ONE-ARMED BAN­DITS ROB VIL­LAGES OF HOPE

In ru­ral Ghana, slot ma­chines brought by the Chi­nese spread a gam­bling epi­demic among farm­ers and even chil­dren

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kaiman :: reporting from za­mashegu, ghana

When the ma­chines ar­rived last win­ter, the vil­lagers were mes­mer­ized.

In Za­mashegu, a farm­ing com­mu­nity of 1,000 peo­ple in north­ern Ghana, they may as well have come from outer space — four elec­tric slot ma­chines in­stalled in two road­side shacks, chirp­ing and clat­ter­ing, bathing the packed-dirt walls in a pale, kalei­do­scopic glow.

Their lure was mag­netic. Soon, vil­lagers stopped farm­ing, leav­ing their yam and cas­sava fields fal­low. Chil­dren stayed home from school. In­stead, they’d queue up at the slots and play all day, un­til their pock­ets were empty or the vil­lage ran out of change al­to­gether.

About twice a week, a Chi­nese man would ar­rive in a pickup truck. He would un­lock the ma­chines, hand some cash to the shacks’ own­ers and drive off — car­ry­ing about $100 in coins and, many vil­lagers came to un­der­stand, their com­mu­nity’s hope for the fu­ture.

China’s in­flu­ence across Africa has been deep­en­ing for decades — China sur­passed the U.S. as the con­ti­nent’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner in 2009 — and Ghana, a rapidly de­vel­op­ing democ­racy of 26 mil­lion peo­ple on West Africa’s At­lantic coast, has been one of the re­la­tion­ship’s great­est ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

Bei­jing has funded Ghana­ian roads, dams, sta­di­ums, hospi­tals and govern­ment build­ings; it has flooded the coun­try with in­ex­pen­sive goods. Trade be­tween the two na­tions hit $6.6 bil­lion in 2016, up from less than $100 mil­lion in 2000. Ghana­ian of­fi­cials have wel­comed the rise — in Fe­bru­ary, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Ken­neth Ofori-Atta called for an “en­hanced re­la­tion­ship” with Bei­jing.

Yet Chi­nese en­trepreneurs in Ghana are in­creas­ingly over­step­ping the once tightly pre­scribed lim­its of state con­trol, and the widen­ing pres­ence of Chi­nese mi­grants sell­ing cheap, lowqual­ity goods at Ghana­ian mar­kets is un­der­cut­ting — and in­fu­ri­at­ing — lo­cal sell­ers.

In 2013, the Ghana­ian govern­ment ar­rested 168 Chi­nese na­tion­als on sus­pi­cion of il­le­gal gold min­ing, fol­low­ing re­ports of en­vi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion and so­cial un­rest. Then came the gam­bling. Chi­nese slot ma­chines

‘They’d play all day, hop­ing they would win. But you never could beat the ma­chine.’ — UBOR DAWUNI WUMBE, chief of Bun­bong vil­lage, on the slot ma­chines’ ef­fect on res­i­dents

be­gan ap­pear­ing through­out ru­ral Ghana early last year. And though the scope of the phe­nom­e­non re­mains un­clear, in­ter­views with dozens of vil­lagers and of­fi­cials in the coun­try’s North­ern Re­gion — an area about the size of West Vir­ginia, home to 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple — sug­gested that the ma­chines have pro­lif­er­ated widely and pre­cip­i­tated an epi­demic of gam­bling ad­dic­tion that the govern­ment has been un­able, or un­will­ing, to quell.

“For me what China is doing here is eco­nomic colo­nial­ism,” said Esther Armah, a prom­i­nent ra­dio host and lec­turer at Web­ster Univer­sity in Accra. “Part of Ghana’s chal­lenge is cre­at­ing an econ­omy that serves Ghana­ians first and fore­most. We don’t have that. We have an econ­omy that first and fore­most serves for­eign­ers.”

Alexan­der Afeny­oMarkin, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment for the Efutu Mu­nic­i­pal Dis­trict near Accra, about 300 miles south of the North­ern Re­gion, said lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have been lax on en­force­ment — and na­tional of­fi­cials, bound by Ghana­ian law, are some­times pow­er­less to help.

“Most of these gam­bling cen­ters have been opened with­out any au­tho­riza­tion,” he said, adding that he knows of 15 in Efutu alone, run by sev­eral Chi­nese com­pa­nies. “Now this has a lot of kids out of school, and it is also en­cour­ag­ing steal­ing and rob­bery.”

He has urged Efutu’s Mu­nic­i­pal Assem­bly to muster a task force and crack down. “As a mem­ber of par­lia­ment I don’t have that ca­pac­ity,” he said. “I can only do ad­vo­cacy.”

The North­ern Re­gion is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. About half its pop­u­la­tion lives be­low the poverty line. Many vil­lages have no ac­cess to clean water. Child mal­nu­tri­tion is ram­pant. Yet the ma­chines are ev­ery­where, though mostly hid­den from view: in a phar­macy; in an elec­tron­ics store; tucked away in a dusty lot, flanked by small chil­dren.

At first, Ubor Dawuni Wumbe didn’t even no­tice the ma­chines.

Wumbe, the chief of Bun­bong, a vil­lage of 2,500 peo­ple at the heart of the re­gion, lives and gov­erns — over­see­ing vil­lage projects, set­tling vil­lagers’ dis­putes — in a bril­liant white hut com­plex, in­su­lated from the chaos of vil­lage life. But one day, “I no­ticed there was al­ways a car that was parked here,” he said, ges­tur­ing to a dusty patch just out­side the com­plex. Its driver was Ghana­ian; its pas­sen­ger looked Chi­nese.

In mid-2016, the Ghana­ian govern­ment com­pleted a ma­jor high­way through the North­ern Re­gion, cut­ting

travel time from Bun­bong to Yendi Dis­trict — a com­mer­cial cen­ter about 18 miles away — from sev­eral hours to about 30 min­utes. “I think all of a sud­den, [the Chi­nese] re­al­ized there was ac­cess,” Wumbe said. “That this was vir­gin ter­ri­tory, where they could ply on ig­no­rance, or hu­man emo­tion, to get rich quick.”

Soon he be­gan see­ing slot ma­chines across the vil­lage; he counted 30, spread across 15 con­ve­nience stores, cafes and homes. They were strik­ingly crude: ply­wood boxes, each about the size of a mini re­frig­er­a­tor, sealed with a rusty pad­lock and out­fit­ted with a coin slot, a metal tray and a flimsy plas­tic fa­cade. They were em­bla­zoned with fa­mous fig­ures — Su­per Mario, soccer player Lionel Messi — the faces sun­bleached and streaked with dirt. Min­i­mum bets were 5 to 10 cents.

They were wildly pop­u­lar. “You’d go there and it was packed,” he said. “Peo­ple weren’t go­ing to their farms any­more. Peo­ple be­gan to think that this was a way of earn­ing in­come. They’d play all day, hop­ing they would win. But you never could beat the ma­chine.”

Wumbe con­fronted the

Chi­nese agents — by this point, he said, there were sev­eral — and de­manded they re­move the ma­chines. The agents com­plied. Later, they re­turned of­fer­ing a bribe of six soccer balls, im­plor­ing him to change his judg­ment. Wumbe re­fused. “We knew there were go­ing to be a lot of prob­lems in the near fu­ture,” he said. “You know it’s go­ing to bring drugs, pros­ti­tu­tion, rob­bery.”

But most vil­lages seemed to be doing noth­ing. Across the re­gion, the one-armed ban­dits were win­ning.

“I think there are a lot of peo­ple who feel the same way as I feel,” Wumbe said. “It’s just that no­body acts. We all just sit and talk about it. But no­body acts.”

Gam­bling in Ghana is le­gal and highly reg­u­lated; casi­nos line the streets in Accra, and on­line gam­bling, sports bet­ting and lot­ter­ies are pop­u­lar far­ther afield. Yet the prim­i­tive slot ma­chines, and their link to un­der­age gam­bling, have proved po­lit­i­cally con­tentious.

In Jan­uary 2016, of­fi­cials in the Bol­gatanga Mu­nic­i­pal Dis­trict, a two-hour drive from Bun­bong, granted a Chi­nese com­pany per­mits to dis­trib­ute slot ma­chines in lo­cal vil­lages. Al­most im­me­di­ately, they were f looded with com­plaints: Chil­dren were skip­ping school to play, steal­ing from their par­ents. In June, they re­voked the com­pany’s per­mits, but the prob­lem per­sisted. In Septem­ber, they as­sem­bled a po­lice-mil­i­tary task force and con­ducted a se­ries of raids, con­fis­cat­ing 38 ma­chines in to­tal.

Ac­cord­ing to Bol­gatanga’s mu­nic­i­pal records, the ma­chines be­longed to a com­pany called Pusheng Game Ghana Ltd., reg­is­tered to a post of­fice box in Accra. Yet of­fi­cials in Bol­gatanga could give no fur­ther de­tails about Pusheng. The com­pany has no web­site or pub­lic tele­phone num­ber; its man­age­ment could not be reached for com­ment.

“The head­quar­ters is in Accra,” said Ay­im­bila Abubakar Ateer, Bol­gatanga’s con­vener for jus­tice and se­cu­rity. “If it’s in Accra, they are op­er­at­ing coun­try­wide.”

In Jan­uary, of­fi­cials in Kyebi — a town in Ghana’s Eastern Re­gion, about 430 miles from Bol­gatanga — con­fis­cated 40 Chi­nese-run slot ma­chines, also be­cause of un­der­age gam­bling, lo­cal me­dia re­ported.

In April, a Chi­nese slot ma­chine owner “unleashed thugs” on a bar owner in Awutu Breku — a small town in Ghana’s Cen­tral Re­gion — af­ter ac­cus­ing him of pock­et­ing the ma­chine’s take, ac­cord­ing to the pop­u­lar Ghana­ian news web­site Adom On­line. The bar owner, Isaac Akufu, re­port­edly landed in the hos­pi­tal with knife wounds.

Yet not all lo­cal gov­ern­ments have re­acted to the ma­chines with ire. Yakubu Abubakari, pre­sid­ing mem­ber of the Mion Mu­nic­i­pal Dis­trict assem­bly, also in the North­ern Re­gion, said he was wary about the ma­chines’ so­cial im­pact, but ap­proved of their ex­is­tence.

The ma­chines’ Chi­nese own­ers saw him as a threat at first, Abubakari said, but warmed to him once they re­al­ized that he’d let them op­er­ate. He said one Chi­nese busi­ness­man, af­ter a meet­ing with the assem­bly, handed him an en­ve­lope con­tain­ing 150 Ghana­ian cedis (about $30). He ac­cepted the money.

The ma­chines are “a form of busi­ness in the com­mu­nity,” he said. “So the per­son who is gam­bling with the ma­chine [does so] at his dis­cre­tion.

“Some win, and some lose, and that’s the game.”

On a Satur­day morn­ing in Za­mashegu, about a dozen vil­lagers gath­ered around Azindo Nche­giri’s road­side shack — and his two Chi­nese slot ma­chines — to share their griev­ances. The air was thick with dust and the sun blazed over­head, driv­ing even the goats and chick­ens into the shade.

Nche­giri, a farmer, said he’s hosted the ma­chines for about a year. Ev­ery three days, a Chi­nese man takes the earn­ings and gives him a cut — and ev­ery time, he loses it back to the ma­chines. In to­tal, he said, he has lost about $115, a hefty sum in the vil­lage. “I like play­ing,” he said. “But the money goes. That is painful.”

Wumbi Abubakr, 13, said the first time he saw the ma­chines, about a year ago, he didn’t even know where to put the coins. An agent taught him how to play, and soon he was ad­dicted.

“I was very happy then. I put in the money and won, and the sound that came out of the ma­chine was very in­ter­est­ing,” he said. “I won 1.50 cedis [about 34 cents], then I played again and won 5. Then I con­tin­ued un­til I went home with empty hands. That night I wasn’t happy.”

The other vil­lagers saw no way to get rid of the ma­chines; un­like in Bun­bong, their chief has not lodged a protest. Vil­lagers play ob­ses­sively, pray­ing for a stroke of luck, and lo­cal hosts are dis­in­clined to sur­ren­der a source of easy in­come.

“One time I told the [Chi­nese] man to take the ma­chines and go, be­cause I didn’t win,” said vil­lager Ji­jiri Nche­giri, Azindo’s brother. “But he didn’t do any­thing.”

Suddenly, a child ran up to the crowd and shouted that “the Chi­nese” had ar­rived. The vil­lagers hus­tled to the high­way, where a white pickup truck sat idle. Its driver, a Ghana­ian man, paced on the road, talk­ing on a cell­phone.

Mo­ments later, a Chi­nese man emerged from a nearby shack. He was tall and pale, wear­ing a beige T-shirt and black base­ball cap. He gave only his sur­name, Zhang. He said he’d been work­ing as a cook in Ho­hhot, the cap­i­tal of north­ern China’s In­ner Mon­go­lia re­gion, when a Chi­nese agent ap­proached him with an op­por­tu­nity over­seas. He had now been in Ghana about a month and planned to stay a year.

“I'm re­ally just here as a worker,” he said. “Be­cause lo­cal peo­ple didn’t know how to do this busi­ness, my boss brought me over.” As the crowd pressed in, he fell si­lent; his eyes darted un­com­fort­ably. He said he was busy. He and the driver hopped into the truck and sped off down the road.

Pho­to­graphs by Noah Fowler For The Times

VIL­LAGERS BRING out two slot ma­chines from a hut in Za­mashegu, Ghana. Res­i­dents play ob­ses­sively, ig­nor­ing work or school, some­times stop­ping only when the whole vil­lage runs out of change.

Pho­to­graphs by Noah Fowler For The Times

VIL­LAGERS GAMBLE in Za­mashegu. Half of the pop­u­la­tion in Ghana’s North­ern Re­gion lives be­low the poverty line, yet the slot ma­chines are al­most ev­ery­where.

THOUGH POP­U­LAR through­out the North­ern Re­gion, the slot ma­chines are mostly hid­den from view, in­side stores, cafes, phar­ma­cies and homes.

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