Day 6 – January 3rd, 2013
Ghana is considered a beacon of democracy for West Africa. But when the December 2012 Ghanaian presidential elections went to court based on allegations of fraud, Ghana’s Ivorian population began to panic.
Supporters of the National Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate Nana Akufo-Addo are claiming National Democratic Congress (NDC) incumbent John Mahama, who will be sworn into office Jan. 7, had not garnered a majority among Ghanaian voters. The electoral dispute spoke to the people from Côte D’Ivoire of another defining moment in recent history, a conflict that would displace and claim the lives of many citizens of the world’s leading cocoa producing nation.
Rather than see Ghana experience turmoil similar to the elections aftermath in Côte D’Ivoire, many of the refugees living in Ghana’s United Nations refugee camp decided to risk returning to their homeland, even though their friends and family remaining had warned them mass killings of young men, students and members of the Bété clan (former President Gbagbo’s group) were still rampant. A refugee we spoke to claimed that hundreds left the camp last month, but a UNHCR representative told us that in the entire history of the camp, they had officially discharged only two refugees.
In 2011, Côte D’Ivoire was divided in two over a disputed election; the northern rebels recognized Alassane Outtara as the president while the south recognized Laurent Gbagbo — whose 2011 platform included a project to bring chocolate factories onto Côte D’Ivoire’s soil. Gbagbo had served 10 years in office, the maximum allowed under the nation’s constitution, but because the country had been in conflict during the last election cycle, he had never been elected to his second term. Gbagbo decided to run again with mass support from Côte D’Ivoire’s student population. Meanwhile, according to the refugees, Outtara, whose economic plan would maintain the country’s relationship with and dependence on France, had come to Côte D’Ivoire from Burkina Faso to aid a development programme and quickly fixed his eyes on the presidency. Quite vehemently, the refugees accused Outtara of finagling his way onto the ballot despite his country of origin. When Outtara, who had garnered support from France and the UN, was declared the winner, thousands of Côte D’Ivoire citizens screamed fraud. Young men holding student cards were denounced as militants and killed on the spot, and those lucky enough to make it across the border into Ghana took up lives at UN refugee camps. The Egyeikrom refugee camp was the site of our trip’s visit for the day.
The camp houses about 1,600 refugees according to the UNHCR. Some sleep in tents on site, while others have found homes elsewhere in Ghana but return to the camp for monthly rations of rice, soy and other mixtures of grain. Upon arriving at the camp, we learned from the UN representative that refugees can come and go as they please and are encouraged to find work outside the camp or establish businesses — such as a hair salon, a clothes shop, or a restaurant — on site.
Just as we were about to start a tour of the camp, Adolphe, the director of the camp’s unofficial secondary school decided to help show us around. Adolphe explained that the UN recognized the primary school, but his school received no aid, and therefore the students could not afford the examinations needed to advance their careers. He added that the school could not attract enough teachers, and language barriers meant most refugees would need to travel to Togo to take assessments in their native French. Adolphe said he would welcome help and oversight from the UN or the government to provide better opportunities for his students, who essentially attend school for personal enrichment alone.
We stopped at the camp’s health center and almost walked in on one of the nurses as she was about to inject a patient. We spoke instead to a child healthcare worker, who explained the camp’s largest health problem is malaria. The facility has two nurses, one doctor and 12 volunteers, plus an ambulance to transport patients to a hospital if necessary.
After the initial interviews and before we began construction work at Isaac’s housing site, our hosts took us on a tour through the camp’s communities to give us a sense of the culture and lifestyle. Many of the houses’ bricks were crumbling, and tents became so hot that most refugees preferred to stay outside during the day. As we walked around, children ran up to slap us high five or ask us to take their picture. They giggled as we showed them their image on the display screen. Becky brought along a bright blue Polaroid, so she could print images for the refugees to keep.
A highlight of our journey through the camp was when we stopped at the local bakery, where several apprentices who had allegedly learned from a master baker were kneading round pieces of dough for French style baguettes. We ordered five loaves and enjoyed hot bread fresh out of the oven.
We then headed to another tent for some entertainment. A group of about 15 men performed a few songs on drums while we sat sweating in a large tent that had cans of soda hanging from a string and a well-stocked pantry on a single shelf. The chanting and drumming was enthusiastic and impressive, and eager to share their music, the group begged us to listen to one more song. It was great to see the community come together through music, friendship and tradition despite the dire circumstances.
We ate a picnic lunch of Waakye (rice and beans with cassava) at Isaac’s construction site and enjoyed Fausti’s fantastic spaghetti with tomato sauce, dry cole slaw and various other delectables. We even had leftover food to share with some of the refugees, although we had to replenish our water as we went to work under the hot sun.
Our first task was to paint over a cement trim around a house Isaac was working on. We mixed the paint and applied it to the wall. Meanwhile, Yaa and Becky dug some holes in a plot, and we filled them with water to lay a moist foundation for the next structure. We then shoveled piles of soil to mix cement and removed organic debris. As we worked, Isaac explained he is able to keep the costs of his houses low by taking on young volunteers willing to fund part of the project, which aims to build 1200 houses over the next two years. Isaac’s business model shifts the burden of payment off the refugees’ shoulders as much as possible. Isaac is a regular Robin Hood: only instead of stealing from the more fortunate, he offers a life-enriching experience.
After mixing the soil, clay and mud with shovels — arduous work! (ipod speakers + Paul’s dance party playlist a necessity) — came the fun part. We formed an assembly line and operated a hydraform, a machine that transformed the mix into brick-shaped blocks, then passed the wet bricks down the line and stacked them. Often bricks would start to crumble, and we would send them back to be dissolved and reformed. Our group played a Ghanaian hand game in between passings, which the refugees seemed to get a kick out of. A small crowd gathered to watch us and admire Isaac’s workmanship and design.
Throughout the day, we talked with refugees about their lives back in Côte D’Ivoire and their hopes for the future. Something that struck me was how religious most of the refugees had become. Many of the tents bore graffiti signs to Jesus, and most of the refugees mentioned religion at one point or used phrases such as “only by the grace of G-d.”
“Since three years I’m waiting for G-d,” one refugee said. “I wake up and look at the sky and say ‘Where are you?’”
Gye Nyame – “Except G-d”. Gye Nyame is an adinkra symbol that means that “except Nyame (G-d)” nothing else can make or break us. G-d outlasts everything. Adinkra symbols are Akan traditional symbols that tell specific proverbs and messages.