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Canada through the eyes of a Ghanaian

19 April 2007 at 19:33 | 1307 views

Ato Kwamena Dadzie is Journalists for Human Rights’ (JHR) Country Director for Ghana. It was his first visit to Canada.

By Ato Kwamena Dadzie

My introduction to Canada in February came with poutine and Eggs Benedict, extreme cold and numbness, dizzying traffic, overwhelming newness and a whole lot of excitement. From watching Raptors basketball and lacing up skates to take on Ottawa’s frozen Rideau Canal, to admiring the vast 360 view from the top of the CN Tower, everything I saw filled me with a sense of awe, a sense of being in a place of progress.

The trip though, was not just about fun. It was an opportunity to learn about Canadian media and Canadians’ perceptions of Africa. I was saddened to learn that so many Canadians knew very little about Ghana. Some didn’t even know that Ghana was a country in Africa. Even the fact that Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence was lost on many. I thought those kinds of facts would be part of history lessons in schools around the world. The few Canadians I met who did know about Ghana were quick to point out how well Ghana played at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

A number of those I met thought Africa is one big country — not a continent of 53 distinct countries. They were familiar with the dictatorships, the squalor, the wars and the diseases that continue to plague the continent, but they displayed a disheartening ignorance about the fact that quite a number of African countries are emerging democracies that give their people great hope for the future.

I also learnt that the few Canadians who have visited Africa, or educated themselves about the continent, have a unique appreciation of the continent’s ethnic and geographic diversities, acknowledge its complex, multi-layered problems and love to do whatever they can to make a difference, someway, somehow.

Learning that one group of Canadians were so ignorant about Africa while another group, on the other hand, knew so much and were so passionate about making a difference, gave me a new appreciation for the work Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) is doing on the continent.

I think the reason why many Canadians know next to nothing about Africa can be attributed to the scanty coverage of the continent in the national media. In one of my speaking engagements at the University of Toronto, I argued that it is not my place to criticize the media for not covering Africa enough and for the fact that — if and when they decide to cast the spotlight on the continent — it’s mostly because blood is being spilled (Darfur), or some dictator is brutally crushing dissent (Zimbabwe) or that strife fuelled by agitation over distribution of natural resources could force oil prices to increase (the Niger Delta). How a media organization decides to cover an event, a place or an individual is often informed by, among other things, business considerations. In a landscape where media organizations are fiercely competing for audiences, it’s difficult for an ‘outsider’ to challenge these considerations. In the North American media, coverage of Africa will not change in any significant way anytime soon.

There is, however, good news. JHR is making a difference. On average, JHR brings about 20 trainers to Ghana every year, to teach, encourage and work with local journalists on human rights and social justice issues. This is the part of JHR’s work with which I am most familiar.

While in Toronto, I also had the opportunity to see how JHR alumni were helping to change perceptions about Africa and engage their compatriots in the continent’s challenges and its prospects for the future. The good prospects will come to fruition if, and only if, support packages from Western nations are well-structured and designed to end bad governance, check corruption and promote respect for human rights.

Right now, JHR has more journalists in different parts of the African continent than all Canadian media organizations combined. That statistic tells you a little bit about why JHR can make a difference. These journalists return home each year with fascinating stories to tell about Africa and its diverse people. They have interesting insights to share into the politics of Africa and how democracy is gaining roots in places like Ghana and Sierra Leone. Through their work, JHR journalism trainers have interacted with government officials and agents of non-governmental organizations. As a result, they can share with Canadians how development aid works and more importantly, how it fails.

Journalists like Lyndsay Duncombe, Alexandra Tomescu and Colleen Ross — all working now for the CBC — tell me about their love for Africa and their desire to return. They will always be welcome. For now, I am happy that they are back home pursuing their careers and in their own small way, doing what ‘big media’ has failed to do — letting Canadians know about the complex challenges confronting Africa’s 900 million people, the continent’s bright prospects and the need for western nations to help — not just with cash — but with active policies that reward governments that respect the rights of their citizens. Such policies need to be informed by the experiences and insights of people, like JHR’s alumni, who know Africa, its people and their cultures well as what works here and what doesn’t.

For me, JHR is not just educating and informing Africans about their rights, work which is very important for human security, good governance and development. The organization is also nurturing the next generation of international correspondents, producers and media managers, individuals who will help improve western media coverage of Africa and by so doing, will help governments decide how, where and when development aid should be channelled.

After my trip to Canada, I have even more respect for those who spend time in Africa as JHR volunteers and for those who want to follow in their footsteps. JHR volunteers do not just teach African journalists to report intelligently on human rights. Even after their work in Africa is done, they return home to help to improve their compatriots’ understanding and appreciation of the myriad of challenges confronting Africa. This, I believe, is one of the noblest things for anyone to do — bringing one group of humans to an understanding of another. I’d encourage everyone to take part in the JHR experience.

Source: JHR newsletter.

Photo:Ato Kwamena Dadzie speaking at a JHR human rights reporting workshop in Ghana. JHR photograph.