Sunday, June 24, 2007

Out in the field

Bright and early Friday morning, Stesha and I met at the headquarters of one of the NGOs we interviewed earlier in the week, the Ark Foundation. Members of the Ark Foundation were preparing for one of their routine "awareness campaigns," and we had decided to tag along; our motivations were two-fold--we wanted to see the work of NGOs in action, while at the same time giving our efforts to help volunteer.

The Ark Foundation specializes in domestic abuse and sexual assault issues, and so we would be traveling to a marketplace to address women directly. The two of us plus eight other workers piled into a small pick-up truck, and made the two-hour journey to a bustling marketplace in a suburb of Accra. When we finally arrived, I was surprised as we began to drive directly into the gathering of people. Hundreds of Ghanaians, mostly women, were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the gathering space that spanned farther than my line of vision. Some women sat on the ground straddling food or crafts in large silver bowls, others were working their way quickly through the hot mass of people. Our windows were down as we prepared to drive through the crowd, and the air--thick with flies and immense heat from the late morning sun--pressed in through the opening. Friday, I was told, was a popular market day, and people around me were selling everything from live, tiny crabs, collected in large cages and cooked beef, slowly rotting in the heat, to bright-colored clothing, stacked in neat piles.

As we made our way deeper into the crowd of people, one of the Ark workers in the front began speaking Twi (a local language) in a microphone, which broadcast his speech into speakers atop the truck. Our entrance was already gathering attention, but this racket ensured that everyone, the hundreds (if not thousands) of sweating, focused buyers and sellers, turned their attention toward us.

Eventually we found a stopping place, and we decided to centralize our efforts there. One speaker, whose role rotated among the workers, continued to speak to the crowds about domestic abuse and sexual assault, educating them on their rights and how they could seek help if they found themselves to be a victim. Meanwhile (and this would become the job of Stesha and me) others dispersed within the crowd, passing out pamphlets and putting up posters where people would allow us to. The techniques were very bold, in-your-face, and they did a remarkable job of catching people's attention.

Although the sights, sounds (and even smells) of the day were all very memorable, the most interesting experience was seeing people's response to the campaign itself. The first incident occurred before we even arrived to the market, when we had stopped at a gas station. A man, an attendant at the station, approached the car because of the domestic abuse posters that were plastered around the car. He immediately began arguing with one of the women, disputing the pro-rights messages on the posters. They fought verbally, and he eventually backed off.

Once in the market, we again found occasional resistance, sometimes very aggressive. One woman approached a posters that we had posted, which stated that marital rape was illegal and could be prosecuted. The woman read the poster for a moment, then burst into laughter. She called over her friends, jeering at the concept. The other worker who accompanied us, turned around and gave us a look that said: Just ignore her. This happens a lot.

As the representative from the Department of Women told us, quite matter-of-factly, many Ghanaians are taught from childhood that the rights of women are inherently subordinate to the men in their lives. The country is definitely making strides, and in fact, recently passed a reformed domestic abuse law. But as some of our experiences Friday showed, the more traditional beliefs explicated by the Dept. of Women rep are held strongly by a number of individuals--even in the case of violent issues, such as domestic abuse of sexual assault.

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