Ghana is it’s people

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2 years ago, fresh from completing my A Levels, I set off on the greatest adventure of my life, and my heart never came home. Africa captured me, and left me desperate to return.

Some might say that Ghana’s biggest asset is its Gold, or it’s newly discovered oil. The people of Ghana themselves, the ordinary folk on the street, are not a valuable asset to Ghana. They are Ghana. Unfortunately, those who live outside of the capital city are often left helpless. Vulnerable people are ignored. They are pushed to the wayside; none more so than people living with HIV and AIDs.

And so, this summer, I travelled back to Ghana to work with the West Africa AIDs Foundation, to reach out to these vulnerable communities. I wasn’t worried about culture shock, how the food would taste or how the people would be. I guess the beauty of having lived somewhere for a whole year already is that it becomes your second home and these things are second nature. I did anticipate being frustrated though, working in Ghana. African time is a well-known concept across the continent, and I worried that I’d feel that things weren’t getting done, or at least, not in the way we are used to back at home.

But Africa time was just fine. During my time at WAAF, I was heavily involved in the implementation of a campaign issued by the Ghana AIDs Commission called ‘Protect the Goal’ – it’s mission was to reduce the stigma around HIV, with the hope of encouraging people to know their HIV status. We distributed free condoms and ran free HIV-screening. The hesitance people showed before being tested, with fear of being positive, was a telling sign of the stigma that surrounds HIV in Ghana.


Fan park at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation headquarters in Accra – a popular place to watch the football and the location of our campaign

Those who are brave enough to seek treatment for HIV find solace at the International Health Care Clinic, run in association with WAAF. I say brave, not because the treatment itself is particularly gruelling , but because they face marginalisation in their own communities if others learn of their positive status. Many don’t even know about the treatment available, believing that HIV is a ‘death-sentence’ –which it certainly does not have to be. There are concerns in Ghana about a potential lack of medicines available, and although this seems to be under control as of now, it does require a lot of rallying by the clinic to release funds to buy these medicines.

There are endless challenges facing healthcare in Ghana, not just within the field of HIV and AIDs. Not least is the traditional belief in spirits and magic that doctors contend with on a daily basis in practice, nor the lack of infrastructure in many parts of the country that prevent many people from even reaching a healthcare facility. But this is a country with the potential to change and improve the lives of it’s people, and I have every intention of returning to Ghana to address these challenges as my medical career progresses and my love for the African continent undoubtedly grows.


A passer-by on a busy street in Osu pledges to ‘Protect the Goal’


A colleague of mine discussing concerns with a gentleman prior to undertaking HIV screening


The process of HIV screening involved many hands, to ensure it was accurate and quick

  Thank you to the Go Abroad fund for this opportunity

Las Vegas, NV: Frontline Work in the Human Trafficking Heartland

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This July I travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada, aided in part by the University of Edinburgh’s Go Abroad Fund, to widen out my PhD research examining the intersection between human trafficking, politics and the impact that trauma has on survivors. Las Vegas, a city whose reputation rests as much on its illicit activities as its licit ones, has recently passed an important human trafficking law, known as Assembly Bill 67. With nearly 1 million children sexually exploited worldwide through human trafficking, and 2,300 victims of sex trafficking reported since 1994 in Las Vegas, this is a critical time for the state to flex its legislative muscle. The bill, championed by the State Attorney General’s office as well as law enforcement officials, legislators and NGOs, places harsh sentences on pimps forcing children into prostitution, with the possibility of a 15-year-to-life sentence for recruiting those under 14 years of age. Another important piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 311, has established a fund to support victims of human trafficking. My interest in visiting Las Vegas comes at a time when the UK is considering various pieces of anti-trafficking legislation, including the Modern Slavery Bill and the Human Trafficking (Scottish) Bill, and I was interested in seeing how the US implements criminal law related to the offence of trafficking, and what governmental and civil society work it is doing to support survivors.


My hope prior to arriving in Las Vegas was that I would get the opportunity to meet a representative cross-section of groups and individuals working on issues of human trafficking in the region. This chance arose in the form of several meetings I had, one with Chief Deputy Attorney General Russell Smith, who was an engaging and enlightened public servant on the issue of trauma and trafficking, with an unimpeachable record in the field. He explained the vital efforts the AG’s office is making in terms of protecting survivors of human trafficking, including taping testimonials to avoid re-traumatisation, and working closely with specialists in trauma throughout a case.

Role of Trauma

Another aim of my trip was to get an overall picture of the groups working collaboratively to address human trafficking in Nevada. I was invited to attend the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force quarterly meeting, where their focus is strongly on prevention, prosecution, protection of victims and partnership. In this particular meeting, training was providing to help identify aspects of trauma for those working with survivors. The work being done by professionals in Southern Nevada was instructive in how different states and cities adapt collaboratively to address the crime of human trafficking. In the UK, where it is estimated that up to 10,000 people a year could be exploited for forced labour, current legislation admittedly is falling short of getting prosecutions and providing victim support. This is why the sharing of best practices across cities and states is vital, and why a broader understanding of frontline support across international borders is needed more than ever.




Taking a leap of faith, into Sudan – and discovering healthcare, teaching, and family

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Today, August 24th, would have been my last day here in Khartoum, Sudan, if I had kept to my original itinerary. However, people change and their experiences shape them, in a manner that we all hope is for positive reflection. I have since extended my trip for a few extra weeks, and have had my perceptions of people and cultures evolve, since my arrival in Sudan.

Initially, I came to Khartoum, sponsored by Dr. Nahla Gafer of Comboni College and RICK, as an attendee of a pain management (for palliative care) workshop with other healthcare professionals, senior to me in the field of medicine and oncology, as well as be the creator of the website “” which encompasses all of palliative care and information on its advancements in the country, and be an English teacher for Sudanese adults interested in advance conversational English.

It has been a fabulous experience, though a difficult one during my first month here. I lived alone in Tara apartments, and began my stay here, first surrounded by doctors and involved in many pain management workshop activities that turned into 8 to 4 pm workdays during the hot (50C+ temperatures!), dry days of Ramadan. But soon, people left the city, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr with their families and I was alone after only a short week. I was left to reflect on my initial worries before coming to Sudan. My physical attributes: blonde hair and pale skin (which has been more pink than ‘tan’ or ‘white’ during this trip), differing religion to those celebrating the Muslim holiday, modest but too western (and revealing around my neck) clothing, and my inability to communicate in Arabic, emphasised my fears that had me curious to go to Khartoum, of all places, from the beginning. What would it be like to go to this country and experience its world – taking part of the revolutionary movement to better healthcare (palliative care) in this developing country?

To be a part of a pain management-teaching workshop at Soba University Hospital, and to help Sudanese doctors understand the necessity of liquid morphine to aid in ‘total pain’ management – after addressing the myth of its addictiveness to patients in pain – was inspirational. Giving good palliative care means medical professionals, family, and friends focus on all aspects of ‘total pain’ (spiritual, emotional, social, and physical pain) affecting the patient and his or her loved one(s). I have never felt so proud of such hard-working and driven individuals.

My second month here, has been spent teaching English, and living with my Sudanese family, who have changed my perception of family, love, and support in the most therapeutic way. Stories, videos, and pictures of ourselves, our travels and our cultures, have been exchanged for hours and it’s always a good laugh when we start comparing and contrasting our different worlds. There is no judging. We have had the ability to exchange stories of the most interesting, [intimate], and extreme traditions or cultural “ways of life,” which has opened my eyes more to the Arab world of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the country of Sudan. It has been an honour and a privilege to have a family in a foreign place, making me feel at home.

Sudan is family. And without family, one would feel out of place in such a hot, barren country, enveloped by the Sahara. I treasure and love the experience I have had and I would not change the emotions, both negative and positive, for the world. Insha’Allah Sudan, for more than two months of the most remarkable and memorable time of my life – and the University of Edinburgh’s Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for this opportunity.

Please check out other blog posts I have made during my time spent in Sudan at:

Summer School at Utrecht University

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With the help of the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund, I was able to attend a summer school course in August 2014 at the University of Utrecht entitled “Critical Theory Beyond Negativity: the Ethics, Politics and Aesthetics of Affirmation”. This was an intensive week-long course that focused on critical theory in the Continental philosophical tradition, and was taught and convened by Prof. Rosi Braidotti, Dr. Iris van der Tuin and Maria Hlavajova.

I applied to attend this course because my own work as a PhD student in English Literature centres on Continental feminist philosophy, and I knew that the lectures and seminars conducted would be immensely useful in mapping out future trajectories for my dissertation. I had been reading the work of the co-convenors months before the school and this would be an incredible opportunity to meet them in person. More importantly, however, I was also looking forward to meeting peers from around the world who are making use of similar modes of thinking in the work.

I arrived in Utrecht two days before the course started and had the opportunity of exploring the city on foot. We had also been arranged to stay in twin rooms, and since my roommate had arrived just minutes before me, I had a travelling partner from the get-go! Although I had visited the Netherlands on numerous occasions before this trip, this was my first time Utrecht. Utrecht is a beautiful city that hosts Utrecht University, the largest university in the Netherlands, and felt typically Dutch with its winding canals and bicycle lanes. Situated away from the hordes of tourists in Amsterdam, it also felt friendlier and much more personal.

The course was structured with lectures in the mornings and tutorials in the afternoons, and these were extremely intense and intellectually stimulating sessions that left us exhausted (in a wonderful way!) by the end of the day. It was such a privilege to be learning and listening to the interdisciplinary team of theorists and practitioners headed by Prof. Braidotti. I also felt inspired by the interactions with my fellow students, whose work I learned about not just in class but in the evenings when we gathered for dinner and drinks. They had flown in from the UK, Sweden, Norway, Australia, Brazil, and many more countries all over the world, and it was amazing to find such a network of peers working on similar theoretical frameworks. Unfortunately the course was over all too soon, but we vowed to keep in contact with each other and I am excited to see what projects emerge from our discussions.

The vernacular vs the futuristic – an architectural report on Kuala Lumpur in comparison with urban and rural Indonesia

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the analysis
My trip to Indonesia and Malaysia provided me with an interesting foundation to compare the architectural knowledge I have learnt on my university courses with the physical world. The most striking thing I found was the clear divide in technology between Kuala Lumpur and the Indonesian countryside and urban fabric. In the former I found futuristic monorails, elevated bus stops, dense neighbourhoods of high-rises and freeways with up to ten lanes comprising the infrastructure. In comparison, sheds with scrap metal for roofs and dark alleyways met me in the centre of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, as well as in Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali. In here was a system with hawkers on the streets and street kitchens everywhere that I did not find in Kuala Lumpur. These Indonesian entrepreneurs suggest that their urban life is more social and improvised (not surprisingly as it is too hot to be indoors with no breeze to cool you down). Life happens on the street. This improvised infrastructure compared to the highly elaborate streets cape of Kuala Lumpur was the strongest impression this trip gave me. The shopping malls of the Malaysian capital hints towards a more directed activity in contrast to the more spontaneous Indonesian markets. Thus, landmark architecture is not as important. In Jakarta the statues and monuments were mainly dedicated to army generals and the like.

The impressions and analysis of the architecture was difficult to capture due to several reasons, this worried me before departure and I tried to take the correct precautions. For example, a good tripod and microphones would have been necessary due to strong winds, as well as lighting since a too big span between ISO-levels renders a incoherent visual format (which my tutors back at the college would not love).

An essential part of this experience was the cultural confrontation. Aside from unforgettable culinary memories and scenic landscapes, an inevitable component is a certain degree of  some sort of intimidation. Step by step to minimise these negative aspects of travelling I tried to acquire interpreters and learn short valuable phrases to get the shots and information I needed. Communication was especially important in the hostels, as this sort of accommodation provides intimate encounters with fellow travellers as well as an excellent opportunity to promote Edinburgh as a city and an academic hub.

The most prominent strength I learnt was an increased awareness of the presentation of idea. However, since the architecture course is focusing a great deal of software skills and technical drawings, I was sad to realise that this trip included insufficient time for that. Instead, I gained a strong ambition and interest to further travel and explore (and record) my architectural and cultural experience of the world. My next project is going to be either the temples of Nepal or the abandoned cinemas in South California.

Martin Skarbäck

CERN – A Truly Innovative Space

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Space Innovation: Discovering the Future

In July 2014 I travelled to Geneva in Switzerland to visit the largest scientific experiment in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, better known after its acronym: CERN. On top of the visit to CERN’s facilities in Geneva, this trip was intended for me to get to know two key programmes at CERN which I have a special interest in: knowledge transfer and public engagement.

Apart from the usual concerns about travelling, I was not much worried about this visit, as I have been to Switzerland before and have had many contacts in CERN who were to receive me. I pre-arranged not only the travel details, but also a series of meetings with some key people at CERN in particular the Head of Education and Public Outreach, leading CERN’s public engagement activities, and a Knowledge Transfer Officer, working on a portfolio of…

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