What if your volunteering with Projects Abroad really did change your life?
Six months after returning to Australia from my Human Rights Internship, I enrolled in a Masters Degree in Human Rights Law and used Ghana and Sierra Leone, where I previously volunteered, as the research focus for my major papers. I am now back in Ghana, doing an internship with the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice. I wont be returning to my old job.It really can set you on a new path, or, in my case seal your commitment to a change you have long wanted.
Other volunteers who came and went before you speak of tears at the airport when departure day comes around. You are warned when you are picked up from the airport that you wont want to leave when its time to go. But that is before the culture shock hits and you wonder what you were thinking to come to West Africa. But the paradox is there before your eyes every day for the first week and you are so puzzled as you wade through the dust and the rubbish, noting the drains and the unroadworthiness of the vehicles you are seriously expected to get into cheerfully. And the volunteers who help you learn the ropes are so unaccountably happy, alive with a new buzz you don't recognise yet and the mystery is that soon you will recognise it and be infected by it, because Ghana has a way of changing your perspective; Ghana has a way of filtering out the aesthetically shocking and forgrounding the smiles of Ghanaian joy that is infectious and incurable.
Walking home from work each day, i pass the neighbourhood kids playing their arcade football game, laughing and joking, laying down memories of their happy childhoods that are the platform for happy lives. What's to love about Ghana? Once you stop looking at the material things, the fact that the game is sitting next to a litter-choked drain with tree stumps, broken ground, nameless rubble and incongruous piles of urban deconstruction, you only see the happiness on the faces of kids surrounded by other kids and having fun. Back home, my trek home from work is shared with school kids isolated by their earphones and iPods, wearing expressionless faces and gazing into the middle distance while packaged, techno substitutes for face to face interaction. Where are their smiles? Happiness is a highly visibile thing and in Ghana, you see it everywhere. In Ghana you're going to get dust on your shoes but you're sure to get a sparkle in your eyes as everyone you pass greets you with a shy hello, often just after they pass by.
Visible as well is youth. You know you are in a country full of young people by the happy, infectious hip life music that pours out of kiosks and vehicles, spots and funerals. Plunging fertility rates are the ultimate price the west is paying for its capital-hungry, dollar-driven society where newspapers frequently quantify the per unit investment needed to support each child/unit in a family in the hundeds of thousand dollars but neglect to qualify the cost with the joy babies bring not just to the parents but to the whole community, or the compound, that wonderful West African concept of extended co-resident family lacking in the west. Along with the decline in births is the "preciousness" of seeing kids in Rolls Royce strollers, like the modern day masters in their sedan chairs while their parents pride themselves in giving them everything except siblings to share their lives with. All that palaver about state of the art baby equipment and the high cost of child-care is counterbalanced by the sight of African mummas with contented sleeping infants on their backs.
Too romantic a view, I hear you demur? Child brides, teen pregnancies, extreme poverty, poor education completion figures, orphanages: stating the obvious isn’t answering the question that puzzles volunteers’ families who send out their adventurous but admittedly self-centered young folk and welcome back months later, happier, socially-aware strangers who can’t seem to explain how they fell in love with the spirit of an impoverished African country while riding cheek by jowl, sweltering in the equatorial heat with market traders and their dishes of smoked fish in a dirty tro tro. What volunteers experience in Ghana is hard to identify in any other way than the myriad anecdotes told to incredulous families who have not had the opportunity to have their preconceptions of African life and character challenged by living and working with Ghanaians in their country. In many cases, what you find in Ghana is a sense of what we have lost in the west.
Assistant Superintendent of the Community Policing Unit, Kwame Tawiah, mustered all his considerable patience and bonhomie in replying to the question, “If we have a gun, can we use it to make an arrest?” His firm reply in the absolute negative to the members of the Tesano Neighbourhood Watch Committee, was still interpreted as leaving room for similar questions later, highlighting the necessity of carefully prescribing the limits on the members actions in a program designed to redress the untenable ratio of 1 police officer to every 1,200 citizens in Ghana.
Neighbourhood Watch Committees are organised groups of residents trained by the police who watch out for criminals and suspicious behaviour and report to the local police. They are encouraged to be familiar with their neighbours habits and their vehicles and property and to promote security and cooperation within their local area. They mount patrols and are able to make a citizens’ arrest if they witness a crime. They are also enjoined to secure the scene of any crime against the possibility of tampering with evidence.
Kwame Tawiah’s presentation on the scope and nature of the Neighbourhood Watch Committee’s role was delivered in the clearest terms but with a charming mien enough to dispel any uncertainties and reassure the participants of the worthiness of the venture. His pitch was perfect. As a veteran of the United Nations Police force in Kosovo in 1998 and 2006, Mr Tawiah has a wealth of experience of difficult policing work in a post-conflict environment that gives him an air of authority and capability but he also exudes an unexpected warmth and good humour that creates genuine connections with the community.
Projects Abroad volunteers complemented Mr Tawiah’s training with a presentation on human rights with an emphasis on ethical conduct, womens’ and children’s rights and the rights of suspects. In a society which is characteristically submissive to authority and communitarian based rather than individualistic as in the west, core elements of the human rights agenda which contest traditional mores such as the idea of children, women and suspects having rights which must be respected will take much reiteration and more time to find widespread acceptance. Chief Superintendant Alhaji Mohammed Suraji assured the Projects Abroad team later in his office of the significance and impact of their association with the Community Policing Unit and foreshadowed further involvement as the program evolves.
Working in the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office is a great privilege that comes only through the hard work of the permanent staff of the office and Lawyer Hans who strive to meet the twin needs of providing volunteers from diverse backgrounds with a meaningful experience and serving the needs of Ghanaians for legal representation, advocacy and awareness raising of their own natural and legal human rights. Thank you Mr Hans, Edward, Rejoice, Listowel, Ebenezer, and Ernest for making the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office such a successful and socially responsible part of the organisation.
Hans Emmanuel Addeh leaned forward in his chair, finger punctuating the air with his resolve.
"You will see things that will haunt you, but your very presence here makes things happen that otherwise would not. When I walk into court with you interns from many different countries behind me, there is a new pressure. You are the eyes of the world and you are watching."
Mr Hans, as he is known, barrister with the human rights office, speaks with the perspective we interns all share but one that is rare here, naming male chauvinism as the dominant force in social life responsible for many of the human rights abuses and the lack of political will to debate and pass reforming legislation. The intellectual scope and significance of the journey that facilitated his capacity for such analysis should be recognised, applauded and emulated by the rising generation of West African leaders. One needs to leave the shores and look back on Africa with the benefit of comparative experience in order to pinpoint the key strategies to unlock the potential for renaissance.
Unphased by the heat cloud that pressed on us, Mr Hans, in his long-sleeved dress shirt and gold cufflinks, addressed the question of spiritual possession as an explanation for mental illness and as a motive for crime, an area of the law that highlights the inconsistencies, if not to say incompatibilities between British common law with its yardstick of the reasonable man as a measure of rationality and the local, pervasive belief in the coexistence of the tangible world and the spiritual world, a co-existence full of danger and obligation for West Africans. He elaborated the significance of Akan cosmology in terms of his opposing bail for a man arrested for a human organ trafficking killing.
As earnest as he was about the numerous aspects of the law in Ghana, Mr Hans reserved his harshest condemnation for domestic violence. He and I are of one mind on the culpability of belief systems in propping up the belligerent patriarchy that underpins domestic violence. The victims are not just women and children but men and the uncivilised society they perpetuate when they strike women. He agreed with me that for men to change, they will need to be persuaded that their best interests will also be served through coming to understand that women are bearers of rights which are violated in domestic scenarios from the apparently trivial to the criminally culpable by a society that is generally satisfied by a mild wrist-slap sanction for the perpetrator. I was conscious throughout of the parallels between the issues Mr Hans discussed and those I discussed on many occasions with my human rights lawyer friends in Sierra Leone.
As the evening haze of smokey exhaustion yellowed the light in his modest office, the fire in Mr Hans belly as we spoke of the irregularities in court processes dispelled any suggestion of his being bowed down by the hypocrisy and institutionalised corruption he daily faced. It was humbling. We shuffled out of his office, fully cognizant of the reasons for his status at PAHRO: Mr Hans is a legend.
Recalling Heraclitus's maxim that you cannot step twice into the same stream, or ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same river, I will be landing in Accra on Saturday 5 November 2011 for the second time this year but anticipating a different experience to my earlier volunteering in Sierra Leone, and knowing that that prior experience changed me irrevocably. Armed with experience and therefore hopefully forewarned, but compelled by the same motivation to uncover the core of West African culture and to embrace its mystery and its struggle, I look forward to the stimulation of new conversations and new points of view. Let the play begin...
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