The Isma Ortiz Series: Broken Roads (1)

For this Guest Photographer & Short Story Series project, the guests were asked to submit three sets of photographs, the choice was entirely theirs and were not confined to any particular genre or theme. The short stories that ensue are based on the set of photos submitted, and the title of the photograph is imbedded in the story. The project has been dormant for a while but it is back with the Class of 2020, as a tribute to the outstanding work of the photographers and a celebration of enduring friendship!

Isma Ortiz has been a freelance photographer for the past 25 years. Based in Madrid and specialising in documentary photography, Isma’s cross-border non-profit work covers Spain and other countries around the globe, both on private initiative or as part of a collaborative team. A graphic designer and visual storyteller by heart, his interplay of light, shadow, colour and emotion, take you on a soulful journey. Click HERE for Isma’s portfolio.


The cotton shirt was damp with perspiration and clung unpleasantly to Simon Roberge’s back. He hated this humidity and would pay an arm and a leg to be back in his native Canada, even in the dead of winter and buried in snow! Anything was better than another day in this Accra heat. Sitting up straight again and aiming his back towards the electric fan, Simon tried to focus on the half written email on his laptop. At least three report deadlines were coming up this week, and he still had not received a copy of the first draft of any of them. Much as he appreciated his team, the most efficient they were not when it came to reports, but then again, nobody really enjoyed this unpleasant task. Like him, they would much rather be out in the fields doing the development work that really mattered, changing lives, teaching communities to become more sustainable, introducing new farming technology at the grassroots level, and implementing the micro-credit schemes among the women’s groups. As an economist by training, the last item was Simon’s pet project and was proud of the success he had over the last five years with small groups scattered around the northeast districts. 

The door swung open and a portly middle-aged Ghanaian woman marched in, swinging a large bag containing papers, bananas, what looked like soft drinks, and a battered laptop that seriously needed upgrading. Simon grinned at the sight of Mary Asare, fondly known among the development workers as Cyclone Mary, and relaxed. “Good morning Mary! Please tell me that your magic bag is bringing me a report as well as some sweet potato fritters! Pull up a chair and have a seat. Let me close the door so we can have a proper conversation.”  

Mary placed her large woven bag on Simon’s desk, plopped the laptop down with more force than required, which made Simon wince in horror, but he knew better than to correct Mary at his hour in the morning, before her first coffee. Her hand stopped in mid-air, as she frowned at her Canadian colleague and bent forward, her generous rolls of flab spilling over the desk and nearly knocking the mug of sweet tea. “You have not been sleeping properly again Mr. Simon. What is troubling you? How many times have I told you that you cannot solve Ghana’s problem on your own in one night, no matter how much you toss and turn. You need a good woman, some strong whiskey and a proper holiday.” 

Family ©Isma Ortiz 

Simon tilted his head back as his laughter bounced off the walls of his nauseatingly green office. “You know perfectly well that I am far too busy for women in my life, but the whiskey and the holiday I should probably arrange. I desperately need to spend some quiet time in villages again, surrounded by Family and friends. I hate working in the office here. My heart yearns for the tales told by grandmother Grace by the fire whenever evening falls and we gathered around the fire to watch her cook, while the children played and the younger women prepared the rest of the meals. Those that the people I work for Mary, not these reports, deadlines, statistics, and worst of all, conferences!” 

“Fiddlesticks! You will never take a holiday. You have not taken one in two years and that is against your contract, you know that. But I understand what you mean. Grace has been asking about you it seems. Her time is near and she wants to put all her affairs in order. So make sure to visit her before you regret it. Now pay attention, I have something to tell you.” As she unwrapped a package of sweet potato fritters from the vendor down the road. “Eat, eat. Is the door closed?”  

“Yes it is. Why all the secrecy? Is the government about to fall? Is one of our field offices about to be raided again?” 

Lights… Moments ©Isma Ortiz

“Worse. I have had disturbing reports from three field supervisors this morning. Over 300 children across ten villages have gone missing in the last 12 days, mostly boys between 8 – 16 years old, all disappearing without a trace. The parents are nervous and keeping their children home from schools. The grandparents are being assigned to watch over the smaller children, but otherwise, neighbours are keeping an eye on each other, terrified their children will not be there when they get home from work. Kidnappings are nothing new, you know that as well as I do Simon, but this is a new scale we are dealing with. For once I am scared. When there is no explanation, no humanly possible way to shed light… moments like these make me wonder what we have done wrong.” 

Simon remained silent. He had seen the writing on the wall for this situation three months ago and had been assured by all the field workers that extra security measures had been put in place to guard the most vulnerable villages along the coast and the borders. “I was afraid this would happen Mary. Remember the alert last month on increased kidnappings? My colleagues from other organisations confirm that they have seen an alarming rise in human trafficking in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. The focus used to be young girls for prostitution but now they are targeting the boys for forced labour in construction and fishing industries, but some of them do end up as sex workers as well.” 

Fufu ©Isma Ortiz

Mary’s fists clenched angrily and Simon was alarmed when she spoke again in a raised voice. “Do you remember Quabena? The young man you helped to become a teacher? He and his wife have been blessed with a second child recently, but they both quit their jobs last week to stay home with the baby. They would rather make Fufu* all day than leave their son alone. Their first son, Thomas, who just turned seven, was taken. He never came home from school. Two houses down the road, Kojo, one of our field workers, lost his 12-year old son after he was sent to the market to buy vegetables. What can we do Simon? We can’t just sit here and eat sweet potato all day!” 

Observers of Wealth ©Isma Ortiz 

Four hours later Simon sat in a three-seater tricycle in the small town of Sege. As he felt his body be jolted in all directions due to the lack of infrastructure in the area, he had to smile to himself. This new form of transportation was taking the country by storm and had recently been introduced in Ghana, as inspired by an Indian Bollywood movie. This was probably the best way to get around, not as stuffy and crowded as the trotros, and you got to enjoy the rural life in full technicolour and in minute detail. As the vehicle rolled into one of the outskirt villages, a group of cows stood guard, silent Observers of Wealth and disapproving of the noise that interrupted their afternoon gathering and feeding. The cows were right to be nervous, thought Simon as he nodded respectfully at them. This is where the first kidnappings had taken place and there was someone he needed to get in touch with and in spite of the familiarity, this was a conversation he was looking forward to. 

To be continued…

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