jhr intern Sarah-Jane Steele at an Accra newspaper stand. Photo by Jenny Vaughan.
By Jenny VaughanWhen most Canadians think of Africa, typical images conjured up may include vast barren landscapes, perhaps dotted with an exotic animal or two, emaciated figures suffering from a preventable disease or gun-toting rebels ousting some government in yet another African coup.
These realities exist, yes. But beyond these predictable scenes is another Africa, one where hundreds of people gather on a Saturday night to see who will be crowned the next Miss Ghana. One where music is so important to everyday life that a guitar becomes a tool for survival. One where religion is so deeply embedded that it compels entire families to commit sacrificial suicide.
This week thestar.com launches Africa Files, a blog by Journalists for Human Rights (jhr) interns in Ghana and Malawi. The interns, living abroad for six months, are immersed in local media, exploring corners of society rarely ventured by Africa correspondents. They go beyond cliché headlines and offer a glimpse of life on the continent you might not expect.
The 10 Canadian interns arrived in Ghana and Malawi in July 2010 to work with reporters and journalism students to promote human rights awareness in the local press. For six months, they will report on local human rights issues, from mental illness to maternal health, in addition to facilitating workshops on responsible reporting. The are the first of 40 journalists that will work with jhr in Ghana and Malawi over the next two years.
The media is one of the most crucial sources of information in both countries, where people huddle around battery-powered radios to follow the latest political exploits and newspapers often sell out by midday. The press is robust, raucous and closely followed by people of every class, from illiterate villagers to elite businessmen in cities. It’s especially important in a country like Malawi, for example, with an illiteracy rate of 60 per cent. For this group, radio becomes a means for survival.
“I’ve known about the work of jhr since its inception and I’ve always been impressed,” says Canadian journalist Jessica McDiarmid, who is working at the Daily Guide in Accra, Ghana. “It’s an organization that is doing something that no other organization is, and in places that are not easy to operate.”
Journalists for Human Rights was founded in 2002 by Ben Peterson, the son of former Ontario Premier David Peterson. The organization has since worked in 17 African countries and trained more than 3,000 journalists, producing thousands of human rights stories for local media. They currently have projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia, all countries scarred by years of civil war.
“The Star has long been a champion of progressive media that aims to advance society, so partnering with them on this project simple makes sense,” Peterson says about Africa Files. “Readers will gain an understanding of what it’s like for young Canadians to affect positive change by working on the ground in Africa.
"It’s about hope, adventure, optimism, heartache, frustration and ultimately a form of self-discovery and even redemption: all the elements of a classic story.”