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Sketch therapy: These Central African kids are drawing to recover from PTSD

Drawing helps children to express what they are feeling. It shows what children cannot say out loud -psychologist

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Sketch therapy: These Central African kids are drawing to recover from PTSD

The scratching of crayons on paper fills the air as the children at Lazare camp in war-ravaged Central African Republic draw scenes from daily life.

They draw armed men. Armoured vehicles. And they use red. Lots of red.

In a makeshift tent, glasses perched on her nose and her feet in the dust, psychologist, Mamie Nouria Meniko pores over the creations -an indicator of the children’s mental health, and a much-needed outlet.

“Their problem is that they suffer daily exposure to violence,” she says.

The 43-year-old Congolese runs a Red Cross programme at the displaced people’s camp to identify and help kids suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Drawing helps children to express what they are feeling. It shows what children cannot say out loud,” Nouria Meniko says.

“Sometimes, some of them start crying as soon as they start drawing.”

Years of violence –

The town of Kaga Bandoro housing the camp is a case study for the instability and violence that plagues the CAR.

Some 330 kilometres (about 200 miles) north of the capital Bangui, the town lies on a strategic junction of routes used by nomadic cattle-herders.

For five relentless years, Kaga Bandoro was in the hands of armed groups -militias who control four-fifths of the troubled country.

Typically claiming to defend specific ethnic groups or religions, the militias fight for resources and carry out extortion and acts of violence. 

In a nationwide population of 4.5 million, thousands have lost their lives, nearly 650,000 have fled their homes and another 575,000 have left the country, according to UN figures as of December last year.

Many children have seen beatings, rape or murder. Some have seen their homes invaded, their parents humiliated, hurt, abducted or killed. 

In Kaga Bandoro, relative calm returned last month with the arrival of the armed forces after the government and 14 warlords signed a peace pact in February -the eighth in a series of treaties.

For now, at least, the militiamen are confined to their base, although sporadic violence continues on the outskirts of town.

Troubled kids –

The Red Cross programme has enabled Nouria Meniko to identify 233 children aged five to 15 who bear symptoms of PTSD.

Seated on a mat, she asks a group of six children: “Who had a bad dream last night?” Three hands are raised.

Holding her little sister on her lap, 10-year-old Florine confides her nightmare. 

“My mother and father came to pick me up but I told them I couldn’t come,” she says. Her parents were killed in 2013 by the Seleka, a mainly Muslim armed group.

To help the children manage their trauma, the psychologist teaches them breathing and relaxation techniques.

“When I feel bad, I do these exercises and I think of a nice meal,” says Florine, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

Dead father –

To her right sits 12-year-old Herve, attending his third therapy session.

Herve’s drawings always show the same things: pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back. A body in a river. A hand in a well. A house on fire, with his dad inside.

“I have to draw to get the images out of my head and be able to sleep,” he says.

Herve’s mother, widowed by the Seleka in 2013, says the sessions have helped the boy and her relationship with him.

“Before, he used to cry all night. This week, he’s only woken up five times.”

The therapy also helps parents understand why a child may be craving attention or behaving aggressively.

“Before, when he didn’t obey me and did something silly, I used to hit him,” Herve’s mother admits.

“I didn’t understand. But now I know why he did that, and we talk to each other.”

‘Vicious circle’ –

Professor Jean-Chrysostome Gody, the head doctor at Bangui’s paediatric hospital, says mental problems linked to conflict are widespread in a country that has been gripped by violence since 2003.

But the issue is also taboo.

“It’s a real public-health problem,” Gody says. “Untreated trauma can cause depression and even lead to violence -it fuels the vicious circle.”

Children such as Florine and Herve who have witnessed extreme violence have a lifelong burden, adds Nouria Meniko.

“We can’t wipe out anything,” the psychologist says with a sigh. “What we try to do is to help them live with the trauma.”

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Culture & Tourism

‘Year of Return’ attracts African-American tourists to Ghana

A string of prominent African-Americans have headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing

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The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana

US preacher, Roxanne Caleb blinked away the tears as she emerged from a pitch-dark dungeon where African slaves were once held before being shipped across the Atlantic to America. 

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m heartbroken,” she told reporters as she toured the Cape Coast slave fort on Ghana’s ocean shore. 

“My mind still can’t wrap around the fact that a human being can treat another worse than a rat.”

Caleb is among the African-American visitors flocking to Ghana as it marks the “Year of Return” to remember the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in Virginia.

The country is banking on the commemorations to give a major boost to the number of tourist arrivals as it encourages the descendants of slaves to “come home”.

Cape Coast Castle, 150 kilometres from the capital Accra, is a major magnet for those visiting 

The white-washed fort lined with cannons was one of the dozens of prisons studying the Atlantic coast where slaves were held before their journey to the New World.

A string of prominent African-Americans has headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing in 1619. Among them was a delegation of Congressional Black Caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured last month.

The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast.
The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Can’t forget history’ –

For those visiting, it is an emotional rite of passage. 

“This has been understanding my history and my roots where I came from,” Caleb said.  

“I am very thankful I came here as part of the ‘Year of Return’.”

Sampson Nii Addy, a corrections officer with the Montgomery police department in Alabama, said he and his family had found the tour an “education”.

“I think every black person needs to come around to learn history; how people were treated,” the 52-year-old told reporters. 

“We can’t forget history but we can always learn something from it.”

Ghana, one of the continent’s most stable democracies, has long pitched itself as a destination for African-Americans to explore their heritage and even settle permanently.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama visited with his family and paid homage at the Cape Coast Castle. 

The “Year of Return” has added fresh impetus and the country is hoping it will increase visitor numbers from 350,000 in 2018 to 500,000 this year, including 45,000 African-Americans. 

Kojo Keelson has spent nine years guiding tour groups around the Cape Coast Castle and says 2019 has seen a surge in interest as Ghana looks to rake in tourism revenue of $925 million. 

“It’s like a pilgrimage. This year, we have a lot more African-Americans coming through than the previous year,” he told reporters.

“I’m urging all of them to come home and experience and reconnect to the motherland.”

Stairs next to the "Door of Return", the former "Door of no Return" of  the Cape Coast Castle
Stairs next to the “Door of Return”, the former “Door of no Return”. The Cape Coast Castle served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Love to come again’ –

Akwasi Awua Ababio, the official coordinating “Year of Return” events, pointed to high hotel occupancy rates as he said, “enthusiasm is very high and we’ve got huge numbers coming from the US and Caribbean”.

He insisted that beyond the major economic boost, Ghana was also looking to use the new connections it is forging to convince the descendants of slaves to resettle for good and help the country develop.

“Human resource is always an asset and we need to see how we can welcome them home to utilise their expertise and networks,” the director for diaspora affairs at the presidency said.

The African American Association of Ghana brings together those who have moved to West Africa and offers help to integrate them into their new surroundings.

President Gail Nikoi praised the “Year of Return” initiative by Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo and said the country was “setting the stage for future engagements and involvement of African-Americans and other Africans from the diaspora in the development of this country.”

But she said the authorities could still be doing more to help attract arrivals and convince them to stay.

“Dialogue and engagement is the first step,” she said.

While most of those visiting Cape Coast were not thinking about settling back permanently — they said the trip had opened their eyes to both their own history and what Ghana has to offer.

“It has broadened my horizons about how we came to be here and what our ancestors went through,” said William Shaw, 57, from Montgomery.

“I would love to come again. There is a lot more to see here in Ghana… at least once in a year, I’d advise African-Americans to come back to their native land and learn about their history.”

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Celebrating beauty in diversity as captured by Nigerian photographer, Noma Osula

Osula’s artistic works comprise of bright hues, animated gestures and rival textures all derived from the usual daily life in Lagos

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Noma Osula, beauty in Diversity

Nigerian photographer, Noma Osula is a creative, born and raised in Nigeria. Osula, Like many creatives originating from West Africa, attributes much of his artistic inspiration for photography to the ever-bubbly city of Lagos in Nigeria. Walking through the streets of Lagos, his assertion is proven right, as the surroundings are indeed a sight to behold. 

Osula’s artistic works comprise of bright hues, animated gestures and rival textures all derived from the usual daily life in Lagos. Trudging between the line of fashion and enfolding portraits, the artist acknowledges and renews the African Aesthetic. He admits that he draws his inspiration from his immediate surroundings and uses the camera to bring this to reality.

Noma Osula Celebrates Beauty in Diversity
Courtesy: Noma Osula Photography on Tumblr

Osula has always had an in-depth love for art and all things creative, but his concern in the medium developed towards the ends of his schooling in the university when he self-taught himself how to use a camera and to explore the feasibility of photography.

He believes that creativity allows self-expression and that becoming an artist has helped him gain more self-acceptance, cultural understanding, and representation. It is these notions that have challenged him to question societal norms and stereotypes through his art. 

Most often his muse is seen wearing glamorous and exaggerated pieces, embracing their African heritage while exploring the different values of the African Aesthetic – part of his bid to reconstruct the perception of beauty and perfection in African cultures.

Osula’s exploration into the world of photography has taken him to great heights, but what remains the most paramount to him is the notion of pursuing an idea and watching it come to fulfilment.

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Africa’s rare giraffes face ‘silent extinction’ threats

Giraffe numbers across the continent fell 40 per cent between 1985 and 2015, to just under 100,000 animals

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Africa's rare giraffes face 'silent extinction' threats
A giraffe is seen at Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. (AFP)

For most of his life as a Samburu warrior, Lesaiton Lengoloni thought nothing of hunting giraffes, the graceful giants so common a feature of the Kenyan plains where he roamed.

“There was no particular pride in killing a giraffe, not like a lion… (But) a single giraffe could feed the village for more than a week,” the community elder told reporters, leaning on a walking stick and gazing out to the broad plateau of Laikipia.

But fewer amble across his path these days: in Kenya, as across Africa, populations of the world’s tallest mammals are quietly, yet sharply, in decline.

Giraffe numbers across the continent fell 40 per cent between 1985 and 2015, to just under 100,000 animals, according to the best figures available to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But unlike the clarion calls sounded over the catastrophic collapse of elephant, lion and rhino populations, less attention was paid to the giraffe’s private crisis.

“The giraffe is a big animal, and you can see it pretty easily in parks and reserves. This may have created a false impression that the species was doing well,” said Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN’s specialist group for giraffes and okapis.

Africa's rare giraffes face 'silent extinction' threats
Conservationist Symon Masiaine (L), who study and carry out awareness on giraffe plight and conservation, search for giraffe clusters at Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia on August 5, 2019. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

The rate of decline is much higher in central and eastern regions, with poaching, habitat destruction and conflict the main drivers blamed for thinning herds of these gentle creatures.

In Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, reticulated giraffe numbers fell 60 per cent in the roughly three decades to 2018, the IUCN says.

The Nubian giraffe meanwhile has suffered a tragic decline of 97 per cent, pushing this rarer variety toward total extinction. 

Further afield in Central Africa, the Kordofan giraffe, another of the multitude subspecies, has witnessed an 85 per cent decrease.

In 2010, giraffes were a species of “least concern” on the IUCN red list. But six years later, they leapt to “vulnerable”, one step down from critical, catching many by surprise.

“This is why, for the giraffe, we speak of the threat of a silent extinction,” said Jenna Stacy-Dawes, research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Mysterious giants –

Despite this, an international effort underway to put giraffes squarely on the global conservation agenda has divided professional opinion.

Six African nations are pushing to regulate the international trade in giraffes under the UN Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which meets from August 17 to 28 in Geneva. 

Those advocating for the change, including Kenya, want the giraffe classified as “a species that, although not necessarily currently threatened with extinction, could become so if trade in their specimens were not closely controlled”.

Critics, however, say there is little evidence the international wildlife trade is responsible for dwindling giraffe numbers. A lack of reliable data has long hindered efforts to protect them.

“Compared to other charismatic species like elephants, lions and rhinos, we know very little about giraffes,” said Symon Masiaine, a coordinator in the Twiga Walinzi giraffe study and protection program, which began in Kenya in 2016. 

“Nowadays, we are still far behind, but we are making progress.”

Almost nothing is reliably known about giraffe populations in Somalia, South Sudan and eastern parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, where collecting such information is perilously difficult.

But even research outside conflict zones has been patchy.

Arthur Muneza, from the Giraffe Preservation Foundation, said the first long-term study of giraffes was not carried out until 2004. Data on giraffes is often gathered as an afterthought by researchers focussing on other wildlife, he added.

“Without reliable data, it is more difficult to take appropriate conservation measures,” Muneza said.

It was not until 2018 that the IUCN had enough statistics to be able to differentiate the threat levels facing many giraffe subspecies.

The reticulated and Masai giraffes, for examples, were classified as “endangered” while the Nubian and Kordofan were “critically endangered”. 

Trophy hunting –

Under the proposal before CITES, the legal trade in giraffe parts, including those obtained by trophy hunters on Africa’s legal game reserves, would be globally regulated.

Africa's rare giraffes face 'silent extinction' threats
A picture taken on August 5, 2019 shows reticulated sub-species of Giraffe at Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

Member countries would be required to record the export of giraffe parts or artefacts, something only the United States currently does, and permits would be required for their trade.

But observers say the limited information available suggests most of this trade originates from places where giraffe numbers are actually rebounding, like South Africa and Namibia, where game hunting is legal.

Muneza says there isn’t a clear enough picture that the legal trade is linked to declining giraffe numbers.

“The first step should be to conduct a study to find out the extent of international trade and its influence on giraffe populations,” he said.

Those supporting the proposal before Geneva talk of a “precautionary principle” — doing something now before it is too late.

For Masiaine, the Kenyan giraffe researcher, any publicity is good publicity for these poorly-understood long-necked herbivores.

“It means that people are talking about the giraffe,” he said. “And the species really needs that.”

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