Interview with Cleopatra Yvonne S. Nyahe — Co-Cordinator, Humanist Services Corps
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?
Cleopatra Yvonne S. Nyahe: I grew up with three sisters and one brother. My mother was a very important figure in my life as a child and still is to this day. She was a seamstress and a teacher, a chef, a bar tender. She basically did any job she could to take care of us. When she married my step dad, a teacher, we moved around the country a lot because of his job but I was born in the Volta region of Ghana. I was raised in a Christian home and religion and spirituality is something that’s really important to my mother. Sunday church was something we did together as a family. I really enjoyed the process of dressing up in my best outfit and singing and dancing at church with my family. After service, we would make a huge meal at home and have a big lunch. Sundays were always good days, they helped bring my family closer.
I went to primary school in different places because of my step dads job. I was a shy kid and found it difficult to make friends so I was determined to go to boarding school when I went to high school. Boarding school was an interesting experience, it made me realize that I didn’t enjoy being away from my family. As the 3 years progressed I started to make more friends and started to come out of my shell. After high school I studied a short course in graphic design and did several small jobs. I then did au pair jobs until i started working with HSC.
Jacobsen: You are the co-coordinator for the Humanist Services Corps. What is it? How does the position work? Why do you pursue this line of work?
Nyahe: I am currently only program coordinator for HSC on the ground in Ghana. My job is managing the program here in the northern region. I oversee our volunteers and the projects we do with our partner organizations.
When I started this work, I was just a volunteer with the intent to stay a couple of months. I realised then that there were lots of nongovernmental organizations in the northern region being run by foreigners. I realised that lots of Ghanaians in the South didn’t even know some of the big issues the northern region had, one of the biggest being the Alleged witch camps here. People were just not interested in doing voluntary work or getting involved with NGO’s because it is often seen as a career with little benefit and people have huge financial responsibilities. The economy isn’t at its best so people would rather have high paying jobs even if it means giving up their passion for human rights work.
I realized there is a need to get more Ghanaians involved in this aspect of the countries development. I wanted to show my people that the face of change and development doesn’t always have to be a foreign one. That we too are capable of helping people to achieve positive change.
Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?
Nyahe: I enjoy the interactions I have with members of the local communities here in the North. I enjoy the reactions people have when they realise I am actually not one of the volunteers (which is always peoples first assumption).
They ask if I went to school and lived abroad or come from some western country. I enjoy talking about how succeeding in your work does not depend on the colour of your skin, level of education, what kind of economic or social background you come from. Your passion and perseverance are what matters the most and that the reason for my success is that I truly care about the work we do here.
Jacobsen: How does the general public view the Humanist Services Corps compared to other organizations?
Nyahe: People from the humanist community agree with our philosophy and methods of working; the idea that we want to empower people with the right skills and tools to be the face of their own change instead of coming in and doing everything ourselves. We want to leave people with sustainable skills and ways to achieve long term positive change. It’s not just the humanist community that has realised how ineffective service without long term sustainability effects communities in the long run. This means our approach takes more time, changing the way people in the communities feel and about receiving service is no small task. They have become accustomed to quick and short term solutions to their problems. That’s why the work we do requires a lot of patience and open mindedness. You have to understand why someone who is disadvantaged would want to fix their problems quickly. It is our job to respectfully show them has more benefits not just for them but also for their children’s children.
Jacobsen: How do the provisions of the Humanist Services Corps differ from others?
Nyahe: We differ from other service groups because we focus on providing skills, tools, and knowledge. It’s the same concept of, Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish and you feed him for lifetime. Our main goal is to provide something that will last these communities a lifetime. Long term change is our main focus. Not to say that short term goals are not important but, we want the short term goals to line with our long term ones. An example of this is the agriculture training we do with the women living in the accused witch camps. We teach them how to grow and process Shea nuts to make Shea butter and other things. This helps them become self sufficient. Because they now have this knowledge they are able to do this process on their own. They have even been able to start small businesses to support themselves.
Jacobsen: What has been one of the most touching stories you’ve ever personally witnessed or heard of through the Humanist Services Corps?
Nyahe: In my first year volunteering for HSC, one of my projects was interviewing women in the Kukuo camp who had been accused of witchcraft. The accused women in the northern region are often banned to live the rest of their lives in the camps with other accused women. In the camps, life is difficult for the women who are mostly old and fragile. They don’t have access to some of their basic necessities such as food and clean water.
I was interviewing a woman in her 80’s who had been at the camp for 25 or so years. Before she was accused she had two sons and one of them suddenly fell ill. He was rushed to the hospital and sadly died on the way there. Her other son brought his brothers corpse back and left it at his mother’s door because he believed she had killed him. He then went to gather the village youth who lynched her with stones and sticks for being an evil mother. She run to a family member’s house and was sneaked out of town in the middle of the night to the Kukuo camp for alleged witches and has lived there since without any family support. She hasn’t seen her other son since.
This story really touched me because you often hear stories of neighbours, co wives and aunts and uncles accusing women of witchcraft but this woman’s own son did this to her in the same moment she lost her other son. She lost both sons on the very same day. It was heart breaking for me to hear and I thought of my own relationship with my mother and how I couldn’t fathom my life without her. I couldn’t understand how someone could do such a thing.
Jacobsen: When coordinating, or co-coordinating, what is the process there? How do you do what you do there?
Nyahe: Well, my job is mostly managing and overseeing our volunteers, projects, and maintaining and building relationships in the community.
I also manage our relationships with our partner organizations to plan projects, meetings, field visits…etc.
It’s a broad position with ever changing tasks depending on what’s going on at any given time.
Jacobsen: What is your main concern for humanism moving forward into 2017–2020? How about into the next decades?
Nyahe: I hope to see the humanist platform grow in the next few years. I want the term Humanist to be a common term known to more people. Specifically speaking, I want more Ghanaians to know about the concept of Humanism.
Jacobsen: Thank your for your time today, Yvonne.