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PWA volunteer discussing child rights in Ghana
PWA volunteer discussing child rights in Ghana
Volunteering on the international schools partnership programme in Ghana, West Africa
Getting to know children in Ghana, West Africa
Child rights: the right to a childhood, ethical volunteering in Ghana, West Africa

Opeikuma: The Rights of Children, a Community, & How My Eyes Were Opened

Date Posted: 11/09/2015

Iniye joined Partner West Africa (PWA) for a 5 week placement in August 2015 to explore Child Right's in Ghana as a PWA Volunteer. Read her funny and moving article about her experiences with PWA in our partner community of Opeikuma here.

Development is an interesting topic and it is fascinating to me how little attention many people pay to it. Over the past four years, I have had growing within me a desire to play a role in the relevance of Africa through development. I agreed with myself that this desire is a flame that needed to be fed. Being very unsatisfied with the intangible efforts of many large development organisations I decided that by virtue of my ongoing degree in International Relations that I would get involved with an organisation that works with communities to ensure lasting development. I stumbled on Partner West Africa (PWA) one day on my way to a lecture at the University of Birmingham and after some research and much indecisiveness, I resolved to go ahead with volunteering with PWA. 
 
PWA is an NGO that is passionate about harrowing situations in Ghana particularly the Oshieye community. The organisation enlists the help of willing volunteers, alongside normal staff to attend to various developmental issues. Even in its infancy, the organisation has successfully established a nursery and daycare centre of about seventy children for two years now, providing free education alongside free healthcare, and nutritious meals and a safe environment. A very impressive and tactful approach to developmental issues drew me to lend my time and whatever skills I have to PWA. 
 
As a part of our project, we embarked on a trip to a community called Opeikuma to mostly observe the development challenges of more rural Ghanaian environments. Alongside the team of PWA child care volunteers and the PWA child rights volunteers, we had with us a team of student's from the University of Bath's Engineers Without Borders group. Their project with PWA is a partnership which extends to providing water solutions for PWA's children's nursery and daycare centre in the village of Kokrobite. Also, we went with the task of engaging in arts and craft with the children of the school in the community, informally regarding child labour practices and the role it plays in the community, and to complete a community mapping exercise through which we learned directly from the community the challenges the community faces in the hope that PWA can then provide solutions that are driven by the input of local community members. This article is simply going to try to provide a glimpse of my take on the experience, and an insight into the community.
 
Opeikuma is a village settlement about forty-five minutes from Accra in the Central Region of Ghana. We were opportune to spend a couple of days in the community in hopes of being partakers of its heritage and its quest for development. Having never been to anywhere in a Ghana except Accra, Opeikuma was an interesting experience for me. I mean you have this big city girl from the hustle and bustle of Lagos to the dusty village of Opeikuma. The journey itself from Kokrobite had entailed a selection of the little beauties of African life: from the young ladies hawking plantain chips along the roadside, the voices on the radio going on about some political issue and the cab driver who-quite expressively- tried to convince us to pay him more than we had agreed when we first got into the cab. It seems to me that no matter how hard I try to abstain from the use of the collective term 'Africa' when referring to a singular country, the similar experiences I've witnessed are too often a similar and regular occurrence in each African country. That being said, it is still very necessary to understand that the voyage to Opeikuma and the village itself were extremely unique in the context of the reason and the outcome of this trip. This trip wasn't just a spur of the moment decision I made within my spontaneous mind but rather one of the many perks that come from being a development volunteer with PWA. This trip to a more rural part of Ghana had, at this point, joined the fast extending list of all the ways volunteering with this organization had pushed me far out of my comfort zone (In the best of ways). In its true essence, it was not a far stretch from the typical or maybe stereotypical African village setting that is conjured up in the recesses of one's mind. Our arrival at Opeikuma was, in all honesty, a trying time for all us volunteers because we had to readjust to a different mode of living. A very interesting thing about our lodging was that it was located right next to the mosque minaret and as a result, we all became extremely accustomed to the five prayer times. The 4am prayer call after a while became harmonious to me and, it served as a calmer backdrop to the shouts of a preacher praying for a revival in the distance. The juxtaposition of the two sounds everyday at 4am entirely reopened parts of my mind that regarded the diversity of humanity and especially of Africans. 
 
The first interaction we had with the people of Opeikuma was meeting with the extremely hospital Chief Nana Opei Mensah II. From our guesthouse we took a walk that was previously described to us as a fifteen-minute walk but ended up being quite a little longer! This walk introduced us quite properly to the Opeikuma community. The atmosphere was rife with friendliness and a strong sense of community. The welcoming friendliness of Ghanaians became obvious as we walked passed strangers on the road. The all too familiar greeting 'Eti sen' ['How are you'] was being shouted from different angles at our volunteer group. With gleeful recognition, the people responded with waves or smiles of acknowledgment when we replied 'Eh ya o' ['Fine!]. Not long after, we too had received the Eti sen bug and in no time were cheerfully greeting the entire village during our walk to the Chief's 'Palace'. Before we met Nana (the Chief), I had gone with my preconceived notion on the kind of person he would be. I had met traditional rulers in the past and I know the rigors of cultural and traditional protocol that must be in most cases adhered to. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I had expected him to dramatically charge into the room and incline us to kiss his signet ring of power whilst avoiding eye contact with his face. I cannot lie, my over imagination took the best of me and I was pleasantly surprised when we met him. He was simply dressed and spoke to is in a down to earth manner yet he still retained the respect from his people and obviously from us visitors to his town. Nana welcomed us to the village with a speech and he recognized our intentions. Leading the community mapping exercise, the chief led us to the dusty community centre where we enlisted the help of the community to gain our bearings of the town. The setting of this exercise conjures up in my head images I had created of scenes out of Achebe's village books. In true village fashion we sat on chairs in a circle under a tree to conduct this exercise. Armed with nothing but a stick and the God-given sand an elderly man began to produce a functional representation of the village for our navigative purposes. This mapping task began with the presence of about fifteen members of the village but ended up gaining traction and a diverse fan base. It is only now I can say I fully understand the adage 'It takes a village', my ability to relate to that quote came to me as a form of revelatory 'aha moment'. Everyone came out lending their voice, their ideas and their artistic expertise to the mapping exercise. Subconsciously, we were sucked in by the communal energy and started drawing a map we barely new ourselves! However not straying from what is expected of the tropics, the sun came out of hiding, causing a shift from a more involved attempt at map drawing to the exploration of issues in the community of Opeikuma and how we as representatives of Partner West Africa could in any way lend a helping hand. The people threw at us issues that were obviously close to their hearts, issues from the dusty roads especially as a result of the quarry trucks to the increasing waste management situation and the lack of a sewer and drainage system. In our minds, we thought of the problem of waste disposal as one that could be easily solved. All that is needed is for the community to collect their trash (however they want to) and have it collected from them on certain days like in most developed countries. The community isn't asking for a high tech rubbish disposal unit, in this case function trumps aesthetics. A slightly bigger than normal pick up truck should do, of its kind we saw many driving by whilst in the community. The problem is, where does this waste go?
 
Following the end of the mapping exercise, the team set out to investigate our individual group tasks, the EWB crew in pure engineering fashion went to investigate the water systems of the village. My very limited skills in engineering forced me to have an extremely minimal rate of comprehension of what was going on. The engineers collectively inquired about how the new constructed water pump and poly-tank situation was going to work and provide water for the community and I for one was very interested in the word poly-tank. However interesting poly-tanks were, our team had a secondary project in Opeikuma, which was to informally explore child rights and child labour issues. Since I've been in Ghana, I've been forced to notice a lot of things that ordinarily I would have ignored or considered a non-issue. This is of utmost importance because I've come to realise that the issue of child labour is one that is often disregarded by us Africans not because we are horrible people but because we have become too desensitised to little children performing such rigorous activities. It is also a contentious topic, in the sense that children hawking produce has somewhat become a cultural issue. A thing that we have become too accustomed to because of the lack of financial options present in many communities. To gain insight into child labour in the community we found a group of three women who provided us an interesting case study. The lead lady was a chatty hairdresser, the second was her trendy younger sister and the third was a quiet and giggly customer in the process of getting her hair done. The hairdresser had a six-year-old daughter who was shying in and out of the conversation. 
 
"My daughter does not work, she is only six, instead she plays a lot. She likes to pretend that she's selling things?"
 
The statement revealed so many things about the situation in the community. First, she is aware that there is an age that is too young for work but also that this young girl has grown up surrounded by petty trading that even her childhood ambitions revolve around this task. Following our conversations with these women more parents came by urging their children to answer questions we didn't have for them. Soon enough, we were surrounded by children who were yelling out their ages and beaming with pride as they told us what classes they were and which they liked best. It became more evident, that this mini community within the vastness of Opeikuma had such a strong bond of togetherness that transcended the difficult situations. By the time we had left the three women and the crowd of children we had amassed we too couldn't shake off the feeling of community. 
 
Retaining our initial plan of arts and crafts with the children of St Peters school we geared ourselves up for an interesting and messy showdown - PWA have set up a partnership between St Peters school in Opeikuma and the Castle Douglas school in the UK [part of the International Schools Partnership Programme]. Therefore, we enlisted the help of eager school kids to make Christmas cards for students at the partner school and thank you cards to their sponsors. Crafts are my thing, growing up I could never do much but I could work well with a pair of scissors a tube of glue. That being said, the children we worked with at St. Peter's were like an industrialised work force in producing the cards. An activity that we had naively envisioned would take all day took a little over an hour, that's what I call Ghanaian innovation. As a result of the rapid craft making exercise we had to engage the children in other activities hence we went for the stereotypical but hugely popular boys (and the odd two or three girls) to play football and girls to play clapping and skipping games. The child in me, though not hidden very far beneath, came out for a while and we had a swell time jumping around and singing to songs we'd barely learnt. 
    
An opportunity to explore child rights issues presented itself in the most spectacular form, after the games. We happened to be looking out at the field trying to regain our spent energy then we noticed this little girl in a beautiful pink dress stomping aggressively across the field shrieking in tears. As an honorary judge and jury, we the volunteers of PWA decided to hear her case and decide the verdict. After a series of broken translations from both Twi and English we were able to deduce, thanks to her able big brother, that this five year old girl in her lovely pink dress was being swindled of her change from an older girl who bought her oranges. It became apparent to us that at five years old, this girl was selling fruit on the streets of Opeikuma. Not only was she hawking at such a young age, she was too young to understand the mathematics of the trading system causing her to lose the little money she had worked so hard in the hot sun to make. The question we then asked ourselves was how many times has she given the wrong change? How many times has she taken home less money than she should have just because of how young she is? Hawking is a hard job, for anyone, but for a five year old it forces the child to reach levels of maturity and physical strength well beyond their years. The cultural aspect of child labour is one that takes form from the notion synonymous to us Africans that entails any able bodied person, of any age to contribute to the family. It must be stressed that the families of children who hawk do not have the absolute intention of sending their underage children into the streets for a childhood full of labour. In most cases, these people have no choice. In a family of three to six people they need as many hands as possible to bring in some sort of income to support the home. After the children were satisfied with our solution to the crying six year old's issue we thanked the concerned crowd and begged them to disperse. The communal desire of this community was evident here again even from the eyes of little children and that melted our hearts and spurred our conviction. 
   
Of all the many interesting people we met in Opeikuma, I found Sarah to be the one who I was personally charmed by. Sarah is a remarkable sixteen-year-old young lady whose education is being sponsored by PWA. She had a very bright and confident countenance that was quite different from all the other young people I had met in the village. She didn't seem in any way intimidated by me, which was how most of the other children acted, although an orphan, she optimistically told me of her remaining family and how she hoped to be a lawyer in the future. She reminded me in so many ways of myself and that made me a little sad that her situation could dampen her young dreams (I am pleased to report, however, that PWA Director Matt is now working on an opportunity to try and secure Sarah an internship within PWA!). Our final night in the community had us treated to a community bonfire night, where the history of Opeikuma was told to us by the chief linguist of the village and we were treated to traditional dances from Sarah who in my eyes is the Beyonce of Opeikuma. History has always been of great interest to because I'm strongly aware of the fact that a man must know where he has been in order to truly know where he must go. The linguist Kwesi Thompson told us of how the name of the village comes from a set of twins and one is called Opeikuma. Apparently the founders of the village traveled down from the Ashanti region, the Volta region and from Cape Coast. The traditional dance performance stole the entire show; we had four young people perform a somewhat interpretive dance. The entire community was at the event and we were sat next to young children who provided running commentaries as the night went on. 
   
Opeikuma was in all its glory an incredible experience; the essence of the African spirit was extremely present in everything that we did. The feeling of love and community from the people around us transcended the conditions the villagers lived in. I learnt that the only time anyone is truly able to understand another person is by walking in his or her shoes. Because it is easy to think you can try and solve peoples problems without first understanding who they are and why they do what they do, and that is one of PWA's main strengths! Also, I've learnt that there is so much we can learn from the little communities like Opeikuma. We must try to take a page from the lives of people whom we would ordinarily be unable to relate with. We must treat issues no matter how inconsequential they may seem to us with the gravity of seriousness they deserve. Personally, I have had an eye opening experience in so many aspects of the community life. I was able to obtain a sense of awareness concerning child issues of which I have now developed a keen interest in. I gained the motivation I needed from the hardworking children in the schools, the hardworking people in the streets who have pushed me both subconsciously and consciously to understand that excuses do not exist. 
 
Inyie Spiff - PWA Volunteer
 
To read more about Inyie's time with PWA in general, please visit our volunteer feedback page.
Author: Iniye Spiff - PWA Volunteer

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