While radio journalist Nana Ama is used to the deluge of hateful comments she receives daily from Twitter, WhatsApp and even from coworkers, she was still surprised when an angry listener called her ex-boyfriend asking him to take her off air. In a country where 98% of people believe homosexuality is morally unacceptable, Ama, who is the deputy online editor of Citi FM, stands out for her progressive stance on gay rights. A regular on Citi’s “The Breakfast Show,” she is unafraid to use radio – which has traditionally been an open place for independent political discourse in Ghana – to discuss issues often left out of the media, specifically surrounding the rights of marginalized groups, including women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals.
Despite her strong-held beliefs, Ama wasn’t always so open about her support of gay rights. Raised Christian in Kumasi, Ghana, she was encouraged by her father, who is a lawyer, and mom, who is a teacher, to ask questions about any and everything. While studying sociology and economics at the University of Cape Coast, she gained a wider understanding of sexuality, specifically the long history of homosexuality in Africa, through reading the work of Ugandan Professor Sylvia Tamale.
After graduating, she completed her National Service, a requirement of all graduated Ghanaian students. Working at the popular Joy FM, she grew tired of radio and left for a job at Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), an international non-governmental organization that connects journalists with media outlets around the world. After working with Citi through JHR, she decided to go back to journalism to report on the 2012 election and has stayed at the station since then.
I interviewed Ama about her experiences in media, and how journalism can be used as a tool to discuss human rights in Ghana. Check out her articles “Christianity is un-African, homosexuality isn’t” and “Whose vagina is it anyway?” as well as her website. You can follow her on Twitter @JustNanaama.
How did you originally become interested in journalism?
When I was going to university, everything was new, and there was this really amazing woman on the radio named Matilda Asante. She was forceful, and she would ask all the tough questions. I thought, “I’m going to be just like that when I leave school.” Because up until then, all the women you saw were on TV reading the news, and then they would go away. She was doing something different, and it was exciting.
You grew up Christian being told that homosexuality was a sin. Was there a specific moment when your views changed concerning homosexuality or was it more gradual?
I spent a year studying gender and sexuality, and I think it sort of opened my eyes to how things are perceived and how unfair the society is to women’s sexuality as well as other minorities. And also being in the media had an effect: being a practicing journalist and hearing people use words like “the gay menace” and things like that. Like are we supposed to talk like that? Is it our place to judge?
You’re heterosexual, but do you think being a woman has influenced your opinions concerning homosexuality?
I was talking to a friend of mine who is anti-gay rights, and I said, “You cannot be a feminist and not be an advocate for gay rights,” because, in a way, gays are minorities. In this country, women are second class citizens because sex for women, even though you may not be jailed, is condemned. There is a way this society controls the bodies of women that we don’t even discuss. I feel like I cannot sit here and demand that I should be allowed to do as I please with my body and not care what happens concerning the sexuality of other groups.
Why do you think that Ghanaians are so against homosexuality?
I think it’s religious, and it’s ignorance, mostly. I think that first of all, if you open the Bible, the whole of the Old Testament is about Sodom and Gomorrah, and God abhorring all of these things, and we invite this without context. You think all your life that being gay is evil, and then someone is saying, “Wait a minute. These people are people. Let them be.” Of course they’re going to get angry. I mean for Africans, family is very important to us. So the imagination is that if a man is having sex with a man, how are they going to have children? Because for us, that’s the basis: to have family. So there’s that fear.
What role can journalism play in increasing acceptance of homosexuality?
I think it’s a place to inform and not pass our ignorance on. It’s our responsibility to tell the story as it is and not to stoke the fear, because mostly, people come to this from a place of fear and ignorance. But what’s happening is that we’re unable to separate our feelings: what Christians think, what Ghanaians think and all of that. People will bring all of that into telling a story, but that’s not the right way. If you’re going to tell a story about gays, then go to them, speak to them, interview them and tell the story without the judgment, and let people make informed decisions. Sadly, we’re not there.
What do you think is required to get there?
I think it’s having general conversations in various newsrooms. It’s also because mostly, media owners are religious people, and there is a lot of power at play. So there needs to be very progressive spaces where we can have these conversations without all the “You’re going to go to hell,” and “You’re going to destroy this country.” It’s also important to think about who is teaching journalists. What kind of things are they telling young journalists? If you’re passing all your biases to your students, then they’re going to come into the space with the same biases. So I think it’s going to take a lot of work. Certainly, we’re having the conversation, so maybe we will eventually get a space where more and more people come to a point where they think, “Why am I even upset about this? Why is this a big deal?” Because when you see people, you don’t ask them, “Are you gay or straight?” It doesn’t matter.
Those rumors seems to be a big part of the conversation. I recently saw an article entitled “10 Male Ghanaian Celebs Who Have Been Rumoured As Gay”. Do you think gossip plays into the societal discussion concerning homosexuality?
Oh yeah. Because if you’re not married or you’re a tomboy or you’re a celebrity, and they don’t know your partner, you’re perceived to be gay. The thing about this perception to be gay is we go to a lot of single sex schools. I went to a girl’s school, and we explored. So people know people who were exploring, and just because they have come into the public space, and people don’t know their boyfriends or girlfriends, naturally, we assume that they are lesbians or gay. That’s just that.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, Ghana is rated above many countries, including the United States, when it comes to press freedom. But does that really mean the media has power, particularly when you are going against popular opinion?
I don’t think it’s enough to have press freedom. For us to sit on the radio and say, “This morning, we’re really upset about something,” well, we’ve been upset about that same thing for the last three years. Nothing has changed. So we have press freedom, but what? Because press freedom is supposed to push the people to do what is right. But if we’re just talking and nobody is acting, they’re just giving you the space… There’s a disconnect between the media, and I think it’s because there’s a disconnect between me talking, the people listening and the people up above, the decision makers. So the people in the middle who are Ghanaians, they are sometimes really offended, but they are not willing to go to the next step. So they are offended by the lack of water, but they will never protest. So the politicians, they know. They know the radio people will talk. The newspapers will write, but what are the people doing? Nothing. So until there is a certain kind of mass of people who are saying, “We are not taking this anymore,” nothing will happen. It’s not just the media. It’s the civil society groups, the citizens, who all need to be pushing.
How do you get the confidence to write what you do?
I know that it will make people mad, but I guess I prepare for it. I’m kind of building a tough skin of some sort. I know I’m going to offend people, but also, it needs to be said. I’ve come to a point where, if journalism is what I’m going to do, then the hard things need to be said. And if nobody’s going to say it, I can. I’m not married. Nobody is going to call my husband and tell him to shut me down. My parents don’t live in Accra. So you cannot reach my parents and have them shut me down. I don’t know what authority I have, but I can do this. I don’t know anybody else who’s going to do this. I don’t see anybody who is going to do it. And I take abuse all the time being on the radio. So I kind of prepare for it. It is hard. I think what was hard was my friends, people I thought were my friends, who were not even coming to me personally, but abusing me on other platforms. That kind of hurt.
What opportunities do you see in Ghana?
I think that there are a lot of problems. Where there are a lot of problems, there are a lot of opportunities. There’s media development. You can’t always have these conversations where it is dictated from the top. So over time, journalists are going to ask questions, and even though they’re going to come to work with all their prejudices and religion, they’re going to be willing to be open. The space will not let you just dump a headline that’s hateful… But it’s hard to pay attention to big issues when we are also struggling for our bread and butter. So over time, after a lot of the problems are solved, like issues with electricity and transportation, I actually think this is a land of opportunities. It’s a stressful, hateful place right now, but there are also boundless opportunities.