Greg Caffrey - Human Rights in Ghana
My initial interest in Law and Human Rights stemmed from my university days where I developed a keen interest through the various modules I had studied. I had returned to university as a mature student and wanted to be sure a career in HR was a path that I should venture and what better litmus test than first-hand experience, hence Projects Abroad.
I chose Ghana for a number of reasons; some of the members and close friends of my family had spent considerable time in the country and I had received only good reports. I applied a month before departure and was accepted but I would advise to plan further ahead due to the vaccination timetable.
From the moment I applied the staff within Projects Abroad kept in regular contact making sure I was prepared and willing to answer any questions I had, so I was suitably impressed. Before departure I had some doubts and nerves despite all the knowledge I had accumulated, but upon arrival they quickly dissipated.
I was collected with two other volunteers from Canada and Italy and we were dropped off at our allotted accommodation. I stayed with Mrs Afrifa in Tesci Nungua a suburb of Accra, and a rather affluent one as well. Mrs Afrifa was a previous First Lady of Ghana and her house was modern, spotlessly clean and we even had a limited internet connection. The members of her family were very friendly, happy to engage in conversation but not intrusive, a trait I found with Ghanaians generally.
I slept in a room with four others who I got on really well with all and we each had a bunk bed. The food very traditional - porridge, fried eggs, toast, frankfurter sausage, tea/coffee for breakfast and largely tomato based sauces or a mild curry for dinner with chicken or goat and as much water as one could drink.
My Law & Human Rights Placement
My first day as a volunteer began at 6am and I met all the existing volunteers, staff and a run-down of current projects I would be participating on. The initial project was a survey to explore attitudes towards women in politics, which was carried out in Accra University. Every stratum of society would be surveyed over the coming weeks by various groups of Human Rights volunteers. The results were released in association with the relevant Ghanaian governmental authority. The incumbent, President John Atta Mills passed away during my stay and I got to witness a piece of Ghanaian history first hand - his elaborate funeral and the majority of the nation in genuine mourning for a beloved leader.
The project I participated most in during my time in Ghana was based in a rural region called Dodowa. It focused on three villages and the problems of domestic violence and intestate law. The broad strategy was a presentation for the village and a broad outline of the problems. Projects Abroad was asked by the relevant authorities to intervene to help bring awareness, alleviate and eventually eradicate the existing tribal structure which turned a blind eye and to introduce a federal based legal system enshrining individual’s rights both male and female.
The next step was to visit the village and conduct informal questionnaires about the issues in order to identify specific problems in each village. Here we got to engage with locals one to one and after some encouragement many were forthcoming under the condition of anonymity.
The next step was a presentation in each village based around the specific problems identified. We also chose representatives from each village to train as officers to intervene when transgressions occurred and intermediaries between victim and governmental authorities (police, legal representatives etc).
The first phase of the project finished while I was in Ghana and from my further inquiries the local police took over control of the programme thereafter. At all times and all projects we were accompanied by a Projects Abroad representative from the office and each one gently guided us if we strayed from the focus of our intentions or acceptable decorum.
The slum project based in Old Fadama, the largest slum in Ghana, was centred on establishing a community watch scheme for the inhabitants, arbitrary violence and justice was/is a big problem and the majority did not trust the police. There was much opposition to the proposal, from some local chiefs and the local authorities, as the people were refugees from conflict in Northern Ghana who had no citizenship and were viewed as squatters by the government.
I also participated in a teaching training programme, which involved giving teachers coping mechanisms so they would not revert to corporal punishment and also how to deal with parents and neglected or abused pupils. The discussions we had were honest and frank about their issues and our possible solutions.
In Accra High School we organised a two day workshop for students who wished to attend. I was project leader, but like all projects everyone participated in preparation and delivery. The structure was fluid and dynamic as there was no overbearing rigid template. The two day project involved a leadership presentation by an affiliate of Projects Abroad on leadership and an introduction to Human Rights by the volunteers followed by a lively Q&A session. The second day followed a similar structure and the project was an indubitable success.
The final project I was involved with was based in Tesci, a port city close to Accra and it centred on political corruption which was salient due to the forthcoming election. The interaction took the form of a presentation on electoral rights of the individual and how to report electoral corruption, and significant problem’s involved bribery, coercion and intimidation.
After weekends of travel and sightseeing along with great social evenings out with fellow volunteers, who I now call friends, was it perfect? No of course not! But I felt Projects Abroad were willing to listen to any issues raised in the weekly meetings.
It is also important to remember to temper your expectations - you are by and large entering a third world country and many of the issues mentioned have been around for centuries you will contribute to help solving them eventually but you won’t do it while you’re in country. My fellow volunteers who were a great source of alleviating any remote sense of culture shock and all members of staff I met were very friendly and approachable. I mentioned my time in Ghana was a formative experience and I am now beginning an MSc in Human Rights and look back fondly on my experience.