January 28, 2011

How I got where I am - Part 3: Ghana and my internship

In June 2010, when British Airways’ employees were on strike, I flew from Prague, through London and Lagos, to Accra, Ghana. I was finally – for the first time since 2007 – going back to Africa and I was both scared and excited. The main reason of this trip was to spend 2.5 months interning at a Ghanaian NGO, whose name I’m not sure if I should say here... Let me just say that it is an organization that is supposed to promote women’s rights and fight against HIV/AIDS.

I found this organization on my own, through days and days of Google search and stuff like that, and it looked pretty cool. While getting the internship was definitely time-taking, dealing with all the formalities later wasn’t much better. I am not the type of person who likes e-mailing people with the same request a million times, but since I was applying for travel grants to be able to go and “my” NGO wasn’t responding, there was nothing else I could do. I probably should have taken that as a warning. Long story short – I got all the signatures I needed in the end. But I was also told in a very unfriendly way by the then president of the organization when meeting her for the first time that I should understand that people working in organizations like theirs are really busy and interns shouldn’t ask them to sign any papers at all. I remembered that encounter many times later during my internship on various occasions, especially when most of my colleagues were watching soap operas every afternoon at work.

But let’s go back a little bit… About 3 weeks before my departure for Ghana, I got an e-mail from the national coordinator of the organization saying that we should come up with a more specific plan for my internship. Great, I thought, they really care and it’s going to be good!  And so we made a plan. I received the Newman Award for Intergenerational Relationships to go to Ghana and thus I suggested researching the impact of HIV/AIDS on relationships within families, how they affect intergenerational relationships and how roles within families are changing due to HIV/AIDS. The coordinator agreed and assured me that this area needs research in Ghana and that it is perfect because they are just starting a project with HelpAGE Ghana and thus I can join them... It all seemed great. I wrote a research proposal and it seemed she read it all… It turned out only later that – if she actually had read it – this was probably the only time she ever read anything I wrote…

Excited about the internship I got to Ghana. I was happy to be back on the continent and I was happy to meet what is always going to be my Ghanaian family. I am pretty sure that if it wasn’t for them – definitely some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met – I might have left Ghana earlier because my organization turned out to be a very frustrating place. And commute happily 2 hours to work when you know that most people will do nothing the whole day. I at least always had my great family home at the end of my 2-hour commute back.

The trotro stop in front of our house
The street I walked every day to get to the office
 Back to my internship. The first day, when all we did was waiting around only to be told after 3 hours of waiting that nobody is coming, should have opened my eyes, but being a hopeless optimist sometimes, I still believed it was going to be good. Two weeks later, I realized that the fact that nothing got done during the first two weeks just meant that nothing was going to get done. Nobody cared. I am pretty sure that the excuse would be that they were waiting for money to come to start the project, but I would believe that that was the only reason only if I didn’t have to watch my colleague sleep on her desk at work (or on the couch, sometimes, which I actually preferred because at least I didn’t see her), or listen to another colleague’s explanation why he didn’t come to work (strike of the trotro drivers… to be hones, it’s still one of my favorite jokes coming from him).

And here you’re probably wondering if I got something done. Yes, I did. But only because I gave up on waiting on them to help me or connect me with people. I said – I’d love to meet with the Queen Mothers, they said “yea, you can, but they’re really hard to work with, you’ll have to pay them all dinner and stuff.” Guess what? I did meet with them, thanks to my friend’s former boss, and no, I didn’t have to pay anything. Actually, I met with Manye Esther many times (and just in case, once again, here’s their website).

Me with Manye Esther from the Queen Mothers Association
I was lucky to have my friend Edem around. He connected me with people, he helped me with interviews (as did my Ghanaian sister Naa) when I was interviewing people who didn’t speak English, he explained things to me about Ghana and thanks to him I was able to finish my research, although I had to change the topic. I had limited resources and wasn’t able to connect with enough people working in the field I wanted to research. In the end, I changed the topic to support for AIDS orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

 I did research on a topic slightly different from the original one, but I did it. I did it despite my office’s attempts to make me do nothing and despite the fact they didn’t do anything they had promised. I did it because I am lucky to have great people around who believe in me and are willing to help. I did it because giving up wasn’t an option (I went to Ghana determined to make it worth it no matter what it takes). I did it because I believe that the people I interviewed matter. It was frustrating at times, sad at times (no school can make you ready to see the people you’re interviewing crying in front of you because their lives are so difficult and because you’re probably the first person in a long time who actually asked them about it), but it was worth it.

I learned a lot about the lives of AIDS orphans, people living with HIV/AIDS and generally about Ghanaians affected by HIV/AIDS in any way. They live tough lives – although the HIV prevalence rate in Ghana isn’t so high (about 2 %) compared to many other sub-Saharan African countries, it’s a very big issue that needs attention because of the omnipresent stigma and discrimination of such people.

And what’s the most important lesson I learned for my future involvement in the development field? Local, grass-roots NGOs are great because we need to know what the local people think, we can’t do much without them; however, before you go start working for a local NGO, find out what “working” means for the people employed there. Because just being local doesn’t bring about any change. Just being doesn’t bring about any change. They key word is do, not be. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret going to Ghana to work there at all. I certainly learned more than any class could ever teach me. It was a great lesson on the development field. And let me throw another cliché here – I learned a lot about myself, too.

And if you want to read more about my Ghanaian experience, you can look here, too.

Although I never thought it was funny when Percy woke me up at 5:30am, these two guys and their family made my stay in Ghana much easier. They're always going to be a part of my family.

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