Friday, August 28, 2009

No way to bridge the digital divide: Internet fraud crippling Ghana

One of the annoyances of living in West Africa is the fact that I can’t use my credit card. Now to be fair, this is mostly a cash economy and I really don’t purchase many things that require a credit card, but if and when I need it, I cannot use it.

Fraud is the single reason that comes in many forms. Fraud is so rampant in this area of the world, that in February this year, it was announced that the majority of U.S. and Canadian retailers had blocked any Internet orders originating from Ghana and Nigeria.

Back in my early days in Ghana, 1997 – 2003, I was a lowly volunteer with no credit card to use. My first experience with fraud was during my parents’ epic journey across the waters, to visit me in my new ‘homeland’. My dad was uneasy about just about everything, and just to exacerbate the problem, he got called to the bar at the hotel – where we were all lounging around the pool (me in heaven at the decadence!) – and on the other end of the phone was Visa International. They explained that his card had been used in a global whirlwind of purchases, ever since he used the card at the hotel and a restaurant two days earlier.

All these years later, in the modern age of online bookings, I’ve had to recently contact my offshore bank and go through the highly laborious process of changing the billing address from Ghana to Canada.

JW and I travel a lot for work and as many holidays as possible, and it has become impossible to book car rentals, hotels or air tickets.

We tried to book online with Emirates and South African Airways in the past month and both times their Ghana website states that due to excess fraud, tickets must be paid for in person within 48 hours of booking online. This totally defeats the purpose of booking online! Gone is the convenience of not having to get through insane midday traffic to make a purchase. The only benefit now is that you can choose your seats in advance…. Whoopee!

Ghana has their own word for this rampant fraud now – rivaling the Nigerian 419 scams – the Ghanaian term is Sakawa.

Cyber cafes in the Nima slum run a booming business… rows and rows of 17 – 25 year olds (mostly guys), lit up behind the monitors, with the intense sounds and smells of the gritty streets outside, drowned out by the dream of getting rich quick.

There are as many types of scams as guys running them. The numbers are mind-boggling. In a continent that represents only 3% of global Internet users, and a country where Internet penetration is at less than 1 million people, Ghana has ranked among the world’s top 10 for Internet fraud.

This month Ghana’s government has announced their plan to “set up an emergency Cyber Crime Response Team, to review existing legislature governing the Information Communication and Technology (ICT) activities and strengthen the country's cyber security.”

I hope that this makes a difference, but if we look to ‘big brother Nigeria’, the chances are slim… There is just too much promise for those with the cleverest new scam. Easy money is too tempting to a population of impoverished kids who long to emulate the bling bling, gangster deifying rap stars of the USA, and there are no tangible repercussions… except for those of us who want to use our credit cards in Ghana – legally! Users beware...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

If I Were a Boy... the Caster Semenya Controversy From All Angles

There has been quite a debate raging at my office and in the house, and I’m sure it reflects discussions going on globally this week. It’s about Caster Semenya, the gripping controversy surrounding her 800m gold medal win in Germany, and the subsequent doubts as to her qualification as a ‘true’ female.

It’s actually quite amazing that this story has become such a globally followed issue, but for me, as for many others, it is so interesting because it involves both the human side and the not-so-simple science of sex and gender.

I’m sure there was a day not so long ago when gender was viewed as a cut and dry issue by the majority of us – if a person had the external sexual organs associated with either sex, it was accepted that the person was that gender. Since then science has delved further and discovered a variety of cases where this simple identification is just not as straightforward as we’d thought. There is a very interesting 'Intersex' association in North America that answers many of the questions here.

In terms of sexuality, more and more people are identifying themselves as transgender – and are convinced that they are ‘in the wrong body’. There are a myriad of combinations of sexual orientation, along with gender identifications. One of my favourite stand up comedians, Eddie Izzard, commonly wears traditionally ‘female’ clothing and identifies himself as a ‘male lesbian’ or a ‘straight transvestite’. Are these people right or wrong? Who are we to judge?

But when it comes to the case of Caster Semenya, if we look for a minute beyond the personal side – beyond the fact that the media coverage her case has attracted is no doubt humiliating and demoralizing – there are the complicated yet unavoidable scientific and ethical issues.

There are pictures all over the Internet of Caster now, with everyone trying to scrutinize every aspect of her appearance. The fact is that she has the complete outward appearance of a male.

Her speech and mannerisms confirm that view.

So when then is a girl not a girl? If Caster identifies as a female, who are we say she is not?

If Caster is subjected to all possible tests, there will be one of many possible outcomes; anything from true hermaphroditism (where a person possesses both male and female sexual organs, internally and/or externally, to variations like male pseudohermaphroditism or a type of gonadal dysgenesis. The bottom line is that it goes far beyond a simple physical inspection of someone's 'private parts'!

There have been numerous cases in the western world, where these conditions are diagnosed at birth, are closely monitored through childhood, and the child is gender assigned, based on their tendencies. I believe if Caster Semenya had been born in different circumstances – i.e. not in a rural village with no access to expensive modern medicine, she would have been one of these people.

Accounts of Caster’s life only reinforce this. She is said to have identified always with boys – and competed on par with her male peers in school throughout her childhood. However, due to the fact that she had no visible penis (and this is really the only reason), she was assumed to be a girl.

The biggest question is an ethical, moral and philosophical one. It has been my opinion that if a person is found to have a Y chromosome, to possess more than 3 times the testosterone as the typical female (as in the case of Caster), then they have an unfair biological advantage over other females (in terms of muscle development etc.), and hence it would be unfair to compete against 'entirely female' women, especially at this level.

Another perspective (that of JW) is that if the person has been classified at birth as a female, with no outward evidence that this is not the case, then she should be able to compete regardless. Her biological advantage is something she is lucky to have, in the same way that people with higher IQs have a biological advantage to others when it comes to academics – yet we all compete on the same level, regardless of the advantages of the smarter people.

It is a very intriguing debate!

However, this is not a theoretical issue. There are victims. The very sad side of this story is Caster herself. As far as she is concerned, she is a woman. Despite any questions she or others she knows have had about her appearance, she is simply a tomboy… however, the IAAF has strict guidelines that may just determine that she is not in fact female. This would mean they would have to strip her of her medal. Imagine the devastation! Not to mention that the whole world (including me) is currently debating her gender. It is a controversy that she has found herself trapped in, through no fault of her own.

I believe that the South African ASA could have dealt with the issue discretely in advance, completing the tests before the Berlin race, so as to eliminate all the aftermath, but their conduct has been uneducated, boorish and infantile. They have accused the IAAF and international media of being racist, despite the fact that these tests have been carried out on female athletes globally, regardless of race or origin, for decades. In interviews, Leonard Chuene, President of the ASA repeatedly ignores the complex issues at hand.

In 2006 Santhi Soundarajan from India, was robbed of her silver medal after the same type of controversy about her gender. Raised as a woman, this blow devasted her and soon after she attempted suicide.

Gender may not be as simple and straightforward as we’d once believed, but it remains a delicate and taboo subject, and when questioned, can have devastating effects...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Mojos to the WWF - a lifetime of suspicion of religion

I’ve always had an incredibly suspicious view of religion. I guess we are all products of our upbringing to an extent, and neither of my parents were religious, despite the fact my father was raised a Catholic. There was no mention of God or church in my house, and it all seemed quite fine…

My first encounter with church was a mixed experience, and it went progressively downhill from there. Somehow at five years old I had been enrolled in Sunday school with a friend. The fun part was the bus that picked us up and dropped us off. We sang silly songs (which I’m sure were geared toward familiarizing us with the Lord’s word, but was utterly lost on me), and best of all they gave us little toffees called Mojos. Looking back it seems like shameless bribery! However, at the time it seemed great. Free candies and songs…

The actual Sunday school was in the back of a church, smelled musty and looked like a dusty store room. We sat on metal fold out chairs and made crafts out of uncooked macaroni, sparkles, Elmer’s glue (always a bit too much was used so that it oozed out from under the macaroni…), and paper plates. I was unconcerned as to the significance of the guy with the beard and the cross. I was always just waiting for the ride home for more Mojos.

I promptly forgot all about it until around the age of twelve one of my friends invited me to church with her family. I asked my mom and her answer seemed strange. “If that’s what you want, by all means go and check it out”, or something along those lines.

I think it was an Anglican church. It was all very stark and somber. Everyone was white and middle class. Everyone dressed up, but not too flashy. Lots of brown and grey suits. Dull floral dresses and sensible shoes… and it was BORING! There were hymns that no one knew the words to, but opened the booklets in the pews and made a half-hearted attempt at mumbling through, along with the priest/pastor. The actual sermon was irrelevant in it’s topic and content. I wondered why anyone would consider the tribulations of people centuries ago, given that the world had changed so much.

It seemed like the longest hour of my life – akin to math class, where I always had to come up with clever ways of keeping myself awake.

I never went back.

When I had a Jamaican boyfriend in my later teens, his sister invited me to her ‘revival’ church. Wow! That was the closest thing to a pop concert that I could imagine a church to be. It was held in a huge hall and 95% of the worshippers were black, despite the fact that it was in downtown Toronto. Everyone was dressed to the nines – big hats, flashy dresses, snake skin patterned suits (it WAS the 80’s…).

There was an air of excitement as everyone made their way in, serenaded by a full gospel choir with a rock band accompaniment. When the preacher took the stage everyone cheered. He was an ex-WWF wrestler, turned born again preacher. This seemed like a major career change until I compared the both - on stage, performing.. I guess it was a good fit. He preached with vigour and might, enthusiasm and omnipotence. It all seemed so happy and lively until he started with the ‘scare tactics’. I was shocked when he brought out the old testament threats of fire and brimstone… I looked around and the people looked entranced, like docile lambs. Why would they believe this stuff? Why would they come every week to be threatened with supernatural horror movie style afterlife nightmare speeches?

And then came the ‘healings’. There is a Steve Martin movie that comes to mind. In the movie he is a ‘preacher’ who does a completely bogus ‘healing roadshow’…

One after another, people went down to the front and fell willingly to the ground when the ex-wrestler’s chubby hand touched their forehead , some in crumpled heaps, some rigid and convulsing like epileptic seizures, many in tears. I was amused but flabbergasted.

There followed obligatory dancing in the aisles and I slowly realised the insistence on everyone getting up and moving was a ploy to get each of us to pass by the collection box. Extortion!!!! And this church service lasted close to 6 hours!!!
I never went back.

In the meantime I had been learning about evolution in biology class – I found it one of the only truly interesting topics. And I couldn’t help but think how drastically these scientific theories contradicted the simple teachings of the bible – with the 7 days God created the earth, and the clay moulding of Adam with Eve as his rib…
It confirmed to me at the time that religion is a tool in society/culture; something that gives simple answers to the questions that in reality none of us can comprehend. The world and it’s creation is beyond any of us, so how preposterous for certain people to claim ‘the knowledge’. How even more preposterous to teach that there are certain rules of conduct that ‘please’ a god…. More mind control….

This was all before I headed to the mind-opening years of University, and my sojourns in Africa where I came to learn so many more things – where I saw the similarities of the Christianity practised by Afro-Canadians and the continent they ultimately came from. Where I learned about traditional religions and colonialism and power struggles and politics and the role of Christianity and Islam... but I’ll blog about them tomorrow.

Thanks Esi - for inspiring my contemplation on the topic today in your great blog post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Things I used to associate with the country Turkey:

1. This silly song, that is very catchy by The Four Lads - originally released in 1953, covered by They Might Be Giants in the early nineties...

2. Turkish delight (a disgusting jelly like candy sold in squares, dusted with icing sugar) comes from there.

3. The country's name is synonymous with the festive food (read dead bird) centerpiece at Christmas and Thanksgiving

4. The country's name can be used as an insult, by calling someone 'a turkey' - implying stupidity and simpleness...

5. They made it into the International news for wars, violence and corruption over the years..

That's about it really.


1. Turkey is bordered by 8 countries! Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbijan, Iran, Iraq, Syria (and even Cyprus if you count that...)

2. It is divided into 81 provinces and is very different geographically and culturally across the provinces

3. Turkish is a completely unique language - unlike Arabic or the European languages

4. Turkey is a Muslim country but in the cities it is rare to see women covered up, and drinking is completely accepted

5. Turkey has amazing tourist areas, and even an area called the Turkish Riviera that is made up of a series of south facing bays, that are tourist magnets every summer - complete with great beaches, restaurants and nightclubs (some of the best in the world - Ibiza has nothing on the southern Turkey nightclubs!)

6. Istanbul was the capital city of the Roman, Latin and Ottoman Empires

7. St. Nicolas (later known as Santa Claus) was born in Patara, Turkey

8. Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents!

9. Abraham (of biblical fame), Aesop and Homer were all from Turkey

10. 70% of the world's hazelnuts come from Turkey

11. It is illegal in Turkey to make fun of Turkishness (can you imagine?)

12. Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 is the country's hero, and his image is displayed EVERYWHERE - homes, boardwalks, businesses, bars - everywhere.

13. Turks have a long standing rivalry with the Greeks

14. The island of Rhodes in Greece is closer to Turkey than to the Greek mainland

15. Parts of Turkey are absolutely beautiful - mountainous, warm, lakes, lagoons, beaches, and numerous famous ruins dot the countryside.

Last but not least - I recommend a visit by all!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Olu Deniz - a little piece of paradise

Excuse my silence, but places like this inspire awe, and silence. And for the past three weeks, these are the types of scenes that I've awoken to - in Dubai, around the south of Turkey and on Rhodes Island, Greece.

And now I'm back in Ghana - back to reality. Reviews from the holiday to follow - but for now - soak this in!
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