidi Muslims in particular still practise “elaborate rituals and ceremonies, which involve drumming and ecstatic dancing called goma (a Swahili word that means drum, song and dance)”.

“This is handed down, learned by each subsequent generation, from childhood,” said Shroff, who teaches at the University of California in Irvine.

Sidi musicians perform outside a mosque in the village of Jambur. (AFP)
Sidi musicians perform outside a mosque in the village of Jambur. (AFP)

The Sidis, considered a marginalised tribe since 1956, have been the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies in India.

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) even launched a special Olympics training centre in Gujarat in 1987, in an attempt to capitalise on the athleticism of the African-origin Sidis.

That experiment ended nine years ago amid reports of petty politics and infighting among administrators but it produced a string of national-level athletes, such as Mumbai-based Juje Jackie Harnodkar, featured in Sheth’s book.

Harnodkar is among few Sidis belonging to the middle-class. Most struggle to find jobs and literacy levels remain low as many can only afford to send their children to poorly-managed state schools.

And many children like Sukhi – a young girl whose portrait is Sheth’s favourite of the 88 photographs featured in the book – attend school infrequently.

“She did go to school when I last met her but very erratically. She must have been 10, 12 when I took that photo [2005]but when I asked her she wasn’t sure,” Sheth told AFP in an email.

Sukhi’s striking portrait, her eyes downcast, her curly hair askew, was taken on Sheth’s first shoot in Jambur, she said.

“The early morning light was flat because it was pre-monsoon, the bricks and cement behind her were static and graphic, and her stripey dress seemed to move like a river even though she was so still.”

Ammu Kannampilly for AFP.