Service learning in Ghana: Women’s rights and community development

Sitting down amongst hundreds of students, I nudged a friend beside me and attempted to inconspicuously whisper, “The accents of the people in this movie are so familiar!” We were at a plenary session for the Global Village Houses in Jameson, part of the Douglass Residential College. It was a screening of the film “Six Days: Three Activists, Three Wars, One Dream.” The movie traced a day in the life of three human rights defenders thousands of miles apart, and I had guessed the African activist was from Liberia. English appeared to be the primary language of the people. Everyone spoke it, and they spoke it excellently — and while many African countries are deft in the English language, it was the accent that grabbed me. Thick and distinct, it resonated. Also, what other African country spoke like this and had faced a war in the recent decades? It must be Liberia.

And it was. Several more minutes into the film and it stated where the activists were from: Liberia, Georgia and Iraq. I seemed to have guessed correctly because these Liberian voices were reminiscent of my recent summer. Through the Center for Global Education, I participated in the Women’s Rights and Community Development in Ghana, where my internship placement was at a nongovernmental organization at a Liberian refugee camp. I performed in various roles such as a teaching assistant for a kindergarten class, an aide in a classroom of children with disabilities from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome and an interviewer to write reports that would help raise money for the NGO to continue its processes. These interviews were a critical aspect of my internship — people were open to answering questions about how their lives have changed due to the support of the organization, and this was when I was allowed a miniscule glimpse into the trajectory of their lives.

I have talked to survivors about the separation from their parents as a child, the vehemence of terror in anarchy, the witnessing of brutal deaths of strangers and loved ones, the attempt to escape but discovering yourself on a sinking ship and to finally make it out alive only to find yourself all alone in foreign territory. Many of these people, now between the ages of 20 and 50, still don’t know what has become of their family. Was it death? Or are they alive and estranged in a distant place? These people have found immediate safety from the horrors of war, but long-term stability is still a question. Many are limited in the extent of their education, so employment opportunities are ambiguous — perhaps nonexistent. Tragedy is compounded by tragedy, and each day is a danger in and of itself.

I am evidently now in America, having watched a documentary about activism for a community I had the opportunity to work with. I am here, continuing my education in the safety of my institution and the security of this country, and they are there. The documentary we watched during plenary is undeniably touching and acknowledged as a reality, but it is a reality that isn’t grasped the same way as those who actually live it. For some, it may be a lingering thought in the back of their mind or an ephemeral recognition of what occurs in this world. I might be able to say (more than others) that I was really there with them — with some of the people who live these struggles — but that would only be the closing of a spatial distance. Even when I was physically so close, I was still so far away, for the experiences that have constructed my world are vastly different from theirs. I spent my summer assisting them, but that is a mere veneer. I have taken more in experience than I have given for a brief period through my actions. I hope to compensate for this unbalanced relationship by continuing a lifelong work of service in my lifetime. I have been exposed to and have taken in so much through my participation in my service learning experience that the failure to utilize this raw inner material for change, and to let it instead fade into oblivion, would be a shame.

Maegan Kae Sunaz is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and philosophy with a minor in women’s and gender studies. She is a staff writer for The Daily Targum.

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