Melissa Tonglee - Human Rights Internship in Ghana
Before entering my final year of law at the University of Adelaide, I was keen to get some legal work experience under my belt but didn’t know where to turn. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether clerkship opportunities in a large commercial firm really felt like ‘me’. Instead, I was really looking for an opportunity to explore my interest in international law and human rights, and above all - challenge myself to do something different.
That’s how I came to travel half-way across the world to Ghana, West Africa - to participate in a law and human rights internship with Projects Abroad. During six weeks of my summer holidays, I lived with a local host family in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, and worked as a full-time intern in the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHO).
Working from Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm, my role as an intern involved both working at a desk in the office as well as getting out amongst the community in outreach programs. PAHO has three main aims: to raise awareness of human rights issues, to monitor vulnerable areas and resolve abuses. The work that I was able to be involved in was extremely interesting to say the least.
One of the main community outreach projects that I was involved in was called ‘Police, Schools and Community Advocacy’. Our aim was to re-establish trust between the community and the local police force, as well as increase awareness about criminal issues such as domestic and sexual violence. To do this, we sought to educate people about what these crimes are and what they should do if they become victims. I travelled several hours outside of Accra to make presentations to rural community groups, as well as schools, and spoke alongside local Police officers who reinforced policing issues that relate to these topics. It was only upon travelling to these communities that I learnt firsthand how prevalent sexual crimes and domestic violence are, and therefore how important education about the law and human rights issues really is.
During my six weeks as an intern I also participated in other social justice projects such as working in the Girls Correctional Facility twice a week. This involved preparing educational materials, as well as spending two hours every Wednesday and Friday teaching subjects such as human rights, along with basic education including English and Maths. Working one-on-one with young girls in the facility was again a highly rewarding experience, not only because you were helping to improve their education, but also because they were just so genuinely happy to have you come and visit.
Aside from these projects, other volunteers and I were also able to visit a slum known as ‘Old Fadama’. Over 80,000 people live in Old Fadama, and PAHO has set up a legal aid desk to help increase the local community’s access to justice, and established other projects to help improve the standard of living.
Living with a host family
During my time in Ghana, I lived with a wonderful local host family who were extremely welcoming. There were up to eight Projects Abroad volunteers staying with this family at once, all of whom had come from different parts of the world to participate in a variety of different projects. I lived with two volunteers from France, two from the UK, one from Germany, one from Denmark and another volunteer from Holland. Living alongside people with such diverse cultural backgrounds was a great learning experience, and I am pleased to say I have made some great friends that I will no doubt continue to keep in touch with for a long time.
Living in Ghana certainly threw challenges my way on a daily basis. Of course I had never imagined that I would be living in luxury during my time abroad, however adapting to living without some of the usual western comforts you tend to take for granted definitely required resourcefulness and an open mind. To my surprise, living without running water for six weeks was easier than I thought. I’d be the first to admit that the idea of showering everyday with a cold bucket of water does not sound overly appealing, but I was amazed to find that adapting to it took no time at all. Water is a scarce commodity, and if anything, not being able to go to a sink and turn on a flowing tap really forced me to re-evaluate how I use and how I should conserve water.
Blackouts were also a common occurrence in our household, and as you can imagine, being without power poses difficulties in itself. There were certainly times when myself and other volunteers would be sitting around the dinner table, eating by torchlight, and trying to survive the heat without having a fan. As most days averaged a temperature in the mid thirties, and with humidity as high as 80%, it definitely took some getting used to.
Of course during my time away, there were also a number of other things that posed interesting dilemmas and situations. Sleeping under a mosquito net every night, taking daily malaria medication, avoiding drinking the local water, and being careful about what foods to eat were some of the main health considerations I had to keep in mind. Furthermore, there were also many practical things that sometimes posed dilemmas. For example, learning how to navigate the public transport system, negotiating and bartering for just about everything, and even learning Ghana’s currency, the Ghana Cedi – all in themselves were new experiences to name a few.
Aspects of living in an underdeveloped country were definitely challenging at times, but I soon came to realise that facing these challenges indeed meant that I was living and breathing real Ghanaian life. All of these things were part and parcel of the wonderful charm Ghana became to have for me, and so I made a conscious effort to embrace the local way of life, rather than resist it.
Aside from working Monday to Friday, I also tried to travel on weekends to explore more of what Ghana had to offer. I visited places such as Jamestown, Cape Coast, and the small village of Ada-Foah. Visiting all of these places gave me a taste of different parts of Ghana, and a chance to escape from the fast-paced and hectic environment that is Accra.
What I learnt
My time in Ghana was truly a wonderful experience and a time in my life I am sure I will never forget. It was an attack on all of the senses, and whilst challenging at times, I feel I have come away learning so much about the diversity of the world in which we live, and about myself.
Professionally I feel I have benefited from learning about human rights issues first hand. Working in a practical sense on tackling some of the issues faced by the local community has been very rewarding, and I’m sure very valuable experience for my career in future years. I also feel that my time in Ghana was of great personal value. Working and living abroad presented the opportunity to push myself outside of my comfort zone, and challenged me to be adaptable, flexible and open-minded. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about all aspects of Ghanaian life, and experiencing a new and different culture to my own. I can’t wait to go back one day!
For any law student looking for an overseas experience, and the opportunity to apply the skills you’ve learnt at law school in a meaningful and rewarding way - then I can’t recommend this experience enough! Don’t be afraid to look outside the box for ways to gain legal experience, be open-minded to new challenges, and just go for it!