Volunteer stories : Tom Stephenson - PRO Social Worker in Ghana
My name is Tom S.. I am a UK social worker, aged 32 and worked for Haringey Children’s Services up to October 2014. I made the decision to take a six month break from statutory social work and use my skills abroad. In October I travelled to Ghana to work with Projects Abroad in their human rights office, raising awareness on issues of human rights with marginalised communities.
In 2014 I got engaged to my long-term girlfriend who was born in England to Ghanaian parents. As I was committed to working abroad for an extended period of time and as I sadly have no language skills, Ghana was a perfect fit for me. It offered me the opportunity to use my social work skills in a developing country where there are many social challenges and where English is spoken and it offered me the perfect opportunity to explore the culture of my future wife’s family.
PRO Social Work placement
Over a period of 16 weeks, I worked in Projects Abroad’s Human Rights Office in Accra. The Human Rights office is well established and has links with many communities in Accra and the surrounding areas. Human rights issues are many and varied in Ghana and there is a need to provide education and advocacy for marginalised communities. These are communities who very often are not aware of their rights and are therefore subject to human rights abuses and poor outcomes, particularly in respect of health and education.
For instance, in some of the slum communities in Accra, children are disproportionately affected by such issues as child labour, child trafficking and child marriage. Through raising awareness of these issues and educating children and adults about these issues, Projects Abroad seeks to bring about sustainable change at grassroots level.
As a social worker in the human rights office, one of my primary roles was to undertake outreach sessions with the communities outlined above. In order to fulfil this role effectively, I spent a significant amount of time conducting research into the challenges and difficulties experienced by these marginalised groups within Ghana. A common theme of my findings was a lack of knowledge and understanding within communities about their rights, and a lack of education more generally which would serve to guard against any violations of human rights.
Volunteering in Ghana
Once working within the community, part of my role was to listen and to learn – about the culture and cultural practices within the community and about people’s and communities’ subjective experiences of life. Social work as a profession is committed to working in partnership with individuals and communities and the time I spent listening and learning was a key part of understanding how best to reach these communities and how to frame the outreach sessions. As part of this process, I also spent a great deal of time talking with the local staff at the human rights office. They have an intimate knowledge of the communities in which we work and of the issues on the ground.
Over the course of my 16 weeks in Ghana, I conducted numerous outreach sessions in the community. I worked with pupils at a slum school in Accra, a girls group at a mosque in the Muslim slum area in Accra and also with a rural women’s group on the outskirts of Accra. Each outreach session could be seen as broadening my knowledge and understanding of the culture and therefore served to benefit all the future sessions.
When working at the slum school, I engaged a class of approximately 35 pupils over the course of 4 sessions. The sessions focussed on issues which directly affected those children – child trafficking and child labour. Working with children, one of my key roles was to ensure that the children were fully engaged with the subject matter. To do this, I was required to think creatively about activities and sessions which would really get the children thinking about these issues.
In the session on child labour, the children developed posters outlining the dangers of child labour and exploring the key issues. In order to build their social confidence and competence, the children then presented their work to the rest of the class and the adults present. Later, the posters were displayed around the school for others to see, enabling the children to act as educators within their community. The session enabled the children to think about how child labour can be reduced and stopped. Education is the key component in dealing with this issue, and so the children could then reflect on the power of education in bringing about change.
Again and again on discussion of these topics, we came back to the value of education in changing things for the better. It was so amazing and reaffirming for me as a social worker to see the way in which the children engaged in these educational activities, their thirst for knowledge and their amazing creativity when left to their own devices.
My overall experience
I could provide any number of specific experiences to demonstrate how I feel about my work in Ghana, but as a social worker, it must be the interaction with children and adults which best encapsulates my feelings about working in Ghana. I was there to provide some education to individuals and communities, but I expect the people I met can never know how much they have taught me and what they have given me to take away from Ghana.
The best example I can think of to demonstrate my amazing experience in Ghana would be with the girls group at the mosque in Accra. At the height of the Ebola crisis in early 2015, I was the only volunteer working in the human rights office. As such, I did the bulk of the 8 sessions with the girls on my own. Over the course of those 8 sessions I found the girls to be so welcoming, so willing to engage with me, so creative in the way they approached each topic and so willing to provide their own experiences of life that it is something that will always inform my future social work – no matter our backgrounds, age or experiences in life, we can come together and learn from each other.
I can only hope that the children and adults I worked with took something valuable from my work with them. I hope especially that the children continue to develop their love for education. The surest route to Ghanaian development, which is of benefit for every Ghanaian, is for the children and young people to develop their own skills and knowledge. They must gain a critical awareness of the world around them to change things for the better.
Ghana has its challenges, but it also has huge strengths, not least amazing family and community values. I will definitely be going back.
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