Tag: West Africa

Togo’s taxi drivers left behind by growing economy

(Pic: Flickr / Claudio Riccio)
(Pic: Flickr / Claudio Riccio)

Swarming the streets of Togo’s capital Lome, thousands of motorcycle taxi drivers are just some of those left behind by the recent economic growth spurt in the crushingly poor nation.

Some have college degrees and work multiple jobs but still take home as little as $1.60 a day transporting passengers in the west African country that is gearing up for presidential elections on Saturday.

“There is no work,” said 31-year-old Gabriel, a driver who holds a high school diploma. “Everyone is a motorcycle taxi driver. There are thousands of them – too many.”

While Togo now hits six percent economic growth per year, more than half the country of roughly seven million survives on less than $1 per day as the nation claws its way back from 14 years of international sanctions.

“Young people are being suffocated by unemployment in Togo,” said Maurice Toupane, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Senegal’s capital Dakar.

“Many young people are leaving the country for Nigeria and the holders of university degrees find themselves driving motorcycle taxis.”

The drivers – known locally as Zemidjan or zem – do not own their bikes, instead they  have to slowly pay back the cost.

It is no easy feat to come up with the money on what the drivers make. They might earn about 7.50 euros per day, but three euros goes on paying for the bike and three more on fuel.

On the really lean days they can dip into the community fund called a “tontine” that aims to help people take home 1.50 euros to their family every night.

For many drivers, the motorcycle taxi is their second job. Among the 15 or so drivers waiting for customers in Lome one day recently was a woodworker, a tailor and a cobbler, who was putting a new sole on a shoe.

The thaw in Togo’s economy began with the country’s current leader, President Faure Gnassingbe, who is running for a third five-year term.

He took over in 2005 after the death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled with an iron fist for 38 years.

During Eyadema’s reign the European Union suspended aid in 1993 in response to a “democratic deficit”.

The gross national product, life expectancy and the number of children at school all dropped during that period and state businesses were left abandoned.

In that era “the country was bled dry by 14 years of international sanctions,” said Kako Nubukpo, Togo’s minister of long term strategy.

The money began to flow again in 2007 when the EU decided Gnassingbe possessed “good will”, after reforms leading to press freedom, multi-party politics and abolition of the death penalty.

Gnassingbe has taken a proactive approach by cleaning up public finances, embarking on large infrastructure projects and offering free primary school, all things that he has reminded people of during the election campaign.

Additionally, the GDP has doubled in 10 years and public debt has remained relatively low.

But the improvement in the economy cannot hide unemployment that is close to 29 percent, with a majority of young people out of work, said Nubukpo.

And those gains that have been made – driven by commodity prices – are mostly benefiting the wealthy, according to the United Nations.

Two-thirds of Togolese, meanwhile, still make their livings as subsistence farmers.

The majority of the motorcycle taxi drivers are in their 20s, reflecting the demographics of a country where three quarters of the population is under 35. The nation doubles in size every 25 years.

“It’s a sprint between the speed at which our society modernises and its capacity to include young people,” Nubukpo said. “We must give some hope to young people otherwise we run the risk of a social explosion.”

Swings and roundabouts: Powering rural Ghana through play

Kids on the electricity-generating
Kids on the electricity-generating ‘merry-go-round’ at Pediatorkope Basic School. (Pic: Flickr/ctrilogy)

The southeastern island of Pediatorkope is one of rural Ghana’s poorest places, with most people living from farming mussels on the Volta River.

But despite being cut off from the national grid, Pediatorkope is relatively well-off compared to the capital Accra and the rest of the country when it comes to power.

How? It uses the natural energy of children to generate enough electricity to power lanterns every time they use specially adapted roundabouts.

When children play on the equipment at the Pediatorkope Basic School, their effort turns a turbine connected to a rechargeable battery that powers LED lanterns.

The children use the lanterns at home, bringing them back to the school when they need recharging, teacher Gerson Kuadegbeku told AFP. “So it is helping the students to learn.”

Kuadegbeku said the scheme – the brainchild of US-based charity Empower Playgrounds Incorporated – has been a success, allowing children to study at home, when previously it was impossible for lack of electricity.

“Formerly the performance of the children in the school was very low,” he told AFP.

Energy crisis

Ghana is in the throes of a crippling energy crisis, which is slowing down economic activity and raising fears about its effect on the emerging economy’s overall development.

Most homes receive electricity for 12 hours but can then be without power for the next 24.

The government, criticised for failing to maintain economic growth after the country began commercial oil production in 2010, recently signed new contracts with external power suppliers.

While Ghanaians wait for those new facilities to begin producing power, demand for generators is increasing.

Some businesses have threatened to leave the country for places with more regular supply. Others said they are being forced to downsize their workforce.

The main opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) and its supporters last month took to the streets, claiming that President John Dramani Mahama has crippled business by not resolving the problem.

“If you are running a factory and you have to power a generator before you can produce, then there’s a real problem,” said Isaac Osei, an opposition member of parliament.

Power through play

If the situation is acute in cities such as Accra, then it is even worse in rural areas, with schoolchildren among the hardest hit by the lack of electricity.

George Thompson, the project manager at Empower Playgrounds Inc., said the system was helping to improve the chances of rural children continuing their education beyond junior school.

“So far we’re in 42 schools and what we do is that any school that has… junior high, we assess them by their final year examinations,” he said.

“It has really brought improvement in the lives of these children’s education.

“All that we expect from the community is to ensure that when the kids bring these lanterns home, they (use them) to do their home studies.”

Small price to pay

A separate scheme using solar power is also running on the island, where residents pay 500 cedis (about $150) to buy a battery, which is recharged by the sun via roof panels at a “charging station”.

Local man Humphrey Teye Ayeh said he decided to enrol because of the increasing cost of kerosene previously used to provide light.

The sustainable energy system – which can be used to power electrical devices such as mobile phones – has got people more connected, he said.

For Thompson, the decision to come to Pediatorkope made sense because it would take time for the island to get onto the national grid.

“We thought it wise to come to this island and ensure that the people in this community also have a little life here,” he said.

“Our objective is not to make any money or profit from this but we need to get the system, the centre sustainable or the project sustainable, so we ask them to pay 500 Ghana cedis to be hooked up to the system and then each time they bring the battery for recharge, they pay five cedis for that.”

‘Queen of Glory’: Q&A with Nana Mensah


Nana Mensah (left) in 'Queen of Glory'. (Pic: Peter Hurley)
Nana Mensah (left) in ‘Queen of Glory’. (Video still)

Hot on the heels of the successful web series An African City in which she plays a leading role, actress and director Nana Mensah brings us her first independent feature film, Queen of Glory, about a Ghanaian-American PhD student who inherits her deceased mother’s Christian bookstore in The Bronx, NY. Nana took the time to talk to Valérie Bah about her latest project, gendered expectations, West African investment in the arts, and the perks of having creative control.

Queen of Glory has an intriguing plotline. I understand that you drew a link to Lena Dunham’s project, Girls, about being young, having a “quarter-life crisis,” and finding oneself in New York City?

Nana Mensah:  Sure, but I think the Lena Dunham connection is closer to her independent film, Tiny Furniture (2010), which led up to Girls.  Tiny Furniture was a film of a comparable budget, which basically explored that quarter-life crisis idea.  My character is a prodigy, a PhD candidate named Sara Obeng, who is looking to leave her research to marry her former lover and married professor to Ohio when her mother suddenly dies and leaves her Christian bookstore in a neighborhood where she grew up – they call it “Little Ghana,” the Pelham Parkway neighborhood in The Bronx, which is steeped in West African tradition. The project centers on her return home and depicts all the things that come with that; seeing family and getting everything together.

Are you then looking at drawing more of an audience within the African diaspora?

NM: Well, we are focusing primarily at an American market, with an American distributor. So, we’re looking at a diaspora audience, but also white people who go to see independent films. We’re not speaking only in terms that a diaspora can understand. The hope is that anybody who’s had to return home in a time of crisis will be able to understand it.

Generationally speaking, that taps into the concern experienced by millennials, who may not have the resources to start off their lives as the Baby Boomers did; buying a house, finding employment, etc.

NM:  Sure, I mean, she’s a PhD student, so struggling financially, though her return home is brought on by her mother’s death. But yes, she’s also very much struggling in every way.  She has a boatload of intellectual capital, but very little capital capital.

And how much of you is there in this Sara Obeng character?

Nana Mensah in 'Queen of Glory'. (Pic: Peter Hurley)
Nana Mensah in ‘Queen of Glory’. (Video still)

NM: Oh gosh, no. Not much at all. She’s actually completely fictional. I just have a BA, I don’t have a masters from anywhere. My mother is still alive and well, though she is a small business owner, but she doesn’t own a Christian bookstore. My parents are religious, but certainly not Evangelical or anything of that nature. There’s a commonality, I would say, in terms of the general experience – and I was definitely not having an affair with my university professor [laughter] – in terms of the understanding of having parents from the “Old Country,” with a different value system.

There’s a fracture, especially for African women because our parents, unlike a lot of other recent immigrants, our parents really pushed us, and I’m speaking in mass generalities here, but our parents really pushed us as women to succeed, they push us to the best universities, the best experiences. We are told that we can do anything and everything, but, we must have hot jollof on the stove by the time we get home [laughter].

Here’s one thing that strikes me – the fact that you talk about the high expectations for second generation African women. In a TEDx talk, you mentioned that within the African diaspora, there’s this sense that you can do anything, you can be anything, but the arts and culture are considered off-limits and may not be promoted as a viable career. Can you elaborate on that?

NM:  I think that that’s a place that we have yet to go to as a people, at least Ghanaians. I think we really respect people with professional degrees; doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers. I think that because we have not yet had a burgeoning middle class, the arts do not factor in yet. How can you focus on art and portray the human experience en masse when people are hungry, and there’s no infrastructure? Art, in some ways, can be viewed as a luxury. I think of it as a necessity, but I recognise that in the face of hunger or political unrest or civil war, it’s difficult to say that art is paramount. Especially in Ghana, now that we have had a certain number of political changeovers, without any unrest, we have become a shining star in West Africa in terms of stability.

Mind you, we’ve come upon some hard times recently, but ultimately, it’s a very stable country, ripe for investment and you are seeing the development of a middle class with new foreign businesses coming in. I think in the next 10-15 years, what we’re going to see is a culture that’s already very heavily steeped in artistic traditions. I mean, Ghanaian carvings, weaving, the Kente cloth, and whatnot, those things are almost synonymous with Africa as a whole. I think as we get a more solid middle class, the arts will become a voice for us to tell our stories. If I may use the example of An African City, a lot of people gripe that it doesn’t portray everybody’s experience, but that’s the thing, we are not a monolith.

You’re a well-known face from other projects, such as An African City and Love or something like that (2014), are you switching one for the other?

NM:  Not at all. Much like Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling, I would love to have a versatile approach and be able to wear these different hats – producer, director, writer, actor – and I’m not a megalomaniac [laughter], I just want to be responsible for the stories I’m telling. I’ve been on other people’s sets; I’ve been on my own set. It is so stressful to wear hats, but also rewarding because any mistake is yours. If something goes wrong, it’s on me, and I like that responsibility. That, rather than being the star of somebody else’s project who didn’t think it through or have the artistic sensibilities that I do. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a premiere and thinking, “Oh my god.” I don’t want to do that. So, the more control, the better. Even being a writer and making sure that the words sounds true and flow easily out of an actor’s mouth.  So, I’m not necessarily saying that I’m excellent at all of these things, but I certainly like doing them. And I also see the burden of being a black woman doing these things, because there’s so few of us. And I shall do as I please until I don’t want to do it anymore.

It seems like this type of responsibility is good news for other black women looking for projects or stories that might not be told the same way by a white writer or producer.

NM:  And a male producer or director. In a lot of the stories that I see, the women are defined by their relationship to a man. They are somebody’s girlfriend or somebody’s wife, the object of a male’s affection. That is how they are defined. I’m really interested in pushing forward a dialogue that doesn’t have to do with that. A perfect example is the movie Wild (2014), starring Reese Witherspoon and based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, coming out in the States. First of all, the film is revolutionary because you see a woman onscreen doing her own thing. She’s not anybody’s wife or daughter. Her mother just died. She’s only owned by herself. That is already a huge step for feminism in the media. But then, somebody made the very astute point about what if that role had been cast as a black woman, a former drug addict who gets to hike the Pacific Coat Trail. Black women never get to tell that kind of story. It’s very rare for a black woman to be doing that type of role – imagine Taraji P. Henson in that role instead of Reese Witherspoon? You realise that there are some limitations to the kinds of roles that black women are allowed to tell, and it’s kind of mind-blowing. So we need to broaden the spectrum so that something like that wouldn’t be far-fetched.

An interesting exercise would be to look at this year’s past releases, to see whether they pass the Bechdel Test*, or even the Black Bechdel Test**?

NM: Yes, the Black Bechdel Test is a whole other story [laughter]…

* Bechdel Test: Asking if a work of fiction features two women who talk to each other about something other than a man

** Black Bechdel Test: Similarly to the Bechdel Test, asking if a work of fiction features two black people who talk to each other about something other than a white person.


Ebola-hit nations pledge to eradicate virus in 60 days

A medical worker checks his protective clothing  at an MSF facility in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. (Pic: AFP)
A medical worker checks his protective clothing at an MSF facility in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. (Pic: AFP)

The leaders of the countries devastated by the West African Ebola outbreak vowed at a summit in Guinea on Sunday to eradicate the virus by mid-April.

The outbreak, which began 14 months ago, has killed more than 9 200 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and savaged their economies and government finances.

Guinea’s President Alpha Conde and his Liberian and Sierra Leone counterparts Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ernest Bai Koroma made the pledge after day-long closed talks in the Guinean capital Conakry.

Hadja Saran Daraba Kaba, the secretary-general of the Mano River Union bloc grouping the countries, said their presidents “commit to achieving zero Ebola infections within 60 days, effective today”.

The summit came with infections having dropped rapidly across the countries, although the World Health Organisation says Guinea and Sierra Leone remain a huge concern as both have seen a recent spike in new confirmed cases.

Reading a joint declaration from the leaders, Kaba said they “recognised the efforts that have been made by the member states and the international community which have resulted in the decline of Ebola infections and death rates”.

The World Bank said in January the economic damage of the epidemic could run to $6.2 billion, trimming an earlier estimate of $25 billion.

However, the epidemic “will continue to cripple the economies of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone even as transmission rates in the three countries show significant signs of slowing,” it said.

Worst case scenario ‘far away’

The International Monetary Fund announced 10 days ago $100 million in debt relief for the three countries and said it was preparing another $160 million in concessional loans.

The leaders agreed to formulate a joint economic recovery plan to present at a conference on Ebola to be held by the European Union in Brussels on March 3, the Guinean presidency said in a statement.

“This comprehensive plan covers topics that affect virtually all key areas of development: education, agriculture, industry, trade, health and social action that will focus on the issue of the management of Ebola orphans and impoverished families,” it added.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency response, said the dramatic drop in infections from the October peak showed that “the worst disaster scenario now seems far away”.

“The number of new cases per week declined from an alarming level of nearly 1,000 in the bad times of the crisis to 145 confirmed cases in the course of the last week in the three countries,” he said.

“However, despite the significant decrease of cases we must always remember that it all started with one case. We know how on the basis of experiences in the fight against polio, for example, that it is easier to go from 100 to 10 than from 10 to 0.”

In a sign of the fragility of the recovery, Sierra Leone was forced to place 700 homes in the capital under quarantine on Friday, less than a month after it had lifted all restrictions on movement.

The government said the properties had been locked down in Aberdeen, a fishing and tourist district of Freetown, after the death of a fisherman who tested positive for Ebola.

After Ebola: What next for West Africa’s health systems?

A volunteer in protective suit looks on after spraying disinfectant outside a home in Waterloo, 30km outside Freetown. (Pic: AFP)
A volunteer in a protective suit in Waterloo, outside Freetown. (Pic: AFP)

As rates of Ebola infection fall in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, planning has begun on how to rebuild public health systems and learn lessons from the outbreak.

Nobody is declaring victory yet. But in Sierra Leone, the worst-affected country, there were 117 new confirmed cases reported in the week to 18 January, the latest statistics available, compared with 184 the previous week and 248 the week before that. Guinea halved its cases in the week to 18 January – down to 20 – and Liberia held steady at eight.

The epidemic is not over until there are zero cases over two incubation periods – the equivalent of 42 days. “It’s like being only a little bit pregnant – there’s no such thing as a little Ebola. We have to get to zero, there can be no reservoirs of Ebola,”  Margaret Harris, spokesperson of the World Health Organisation (WHO), told IRIN.

But after 21 724 cases and 8 641 deaths in nine countries since the epidemic began in Guinea last year, there is some light. And health workers are already starting to look at what’s next. “Right now important meetings are going on in each country to work out what needs to be done to rebuild – in some significant respects to build health systems almost anew – and to build back better,” said Harris.

A European Union donor conference is due at the beginning of March in Brussels. “What we want to see as a country is a resilient health system that can withstand shocks,” Liberia’s Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah told IRIN. “Our plan [to be presented in Brussels] will be finalised by the end of February. It will be well costed with tangible goals.”

Ebola tested the public health systems in the three West African countries to near destruction – most places in the world would have also struggled. But where the three failed was at the basic “nitty-gritty” level of “standard surveillance, testing and monitoring, the containment of cases, the bread and butter of public health”, said Adia Benton, a social anthropologist at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Citizen and state
A successful malaria campaign in Sierra Leone last week, which reached 2.5 million people, and a planned polio and measles vaccination programme in Liberia, are positive signs for the health services. But the list of necessary reforms is long: stronger surveillance; healthcare that will work after the international partners leave; access to affordable services. The list must also embrace longer-term structural changes, including the relationship between citizen and state.

According to Antonio Vigilante, Deputy Special Representative for the Consolidation of Democractic Governance in the UN Mission in Liberia, and Resident Coordinator, “there is a golden opportunity to have a different start, to have a more balanced development that leaves outcomes in the hands of the people. It’s a very delicate stage, full of opportunities, which should not be missed.”

Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries and Ebola has been a tragic addition to the burden. It has destroyed livelihoods; already dizzying rates of unemployment have worsened; and food prices have soared. Both rural and urban communities are suffering.

Vigilante is worried the economic impact of Ebola, and the interruption of immunisation and reproductive health services during the crisis, could put more people at risk than the virus itself did. “A number of [social protection] measures in the recovery phase would need to be universal,” he said. One example would be if Liberia scaled up its pilot Social Transfer Programme, launched in 2009, to provide just US$40 per year to two million children. There would be sizeable “knock on effects on local markets and entrepreneurship” at minimal cost, according to the Washington-based Centre for Global Development.

Schools are due to re-open on 2 February in Liberia, and a strong case could be made for a universal school feeding programme to attract and retain children in class. “Even before Ebola many children were out of school,” UNICEF spokesman in Liberia, Rukshan Ratnam, noted.

Money matters
But will the donors come to the party? Donors pledged $1.5 billion to a UN coordinated appeal for Ebola last year, but $500 million is still unpaid. “If we cannot close that funding gap we will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s as simple as that,” Bruce Aylward, WHO assistant director-general in charge of the Ebola response, told reporters on January 23.

Wasted dollars can be expected in a crisis when the priority is effectiveness – stopping the outbreak – rather than efficiency in how the money is spent. That equation will change if Ebola does not come roaring back with the rains in April, and donors begin to look at competing needs.

There is potential to re-purpose Ebola infrastructure – some of it now idle with a glut in treatment facilities – if donors are willing to be flexible, said Vigilante. Laboratories used for testing could be incorporated into national laboratory services; some of the more permanent treatment units could be re-launched as community-based health facilities; contact tracers could be used as community mobilisers.

“We certainly lost staff as a result of Ebola. But the converse of that is there was a very rapid upskilling as people were trained to work in the treatment units or as contact tracers. It’s a group we should build on,” said Harris. “It’s really important we don’t lose them in the transition to a normal service.”

Local heroes
Among the lessons learned across the region has been the importance of consulting, engaging and empowering local communities: their lack of trust in central government was a major handicap in tackling the epidemic. “Community, community, community. Engagement, engagement, engagement,” said Harris. “We need to listen more. We need to do a lot of work with sociologists and anthropologists.”

Liberia in particular has a highly centralised system of government, but local communities have emerged as critical players in the response with a new can-do attitude. “People given a chance can do a fantastic job,” said Vigilante.

Obinna Anyadike, Editor-at-Large for IRIN