Volunteering to Uphold the Law
It turned out that travelling to Ghana with no expectations was the best thing I could have done. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the culture shock of the first few hours of walking the streets of Africa in person.
Before I left my concerns had revolved around what clothes to take, how much money I would need, if I would like any of the food, how hot it would be – all the usual stuff. These were soon put into perspective. In a country where any item of clothing is a luxury and money and food are perpetually out of reach for so many, the happiness, warmth and simple appreciation of life that endures regardless in the Ghanaian people was truly humbling.
Becoming a local
I had gone there on a placement at The British Council – The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Travelling to work every day was a frantic matter of working out which tro-tro (shared minibus taxi) to catch, when the only sign was someone hanging out of the side and shouting destinations.
Being among the locals gave me a strong sense of the reason I had travelled to Ghana. The placement made me feel that being a law student from England was of real value. I got straight to work investigating human rights abuses by the Ghana police service, which involved interviewing witnesses and documenting their testimonies, as well as researching material about the state of prison conditions in the country.
By the end of my first seven days in Ghana I had really been made to feel at home. My host family went out of their way to include me in family gatherings, but would also give me my own space when I needed it. When I walked the streets of Accra it felt like I was meeting an extended family. Abrunis (white people) are a magnet for attention, of the kind that feels welcoming and speaks of true hospitality.
Ghanaian people see a stranger in their country as a privilege, and they seemed to want to give the best impression. Locals on the tro-tro would greet me with a friendly ‘good morning,’ entire classes of school children would wave and shout hello. It seemed fitting that the first word I learned in Twi, one of the Ghanaian languages, was ‘Akwaaba’ – welcome. People greeted me with this day-in day-out.
Appetite for adventure
The day-to-day encounters of Accra and the work I was doing really encouraged me to become more adventurous than I ever dreamed I could be before I left England. By my final week I was keen to explore more of Ghana, and I took a three-day trip to Tamale in the north. From there I went to visit the elephants in Mole National Park.
Getting out of Accra proved to be a real eye-opener. I travelled with another volunteer on a twelve-hour tro-tro journey along roads that didn’t seem fit for horses. The abysmal travel conditions that the locals have to put up with put my life at home into perspective. We were crammed together three people to a seat. The bus made several stops on its journey but only because it kept breaking down.
Perhaps the most memorable moment was the drive through mud hut villages. It made me acutely aware how far I was from home.
By the time I returned to Accra and my host family I was due to fly home the following day. It felt like my time had only just begun, and like I’d only just started to get the most out of it. I wanted nothing more than to travel further around this country and meet more Ghanaians. I felt strangely settled, even though only five weeks had passed.
I said my goodbyes, and prepared for the culture shock of touching down in England.