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Gale's View from Ghana

October 14th 2009

"If you mean it, do it" says the sign on the VSO office door.  "Words don't make a difference. Volunteers do.."

On day one of my parliamentary attachment to Voluntary Service Overseas in Ghana I meet, in Accra,  some thirty other volunteers, including Canterbury's Emily Hopkins, during the induction course that will, for most of them, lead to a two-year commitment to the country. 


The volunteers are an amazing and enthusiastic cross-section of global society, bringing education, social care, fundraising and communications skills to help some of the poorest people in the developing world.  Kathy is from Liverpool, via Leeds.

She has given up her local government job to devote her time to voluntary service in the far north of Ghana.  The Head Teacher of a Midlands special needs school has taken early retirement to address special needs education far from the comforts of western life.  An oil engineer from Australia and his wife have resigned from their jobs, let their home for two years and travelled to West Africa, all in the space of two weeks!  They will be helping to set up and run a community newspaper in a rural area.  And Emily was fundraising for the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury  before deciding to go to raise money for the Ghana Association for the Deaf.

Emily Hopkins, Sonia Kwami (VSO Programme Manager, Ghana), Roger Gale


After a night in a small hotel I collect the blue chequered bag that is the VSO badge of office.  It contains a water filter, a set of sheets and a pillowcase and the essential mosquito net.  In Africa, Malaria still kills more people every year than HIV/AIDS.  I share, for a few days, a tenement flat.  With Cornelius, a 34-year old Romanian educated in Belgium who was working in Canada for DeLoittes before coming to spend four months conducting a specialised piece of research work for VSO.  Kirsty, down from the north for a weekend of rest and recuperation arrives having caught  what she thought was Malaria but which turned out to be Typhoid.. She is looking forward to the luxury of a pizza - "a real treat".  And Jude, who has joined from a teaching job in East London, will be working with the Department of Education, helping to evaluate their systems.

The accommodation is basic, adequate. Cold water shower, bare light bulbs, rudimentary cooking facilities and Ed.  Ed is a cockroach with whom I strike up a relationship based upon co-existence.  Cornelius, Kirsty and I will be moving on. For Jude and another volunteer joining him, the Roman Ridge flat will be home for 24 months.

The Ghana Foundation for the Disabled, for whom I am working, is an umbrella organisation embracing the associations of the blind, the deaf, the physically disabled and those with learning difficulties.  One of their  many challenges is that some conditions, such as autism, go largely undiagnosed and are therefore ignored.

Chalk Factory, Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled workshop

The VSO "blue bag"

Ho Anglican School. 

GFD shares headquarters located around a courtyard that also accommodates the Blind Association and the Deaf Society with whom Emily is spending her time. There is also a disabled workshop making chalk for schools under contract to the Education Department.  Ludicrously, they have a drier but not the 3-phase electricity supply to power it. This means that the chalks are left to dry in the sun and have to be rushed indoors every time it rains.  Which it does in stair rods during my visit.

I have set myself a number of objectives.  

Ghana now has a new Disability Act that the GFD campaigned for, and the beginnings of a National Council for Disabled People to ensure that the law is not just passed but acted upon.  It is vital that that the Council and the GFD work together and not at loggerheads and there are clearly bridges to be built and some common ground to establish.  


The flats, Roman Ridge, Accra


Roger Gale, Schoolgirl, The Bishop of Ho (The Rt. Rev. Matthias Medadues-Badohu


Roger Gale, Bishop


Roger Gale, Bishop


We need to establish an All Party Parliamentary Group for Disabled People to help with lobbying and to raise a voice in Parliament. They will also want to work towards Ghana`s  ratification of the United Nations convention on disability rights.  

Public attitudes towards disability are embarrassed, hostile, about where Britain was thirty years ago.  To bring about a change we have to raise the profile, through the media, Promote `ability` and `can do` in place of rejection and harness the force of the 2012 Paralympics to create new role models for the young.

And I also need to get out of the City and to see what is happening in the regions.  All in nine days!

It cannot be done, of course, but we achieved a little and have at least started a few balls rolling that may gather their own momentum. Working with the GDF team we brokered what I trust will be the first of a new round of constructive meetings with the National Council. We met with sympathetic Members of Parliament and explored the prospects for an All-Party Group and the possibility of the GFD providing such a caucus with secretarial back-up.  I am not holding my breath but the seeds have been sown and the idea may just grow.

Group Shot, Ho Anglican School

Travelling in the dark out of Accra and up to the Volta regional town of Ho we conduct a training workshop for the areas`  deaf, blind and physically handicapped members of GFD. I am not a natural teacher and I have to dig deep into skills that I am not sure are up to the task but by the end of the day people who have never dealt with the media in their lives are writing respectable press releases and role-playing the lobbying of their local MP.  These sessions will, we think, provide a set of simple media and lobbying guidelines for GFD members throughout the Country.

We visit the Ho Anglican School.  In twenty six years of parliamentary life I have attended and participated in the opening of many premises but never before have I assisted with the christening  of a lavatory!  But VSO volunteer Michael Pitt and his wife, Kieran, have together raised the money to refurbish the shower and toilet facilities at the school's special needs unit and the Archbishop of Ho and the Honourable Member for North Thanet find themselves as guests of honour for the inauguration.  The sun shines and the children's singing is truly magical and it is wholly happy event.  This is Africa.

Four and a half hours hard driving over bumpy roads later and we are  back in Accra.  Ed, my cockroach, seems pleased to see me.

Once again in the city I attend a meeting with the Country Director of the UK Department for International Development (DFID).  It has become clear that in Ghana there are no reliable statistics that identify how many people are disabled, what their disabilities are, where they live, how old they are or what are their special needs. The country's 2010 National Census can provide an opportunity to create this vital database and through its good offices DFID may be able to help to make this happen. Until you can identify and quantify the problem you cannot really begin to solve it.

DFID is followed immediately by a meeting of the Disability Network which includes not only GFD and its members but other organisations including an association of disabled-friendly journalists. I am required to summarize the initiatives that we have tried to set in motion.

The Chinese say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. In a week we have taken a very modest pace forward but it will be a long march before the disabled people of Ghana are able to enjoy what article 28 of the United Nations convention describes as ""the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection".

As night draws in I head out for the airport, an overnight flight and home in time for a Saturday advice surgery.  I leave behind a lot of new  friends and some hope.  Worth the effort?  I believe so and I would encourage anyone thinking of wanting to make a difference, at any age,  to consider working as a VSO volunteer. Give a little, receive a very great deal in return. If you are interested and would like to know how to go about it, let me know.

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