Andy Cox - Human Rights in Ghana
As an aspiring Barrister I quickly realised the importance of gaining practical work experience but with mini-pupillages and placements looming in the summer of second year I really wanted to do something a little bit different. Having done a gap year and travelled around Asia and North America I was well aware of the various companies that offer placements but there was something special about Projects Abroad.
Firstly they were the only ones to offer a specific law based project and the huge number of countries they operate in was impressive. However, I had heard some horror stories from friends at home who had spent their gap years sitting at the back of sweltering classrooms in the slums of Rio without a clue as to what was going on - hardly the ‘hands on teaching placement’ they signed up for.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I applied for a Human Rights placement in Ghana; a country which looked rugged enough to be a truly insightful cultural experience but where it would be possible to be comfortable enough to enjoy the project. The fact that my placement coincided was the World Cup, held in Africa for the first time, was obviously also a big draw!
Almost immediately it was clear to me that my initial fears were misplaced as the pre-departure information given was of the highest quality and the emails from Vera, who works at the local office in Accra, sorted out any problems or questions quickly and efficiently. Before I knew it I was at Heathrow being waved off by my family and although I was slightly apprehensive about my first time in Africa I was determined to say yes to as many experiences as possible. In hindsight it is this kind of approach which is essential to enjoying Africa.
Upon arriving at Accra airport I was met by Nyame, one of the local Projects Abroad staff and my first few sweltering minutes in this strange foreign land were spent watching a penalty shoot out between Paraguay and Japan on huge screens outside the airport. The passion shown by the locals not just for their team but for football in general was a clear sign of what was to come. I was then taken by taxi to my host family’s house which was in a district called Nungua, a thirty minute taxi ride from the centre of Accra.
As it was late there were a few bleary eyed introductions before I settled down in a comfortable shared room, ready to be picked up by a Projects Abroad representative the following morning for an induction tour of Accra. This turned out to be immensely useful and a good opportunity to meet volunteers who had arrived at the same time as me as well as some of the local staff.
The purpose built guide book we were given was also brilliant and really helped in navigating the city and understanding what was available whilst on the project. I also had a proper meeting with my host ‘mum’, Nelly, who was extremely friendly and made me feel very welcome. There was also an opportunity to discuss any particular food we did or did not like and the couple of requests we did make (generally more red-red!) were always met.
My first day in the office followed and I travelled into work with my housemates, three of whom were on the same project. This helped immensely in finding the office, discovering the local area and meeting other volunteers in the office and is another example of the importance Projects Abroad put on the small details which really help their volunteers settle in. Within the hour I felt welcomed into the group and the friendliness of both the staff and the other volunteers was one of the memorable points of my experience.
Luckily for me I was put onto three projects at the office, one of which, the gold mining project, involved a fact finding trip to Obuasi, a town in the Kumasi region approximately 5 hours drive from Accra. This lasted for four days and was an incredible experience. To visit villages which rarely see white faces was something that I had never experienced before and being followed by a huge crowd of kids shouting and waving was strange at first but everyone we spoke to was so friendly it instilled a real sense of purpose about our trip and a shared determination to do what we could to realise the aims of the project.
Working alongside national organisations such as WACAM and Amnesty Ghana proved what an impact our work could have. Upon returning to the office I got stuck into my other projects which were concerned with teaching children how laws are made in Ghana and with the balance between human rights and the corresponding responsibilities that come with these in preparation for a whole office trip to a fishing village called Yeji in the east of the country.
Other people in the office were working on other projects and whilst on the trip different groups presented to different schools and community groups throughout the week. Again to get out of the capital and experience the more rural parts of the country was hugely satisfying and something I probably wouldn’t have done if it were not for the office trips. During my time in the office I also got the chance to visit a session in the Ghanaian parliament and hold a meeting with the leaders of some of the other NGO’s with similar aims to ours.
In addition to these travels many of the volunteers get together to do short excursions at weekends. By Tuesday each week various plans are made between people in the office and it is almost guaranteed that at least one group will be heading somewhere that you have not previously visited. The quiz held at the Projects Abroad Office in your region each week allows you to meet and plan with people outside of your own project and this creates a web of friendships through these events, office colleagues and housemates.
In my time in the office I visited Cape Coast including Kakum National Park and its famous canopy walk, the stunning beaches of Ada Foah (twice), and the exhausting waterfalls and caves in Hohoe with a number of different people. These trips were all great fun and provided a chance to really bond with many of the other volunteers.
The sheer number of volunteers around also makes it easy to organise some lengthier travel after your placement has finished. I spent a week heading to Mole National Park with four other volunteers from the office where we saw elephants, monkeys, baboons, buffalo, water bock, and warthogs. The baboons even stalked around the pool attempting to steal any food left around and occasionally accosting the odd sunbather! The trip was well worth the 15 hour bus journey and we even managed an overnight stop in Kumasi.
When exploring Ghana it is often the travel that is the most rewarding part of the experience - although an 8 hour journey on bumpy roads in a decrepit, sweltering, non-air conditioned bus buried underneath luggage and other bodies with a petrified goat strapped to the roof may not be everyone’s cup of tea it becomes strangely natural when immersed in the culture and provides some of the more vivid memories of the trip.
Looking back the whole experience seems like a lifetime ago but I wouldn’t change a single detail of it. Not only has it given me experience of a different perspective on life but it has proved immensely useful on work experience applications and will undoubtedly help me to stand out in future interviews. I would really like to return once I have established myself in the world of law to see how the country has developed and whether our projects have had a lasting impact.