One day last fall, Mariah Campbell was on a bus back to her homestay in Accra, Ghana, when a preacher got on and started singing.
Riding a ‘trotro,’ the 15-seat vans or minivans that are the most popular type of mass transit in the Ghanaian capital, Campbell says you can get pretty close to your neighbours.
“He got the entire bus to join in. Everyone knew the words – it sounded like a lullaby – and they kept singing for like 20 minutes.”
At 21, Campbell is taking every chance she can get as a student to get first-hand experience in global affairs.
Now in her fourth year of the Conflict Studies and Human Rights program at the University of Ottawa, she has already worked for three months as a legal assistant to a human rights group in Ghana and finished a short course that included field research on the informal recycling economy in Nairobi, Kenya.
Accra and Nairobi are a long way from the Beach, but it’s here that Campbell first got the idea to pursue law and global affairs.
As a student at St. Denis and then St. John Catholic School, Campbell remembers how much she enjoyed in-class debates.
Starting with such hard-hitting issues as real versus fake Christmas trees in Grade 5, by Grade 8 she was trying to come up with arguments for and against the death penalty.
“I used to take a side that I didn’t agree with,” she said. “I thought it was more fun, and more interesting.”
But a lot of what got Campbell interested in global affairs happened outside class, like the Grade 11 summer course where she spent a month in Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands.
“It was an eye-opening experience to meet different people and learn in a new environment,” she said. “It made me want to learn more about different cultures, and to help people on an international scale.”
Campbell said Ottawa was a natural home base, given that she is in a co-op program blocks from Parliament Hill, where there are opportunities at federal agencies, like her current job working on labour force surveys for Statistics Canada.
But her most valuable experiences so far have been her work in Ghana and Kenya.
Working for Accra’s Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Campbell reported on a collection of interviews with victims of gender-based violence in Ghanaian schools. Much of the violence was directed at girls.
“It was sad to read it,” she said. “A girl would get abused by her teacher and have to drop out of school.”
As it happened, Campbell’s homestay father was a writer for a Ghanaian TV show called Living With Tricia – a kind of Degrassi-style drama about four twentysomethings that takes up key social issues in each episode.
“It was a totally different way of traveling and seeing another country,” she said.
“I was actually integrated. I was staying with a host family and basically living like any middle-class Ghanaian.”
Accra is a changing city, growing quickly as more and more Ghanaians move to the capital from the countryside. This summer, the local government began looking at restricting its famous ‘trotros’ to rural areas in favour of larger, high-capacity buses.
In Nairobi too, Campbell saw the impact of new development.
Guided by Kenyan professors at Kenyatta University, she interviewed waste pickers who collect scrap metal, plastic bags and other recyclable materials in three areas: the slums, the dump and downtown core of Nairobi.
All were poor, she said, but the people working with community organizations in the slums – which oversaw the small fees paid to clear out people’s domestic trash – seemed to do best, she said.
Worst of all were the conditions of the people searching for materials at the Dandora dump site, where many also search for half-eaten food, typically from castaway airplane meals.
Campbell said even after traveling in Ecuador and Costa Rica, it was a shock to see that level of poverty there and in some of the subsistence farms and fishing villages she saw in Ghana.
But Campbell appreciated the chance to actually see it for herself.
“It was really great to learn about those issues from someone who was actually from that country, instead of being taught by a Canadian professor in Canada,” she said.
Asked what advice she might give high school students thinking about a similar career, Campbell said her best move so far was to get involved early and learn about the chances to go abroad.
School passes so fast, she said, and as she starts planning her next step to a Master’s in Global Affairs, she is glad that she took every chance to fly.