So, you’ve graduated from University and broken up with your long—term girlfriend. What do you do now? Simon Butcher decided to apply for an internship scheme run by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The job - working as a researcher in the Accra office in Ghana, was an opportunity to gain some valuable work experience whilst seeing a different side to the world.
We find out exactly what happened in those three months, from the time he was woken up by the snores of a baby elephant, to a weird food called Banku, and why nothing could have prepared him for the reality of West Africa...
The first couple of weeks were a massive culture shock. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t even feel happy, even though I’m a pretty open-minded, worldly person.
You feel like you’re walking around with a spotlight on you– it’s what it must feel like to be an A-list celebrity. Literally everyone you pass – bear in mind this is a huge city, teeming with people - will shout ‘Abruni’ which is Twi for ‘White Dog’. It’s an affectionate term, not insulting. Children will forget going to school and just follow you asking you whether or not you know David Beckham. It’s amazing to be so welcomed into a community, but after a while the constant attention become incredibly draining – it’s intense.
I was living with a very wealthy Ghanaian family - the late husband had been the Minister of Justice in parliament. There was a servant who cooked and cleaned, she was about 16 years old, and she’d come from the North to work in the city. She wasn’t paid but she was given a home, food and English lessons. She slept on the living room floor on a mat, whilst I and the other guests slept in beds – which felt strange.
I ate a lot of plantain, and a dish called red-red. It’s called red because the plantain is red and the sauce is red, and it comes with beans and rice. It was delicious and very filling. There’s a food called Banku – a marshmallow type thing, about as big as a fist. It has such a bizarre texture, so heavy – you put it in your mouth and it’s already hard to swallow, and you feel it moving down your throat. You can almost feel it in your stomach. I was never able to finish even the smallest portion – it just sits in your tummy and makes you feel full.
The project that I was working on was lobbying the government on a freedom of information bill. I worked 9 till 5 at a desk job but often other parts of the role involved going out to rural communities in Northern Ghana – a pretty remote area - and holding community workshops to discuss issues like human trafficking and women’s rights with the tribal elders.
The community workshops were really surreal – sessions were often interrupted for singing and dancing. Also, because they didn’t really speak much English, we had to communicate through role-play and acting out messages.
Travel gone wrong..
I got mugged twice. I was just outside Accra, at a huge beach reggae party – it’s genuinely a very local thing to do but also a big draw for travellers too – making it a target for muggers. At one point someone asked me to take their picture, I held out their camera, and a man ran past me and flashed a knife at me, twisted my arm and ran. I ran after him but it was pretty futile and stupid – you should always just let them go or you could get hurt.
The other time was when I walked back after a night out and someone put a gun to my back and asked for my camera. It was pretty scary but at the same time I’d prepared myself for the worst before I went out there.
One in a lifetime experience...
I paid £5 to track elephants on Safari at Mole National Park, which is right at the top of the country, on the border of Bakina Faso. It was during one of my trips around Ghana, which I did in my spare time with the other interns. It’s probably the cheapest Safari in Africa! There aren’t any lions or tigers but there are tonnes of elephants. You go out on foot with a guide who knows how to track them. We turned round a tree into a clearing and there was just a bunch of elephants there, about 20 meters away.
Later, we rented out a room for the night at the resident hostel. When we were there, it was about midnight and we heard a weird ‘phhh’ noise – we opened the door, it was pitch black because there are no artificial lights there, and as our eyes adjusted we saw, just two meters in front of us, a baby elephant sleeping and snoring!
Thanks for chatting to us Simon!
Follow us @Mapthegap