Meet The Tognis: La Familias Circo

Yecid’s clothes don’t fit him right, his shoes are four sizes too large, his left wrist sometimes pops out of place and always aches with arthritis. The mangled joint is a painful reminder of a fall he suffered at work. At the same job he’s had more than forty years, where every night his employer beats him and a gathered crowd of spectators applaud his humiliation.

This may seem exploitative, but Yecid has passion for a craft he hopes others find silly. He’s a clown in the Darix Togni Italian National Circus. His employer is the tiger-tamer and both say the Circus is more than work, it is a culture, a family and a lifestyle they will perpetuate.

“When you are born into it (the circus). It is a part of you, it’s in your blood,” Yecid says. He sits on a concrete park bench between two temporary alligator ponds. He’s forty-five and at this point has done every job under the big top. In addition to clown duties he is also the crew’s chief animal wrangler and makes nightly cameos with the trapeze act. “The circus gives me joy, I live for the adventure.”

This clown’s nomadic path began at birth in a caravan in Venezuela. His father was a trapeze artist and his mother dazzled audiences with graceful precision on the aerial silks (aka ribbon trapeze). “Her performance was the most beautiful,” he says, pausing a moment to wipe nostalgic tears from his face. “All eyes in the crowd were on her. It inspired me.”

As a toddler, he takes his first steps into the performance ring. The act is child- clown, but by five he is on the trapeze and in his teens he is seen on television screens across South America.

“I became famous, people in the streets of towns I’d never walked knew my name.” Yecid’s performance is an intense display of refined acrobatics executed above the heads of frenzied fans. During one of these spectacles his hand slips. Momentum carries him outside the net while gravity brings him down with force. He attempts to break his fall but his left arm shatters on impact. The accident leaves him with broken ribs, bruises and an arm no longer capable of intense trapeze maneuvers.

The last moments before showtime are critical. Backstage is an open-air yard fortified by strategically placed shipping containers, fences and temporary animal enclosures where five tigers, two alligators and one kangaroo watch the performer’s final preparations. A group of men converse in Spanish and Italian. They spin wrenches, tell jokes and fine tune the motorcycles used in the “Globe of death” act. Circo showgirls Astrid, Alessandra and Alissa plume their head-dresses while others gather around an octagonal pedestal beneath a canopy. Vera, a Brazilian acrobat, goes through a yogic stretch routine while Mongolian contortionists Inga and Tsatsral apply shimmered eye make-up to their faces. Martina, a blonde Italian clown, and Ali, the resident mystic, sit on the edge of the octagon. The pair are already painted and take a few moments to entertain a baby while the child’s parents prepare. The infant is the seventh generation of Togni to travel with the circus. His parents are Francisco, the strong man, and Elis Togni, the solo trapeze artist.

“It’s an extended family,” says Elis, in a pleasant maternal voice. “We look out for each other, help each other.” She scans the group of artists gathered before her, “I know if I need help with the baby they are here. And they know they are safe and protected. If an outsider caused a problem it would be handled.”

The family patriarch is tiger-tamer and master of ceremonies Davio Togni. He and his brother Livio, a former Italian National Senator, keep a watchful eye over the circus and its naturalized offspring. This family tradition descends from a legendary Italian performer.

“In Milan, Darix Togni is synonymous with Circus,” says trapeze artist Daniel Togni, while reviewing the playlist for the night’s performance. He is the son of Davio, brother of Elis and heir apparent. “Darix was the first man in Italy to master the art of animal taming.” Daniel never met his famous ancestor, but the family moniker has defined much of his life. From youth, he studied circus performance in Italy, and the United States where his mother works as a costume supervisor for Cirque de Soleil. “Traveling with the circus is never boring,” he says.

It has been forty-four years since the Togni family last appeared in Ghana. Times have changed, and the entertainment market is unforgiving. In the interval several major circuses closed their tents permanently. However, the Togni’s continue to electrify their audience. At times the journey takes them into exotic, conflicted, and dangerous territory. In 2009, the circus was nearly stolen in Iran when an opportunist sponsor used the Twitter Revolution as an excuse to keep their tent and everything in it. They were forced to

escape on a late night cargo ship organized by Uncle Livio and spent the next year entertaining a mysterious Oil Sheik in Qatar.

The Togni family owns a three uniquely arranged circuses. “When we come to places like this (Ghana) we bring the small circus. This is most peoples first time, so they are still amazed by the traditional acts.” The family business is headquartered in Lombardy, Italy. Their home-base is a large compound house on a ranch where family, friends, performers, giraffes, elephants and tigers are a welcome and common. But many of these performers haven’t seen home in years. Constant travel can weigh heavily on group dynamics and mileage with animals, artists and loads of burdensome equipment can revert to utter chaos.

Patriarch and animal trainer Davio, has a substantial scar on his abdomen. When asked how he got it he is quick to redirect the discussion. His son Daniel is more willing to tell the story. “He didn’t get it from the tigers,” he says with a laugh. The wound was left by one of two Brazilian brothers, once a part of the Togni’s circus. “It was the moto-boys. They were with the circus a while but they were drunkards,” says Daniel. “One night, they got drunk and one punched up his girlfriend’s face (a fellow performer- name withheld),” says Daniel, shifting to a serious tone. “My Father was teaching him a lesson when the other brother stabbed him.” He says, thrusting his right arm in front of him. “They took off and left my father with the knife still in him.”

Davio lost a lot of blood but remained conscious and strong enough to find medical attention. The brothers fled to the nearest Brazilian embassy, leaving their bikes and other articles behind. The incident left the Togni family’s leader in hospital, a female artist unable to perform and no-one able to execute the final act. Rather than shut the tent, the crew rallied together. The Wonderboys, a pair of

juggling, tight rope walkers from Colombia decided to give the Globe of Death a shot. By the time Davio was released the pair had mastered the act and perform it nightly ever since. “This is the way in the circus,” says Daniel.

Now, Yecid has performed with the Togni family’s circus for more than two years and his clowning has brought smiles to international faces of all ages. He sleeps backstage in a shipping crate cluttered with over-sized wardrobe changes, prop jokes and other more banal necessities of life. He has five children of his own, all in Venezuela, some in the circus and others who are not. “It is their decision, I would never force them into this life. But they know it is the only life for me.”

Orphan Trail: BASCO

Vida sits in a scratched wooden chair beneath the only coconut tree in a clearing. She has a series of line scars next to her eyes and mouth, three sets of four, twelve marks in all. “I got them from my mother,” she says. “When I was a baby I was sick she gave me them to keep me healthy.”

The fifteen year-old is outgoing, pretty and popular amongst her classmates at the Baptist School Complex and Orphanage (BASCO). “I was only a small girl when I came here. I don’t remember who brought me,” she says. But her eyes convey a knowing sadness as she speaks of the past. She made the trip here a decade ago, up a rugged and isolated path cut through dense jungle brush. Many children have walked the same path since.

Pastor Victor is BASCO’s director. He is tall, dressed all in white with gold trim and refers to the students as his children. He says he remembers Vida’s first day, “we didn’t even have buildings yet. Taught the classes standing under the shade of cocoa trees.” He says Vida had to overcome several challenges. “When she got here she would never talk. For two years she would never say anything. Just a sobbing little girl. She would eat sometimes but she didn’t trust anyone yet. It was so serious you could see she had been traumatized,” says the pastor.

“I wasn’t scared just sad sometimes when I would think of my mother,” says Vida. She shrinks in her chair, stares at the ground and drags lines in the sand with her feet. It is clear she is uncomfortable with the topic.

“Her father died in an accident and her mother was murdered in front of her not long after. Her family thought she was a bad omen. Strange where people find Satan,” says Pastor Victor.

The sobbing little girl is now a young woman and well adjusted survivor. Her development is paralleled by the institution’s. She is one of many success stories in a facility that now feeds and houses eighty-six children and educates more than two- hundred. The schools budget is stretched thin but the staff has developed ingenious methods of assuring students are well taken care of. The compound has evolved to include classrooms,dormitories, washroom facilities, a kitchen, health centre, computer lab and their most recent project, a snail and pig farm.

“The farm will help make us sustainable and self-sufficient,” says Pastor Victor, while examining the wooden boxes filled with snails. “We want to use the money to help our older children continue their education,” says Victor. “We plan on offering vocational training here soon, but these kids have the potential to be anything they want. All they need is funding.” Currently, BASCO is dependent on the donations of benevolent individuals and agencies. The school teaches students between the ages of four and fifteen. Vida is studying for the last round of the final exams the school has capacity for. She wants to be a medical doctor and dreams of a future unimaginable when she took her first steps under the shade of BASCO’s cocoa trees.

The Booze-man of Akatempo

In honor of this hallowed day, I present Kwame Topaka, the Boozeman of Akatempo. Deep in the Aburi Jungle he makes a brew called Akapeshi. It’s a mixture of high-proof cane sugar alcohol and palm wine. It’s milky white in color, sweet to the taste and goddamn potent. The locals call it “Sugar Gin,” and  2 liters costs 2 cedi (about $1.25). I bought a bottle, although I may not finish it tonight I’m going to give it an honest effort. Will I end up in a Ghanaian holding cell? Perhaps even insane or blind? Not sure, but either way HAPPY EFF’in St. Patrick’s day everybody!

One More Round For Little Rabbit

We met at a bar in Adabraka.

He’s short, just shy of five and a half feet, though powerfully built. His rowdy appearance intensified by an ill-fitting shirt and trousers. His lips crack a smile to reveal gapped teeth and fermented breath, yet he moves with remarkable grace for a drunkard.

He says his name is Kweku Abraham Jafar. He’s the son of a fisherman, a boxer and people once called him Adanko Deka. The moniker loosely translated means, Little Rabbit who owes, a nod to the Ga fables and an indication of his agility. He says, in his prime he wore title belts, became a symbol of national pride and earned every scar in the ring.

The seam of a stitched cut is still noticeable over his left eye despite the passage of time since it opened. This is one of many flaws marking the man’s forehead and brow line. His knuckles are scratched, misshapen and damaged, all traits of someone who earned a living with their fists.

“Tattoo man, cedis for a star?” he asks.

Probably not best to enable, I think. But my hand is already in my pocket pulling out some spare change.

“Medaase,” he says, counting the coins in his palm.

The pub is the closest place to my office to buy cigarettes. I was there on lunch break and running short of time. We part ways as he orders another bottle from the bartender.

Back at work, I ask one of the sports reporters, Afrane, if he had heard of the man. His answer is an emphatic yes. Little Rabbit, he says, is from his neighborhood. Bukom square in Jamestown, the heart of boxing in Ghana. Afrane tells me about the time Little Rabbit went to Lagos to fight for the West African Featherweight title.

In 1988, the champion is a Nigerian called Stone Punch, and the eyes of both nations are fixed on the ring. Afrane is just a boy watching his hero fight on the only television in Bukom. “It was a small black and white box in the back of a busy tailor’s shop. Everyone was crowded in the there. Even the old fish ladies came to watch,” he says.

Deka wasn’t much older than the reporter. He turned pro at 12, barely 17 as he enters the ring. His opponent has age, experience and a home town crowd behind him. But Little Rabbit is always hard to catch.

Afrane and I decide to hunt through drinking spots, dives and notorious hang-outs to find Deka. We hear he has been there but always arrive just a little too late. In each pub, we leave my business card and instructions to tell Little Rabbit we are looking for him.

Third round, Stone Punch lurches forward in an attempt to pin Little Rabbit in a corner. He clinches to neutralize the younger fighter’s speed. The two clash heads and a cut becomes visible over the Ghanaian’s left eye. The tailor’s shop goes silent. Everyone fears a stoppage as the referee inspects the wound. The ref asks Deka if he wishes to continue. Blood trickles to the canvas as he nods confirmation and the tailor’s shop become raucous once more.

“He was our fighter,” Afrane says, as we walk along the causeway in a neighborhood called Asylum Down. Nearly everywhere we hear myths about the mysterious figure but nothing solid we can use to track him. We seek guidance from Barmaids, Tenders and assorted Rummies. Some say they’ve seen him working a steel mill in Tema or pushing a rock kart on the shoreline of Lake Volta.

“His wife and daughter sell fish in Apam. Try there,” says a woman with a gold tooth.

“He died years ago in an Achimodo flophouse,” says a grey-haired man. Most know him, but none know his whereabouts.

Round five, little rabbits fight best when they are cornered. Perhaps the sight of his blood ignited survival instinct, for Deka has become ferocious. Stone Punch is on his heels trying to keep the challenger at a distance. Little Rabbit closes the gap with targeted straight punches. The attack climaxes with a right hook to the liver, left upper cut to the breadbasket and a right cross to the jaw. The combination almost propels the champion out of the ring, but the ropes keep him in bounds. He falls forward his face hits the mat and it is clear he is unconscious.

“Everybody screamed, danced, and went crazy,” recalls Afrane. “We were sure he’d be the next World Champ.”

March 6th, is the anniversary of Ghanaian independence and an otherwise slow news day. Afrane and I are standing in the parking lot killing time when Little Rabbit walks through the gate. He has a friend with him, a giant of a man who introduces himself as Shapiro.

“He stays with me,” says the giant. “I make sure he chops (eats) everyday, give him some clothes if I have them. Sometimes when he drinks he says he wants to die. I tell him not to drink.” Shapiro says they share a room in Accra Central. The pair were both orphaned in boyhood. Back then, they spent their time roaming around Jamestown. “He was always wanting to go to the ring (Bukom square). He’d watch the fighters, tell me he could beat them. Imagine that, even as a small boy he say he can beat men.”

“I need to fight again,” says Little Rabbit. He lunges forward steadies his balance then strikes, locked in battle with an invisible opponent. He says he is sober but his eyes remain clouded by a compound of head trauma and prolonged alcohol abuse. He smiles, removes his shirt and continues his combat dance through the parking lot.

“All those times, I’d stop four men a month but I could never get good money.” He says he was given 2 million cedis (old currency equivalent to $125.00 Canadian) for each match. Promoters promised more but he was black-listed after he came to collect. “They rob me, took my title even though I knocked him (the challenger Bilal Mohammed) down three times. People still ask me how the other man won.”

The man Deka says robbed him is Samir Captan. Once the country’s principle fight promoter, now the President of the Ghana Boxing Authority. Captan refused comment on the story but approved our request for access to the GBA’s archive. Officially, Kweku Abraham Jafar had 65 professional fights and holds a dismal record of 22-42-1 with 16 wins coming by way of knockout. This ratio fails to recognize a peculiar trend. His first lost cost him the West African Featherweight belt and left his record at a respectable 19-1. Nearly all the the matches after are against opponents much larger than him.

“I fought Bazooka,” says Deka. A reference to former World Welterweight Champion Ike “Bazooka” Quartey. “He was too big, the ref stopped it in the first round.” There were more fights like this. Deka sent in to be punished by opponents with notable size advantages. His last official bout was five years ago. It ended in the fourth round with Deka face down on the mat. He says in the time since, he’s competed in non-sanctioned bouts organized by a slew of Ghanaian promoters. “I needed to fight to eat. I still do.”

Afrane writes a piece called “Down but not out” it announces Deka’s plan to return to the ring. A few days pass before Little Rabbit comes in to get his copy. Now he’s in his forties, and his fighting prime has passed. A circumstance even the greats often fail to accept. Boxing and alcohol have left heavy imprints on his life. His career ended with him broke and he began to drink. His wife left him, taking their daughter and he began to drink more. He descended into alcoholism and despair, but his eyes twinkle as he shadowboxes in front of me. It may seem the ring was unkind to to him yet on any given day between the sun’s rise and set somewhere in Accra is Little Rabbit waiting for one more round.

Deconstructing Joma

Clemente’s house is one of the few buildings in Joma with a roof. In fact, it’s one of the last structures still standing in the devastated area. From his front porch he can see the smashed bricks and mortar that were once the homes of his friends and neighbours. “Afterward, it looked like a tornado (had) blown through. Ripped and broke everything. You can still see where the foundations were.” He said, while surveying the damage in his neighborhood. But this destruction was no act of nature, weather or plate tectonics. In Joma, the catastrophe was man-made.

The village once housed around four-thousand people in a river valley just outside of Accra. Clemente lives in the pristine region with his mother, sister and brother and everyday he commutes to work in the capital’s business district. He says they’ve been here six years, but many of the displaced people had lived and fished there their whole lives, “we watch more go everyday. I don’t know where they go. I guess they just have to move on.”

At dawn on December 10th, residents were rousted from their homes and told the settlement they’d spent generations building was being torn down. Francis is a fisherman and a single father of eight. His house was destroyed that morning, “I was out on the water in my boat. Didn’t know what was happening until I saw my children on the shore-line calling me to come. They said military men were here breaking down houses.” He says he has received no warnings before demolition and no offers for compensation since. By evening, nearly 500 homes, several businesses and a school had been destroyed.

The disputed territory lies along the banks of the Densu river. The river is a part of the water table feeding the Weija dam reservoir. The Ghana Water Company (GWC) says the Joma settlement is illegal. In an official release, the GWC stated Weija is the critical fresh water source fueling Accra and say they can’t risk the possibility of encroachment contaminating the supply. However, Joma is several kilometers from the dam site and larger settlements exist along the reservoir’s edge.

While military carried out demolitions, many villagers sought refuge at the Chief’s palace. Their respite was only temporary as the palace was also destroyed by order of the GWC. Chief Nii Ayittey Mayatse, says he thinks there are other motivations at play. “They tell us we are making the water dirty. We aren’t, we’ve fished here, lived here, died here for centuries. We take care of the river, it gives us life. They don’t want this land for them. They don’t benefit, they want to sell it. How can they? It’s our’s,” he says the dividing lines between government property and his ancestral territory is clear. “My Great-Grandfather started the building here. The land was his, the people (villagers) came and buy (it) from him. Now they want to take it and say we are here illegally. We are not.” A recent court injunction confirmed Chief Mayatse’s account. The decision ordered an immediate halt to the demolitions, but provided no provisions or compensation for repairing the damage.

WIth their homes in pieces, no school to send their children to and no money to rebuild many were forced to leave. The court-order stipulates un-occupied land may be annexed, but many have vowed to remain amidst their rock-piles and broken timber. The hold-outs say they have seen surveyors and trucks bearing the logo of Regi-manual estates, a real-estate developer specializing in pre-fabricated condo complexes, exploring the territory. They also say the have noticed an increase in military and police presence and report regular instances of harassment.

Justice be done in public: Ghanaian identification parades

She wore an intricately woven blue dress, fresh black high-heels with  a matching scarf tied to keep her long braids away from her face. She was careful not to muss her outfit and avoided the shallow puddles as she walked through Accra-Central police station’s rain dampened courtyard. Her wardrobe was no accident as she had been rehearsing this day for months. She inspected the line-up of men against the wall then stopped. Her arm raised, hand trembled slightly and finally came to rest on one of their shoulders.

“How do you know this man?” asked the police officer in charge.

“He is the one who attacked me,” she said. Her eyes now fixed on a face she had perhaps seen in dreams nearly every night since.

The young man refused to meet her stare. He was smaller than the other suspects, barefoot and marked with with a diagonal scar across his nose. He was the sixth in a row of ten. Each man chained by their wrist to the one next to them with the entire group flanked by officers holding clubs and well-worn AK-47s

“Do you know her?” The officer asked.

“Daabi,” replied Scar, choosing to answer in Twi a question he was asked in English.

“No? You don’t remember me? Liar, you came in the house where my children sleep and you raped me.” Her voice raised but didn’t crack as her hand remained firm on his shoulder.

Scar muttered something inaudible and hung his head toward the dirt between his toes.

An officer marked the accused man’s number down on a form affixed to a clipboard and handed it to her. She took it in her right hand and kept her left in place. After a few moments tension she let go, signed her name and walked away.
The woman in blue was the first to identify him and there would be more. In total, seven people, three women and four men, accused Scar of perpetrating acts of violence against them. The men he remembered and admitted to robbery at gun point. When the women approached he stared at the ground and offered monosyllabic denials. When the procession ended, victims disappeared into the crowd while Scar and the others were hustled back to their cell.

“We understand it’s not the best way to do this but we don’t have the means for more complicated options,” said police spokesperson K.W. Kuffour. “The victims are kept safe when they come to identify their attackers.” However, no system is perfect and police admit safety is never guaranteed.

In the west, there is a barrier. A one-way mirror separating the accuser and the accused. The suspects are marched into a dark room with bright lights shining in their eyes. They stand against a wall and wait. They wait for the someone they can’t see to identify them, or to be set free. The process is cold, anonymous and institutionalized. In Ghana, this is not the case. The ritual puts victim and alleged assailant face to face. Close enough to hear the other’s breath and remember the last time they met. This method presents critical concerns and unique opportunities. The victims become vulnerable once outside secure police compounds, yet many describe the experience as empowering. “I knew he’d be there and I had to be there to,” said the woman in blue. “He knows my house, but I’m not afraid anymore.”

Scar was in custody on charges unrelated to the crimes he was identified for in the queue. Police caught him after he snatched a man’s cell phone in the Nima district of Accra. Nearly all of his line-mates were arrested on similar offenses. Every few months, district police stations advertise an upcoming public identification and empty the cells of petty offenders. The event attracts a large crowd of on-lookers, accomplices, victims and family members on both sides of the law. Suspects are chained together and organized in single file. One-by-one victims walk the line and search for the person they say violated them. The resultant verbal confrontations are explosive and armed officers watch closely to ensure hold this demonstrative form of justice doesn’t boil over. The spectacle itself is known as an “identification parade” and it nearly always ends in a circus.

Fight Night In Accra

The Accra Sports Stadium erupted early Sunday morning when Braimah Kamoko marched to the ring with a sewing machine and loaf of bread on his head.

The main event capped a night filled with controversial matches and the outcome sparked anger, doubt and confusion amongst fans and officials at ringside.

The under-card included two WBO continental championship matches. However, the focus of the evening was fixed on the WBO Africa light heavyweight clash between Ugandan challenger Hamza Wandera and the Ghanaian champion affectionately known as Bukom Banku.

Both boxers entered the ring in grand fashion and from the opening bell the Ugandan showed he came to fight. In the first round, Wandera was often the aggressor landing a barrage of heavy punches to the head and body of Kamoko. This attack climaxed when a left hook met its mark and sent Kamoko to the canvas.
However, the champion was quick to get back on his feet and after a standing eight count went on the offensive. Kamoko bullied Wandera around the ring and landed several heavy punches. Wandera retreated but the Ghanaian champ forced him into a corner. The round ended with the fighters wrestling for position and Wandera accusing Kamoko of illegal tactics.

The second round opened with Kamoko on the attack. He met the Ugandan in the canter of the ring, landed combinations and wrangled the challenger into the corner. In the third round it was clear Kamoko had taken control. The pair traded blows but most exchanges ended in a clinch. The two men locked arms and the referee forced them to break. Wandera complained Kamoko was fouling him in close and said a cut over his left eye was the result of a head-butt. Referee Roger Barnor asked him if he wished to continue, he agreed and was instructed to fight on.

At this point, Wandera turned his back, perhaps to address his corner. One of the primary rules of boxing is protect yourself at all times, and Kamoko took full advantage of the situation. He approached and struck the Ugandan with an illegal blow to the back of the head.

The referee intervened and deducted a point from the Ghanaian. When instructed to fight on, again, the Ugandan turned his back to the champion. This time the referee was there before any blows could be delivered. When asked if he wished to continue the Ugandan fighter was unresponsive to the ref and yelling to his corner. After a brief exchange between Barnor, the challenger’s corner and World Boxing Organization (WBO) Vice-president Andrew Smale, the ref signaled an end to the fight. The official decision retained the champion’s title and awarded Kamoko a TKO by forfeiture. However, the outcome left many questions unanswered.

In a post-fight interview, the Ugandan said he received unfair treatment from the referee and, “if he (Kamoko) wants to fight again with different refs, I’ll show him what boxing is.”

Kamoko was less receptive to the idea of a rematch, “he quit. I think he is scared of me. I hurt him, he won’t want to fight again.” Kamoko also demanded a shot at the WBO”s light-heavyweight world champion, Nathan Cleverly.

WBO Vice-President Andrew Smale was not convinced Kamoko would be next in line to face Cleverly, “He (Kamoko) won, but he didn’t win in championship form. Cleverly’s camp has been ducking the fight for a while, and tonight didn’t give them any reason to change that position,” he said. Smale also stated he was disappointed in the quality of officiating at the event dubbed Moment of Truth by promoters. “Their is a master score card. I keep track, and some people are going to have to justify the way they called the fights. At the end of this there may be some people who are no longer permitted to work WBO sanctioned events,” he said.

In earlier bouts, Joshua Okine defeated Argentina’s Amilcar Funes – a result many at ringside jeered. Also, Samuel Amoako was awarded a controversial win over Namibia’s Martin Hikali for the WBO Africa lightweight title. Eben Lamptey was battered over 12 rounds, but managed a unanimous decision over Eduardo Flores of Ecuador to win the WBO African welterweight title.

It should be noted, all but one of the presiding referees and officials, as well as, every victorious fighter was of Ghanaian descent. In fact, referee for the main event, Roger Barnor, is the next door neighbor of champion Kamoko.

Going Home: The First Plane Out OF Budum Buram

After more than two decades in Ghana, some Liberian refugees will soon board planesbound for home.

This first step in repatriation comes after the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) reported the West African nation’s political climate has stabilized and placed a time-line on the status of Liberians abroad. In Ghana, most of these people live outside Kasoa, near Accra, in a camp called Budumburam. Most are excited by the news but not all are planning to leave.

Martin is a forty-eight year old father of two. He and his wife escaped Liberia after armed men besieged and burned his parent’s house. His forearms are still marked with a series of small circular scars. “I got them that day. They are cigarette burns,” he says, while rubbing the bubbled marks dotting his skin. He says, his family was targeted at the outset of the chaos. “My father was a high-ranking security force official. I escaped many I knew didn’t.” He has established roots in the camp and visited Liberia only once. He says he has no interest in returning, “I’ve been away too long. My children were born here and we are staying.”

Others have a more hopeful outlook on life after Budumburam. “This place is no good for children,” says Emmanuel, while cradling a toddler in his arms. He was a boy when he, his mother and older sister came to the camp. “We were some of the first here. My son has never seen his home. Now that there is peace I will show him.”

In 1989, the first asylum seekers arrived at Budumburam. Their country decimated by military coups, tribal violence and the sparks of a ruinous civil war. Originally, the area was a temporary shelter and the people were slated for re-location. However, the mass and speed of migration made finding sufficient space nearly impossible.

Charles assists in the daily operation of the camp. He says the location has always been contentious. “If you look at Kenya they (refugees) are nowhere near the Capital. Here, there are too many people in a small-small area. It’s no good for security.”

Now, the UNHCR is preparing to close the camp and is counseling residents on the options available. The first 45 take off on Friday Feb. 24, followed by the same number on Sunday. A plan for all must be in place before their refugee status expires June 30.

Gutter gardens: MH-37’s toxic run-off

Accra’s Military Hospital No. 37, was built during the Second World War and it’s obsolescence is becoming evident. About a year ago, the pipe carrying raw medical waste from the mortuary, maternity and surgical theaters to the treatment tank was damaged. Unable to fix the line, the hospital began dumping bio-hazardous material into the city’s open-gutters. Now, the sewers are overflowing and downstream the stench of contamination and concern is growing thick.

Nuuna, works in one of the vegetable gardens growing in the shadow of Military Hospital No. 37. The tall, bearded, 24 year old is the eldest of five children living in his Mother’s house. He works hard to maintain a balance between family obligations, time in the field and pursuit of an education. He and his siblings struggle together earning their pay with the cuts and callouses tempering their hands. Each day, they pick, trim and prepare assorted greens for sale. They pluck crops from the soil, remove the small leaves, sever the stock and bind the individual sprigs together with lashings cut from the discarded end pieces. The bundles are put into corrugated boxes bound for markets both local and international. “Some stays here, but almost everything we pull up gets sent to the UK or Europe,” Nuuna explained, while slicing a fibrous strip from a handful of leaves.

The land is irrigated with water drawn from both a well and a stream fed by run-off from city sewers.He says the property is government owned, but not on the supply grid. “I went to see them (the water and housing commission) about pipes many times. They would never talk to me, always said to go andcome (back later). I think they wanted a bribe or something.” Without fresh water, farmers like Nuuna are forced to grow crops using the sources available.

In the city, clean water is a critical commodity and it doesn’t come cheap.Drinking from faucets is rarely advised and potable sources are most likely found in a bottle or sachet. Open sewers carry liquid and solid waste material of all sort. When gutters overflow the result can be devastating.

Last year during the rainy season, Accra was rocked by flooding and the rapid tide of a cholera epidemic. Nearly 6 thousand people fell ill with 80 eventually dying from the disease. Cholera can be treated with rehydration fluids, but amongst infants, the elderly and the infirm death can occur within hours. The youngest victim of the outbreak was only eight days old when her tiny body succumbed to the bacterial infection.
At this point, no solid connection between hospital waste and the outbreak has been established. However, many living nearMH-37 have complained of general poor health and the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that epidemics become virulent when water caches are contaminated.

The Globe newspaper and CIti-fm, developed and broke the medical waste story near the end of January. The news sparked public outrage and in response the AMA (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) formed an emergency fact-finding committee. The investigation found deplorable conditions at the hospital and authored a series of recommendations.The list includes an overhaul of the drainage system, repairs to deteriorating hospital infrastructure and opened the door to charges of criminal negligence.

Hospital administrators were unavailable or unwilling to comment on the situation. The AMA’s official report states the target is to prevent future dumping and endangerment of public health. However, the committee failed to acknowledge the residual realities faced by farmers in the fields of Accra.

Nuuna says, without access to a consistent water supply he has no choice but to continue with current practices. Nearby reservoirs have a high probability of contamination, making crops suspect and continuing to place the public at-risk.

At the market, boxes overflow with produce grown locally, as well as, on farms worldwide. Vesta buys her fruit and vegetables at a well-established stand a few kilometers from MH-37. She picks through each item looking for bumps, bruises or other tell-tale signs of corruption. Her inspection is thorough, but danger is not always visible. “I think they inspect everything before it gets here. The standards boards should be held accountable. I mean, they must test for those kinds of things,right?” She asked, while market girls stayed silent and loaded bags of cabbage, tomatoes and bundled greens into the trunk of her idling jaguar.

Obruni Brouage And The Great Leap Forward

It started as a free-fall. A few moments of graceless terror as the mass of my body plummeted to the river bank below. Then the harness tightened and I was pulled upward; a welcome delay from the inevitabilities of Newton’s gravity.

Seconds earlier, I was on a cliff.  I leaned over the edge and felt as though mine were the first eyes to view the serenity of the cresting rain-fattened Ada River. My senses became saturated with the calls of unfamiliar birds, the warmth of the dawning sun and the air inflating my lungs.I took three deep breaths, closed my eyes and jumped.

What led here? Strapped to a para-glider dangling hundreds of feet above a meandering mixture of sloshing water and red clay. The long version of this story involves a half-assed map, a road-weary (and remarkably loyal) Kawasaki 250 and a punishing thunder storm. Perhaps the details are best left as something for the memoirs or at least a conversation at a later date. The short answer involves booze, drums and a moment of clarity.

The night before my leap, I met a man named Ta’ola-ula (spelled phonetically) a holy man in the Ga tribe of Ghana’s South Eastern Volta Territory. Now, I don’t want this story to read overtly Heart of Darkness-esque or mystical in tone. I assure you this country is modern and it’s people are cosmopolitain and refined (I’ve been to the mall. The theater is playing the new movie starring Matt Damon and cast of zoological wonders). However, I sat in a drum circle and gave the presiding shaman a bottle of peppermint schnapps as an offering. He called me Obruni Brouage, (a name I’m getting accustomed to it means: White Man Beard) handed me a half coconut of palm wine and explained the difference between the living and the dead. Not a bad trade.

He said the dead envy the living. They are omnipresent and watch over us constantly. They can only remember what it is like to love, taste, touch, learn, discover and experience the world through the senses. He told me the meaning of life is in not knowing what will happen next and truly living is moving forward without fear.

I spent the night in a building with no roof listening to small lizards and crabs shuffle through the sand. Before sleep, I stared at the sparkling stars lining Orion’s Belt and in a fool’s epiphany decided to jump from something high at the next opportunity.I have always had uneasy relations with heights. Well, to be clear the falling from them and troublesome landing is what bothers me. Days earlier, Samson, a student at The GJI (Ghana Journalism Institute) had spoken of Volta’s para-gliders. Naturally, when I woke with palm wine still on my breath, a few crinkled ceti bills in my pocket and my boots still on my feet I set out to find them.

That’s my story…….glad I could share it.

Rooftop reflections…..

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted on here. Expect more in the coming months.

By the time most of you read this, I’ll be on a plane bound for Africa.

Over the next six months I will be in Accra, Ghana. Writing, taking pictures and reporting from a capital city in the midst of an economic boom. I have some experience with matters of this sort, but the Queen city has unique pitfalls. Although, recent news has made the world seem more connected:

In Ghana, it is currently illegal to be gay (here’s hoping change is inevitable and human rights will be recognized) and in Canada, the Harper Government has once again chosen to introduce pointless incursive legislation to create public fervor and distract from more substantial issues. Perhaps the only real differences between the two places are meteorological. Maybe, Accra is also preoccupied with ill-conceived stadium projects, car malls and reality television…However, I am doing my best to approach the situation with no pre-conceptions, no expectations and no deceptions.

As part of my pre-departure prep, I spent the past week in Toronto learning “inter-cultural communication” and the realities of security overseas. The federal government and the media development NGO I work with are paying for my time here and I’ve found myself in truly remarkable surroundings. The Planet Traveller is the GTA’s only green hostel and the rooftop patio boasts one of the best views in town (see above picture). Last night, I played drinking games with a filipino fellow, two german girls, a Dutch dude and a greased-up Quebecois. Each brought their own game and I found it one of the more valuable cultural lessons I’ve learned thus far. When it was my turn to lead I taught them how to play donkey blow, a true Saskatchewan original (never heard of it? Go to O’hanlon’s look for a barrel chested man with a big grin, long beard and LA dodgers hat…he’ll show you the ropes.)

Anyways, I’m about to hop my ride to the airport. Plane leaves at 9:20 and I will be on it.

Side note: Last meal in Canada is going to be airport Swiss Chalet (half chicken dinner) and a bag of Hawkin’s Cheezies. First meal in Accra will be bat on a stick

Things Get Folked Up In Montmartre

If extreme sports aren’t your cup o’ tea and you’d rather not be invaded, the town of Montmartre wants you to spend the weekend getting folked up.

Their 2nd annual music fest kicked-off yesterday. A laid back evening populated by campers, crowd pleasing tunes and the smell of meat on a gas grill. It was my first visit to “Paris on the Prairies” and my experience left a lasting impression.

First off, the highway to Montmartre is folked up. The trip from Regina is 90 km of rolling green prairie and an infinite horizon only interrupted by power lines and broken pavement signs.

After Vibank, it becomes an unpredictable mixture of wash-out, gravel and off-road test track.

The show is worth the drive, just slow down and be cautious. Last night, Saskatchewan talents Descalso and Lorri Solomon warmed up the air, providing background sounds while people organized their campsites. Today is the first full day of entertainment.

Performers to highlight include latin-fusion band The Ben Winoski Project and the infinitely talented Carol Morin.

The pleasant atmosphere and inclusive vibe made me wish I could’ve stayed all weekend. Due to other engagements, I was only able to see the set-up and first two acts. It was enough to know that all involved are in for a treat.

I also had the “opportunity” to meet the local law enforcement. I was pulled over as I headed out of town. The officer said he stopped me because he didn’t recognize my car, but I could tell he knew I was folked up.

How Heavy Their Act?

The Sword, Dead Meadow, BarnBurner- The Exchange 06/26/11

This three-band Sunday bill started early. Opening act, BarnBurner, struck their first chords into a sparsely populated room. The Montreal quartet played an attention grabbing set of spastic rock n’ roll. A high point was the guitarist taking advantage of wireless and spending some time in the mosh pit. The aptly name Barnburner brought the smokers inside and left the stage on fire.

Dead Meadow was direct support. I’ve always enjoyed this band’s records, but I wasn’t sure if it would translate well live. The Exchange’s sound man (John Bidochka) did not disappoint. During the Washington D.C power-trio’s time on stage the audio was clear, warm and consuming. Dead Meadow brings a slow-handed and soulful blend of psychedelic trance-rock along the same vein as Black Mountain and a live-show that feels like an opiate inspired dream.

FInally and fresh from Sled Island, Austin Texas’ The Sword, hit the stage. Lars Ullrich’s favourite band rocked an enthusiastic crowd of one hundred and ten. These underground darlings are starting to gather steam in the mainstream. An appearance on the Guitar Hero game soundtrack and endorsement from the richest and most hated drummer in heavy metal has placed The Sword at the top of the heap. Thankfully, they continue to be credible. Their ripped jeans and riff-rich brand of “Valhalla” metal was loud, smokey and as heavy as Odin’s mustache.

Solidarity For-Never?

Saskatchewan’s Crop Insurance Corporation (SCIC) is a support agency operating within our agrarian economy. SCIC workers have been without a contract since September of ’09. Truly, an unfortunate situation. SGEU’s requested 7.75 per cent raise has received a counter offer of 5.5 per cent. Both sides have indicated a willingness to return to the table. However, in the midst of a catastrophic flood — SCIC workers walked off the job. According to some, the timing is a well-placed political maneuver. But strikes don’t take place in a vacuum and the province’s farmers will suffer. The SCIC developed as a stabilizing agent in a n unpredictable industry. It is meant to help farners through tough times, not hang them out to dry.

This evening, I will be taking part in a guided tour commemorating the “On to Ottawa” trek and Regina riot. I believe in the need for strong unions, but I also believe a debt of accountability is due. Early union leaders and workers took to the streets in the name of safety, security and solidarity. The cry for “OBU” (one big union) considered the needs of all the people searching for respite. Pioneering organizers like J.S. Woodsworth and his American counter-part Eugene V. Debs demanded that no worker be left behind. The SCIC strike and CUPW lockout have done little to remind us of the “solidarity-ideal”. The people suffering are the unprotected workers, farmers and others overlooked by the existing hierarchy.