Monday, 30 May 2016

Changing Societies; One Mind at a Time

Its the end of week eight of my International Service ICS placement in Tamale, Ghana. I am nearer the end now than the start, and I've been thinking a lot about how to measure the value of my time here.

The value of some aspects are clear, albeit hard to quantify. My relationship with my host family, for example, is something I will keep with me long after I leave Ghana's red dust far behind. I could not forget the time I have spent relaxing in front of our house, or playing with the five year old who, though not technically related to my hosts, is to all intents and purposes part of the family. I have also learnt a lot about myself. I have discovered that, when the team faces challenges, I will take the lead without a thought if it seems likely to move us forward. I could also measure progress against our team plan. My team is running courses on IT and employability skills, we have a flurry of school sensitisations in the coming weeks, and we will soon begin drafting reports based on our engagement with managers of shops and public services. All of this valuable.
30 completed interview questionnaires - central to our team
plan, yet somehow it doesn't truly capture what we do.

Still, I can't help looking at the big picture. I chose to volunteer with International Service because I genuinely believe that ensuring people can enjoy their human rights is fundamental to developing successful states in which people can flourish. That means changing societies – not just in Ghana, but in the UK and all around the world. It means providing universal access to good quality education, without poverty, lack of resources, or unaffordable fees standing in the way. It means empowering women to play an active role in the economic and social lives of their communities, rather than being too subjugated to report sexual assaults, let alone to look for bank loans to start businesses. It means creating built environments and civic services which don't limit the inclusion of people based on physical or mental disabilities.

Above all, the work which organisations like International Service undertake aims to change the way people think about the world and about each other. To shape a culture of inclusion. In that respect it is a perfect partner for the ICS program, with its commitment to Active Citizenship. That is also why, at the Resource Centre, we are following up a technical survey of the accessibility of public buildings conducted by the last cohort of volunteers, with a series of interviews with public and private sector staff to try and gauge their understanding of, and attitudes towards the same issues of accessibility. I am sure the results, when compiled, will highlight clear focal points for local businesses, for civil society, and for the government in Accra.
School sensitisations are a better reflection of how
we change a culture - one person at a time.

Our report, however, wont change the world. It wont even change Tamale, unless it is supported by people. That is what it all comes down to. People will have the power to decide whether our advice is worth acting on, whether they gain more from including the one Ghanaian in five who is disabled. I am optimistic. Our interviews have made the last 8 weeks fascinating for me. I have met people from across Tamale, and their attitudes have varied. I have lost count of the number of people who have repeated the mantra 'disability is not inability', but accessibility continues to be seen as someone else's problem: whether it is a case of funding or permission from above. Again, people assume that a ramp (regardless of its steepness) automatically makes a space accessible. People rarely consider intellectual disabilities. This is where my counter-part Abdul-Muhsin and I step in. We push home the point that an integrated society is everyone's responsibility, and in everyone's best interests. We highlight that disability encompasses more than being in a wheelchair. And people listen - people clearly understand that integration matters.

Of course there is a long way to go, but what we say will effect the people we talk to, and they, in turn will talk to others. Changing a culture is a slow process, in which my contribution is, as they say in Dagbani, 'Bira Bira' (small small).

The American Civil Rights activist Anne Braden said; “What you win in the immediate battles is little compared to the effort you put into it. But if you see that as a part of this total movement to build a new world, you know what cathedral you're building when you put your stone in”. The stone I put in is part of something much bigger. It can't be measured, monitored or evaluated. But it is the most valuable thing which I will have done in these three months, and that's not nothing.

Jack Fleming (UKV)

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