Clare Taylor - Law & Human Rights in Ghana
As with most people nowadays, when I first thought about taking a GAP Year between school and studying law at university, the first thing I did was type ‘GAP Year’ into the popular search engine. A variety of organizations appeared offering different types of projects in exotic locations. Projects Abroad stood out, however, mainly because they offered more unusual projects, such as medicine, journalism and law. Anyone hoping to pursue careers in those areas will know how important work experience is for your résumé. I was struck by a brilliant idea, why not travel, live in another country and experience another culture, meeting lots of different people while gaining some all important practical experience in a legal environment.
So after thinking about it for a few months, and deciding to just plain ignore all those who told me that going to Africa by myself at 18 years old may not be such a good idea, I booked my trip. I was going to Ghana for four months, leaving on New Years Day 2008. As soon as I was accepted on the program, Projects Abroad took care of everything, from booking my flights to arranging my placement and accommodation with a local family. This was perfect, as it allowed me to concentrate on far more important matters, such as what clothes to pack.
In the months leading up to my departure, of course it was hugely nerve wracking, but also very exciting. Projects Abroad made it all so easy, there was lots of information on the website and a Desk Officer out in Ghana who I was able to email with all my questions. As she was living out there she proved to be invaluable. I got to go shopping for summer clothes in dreary October and November, and although Christmas presents comprised of first aid kits and mosquito nets and other similarly useful things, it only caused to increase my excitement.
Once I arrived, I was taken on an in-depth induction tour of Accra with three other volunteers, who I instantly bonded with. I needn’t have worried about not getting on with any of the other volunteers; by simply being there we had something in common, and because the whole environment is so extreme, you get to know each other really quickly.
My placement, the reason I was there, was amazing. While I was there, up to ten volunteers worked alongside Ghanaian lawyers and Human Rights activists on the Human Rights Project. There was a really good atmosphere in the office and everyone was very helpful. We all took our laptops so we had internet access which was ideal for both researching our projects and keeping in touch with home. In the first week of being there we were lucky enough to be taken along to the annual People’s Assembly in Takoradi, around four hours west of Accra. It was a really big important event and people came from all over the country to ask the President himself questions about his previous years government. It was a perfect example of how seriously Ghanaians take their democratic process.
Over the four months I was on the Human Rights project, I was able to do a great number of varied and interesting things. I worked closely with one of the members of staff on a project aiming to highlight mental health issues in the north of the country and conducted both field and internet research. A major part of the work is to raise awareness of human rights issues, and volunteers are encouraged to get involved. One such event was a protest march to raise awareness of the disappearance of 44 Ghanaians in the Gambia in 2005. It aimed to prompt a governmental enquiry and was an unforgettable day. It was very emotional, as family of the victims were present, and the event gathered a lot of attention.
We all wore black, had red bands around our heads and carried white candles. There was no hint of trouble so it was slightly alarming when police in full riot gear appeared, though happily they weren’t needed. Another big event was a Police Public hearing held in a mining town around five hours outside Accra. We were able to help with both the organization beforehand and on the day, and again it was a fascinating experience. We were able to hear speeches by the highest-ranking police officers in the country and by locals who had had encounters with the police. The day wasn’t too heavy handed though, as a local school performed traditional dances throughout the day.
Soon after arriving, we decided to take a break from the city and went to a beach resort. It was like being in paradise. One of my lasting memories will always be sitting on the beach round a bonfire, drinking pina coladas out of a real pineapple while some locals taught us how to play the drums. They were less than impressed with my efforts, I guess I just don’t have their rhythm, but they were very patient with me.
I was surprised by the quality of Ghanaian beaches, they were incredible. One of the best was at Ada Foah, where I spent my last weekend. The small resort, reached only by boat is at the point where the river meets the sea, and was an ideal place to give my tan a final topping up. We had seen photos in the guide books, but they didn’t do it justice, it is a must for anyone visiting the country. I woke on my last morning in the country in a beach hut in paradise, knowing that later that day I would board a plane back to Heathrow, I didn’t want to leave.
It wasn’t all beaches though, if you venture north, away from the coast there is a lot more of the country to explore. In the Volta region there are the Wli waterfalls that are well worth a visit. They may not be as spectacular, visually as other falls, but as they can only be reached by an hour long hike up a steep mountain, the sense of achievement on arrival makes them extra special. Whenever anyone goes to Africa, it is assumed that a safari will be on the itinerary. Ghana is no different, and although there are no lions, tigers or zebra, there are elephants. Lots of them.
On a walking safari in Mole National Park, we got within 10 meters of five huge elephants. Luckily for both us and them (as our guide carried a gun), they ignored us, far more interested in their meal. It was breathtaking to be so close to such huge creatures. Elephants weren’t the only animals on show however, we saw deer, birds, warthogs, which the guide helpfully referred to as ‘Pumba’ and monkeys, who seemed fascinated by the swimming pool, and they certainly spent enough time there.
As with so many of my Ghanaian experiences, the trip to Mole was surreal. Although we were in the middle of an African national park, with elephants visible from our window, we stayed in a very comfortable room where we were able to watch Champions League soccer.
Speaking of soccer, my time in Ghana coincided with them hosing the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament. The whole country went crazy, stalls selling shirts lined the streets, and the build up was fantastic. It was easy to tell when Ghana were playing as there were crowds of people crowding round small television sets on street corners and market stalls. When they scored, everyone went mental, running up and down the street cheering. Deciding to get in on the action, we bought tickets for a double headed group match. The cost? $3. That’s right, $3 for two matches of international soccer, brilliant.
Getting into the spirit of things, we all bought Ghana shirts, Ghana flags and Ghana whistles, and had our faces painted in the Ghanaian flag. This went down very well. People kept coming up to us asking to have their photo taken with us, and I was even interviewed by a national news program. Unfortunately, Ghana was knocked out in the semi-finals, although this made getting tickets for the final much easier. This time it cost us £2.50. The atmosphere at both matches was incredible; people were just so loud and enthusiastic.
While I loved my time in Ghana, there were the inevitable periods of homesickness. However, these were less frequent than they may have been if I had not been living with a host family. Myself and up to four other volunteers lived with a lady in a northern suburb of the city called Dzorwulu (though strangely it’s pronounced Jo-lu). She was very welcoming and made amazing food. She quickly adapted to our needs, adjusting portion sizes according to appetite and making our favorites more frequently.
She allowed us to go out as much as we wanted, which was useful as Accra has a thriving nightlife which we certainly took advantage off. The only problem with the house was the train which passed close by at 5.55 every morning, blowing its horn and waking us up. However, as we had to get up at 6am anyway, it proved to be a useful alarm clock. 6am is very early, but Ghanaians get up early anyway to avoid the heat of the day.
Although it was daunting to begin with, Ghana soon became my home, and I settled into a routine quickly. Being there for a longer period of time allowed me to experience what the country is like on a day to day basis, something you don’t get on a short holiday. Inter-country travel is easy and I went to Sierra Leone, while some of my friends went to Togo, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Mali. All in all, it was the most amazing experience; I wouldn’t change it for the world, and can’t wait to go back.