Tag: West Africa

Mangroves bring wildlife back to Senegal coast

Crabs scuttle among mangrove roots in a dense riverbank forest in southern Senegal, where a major reforestation project is reviving wildlife and boosting the west African country’s lukewarm economy.

“Everything you see here has been replanted. Before 2006, there wasn’t a single tree,” said Senegalese environmental activist and government minister Haidar El Ali in Tobor, a village near Ziguinchor, the main city of the Casamance region.

Senegalese ecologist and environment minister Haidar El Ali stands with militants asking for the reforestation of the mangrove in Tobor, Senegal. (Pic: AFP)

He gestured toward mangroves tied to stilts bordering the Casamance river, planted by his Oceanium environmental organisation to boost an area that experts said was severely depleted by deforestation, drought and increased salt levels in the water.

Alongside the road leading to the neighbouring Marsassoum valley, and around the paddy fields used in the centuries-old activity of rice cultivation, various mangrove species are abundant.

The habitat was destroyed through decades of illegal logging in mangrove forests for firewood and building.

“There has been nothing here since the 1960s and 70s. Replanting is bringing back the mangrove,” said Simeon Diatta, the chief of Diakene Diole village near the Guinea-Bissau border, pointing at riverside vegetation.

Reforestation revives mangroves
Since 2006, reforestation has revived 12 000 hectares (30 000 acres) of mangrove in Senegal – an area larger than the city of Paris – mainly in Casamance but also in the north and centre of the country, according to official figures.

“I am struck by the extraordinary success that this initiative represents,” French Development Minister Pascal Canfin said on a recent visit to Casamance, descriving the programme as “model for Senegal, Africa and the world”.

“With the return of the mangrove, people are catching a lot of fish and oysters. Women are selling them on and making a lot of money,” Diakene Diola resident Simeon Diatta told AFP.

The mangrove, which thrives in salt water, is important for trade in forestry and fishery products.

The swamps provide a nursery area for many marine species, most of which are important for food such as fish, crabs and shrimp.

In the nearby village of Diakene Ouolof, resident Mariama Tine said “everything was dead” before the replanting programme began.

“The mangroves stopped the advance of salt and we were able to recover rice fields. There were no fish here before but we are starting to get a lot of them, along with oysters and ark clams,” she said.

Mangroves vital to indigenous worship
Tobor mangrove farmer Mamadou Faye Badji says the ecosystem created by the tree is also vital in the worship rituals of the region’s indigenous people.

“The totems of the Diola are all in the forest. If forests are not dense enough, they will not stay here,” he told AFP, while Fisheries Minister Haidar El Ali said the mangrove had become part of the cultural heritage of the region’s villagers.

The damage done to mangrove swamps by deforestation remains “enormous”, however, and the battle is far from won, according to an environment ministry official.

Senegal’s economy is concentrated on fishing, tourism and groundnut production, with limited mineral resources and a narrow export base.

While the country has a long history of stability, its growth is below average on the continent and the reforestation is expected to contribute to an improvement.

Yet the project is not without controversy, with some believing the mangrove tree’s abundance is detrimental to the production of rice, since paddy areas are increasingly making way for mangrove swamps.

Lecturer Pape Cherif Bertrand Bassene mused in a recent column for the Quotidien daily newspaper that locals in Casamance, rather than welcoming the reforestation workers, should be decrying their “ignorance of tradition which results in a policy that does violence to this rice-growing culture”.

Bassene said reforestation had led to the “unavoidable consequence of divorcing the Casamance youth from their traditional rice-growing roots” and had reestablished mangrove swamps that local people “have always cut down to turn them into rice fields”.

Malick Rokhy Ba for AFP

Ghana’s first farmers’ market: ‘We need more like this’

There are some things about public gatherings in Ghana’s capital Accra that are guaranteed. A certain amount of dust and Atlantic spray on the breeze, a sound system blaring Azonto – a local music sensation – just a bit too loud, fearless children lining up to show off their moves, and an orderly row of canopies where the hot and the tired sit down on plastic chairs and take stock.

But if you looked a little closer at the fair in Ako Adjei park on Saturday, you would have found that what appeared a typical Accra event was quietly masking something quite unusual: a farmers’ market. The dozen or so small-scale producers selling their wares at The Accra Green Market were busily making history as participants in Ghana’s first ever fair for locally grown, sustainable, organic produce.

A fruit seller holds six-day old egg plants from Ghana.
A fruit seller holds six-day old eggplants from Ghana. (Pic: AFP)

“This is a great way to give exposure to organic, local products,” says Jeffrey Mouganie, 22, founder of Moco Foods, an organic company that produces local forest honey and fiery chilli sauce, guaranteeing a traceable supply chain and hiring workers with disabilities. “The only space we usually get to market our products are at the bazaars of international schools, where we sell to a lot of expats,” he says. “But we need more markets like this – the best feedback we have had for our products is from Ghanaians.”

Moco’s Savannah Honey, on sale here for 10 Ghana cedis – approximately £3 (R45) – is being exported to the UK where it will go on sale at Harrods and Selfridges for what the producers expect to be around five times that price. Also on sale, organic mushroom wine – said to be a treatment for practically every medical condition from sclerosis to high blood pressure, asthma and “sexual weakness” – pak choi, gloriously frothy-leaved heads of broccoli, watermelon, small, knobbly carrots, and tough-skinned, tangy nectarines full of seeds and sweet-sour juice.

The organisers of the market believe they are part of a new trend towards sustainable, organic and local food, which they say goes hand in hand with the growth of Ghana’s new middle class. “Things in Ghana are changing – it is no longer a poor country but a middle-income country. And because of that, people are more interested in what they eat,” says Edison Gwenda Abe, 29, founder of Agripro – a mobile application company that provides farmers with access to marketplaces and which organised the Accra Green Market. “In East Africa, farmers’ markets are already really popular, but in West Africa, there is nothing like this. We plan to take it to different locations in Ghana, and we have had interest from Nigeria too.”

New interest in organic food
Constance Korkoi Tengey, founder of Immaculate Gold Beads, Mushrooms and Snails, is typical of the kind of small-scale grower whose products the market is designed to showcase. An energetic 62-year-old who carefully dishes out mushroom sandwiches, mushroom salad and mushroom gari foto – a veggie version of a popular Ghanaian dish made from cassava tubers – Tengey began growing mushrooms in her back garden seven years ago and says sales are on the rise.

“I eat a lot of mushrooms as a substitute for meat, and I’ve noticed that I don’t gain as much weight, and it keeps me looking younger,” Tengey says. “People in Ghana are becoming more health-conscious these days, they are really showing an interest in my products. It’s a profitable business for me.”

But it’s not only shoppers who are fuelling Ghana’s new interest in organic food. The city’s ever expanding directory of hotels, restaurants and cafes has an insatiable appetite for local products and high quality produce. “There are a lot of new eateries bringing in foreign chefs, and as a result the quality is getting higher,” says Sadiq Banda, an organic grower in Accra who supplies some of the city’s five-star hotels.

“Chefs are always looking for the best produce, and there is a great need for more local food producers to supply them. The Ghanaian middle class is growing too, and becoming more interested in quality. But Ghanaians are still mainly interested in conspicuous consumption – they do not tend to spend money on high-quality things unless other people can see them doing it, and fresh produce is not yet a priority.”

Ghana may still have some way to go in grasping the concept of organic, whole foods. Alongside the organic avocados on one stall were tins of corned beef, canned sardines and mayonnaise, where young women were zealously composing “salad” – a concoction of oily, processed products with a dash of fresh vegetable to top it off. And Ghana being Ghana, there is a strong affection for the deep-fried. My taste award went to Tengey’s “Kentucky Fried Mushrooms” – not blessed with a name that conjures up all things fresh, small-scale and local, but they tasted quite simply amazing.

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian Africa Network

‘Wedding thief’ found guilty of stealing from newlyweds in Ghana

A woman dubbed the “wedding thief” after carrying out a string of audacious robberies has been convicted in Ghana of stealing £5 000 from a couple at their wedding reception.

Emelia Appiah, described as a specialist in wedding thefts, stole cash gifts from a newly married couple in the west African country’s capital city by impersonating a member of the team in charge of the gift table.

In an audacious move, Appiah is reported to have gone to the bride’s house on the morning of the wedding in April under the pretence of being part of the team to dress her. The prosecutor, Inspector K Nyadikor, told the Accra circuit court Appiah was turned away because the bride was already dressed.

Nyadikor said Appiah later followed her to the church where the wedding was taking place in South La – a residential area in Accra – and impersonated another woman who was part of the team in charge of the gift table.

Church clerks, fooled by Appiah’s impersonation, then gave her access to the gifts, including envelopes containing £5 000 cash.

Appiah is believed to have used a similar tactic on several previous occasions, including one wedding where she impersonated a wedding planner.

Wedding gifts. (Pic: Flickr)
Wedding gifts. (Pic: Flickr / Matthew Nenninger)

Cash gifts and large, fluid guest lists are common at Ghanaian weddings, making them attractive targets for creative thieves.

In January Nana Sakyi Essel (18) was arrested at a wedding in Kumasi, capital of Ghana’s Ashanti region, wearing a grey suit and presenting himself to the bride’s family as one of the groom’s cousins in charge of the gifts, until he aroused one of the guests’ suspicions and the police were called.

He was later discovered to have stolen from at least one previous wedding in the city.

In 2010 Francis Degraft Johnson (26) stole about £500 from his friend’s wedding after he was asked to deposit the gifts in a bedroom at the wedding reception but made off with the cash instead.

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian

The blacksmith who turns Liberia’s war arms into art

German blacksmith Manfred Zbrzezny and his apprentices hammer, file and weld in a steamy, dark workshop on the outskirts of the Liberian capital Monrovia, surrounded by parts for AK-47s, bazookas and other deadly arms.

In another lifetime, these weapons were the cause of untold misery in a nation scarred by ruinous back-to-back civil wars, but now they are being transformed into symbols of hope for Liberians.

Since 2007, Zbrzezny and his team at Fyrkuna Metalworks have been gathering parts of weapons decommissioned during the disarmament process after the conflict ended ten years ago to turn them into ornate flowerpots, lamps, furniture and sculptures.

Seahorse. (Pic: Fyrkuna Gallery)
Seahorse. (Pic: Fyrkuna Metalworks)

“It was strange from the beginning to work with weapons or instruments of destruction and suffering. The first two years I was working on this it remained very strange to me,” Zbrzezny said.

“When I had a piece in my hands I would think about what was happening now to the perpetrators who used these weapons, and what was happening to the victims, and I would put the piece down to go drink a cup of coffee because it was a little bit oppressive.”

Today, as he holds each weapon part, Zbrzezny is able to focus on its potential for bringing healing to the people of Liberia.

Mobile phone holders. (Pic: Fyrkuna Gallery)
Mobile phone holders. (Pic: Fyrkuna Metalworks)

“I do some thinking on how to transform it into something different, how to transform something that was destructive into something constructive, how to transform something negative into something positive,” he said.

Deep psychological and physical wounds remain in Liberia after two civil wars which ran from 1989 to 2003, leaving a quarter of a million people dead.

Numerous rebel factions raped, maimed and killed, some making use of drugged-up child soldiers, and deep ethnic rivalries and bitterness remain across the west African nation of four million people.

Zbrzezny, who had worked as a blacksmith in Italy and Germany, came to Liberia in 2005, two years after the end of the rebel siege of Monrovia that brought a fragile peace to the west African nation.

He failed initially to make money out of his trade until in 2007 he was approached by the owners of a riverside restaurant who asked if he could put his skills to transforming the parts of old weapons into a marine-themed banister.

The project was such a success that he began making other pieces for the restaurant with parts from rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sub-machinegun barrels — then still commonplace in Monrovia.

He began collecting weapons parts from a German charity involved in Liberia’s disarmament process and made a business out of transforming instruments of war into candle stands, bookends, bells and bottle openers.

“So it was by chance that I got into this. Now I employ five young Liberians who are learning the trade at the same time,” said Zbrzezny, who calls his work “Arms into Art”.

Table lamp. (Pic: Fyrkuna Gallery)
Table lamp. (Pic: Fyrkuna Metalworks)

One of Zbrzezny’s most ambitious projects was a “peace tree” fashioned in 2011 from weapons parts on Providence Island, an iconic part of Monrovia where freed slaves from the United States landed in the 19th century to found the new republic.

Momodu Paasawee, the caretaker for the area where the tree is exhibited, said it had become a symbol for reconciliation in post-war Liberia.

“Seeing this tree reminds Liberians that the war has ended and never should we return to war… Tourists and Liberian students come here to see the tree,” he said.

“Sometimes people come here believing that this is a real tree but I have to tell them that this is a peace tree made out of the barrels of guns.”

Zbrzezny, who is married to a Liberian woman who is expecting their second child, says most of his customers are expats, with few Liberians buying his wares.

Keen to expand his work, Zbrzezny has been trying to convince the United Nations mission in Liberia to donate its weapons scrap.

 Leaving the past behind
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to probe war crimes and rights abuses between 1979 and 2003, and particularly during the brutal conflicts that raged in 1989-96 and 1999-2003.

The commission said a war crimes court should be set up to prosecute eight ex-warlords for alleged crimes against humanity but the government is yet to implement the recommendations.

A decade after the war, no money has been made available and the only Liberian to face trial is Charles Taylor, and that was for his role in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s civil conflict, not that in his own country.

The former leader is appealing a 50-year prison sentence handed down in May last year for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for “blood diamonds” during a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives between 1991 and 2001.

Meanwhile a generation of traumatised children who witnessed untold horrors in Liberia are now struggling to come to terms with their country’s violent past as adults.

Emmanuel Freeman (28), one of Zbrzezny’s apprentices, was a child during most of the conflict and saw both of his parents slain.

“They were killed by guns. These are the same guns I am transforming today into something else,” he said. “I am excited, happy and very pleased to do that.”

But “sometimes when I am holding the scraps it reminds me what I saw during the war”, he added.

Zoom Dosso for AFP

The barbershops of West Africa

Andrew Esiebo is a Nigerian photographer whose photo essay, Pride, is an exploration of barbers and their shops across seven West African countries. He captures the spaces in which barbers operate and looks at the aesthetics of their shops.

Pride was recently featured in the New York Times’ online magazine Lens, and ten of his prints have been added to the permanent collection of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

Côte d'Ivoire.
Côte d’Ivoire. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

Esiebo chatted to Voices of Africa about the barbers, their shops and the hairstyles he shot.

How did the barbershop project come about?
The idea for Pride came about during a street photography project I was doing in Lagos. While photographing people on the street, I stumbled upon a barbershop and started talking to the owner. He said to me that while he might not be considered an important person in the society, he was proud to be the barber to one of Nigeria’s ex-presidents. That resonated with me and made me think about the role, and importance, of barbers in West African society. I thought about the idea for several years and in 2012, following an artistic award I received, I was able to develop the project. I travelled to several West African cities and looked at the relevance, and the role, of the barbershop in the city.

Liberia. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Liberia. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

What can you tell us about the role that the barber plays in West African societies?
Barbers help people to gain an identity. Some people have to have the right cut to project who they are. The way they look, through their hairstyle, influences the way they feel about themselves, the way people see them and address them.

Barbers are also influential because their shops are what I call “public intimate spaces”. People share their problems in conversation with the barber. The barbers learn a lot from this, and this knowledge is then shared with other customers.

So, barbershops are not only a place for cutting your hair but a space where people meet, where they come to relax and discuss issues; a space where relationships are built, business deals are sealed and where intimate subjects are often discussed.

Mali. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Mali. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

Which barbershops were most interesting to you?
The barbershops I found most interesting were those which displayed icons, religious images, pictures of hip-hop artists, posters of soccer teams and icons of global black culture. There was a shop in Mali where the guy had posters of [Osama] Bin Laden and [Muammar] Gaddafi next to pictures of President Obama. I found this contrasting use of icons interesting. The barber said that, on the one hand, Bin Laden and Gaddafi were his heroes while on the other hand Obama is a global symbol of black power. For a black African to be the president of the US is something to be proud of, he said. So he named his shop Barack Obama Coiffure. There were many others I found interesting too.

Hairstyles. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Hairstyles. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

Tell us about the hairstyles.
Many of the hairstyles offered by barbers were similar, inspired by football stars or hip-hop icons in America. While the hairstyles themselves overlapped, their functions differed, depending on the country.

In Senegal or Mali, which are restrictive Islamic societies, a hairstyle can be a way of making a social statement, while in Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire, that same hairstyle can be a way to get attention from the ladies.

There was one particularly eclectic one from Senegal, worn by a barber.  I asked the guy why he barbered that style for himself. He told me: “You know, this is a very conservative society but through my hair, I have the freedom to express what I want”.  I really fancied that. He was rebelling against the conservative nature of the society.

Benin. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Benin. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

Were there any regional or national differences across the barbershops you photographed?
To be honest, I did not find many regional or national differences in barbershops across West Africa. In fact, I found them very similar. There also was unity in the hairstyles themselves; unity in the language of using your head to talk.

Sure, there were differences in the names of the styles but many of the styles were the same. It shows how globalised or how connected the world is today. Many of the styles come from the same influences:  Western media.

Côte d'Ivoire. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Côte d’Ivoire. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

Are you exhibiting Pride at the moment?
No, but I hope to exhibit this project across West Africa and beyond. I am still looking for an organisation to support the exhibition. I would also like to publish a book on the project because I think this is an important part of our culture that needs to be documented. It has to be celebrated and shown around the world.

Ghana. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Ghana. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

What is your next project?
I will be looking at the nightlife of Lagos and beyond through the eyes and lives of DJs. DJs at parties, DJs in concerts, DJs at various ceremonies. I want to use DJs, who are an integral part of our nightlife, to depict life in Lagos.

Senegal. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)
Senegal. (Pic: Andrew Esiebo)

Any advice for aspiring African photographers?
I think the only advice I can give is for them to work hard, to be passionate about what they do, to never give up and always be ready to learn new things. Keep pushing and open your horizons. You’ll go places with that.