Words Hereward Holland Photography Nana Kofi Acquah
In a region known for coups, stolen elections and violent rebellion, Ghana has quietly voted its way onto the democratic podium and fostered a vibrant civil society. Last year, with the discovery of generous oil reserves offshore at Jubilee Field, Ghana became a middle-income country and is forecast to be Africa’s fastest growing economy in 2011. And if not for a Uruguayan hand of God, the Black Stars would have been the first African team to make it to the football World Cup semi-finals. Expectations are super-charged.
But this torrent of optimism is tempered by worries about whether the oil windfall will catapult Ghana back into the realms of corruption, nepotism and conflict. ARISE meets some of the bright young things set on stemming complacency and ensuring a better future for all.
The pidgin rapper
Wanlov the Kubolor, 30, Accra
Ghanaians call him the Prince of Pidgin. Barefoot, sporting a kikoi skirt and rapping about social and environmental problems, Wanlov invites listeners to laugh at their daily tribulations. His fan base includes the World Bank, Amnesty International and UNICEF.
“I’d say I’m a social-consciousness rapper, but that’s so restrictive because then I go and do a song about some lady’s ass. I like to clown. I sometimes reflect on bad things that are going on but I don’t do foreboding.
“Last year I did a barefooted walk against poverty. A human-rights group asked if I would lead the procession. At that time some major oil contracts were being signed so we were doing the walk to raise awareness about how things went down in Nigeria.
“By dropping the album Green Card, I made myself an authority on pidgin. My opening song is 50th Dependence – ‘Ghana chop 50, dis one dier chillin, or maybe not, coz som chop hot, because of greedy, nottin 4 needy, all wanty wanty, to flaunty flaunty, police extortion, by-heart abortion’ – it’s direct but it’s playful.
“When I write, things that bother me – slums, sanitation, wars, climate – come out too. My second album was soccer-themed but there were messages. At that time there were many scandals going on; a minister had taken government funds and thrown a party. For people who know what’s going on politically, the cover sleeve is interesting [because it’s a cartoon satire of current scandals].
“I’m more into the environment. Pollution bothers me. And I don’t like seeing villages all branded. The whole country is branded in mobile phone colours. Every roundabout or monument is branded by some company. “Pidgin slang is the language that everyone from the shoe-shine boy to the vice president uses with their friends. With pidgin, people start picking out stronger terms, words that sound cooler, and they keep building.
“For some reason there is this inferiority complex where people want to hide their language. I feel it is important that people are comfortable in their skin and environment, because otherwise everybody will become the same. Things will become bland.
“I’m being courted by the World Bank. People say the World Bank is strangling Africa and so on, but we strangle ourselves most of the time. If that money is appropriated correctly, it will make things happen.”
The feminist activist
Nana Darkoa Sekyimah, 33, Accra
As curator of the blog Adventures From The Bedrooms Of African Women, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah is bringing sexy back – to feminism. But her influence extends well beyond the bedsheets – she has started a women’s empowerment group, launched a fashion empire and founded a women’s co-operative. She also manages fundraising and communications at the African Women’s Development Fund.
“My primary concern is the issue of women’s rights, so that reflects on everything I do, directly or indirectly. I’m trying to create a better world for women, starting with myself and the women around me.
“Somebody once said to me that sexual harassment does not exist in Ghana. Yes, women face it all the time but I’ve never heard of a sexual harassment case anywhere. You’d be laughed out of the police station before you even got to court. But over time, this attitude chips away at self-confidence and makes people inhibited. It’s demeaning to know that men see you as an object – it’s a way of giving your power to other people.
“When I first invited women to get together on a monthly basis to talk about issues that concern them, over half of them did not consider themselves feminists. But over the year, they said yes, we are totally feminists, because we see our issues are the same and we can see the root causes of those issues.
“People see feminists as people who hate men or as women left on the shelf. The label is negative, which is why I call my group Fab Fem – Fabulous Feminists. For me, it’s about being yourself, putting glamour back into feminism. It frees you up in terms of an ideology. You see yourself as strong and independent women who can take on whatever.
“Two years ago I went on holiday in western Ghana. We found ourselves having the most frank conversations I’ve ever had about sex. I thought, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a space where we can continue these kinds of open conversations, where people wont be too embarrassed, or too shy, or be judged? “In Ghana we have no sex education whatsoever. We know the statistic that 70 per cent of women will never orgasm. I think that’s almost a crime. I hope the blog can encourage people to explore their own sexuality and to realise that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it.”
The investigative journalist
Anas Aremeyam Anas, 32, Accra
Anas’ office is overflowing with plaques, gongs and framed articles in cluttered testament to his unique – and controversial – brand of undercover journalism, where the bad guys aren’t just exposed, they’re locked away for decades. Armed with hidden cameras, heavy disguises and unwavering passion, he’s made a living outing the skeletons in Ghana’s closets.
“I live and breathe undercover journalism. You have to because results come slowly one drop at a time. You need to keep at it to see the full impact. There are myriad problems affecting people in the third world – bribery, human trafficking, smuggling – so if going undercover is necessary anywhere, it’s here in Africa.
“People in the West try to tell us how to go about our investigations, giving us their money and expecting us to do things their way. But I’m the one who’s here. I want to change my society and I don’t want to have to depend on those in the West. I have my own private investigation firm – Tiger Eye – and when we get money we put it into investigations that support human rights and help uplift humanity.
“As politicians get into power, the people who put them into office expect things from them. It’s corrupt but the only way you can convince society that this is happening is by giving them undeniable proof. So I decided to become an undercover journalist to give them that proof, that evidence – and I use whatever means I have to. I take photos, videos, anything that tells the story and shows what’s going on.
“My key principles are to name, shame and jail. A journalist in the West might be happy just to name but I don’t leave it there – I make sure it goes to a prosecution. With the Chinese sex story [Anas uncovered a Chinese mafia sex ring in Ghana] , the traffickers were jailed for 42 years. We are proud of that and we are going to jail more. It’s a religion to us.
“I could have used the money from my awards to build myself a nice house but I’m not after a house – I intend to build an empire, and I need to invest everything to make that happen.
“After I’m gone, I know my films and documentaries will live on. Generations to come will be able to look at my work and see how their fathers suffered and learn from their mistakes. My investigations have forced change and that change is permanent. Our country is in transition and we’re trying to make sure the evils that used to plague society never happen again.”
The transparency baron
Bright simons, 29, Accra
A tech-savvy development activist and social entrepreneur, Bright pioneered the mPedigree Network, a system that allows consumers to verify by SMS whether their medicines are safe and not counterfeit, while providing pharmaceutical companies with previously inaccessible market intelligence. He’s also a TED fellow and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils and Technology Pioneers Community.
“Transparency is an institutional issue. It democratises the status quo. It can empower people who would normally be disadvantaged because of their social position. Suddenly they have a voice and their opinions are valued.
“Between 25-30 per cent of all medicines in Africa are counterfeit. Of those counterfeit medicines, more than 60 per cent do not contain any active ingredient at all. The worst type are those that contain just a little of the active ingredient. The pathogens are exposed to the diluted dose and then gain resistance. We have seen a major rise in drug-resistant malaria, so it really is a serious problem.
“I’ve been active in social change programmes since secondary school. I wanted to give something back to Ghana after pursuing academic interests abroad. I came across the problem of counterfeit products, and I thought this is something so important that I can’t just write about it or talk about it, I should go and implement something in person.
“mPedigree allows manufacturers to track every package of medicine by unique coding on the boxes or bottles going into the supply chain. The consumer is able to identify, with a free text message, whether the medicine is the genuine article. The consumer then becomes an integral part of securing the supply chain from compromise and infiltration by criminals.
“This system could become a flagship. If it’s successful, then the ability to improve transparency might trickle down into other areas such as political management of resources, which includes aid. I think the possibility of this going beyond the health sector is very likely.
“Schemes that treat Africans as vulnerable children are unlikely to be successful. The mobile phone is a great example of a trend that points towards the new thinking about what is possible.”