Knee-deep in cases

I arrived at work on Tuesday in high spirits and eager to peruse our pending cases. Barely five minutes after settling down to work, the mother of the victim of our hit-and-run case walked in. She had come back to report on her inability to acquire receipts from the hospital (needed as proof of medical expenditure). The mother’s worried disposition was reflective of the severity of the case at hand with no clear solution in sight. I would have loved to offer her concrete news but unfortunately we had to wait until our visit to the police station later that day where the perpetrator was expected to be present. We informed her of this appointment to the police station and bid her farewell temporarily.

Sarah came in to the FLAP centre, about thirty minutes later, to officially bring a claim against her mother. Vidette filled in the client intake form electronically and I interpreted the ordeal to Axel while Sarah narrated it in our local dialect. The story was a rather long and complex one with inconsistencies arising here and there. From this, I learnt the importance of having great listening skills as a lawyer as well as good memory-retention skills. It is easier to catch inconsistencies in stories when you pay careful attention and you remember accurately what has been discussed hitherto. After discussing the matter with Frederick, it was decided that the best route for Sarah’s case was mediation and Sarah was asked to return to the centre later on in the afternoon so we would go to her mother’s house in order for us to hear the mother’s version of events and attempt to resolve issues.

Surprisingly, the woman who had reported her 16 year old daughter’s child maintenance case the day before had not shown up. This sudden dragging of feet was slightly puzzling considering how eager she had been for justice at the outreach. There was no time to go to the mechanic’s place for the planned mediation for the abortion case as we had to head over to the police station to see to the hit-and-run case. Seeing as the hit and run case preceded the abortion case we sought closure on the former before fully tackling the latter. We arrived at the police station and the owner of the vehicle was not in sight. Neither was the perpetrator. The station manager at Old Fadama advised us to go and see the District Commander at James Town, since the latter commanded higher authority, in order to have some official documents retrieved and speed up investigations. We took his advice, arrived at James Town Police Station and were invited into the district commander’s office where Frederick communicated the purpose of our visit. The district commander asked us to return on Thursday at 2pm by which time the official documents would have been retrieved.

Next on the agenda was the visit to Sarah’s mother’s house. We were expectant that we would meet the client’s mother at the house having been told that she was a housewife. Our expectations were met. We arrived at the house to find the mother busily scaling fish. The house is a compound house inhabited by other families as well. The inhabitants readily recognised Sarah with some of them exclaiming, “Na, Sister”! which means, “See, Sister” in Ga. I gathered from this that she is addressed as “Sister” at home; a rather common Ghanaian nickname. Sarah was however met with a rather steely glare from her mother and her disposition became even more sombre at the sight of her mother. We were warmly welcomed, given seats and addressed by the mother when she had finished scaling the fish. We were informed that we were not the first NGO to come and speak on Sarah’s behalf. As anticipated, the mother had her own version of events, similar to that of the fellow inhabitants present, which was equally convincing. I felt torn. Emotionally, my heart was inclined towards Sarah who even though she may have mischievously run away, was still a child and had to be protected at all costs. However, rationally I had to listen and think with a lawyer’s mind, put my emotions on pause, and seek an effective solution that would simply move the case forward. Taking sides here would simply lead to a deadlock. I was asked by the client’s mother to get up and follow her.  On the one hand following her to an unknown place would certainly be going beyond that which is expected of a text-book mediator and on the other hand I was fully aware of the role culture has to play in mediating issues. I jumped out of my seat a split-second after her request and followed her.

The client’s mother took me across the street to two nearby sellers who eagerly narrated Sarah’s history of running away from home and made me understand that the physical abuse Sarah had earlier claimed she had experienced was rather the mundane beating of a child who had to be chastised for acting wayward. I was pleased that I could communicate with them in Ga as I believe this helped them to trust me and open up to me. They asked me if my mother had beaten me as a child to which I replied in the affirmative. I then went on to further explain the dividing line between what is accepted as discipline in our culture and extremities of such discipline which may be labelled as physical abuse. They denied vehemently that Sarah’s mother had abused her. I returned to the house with Sarah’s mother who was now visibly worked up yet kept insisting that she would say nothing at all on the matter. After Frederick talked for a bit, we arranged to meet up with the mother on Friday at 11am to discuss a way forward and the possibility of Sarah returning home. I left Sarah’s mother’s abode feeling as though we had indeed made progress. There was a greater probability of Sarah having a safe place she could call home once again and her dream of going to school could be realised. Instinctively, I knew this case could end on a good note for both parties involved. I left work that Tuesday a very hopeful Nana.

An unorthodox resolution

My last day of being a FLAP volunteer was truly a memorable one. I got to work bright and early on Friday rather ambivalent. On the one hand, I was excited to bring Sarah’s case to a positive close. Contrarily, I felt sad that my time at FLAP had come to an end yet we had a few cases pending. Sarah came into the FLAP centre that morning and we spoke to her again to clarify what she hoped to achieve from the mediation. She spelt out clearly that she wanted to go to school and needed clothing. Sarah was also willing to stay in her mother’s house that day and had come to the FLAP centre in her finest attire.

After the much needed clarification, we set off for the client’s mother’s house in Arena which is in close proximity to Old Fadama. Isaka, one of the local chiefs who works with FLAP, accompanied us to Sarah’s mother’s house. Upon arrival, we were welcomed and offered seats. Sarah’s mother came out of her quarters to greet us and asked to be excused for a few minutes as her husband (Sarah’s step-father) was around and she did not want him involved in the mediation. She joined us when the husband left and the process of mediation began.

There was much talking as Sarah’s mother explained her version of events with the other inhabitants of the compound house adding titbits here and there to support her story. I was bewildered at one point when the mother mentioned that Sarah had been lying about her age and that she was actually turning eighteen in September and not fifteen like Sarah herself had told us. Sarah denied her mother’s claim but in my mind I searched for answers as to why either of the two parties would lie about Sarah’s real age. Everything that Sarah’s mother had kept on the inside, during our previous visit, was unleashed that Friday. From the sudden utterances of angry-filled words in Ga, in defence of the pre-existing claims which the daughter had made, it was very clear that the mother was beyond irate. There existed unsettled feelings of both anger and resentment between Sarah and her mother. Accusations started to spring up particularly with regards to Sarah’s spirituality and talks about Sarah possibly being possessed of an evil spirit sprung up.

Sarah’s grandmother came in just around that time and she brought in a sense of calm with her. In our culture, the elderly are revered and Sarah’s mother immediately quietened down when the grandmother surfaced on the scene. The grandmother was happy to see her granddaughter and fondly repeated, “Sister, Sister”. She refused to buy into the notion that her granddaughter was possessed. She rather believed that Sarah was probably troubled and needed someone to open up to. It was decided on the spot that even if Sarah was to return home she would first go to her grandmother’s place and stay with her for three days so her grievances could be aired and addressed effectively. Sarah expressly agreed to this arrangement.

Shortly afterwards, we encouraged Sarah to apologise to her mother for any wrong she may have caused her including running away. In what was a truly heartbreaking moment, young Sarah knelt down before her mother and although it was obvious that the mother felt so much angst I could perceive that she was finally ready to let go of the hurt and truly forgive her daughter. It took everything I had in me to fight back tears but one sneaky tear managed to roll down my cheek nonetheless. I prayed then that Sarah would also be willing and able to let go of her hurt. What happened next is something I have never witnessed. Sarah’s mother stood up abruptly from her seat, marched into her room, returned with a bowl full of water and splashed the water on the ground. She then started crying out incoherent words towards the heavens and kept spilling more water on the ground.

I gathered that this was some sort of a cleansing ritual she was doing to rid herself of any sort of anger and resentment she had against her daughter.The mother had to be held by the grandmother and some of the people nearby as the spirit overtook her and her movement became extremely unsteady. Those who were aware of what was going on were shouting at Sarah to open her heart, forgive her mother and let go of the hurt.Apparently Sarah’s mother’s cleansing ritual could not be effectively done unless Sarah was also ready to cleanse herself from the hurt. Sarah was called to face her mother and asked to drink some water. After hesitating a few times she finally took a sip of the water. Sarah’s heart was apparently hardened still and the cleansing ritual could not be completed. The mother uttered certain words and entered her room.

We spoke to Sarah and asked her to open up her heart to forgive her mother. Sarah then followed one of the women inside the room where her mother was. After a couple of minutes, Sarah and her mother came out of the room and we were informed that the cleansing ritual had been effectively completed. Sarah’s mother then went about cleansing people she felt needed to be cleansed which included Axel, Vidette and I. This spiritual cleansing is apparently what Sarah’s mother does at church. When the cleansing session was over we were assured that everything was indeed alright between mother and child. Sarah, who had hitherto been visibly agitated, seemed better.

Notably, we were informed that this was the first time ever that the mother had performed such a cleansing ritual over her daughter Sarah in spite of the different NGOs that had been to the house to talk about Sarah’s case. This in itself was a victory for FLAP. We left Sarah with the FLAP centre’s phone number in case she wanted to reach us on any issue. We reassured her that Frederick would check in routinely to make sure that everything was going on well and we made her aware that FLAP would always be there to provide assistance. I left Sarah’s mother’s place happy that Sarah would sleep in an actual home that evening and be surrounded by family. I was happy that the case had been concluded and although predicting the future is not in my field of expertise I was hopeful that this time around the issues had been resolved permanently.

Upon our return to the FLAP office, we discussed our experiences as volunteers. Suggestions were also made as to how FLAP could be improved upon. Brilliant ideas emerged from this discussion. Vidette suggested a trip by the school children to the FLAP centre so that FLAP’s accessibility would increase and Axel suggested putting up sign posts so the locals could easily locate FLAP. Noting that the child maintenance outreach was where we met Sarah, whose story ended up being a success, I suggested that more outreaches be carried out from which more cases would likely spring up and be tackled accordingly. I bid farewell to the FLAP workers leaving behind the physical presence of Old Fadama but carrying with me profound memories of my time spent therein.

Back to the basics

As per the itinerary, Wednesday was spent mainly indoors. We were given materials on contract law and Ghanaian succession law which we had to read, summarise and explain to the FLAP workers. We had about two hours to prepare the summary. Ghanaian law follows common law akin to that of the UK hence explaining concepts in contract law was bound to be more familiar and less tricky. Succession law is however partially shrouded in customary law of which we were unaware of. Uncertain as to whether the succession rules on hand were current we had to undertake research. Axel and I handled succession law whilst Vidette dealt with summarising contract law. The opportunity to teach the workers, on contract law particularly, felt like a true assessment of all that I had studied over the past academic session and how relative it would actually be.

Vidette led the contract law presentation, Axel and I chimed in with important bits and I wrote core contractual concepts on the board. It was rewarding to see how effectively I could recall contractual concepts as if the very knowledge of these concepts was innate. There is no thrill comparable to having knowledge or expertise in a particular field and being able to use that expressly to advice or help another. It gave me an insight as to what I will be doing as a lawyer and I loved every moment of it. The workers threw multiple questions at us which we were able to answer effectively based on the law. There was not a single question on contract law posed to the volunteers that either of us was unable to answer. The issue of oral contracts and resolving a breach thereof was quite common and accordingly we advised the workers to document any contract they would thereafter enter into. We offered practical examples of how an agreement to agree is not a contract; how a contract can be voidable due to a misrepresentation as well as what happens when a contract is frustrated. There was not enough time to teach the workers about succession law. However, it was truly a delight to teach the FLAP workers the rudiments of contract law.

The next time we went back to the basics was in an actual classroom of the local school we had been to the previous week. That Thursday afternoon, the pupils were elated to see familiar faces with which they had earlier bonded. As a show of affection, we were greeted at the door with grins and big hugs. We quietened down the class in order to start with our mission for the day: educating the pupils on child labour. Before venturing into a new area we asked the pupils questions on what they had learnt the week before and quickly brushed up on the rights of a child touching specifically on what children actually need. Each pupil had to come up to the blackboard and write down what they believed was essential to a child’s well-being. Sweets were handed out to the pupils who identified uncommon but significant needs of a child. I effectively explained to the pupils the distinction between needs and wants.

After that explanation, Vidette and I began to break down concepts of Child Labour to the pupils. Their response to the topic was impressive. Inasmuch as their intelligence had been on full display the last time we visited the school the pupils still managed to impress us with their aptitude on what constitutes child labour. Some core issues including the minimum age one has to be in order to engage in labour as a child as well as the statutes that dictate such labour were addressed. There was a quiz held afterwards and the pupils were tested on what they had learnt. More sweets were handed out to the pupils that answered correctly. After our mission was completed, we said our goodbyes to the wonderful children and set off to catch up with Axel.

Axel had hitherto gone to meet up with the District Commander at James Town as scheduled. The district commander had requested some documents including a license which our hit-and-run victim did not have. Axel then returned to the Old Fadama police station to see the station manager and that is where we all met up. We informed the station manager about the victim’s girlfriend who had come to see us with the victim’s mother and could effectively serve as a witness. The station manager informed us that the perpetrator would be around the next day. He, the victim and some police officers would then proceed to the scene of the crime to take measurements and try to ascertain who was responsible for the accident. Although at a snail’s pace, things appeared to be moving forward and we left the police station that day still clinging to the hope of justice being served.

Novice Interns

For the past three days I have been working for the Fadama Legal Assistant Programme(FLAP) at a place commonly known as Sodom and Gomorrah, Ablogbloshie.

FLAP is a centre founded and currently headed by Fredrick Opoku, the aim of the centre is to provide a place where the community of Old Fadama (sometimes referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah) can come and seek legal advice and help. Some such advice include domestic violence, debt collection and succession. Although the centre has no formal recognition it commands a high level of respect amongst the people in the community and the police. On my first day I arrived quite late due to some miscommunication on where we were to meet up. We were met by Frederick and a few other FLAP workers, who walked confidently and cheerfully in their bright orange FLAP shirts which I was soon to wear, it was too easy to spot them. As we walked slowly through the slum to our destination I was truly surprised at how the venue of the internship looked.I was aware that it was a slum however, I discovered that the state of the place was much worse than I anticipated. There were heaps of rubbish all over the place, it was extremely muddy, overcrowded and insects definitely felt at home. The inhabitants of the town starred at us with eager eyes it was very clear that they knew that we were foreign to the place. Having lived in Ghana before I was surprised to realise how terrified I was of the people in the slum(this fear was just an illusion which soon disappeared when I realised that the people who lived there were actually very safe people). Many people did not worry about walking around bare footed despite the infections which could potentially come about as a result of dirty puddles. But how could you blame them, most of them are poor and uneducated. The fact that they existed so low on the social spectrum also made it particularly difficult for them to access their human rights, the reason why we were there to help. At the office Frederick,founder and manager of FLAP introduced at to the few staff at the centre who received as with joy. He further highlighted to us certain case studies we would be looking at.One of these involved the case of a young girl who was assaulted by a man due to her refusal to accept his sexual advances, the other case involved a young man who had been seriously injured by a cargo .I cannot emphasise sufficiently the effects these issues had on the victims.One would think that the gravity of the various matters would cause the police to act with urgency, It was therefore a surprise to me that despite solid evidence the police had not acted. Subsequently Frederick highlighted that our roles as FLAP interns would be to interview clients,ensure that police officials act on their word and in some scenarios contact legal aid to get in touch with some lawyers for victims.Whilst in the office discussing our schedule for the week a nurse bust through the door to call on Fredrick to solve an issue. She stated that a child was very ill, however, her father had refused to contribute towards her medical cost she therefore asked Frederick to come and speak to him and highlight the legal implications of his refusal. After a while Frederick returned stating that the father of the child was still refusing to contribute but the child had been sent to the hospital, we decided to return to the case the next day. Fortunately, we were subsequently informed that the father of the child started contributing to the medical charges after further mediation

The first day ended on a very sober note for me, it made me think of how privileged I was to live in England where I have access to the criminal justice system with ease.