A journalist with The Multimedia Group, Kwetey Nartey, has shared his investigative journalism experience with over 300 other journalists across the African continent in South Africa. 

Speaking to 54 other investigative journalists he narrating what he describes as one of his riskiest work since he started working as a journalist, specifically about going undercover for his documentary titled 'Narcotics School Boys'. 

In the said documentary he went undercover to unravel how the economy of an entire township in Nsawkaw in the Brong Ahafo Region depended on marijuana cultivation.

He recounted how he got a lot of stick after his work was aired noting "I was also called by the Member of Parliament (MP) of the area who verbally abused me on the phone for over 30 minutes on why I should do such a story and if I thought the children were engaged in such an illegal trade why didn’t I report them to the police instead. 

The African Investigative Journalism Conference, the largest gathering of investigative journalists in Africa started on November 7-9 at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Read his speech below:

In Ghana, there’s a big debate over whether or not to legalize or continue to criminalize the use of marijuana. There are those who believe that the big fight to crack down on the use of the substance has failed and that it’s time to legalize it. They believe that marijuana has a lot of economic benefits. 

There are the others who argue that legalizing marijuana would promote abuse of the substance. 

While this debate continued, I decided to travel to a small farming community called Nsawkaw in the Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana about 600 km from the capital Accra. Nsawkaw was the hub for the cultivation of marijuana. I wanted to understand how the economy of an entire township depended on marijuana cultivation. The people grow the plant in the thick forests there, they harvest and smuggle it into neighbouring countries. 

This, however, was a dangerous journey. The people were aggressive towards strangers because they never wanted to come into conflict with the law which severely punished the use of narcotics. You could serve up to 10 years in prison if you’re found cultivating, smoking or using marijuana in any form. It was therefore not surprising that no one was prepared to speak to me when I arrived at Nsawkaw. 

Here I was more interested in how young people including students in the junior and senior high schools were either skipping lessons or abandoning school altogether to work on the weed farm. 

I titled the story Narcotics School Boys. It’s one of the riskiest stories I’ve ever pursued in my almost a decade of practice. What this investigative piece sought to do is to take you on a journey to explore how poor and desperate students who want to access education engage in a vice you don’t expect a child of nine years to be engaged in – marijuana farming to pay their fees, buy learning materials. They use the rest to buy food. When you Google the community where these students grow up in, Nsawkaw, the images that pop up are a stockpile of cannabis, deprivation and a people who clearly are hungry for better lives. 

A friend who happened to have taught at the Nsawkaw Senior High School as a national service personnel gave me the lead to this story. He was alarmed at the poor performance of many of the students he used to teach. My friend remembered how many of his students were truant. 

When he interacted with some of the students, they opened up and told him they engaged in weed farming to raise money to support their education. It was an open secret among many townsfolk. The problem there was that when you cultivate the traditional food crops such as yam and maize there is no ready market, unlike marijuana which was in high demand.

It in even higher demand in neighbouring countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo among others. So, what these students do is devote two days to academic work and the remaining days to work on their marijuana farms. These farms are only known to them and trusted friends. It’s located deep in the forest and they don’t use one path to the farming. This makes it difficult to track their movement. 

The big puzzle to solve now was how do I penetrate the folds of these students without compromising my source. Initially, I wanted to apply as a national service teacher to the school, but, it wasn’t realistic looking at time constraints. I spent three years planning on what way would be best in infiltrating the fold of these students who are neck deep in this illegal trade. I finally settled on using a homecoming party to get to my subject. 

My source had taught some of these students before, so, I thought capitalising on the feeling of nostalgia among these students to see my friend would be the best way to get the evidence I seek for. We got one of the teachers to inform the students my source would be coming down for a homecoming party we would be organizing. So there was goat barbecue and drinks for everyone. While the party was ongoing, my source pointed out the students who have been engaging in marijuana cultivation to cater for their education needs. 

I engaged one of them by feigning interest as a marijuana user…He led into his room and over there the powerful smell of marijuana was all over. I literally got high on it. But by establishing this personal relationship with the subject I was likely to have him open up to me. He fetched a huge polythene containing the substance under his bed. He gave me some to use at no cost. These students I must say are secretive and have their farms deep in the forest as I earlier stated. They don’t use one path to these farms. This makes it difficult for the security agencies to track down their activities. 

The next hurdle was how I would gather hardcore evidence for this work. I decided to plant a mini voice recorder in a cap I was wearing. So before I met the subject, the recorder was already picking our conversation without any suspicion. 

I believe journalism must make a difference. Sometimes to achieve this goal, you must use unconventional means. And this was one of them. The ethical dilemma here was should I have made the subject aware of my intention, or should I have sought permission before recording. Article 5 of the code of ethics for journalists in Ghana is RESPECT FOR PRIVACY AND HUMAN DIGNITY. 

Journalists are expected to respect the right of the individual, the privacy, and human dignity. Enquiries and intrusions into a person's private life can only be justified when done in public interest. What I did was in the public interest, I believe. 

This is the part I would describe as most interesting but risky. That’s transporting the evidence from Nsawkaw in Brong Ahafo to the national capital, Accra. It was crucial in doing this because who would believe your story if you tell the public you have students in marijuana cultivation. There was the need to even show evidence to get the security agencies to investigate what I reported. That’s what makes it important for me to transport a polythene full of marijuana on an eight-hour journey. 

To escape the prying eye of the police from Nsawkaw to Sunyani, the Brong Ahafo regional capital, I had to conceal the weed in the compartment under the vehicle we were using. When we were entering the community, I realized that there was a police checkpoint. I didn’t anticipate that, but, I had a plan B because I knew I would be traveling with a substance that is illegal. So, we came to the police check point, the officer inspected the vehicle we were in but, didn’t suspect what I had in possession since it had been concealed in the compartment under the driver’s seat.

The next hurdle was how to transport the marijuana from Sunyani to Accra. This was because I had to use public transport and marijuana has a repugnant smell that attracts attention. I wasn’t lucky during my journey to Accra, I sat beside a police officer. I still can’t fathom why the law enforcement officer didn’t suspect me. 

All throughout the journey, I sat silently in prayer. If I had been caught, I would be serving 10 years in jail for possession of narcotics. I wouldn’t be an exception because this story was told at a time when police in my country had arrested a very popular music star Kwaw Kese for smoking cannabis and he did so close to a police barrier. I can imagine what the headlines in the dailies might have been. 

I read a lot of materials relating to marijuana cultivation and its trade around the world, in Africa and Ghana as well. I spoke to the Narcotics Control Board, the regulator in Ghana, on whether this trend of parents using children on their marijuana is an emerging one and what they are doing about. 

I also spoke to officials of the Mental Health Authority and Ghana Police Service to give me expert advice on the subjects and its implications. So essentially, I interviewed persons from these communities who have engaged in the trade before, drug addicts, rehab center managers, police, school authorities of Nsawkaw Senior High School, teachers, and national service personnel among others. 

The most time-consuming aspect of this investigation is the planning stage. The success of every investigative piece lies in how good you plan. I had to make my source make a number of trips to the community to ensure the students were still involved in the practice. He brought samples of wrapped cannabis as the form of evidence. He made calls occasionally to some teachers there for them to keep an eye on students who were engaged in the weed business. The expensive aspect of the story I must say is sponsoring homecoming party and transportation of the team. 

The police in the region – specifically Wenchi Divisional Police Command opened a probe into the matter. Local authorities provided some form of money for parents of these students so they can engage in a trade to will enable them to sponsor the education of the children. Well, learning materials were also provided to these students on regular basis. 

I was also called by the Member of Parliament (MP) of the area who verbally abused me on the phone for over 30 minutes on why I should do such a story and if I thought the children were engaged in such an illegal trade why didn’t I report them to the police instead. 

This investigative I must say was sponsored by my media house – Multimedia Group Limited (Joy News). What’s done at my workplace is that you draw a budget of how much the investigation would cost and you’re provided with funds to execute the project. 

What lessons are there to pick in this work….first, I would say planning is key to the success of every investigation. You must plot everything you intend doing on a chart and you follow it judiciously. 

Secondly, you must have a plan ‘B’ so that in the event you are involved in unanticipated danger or risk, you fall on that plan to escape. 

Thirdly, you must constantly be in touch with your source. The success of your work to a large extent depends on your source – he must be involved in every stage of the investigation. 

Lastly, you might want to say a prayer before you start the investigation. A number of investigations do not go according to plan. And what I dread as an investigative journalist is for your identity to be exposed whilst you are in the course of your work.