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Student Experiences

Kolkata Summer 2016

Words: James Lardner

When our feet first hit the earth of the rich red soils of India and our chests breathed in the thick close air scorching our lungs we knew the experience we were about to confront wouldn't be an easy one.  The temperature is so high, that the sweat rippling over ones forehead could be likened to the monsoon which we have yet to be introduced properly.  The bus trip to our residences was a battle of vehicles, fighting for space on the road.  Horns beeping and gasps taken to new depths, we meandered our way through the array of moving obstacles, which completely unphased our driver.  It reached a point that I just did not flinch, despite the many near death experiences I have had on those treacherous roads.
The city itself is like nothing I had ever witnessed before either.  The air of industrial revolution is like static surrounding these suburbs.  There are numerous sites of construction in process, roads, bridges and apartments a like just waiting to be filled. 
Travelling to and from the apartments, from DAS to Shabushanga is one of the most exhilarating journeys one can possibly take.  Even just to see some friends and enjoy food.  The adrenaline filled experience of riding in a tuk tuk would rival any roller coaster one has ever been on.  The speed filled, extremely skilled drivers weave in and out amongst each other and about much larger vehicles, of which none seem to possess wing mirrors.  They are alerted to the yellow and green daredevil zooming up on their inside by the high pitched beeping that grows in apparent sound in a Doppler effect, before fading again as it is seen race past with smoking tyres and unsteady, top-heavy sharp cornering.
But like I said, there is no fear left in me to be scared or worried. Merely inches from one another I could reach out and touch my friend’s hand as we passed by the other tin can we call a tuk tuk. 700,000 read on the milometer of one we journeyed on.  The shear fact that it has lasted that long is a miracle.
You know you’re in the hands of an experienced Kolkata native when they nod with such finesse you’re not really even sure if they mean yes or no.   I have experienced an incredible kindness and willingness to aide our passage in utmost safety by many a person here.  It puts a warm feeling in one’s heart when they are witness to such acts of nobility. 

The kids are something else though! Their infectious smiles and wide, bright full eyes greeting us every morning is something words cannot capture. They have such character and a charismatic outlook on life.  They know how to be truly happy despite the situations that they face.  On our first day Katherine and I entered our new classroom to be hit by a wall of heat.  My classroom is an oven. But it has a fan! So I call it a fan oven. The children racing about only aged between 4 and 5.  Each and every one has such amazing potential.  They all are here to learn, it is our job now to provide them with a basic primary education for the time that we are here. I hope what we are doing will be of some good to them.  Their cheeky grins and exceptional behaviour is such a great thing to see. Long may it last. Please God. 

In the afternoons Katherine and I have a slightly older group of children, all girls aged between ten and fourteen. Their standard is roughly the same; they are smart girls, each one with a strong competitive streak.  Their willingness to learn is like nothing I have ever witnessed before. They chomp at the bit to squeeze the information you are teaching them so that they can immediately soak it all up like the magic sponges they are. Fighting to answer questions so that they can earn the stamp or sticker they yearn for so much!  These girls could be absolutely anything given the opportunity.  They just need a chance to show you what they've got!

I am absolutely loving my time here. Despite the heat and difficulties we may face.  This amazing place has shocked me like nothing I have ever seen before.  It has opened my eyes to another culture, another world.  I realise that I am privileged. I have a bed. I have a home.  I have a family. 
We have a lot more than we think.  We are extremely lucky.  Don't ever forget it.

 

Human Rights Project with Projects Abroad
Accra, Ghana
July-August 2015

 

Words and images: Anna Moran, Junior Sophister History

From a young age I knew I wanted to travel. This may have been to do with having an Australian stepmother or a mother who had brought us to live in Belgium for a number of months when I was three years old. After finishing my first year in history in Trinity I decided it was time to do something I would feel positive about and to feel I had made some sort of impact by the time I hit my twenties. In May 2014 I signed up with an organisation called Projects Abroad (PA). Originally I wanted to participate in their journalism project but after discussing in depth what it was that I was interested in doing with Anna McCarthy, the recruitment director for PA in Ireland, we decided that the Human Rights project was more appropriate. I chose Ghana because English is the official language but also because of how politically stable and peaceful a country Ghana is. As someone who had never been away from family for more than two weeks let alone to Africa I felt this was a country that would allow me to ease myself from the luxuries of home into a cultural and social world that was completely new to me. I decided 4 weeks was too short a stay but 6 was too long so I opted to stay in Ghana for 5 weeks. I had a full year to save and prepare myself. In order to pay for the voluntary project I worked two jobs during my second year in college. I also held fundraisers and received generous help from family members and friends.

Group of school children outside the classroom and hanging out of the windows

 

In June I received my accommodation details and placement details. I was to live with Mrs Dankwah and her grand-daughter in the capital city, Accra. My placement was in the Projects Abroad Human Rights office (PAHO) also in the city. Arriving into Accra during a power outage and in 28 degrees at 1am in the morning was a shock to the system to say the least. Sitting in the arrivals hall waiting for a taxi with Kwame (the man who was sent to pick up every volunteer) I very quickly realised that I was most certainly in the minority. Although I knew this was going to happen it still surprised me just how exposed I felt. I am pale even in Ireland but all of a sudden I felt like I was glowing in the dark. Mrs Dankwah peered out the window with a torch and unbolted the front door. I hung up my mosquito net and fell asleep to the sound of frogs croaking in the puddles outside.

Two women sitting in front of a house

I worked in the PAHO office on a daily basis alongside permanent local staff as well as other volunteers. We were a particularly multi-national office as we had people from South Africa, US, UK, Faroe Islands, Italy and Nigeria. We were all assigned a project which was our own but we also participated in community outreaches every week. I worked with an English girl to engage with a church run summer school and particularly a group of 15-18 year old females and males. We ran a two hour class with them called the Human Rights Digest. Every Thursday morning we worked on broadening their knowledge of human rights but focussing especially on how human rights applied in their day to day lives. Having asked the group of 25 young adults what they felt was important for them to learn we prepared classes on sexual health, domestic violence, gender equality and police corruption. Their eagerness to learn about sexual health surprised both myself and the girl I was working with. Ernest, our boss, explained that there is a wide held belief that white people will tell the truth when it comes to these matters. When we were preparing our session on sexual health I asked Ernest what the age of consent was in Ghana and his reply of 'when a person gets married' really took us aback. He did not know what the age was. It made us realise that traditional values and cultural norms were very much in prime place. With shop names such as 'Jesus Christ Best Rice' and 'Christ is King Tyres' it was clear that religion was an integral part of every-day life. There were churches every few hundred meters and mosques were not uncommon either as 20 percent of Ghana's population is Muslim.

Group of people standing inside a hall with bunting overhead

 

Each week we visited a local district to survey and interview anyone we came across about their opinions on matters that we felt were important in these communities. In Maamobi, a poorer Muslim district, we interacted with several people about child marriage. We visited Nungua Township to find out about police brutality. And in Teshie we engaged with the community about teen pregnancy and pregnancy out of wedlock which is a growing concern. We often had translators with us to speak in Twi or Fante with the locals. In some cases these were workers with the civic education engagement project or local children who had strong English. Our aim was to collect the information and then to return to the community and present our findings and discuss how they felt we could help whether that was to provide information leaflets or to provide classes which explain the rights of citizens in regards to police corruption etc. Every week a guest speaker would come in to the office to speak about a human rights issue in a particular area or community in Ghana. Uncle George spoke to us about child trafficking in the Volta region to the east of the country. Uncle George won the Martin Luther King Award for Peace and Social Justice in 2011 so it was a great experience to learn from someone who has really made a difference.

People playing basket ball outside

 

Since I have been home the first question I people ask is 'was it life changing?' and in many ways it was. It is now a part of my life and I have made friends that I will not forget. It is almost impossible to describe a culture and a country which is so different to my own and do it justice. I cannot and will not be able to describe my time in Ghana properly. In my mind it is clear as day and the smell of mango and barbecued goat will not disappear for as long as I can help it. The phrase 'you had to be there' often escapes my mouth since arriving home.

Child peeping out from under a curtain

 


Last updated 27 September 2016 Civic Engagement (Email).