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Countryside High graduate is in Ghana to help human rights victims

Marlow Svatek carries water in the local tradition. People must travel long distances to get clean drinking water because gold exaction has polluted groundwater and streams with toxic chemicals.

Special to the Times

Marlow Svatek carries water in the local tradition. People must travel long distances to get clean drinking water because gold exaction has polluted groundwater and streams with toxic chemicals.

SAFETY HARBOR — Marlow Svatek first traveled overseas when she was 9 months old. Since then, she's been to England at least six times as well as to Bermuda and St. Kitts.

But those getaways were for fun.

When she traveled to Ghana this month, it was for a much more serious reason: to help victims of human rights violations.

The 19-year-old University of Miami student and 2007 Countryside High graduate is interning this summer for the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in Accra, which is concerned with female genital mutilation and the environmental impact of mining among other issues.

Now, about midway through her trip, she has been speaking at local schools to teach the youth about human rights and meeting with traditional chiefs, tribal priests and community elders on the sub-Saharan west coast of Africa.

She arrived not long before President Barack Obama visited the country earlier this month.

"In the weeks before Obama came, the excitement was palpable,'' Svatek wrote in an e-mail to the Times from Ghana. "Every single newspaper headline was about Obama. I remember being quite frustrated for a while because I had no idea what was going on in the world! 'What? Palin resigned?!' While riding the tro tro (a minibus) to work, I couldn't understand the local language (Twi) blasting on the bus radio, but I could hear 'Obama' inserted intermittently. Some of the pre-arrival dialogue about Obama seemed trivial, like radio discussions about whether enough had been done to ensure that Obama would not get bitten by mosquitoes. But to Ghanaians, the fact that the first African American president of the United States chose their country as his first African visit was historical and they took it very seriously.''

She also wrote that when she tells locals that she is American, they start screaming "You are Obama's sister!"

Svatek wrote that the street vendors sold American flags with Obama's face on them. There "were handmade bracelets in the Ghanaian colors of red, green, and yellow with 'Obama' sewn on. Everywhere there were banners with Obama's face next to the face of the Ghanaian president with the words 'J.E. Atta Mills and Barack Obama ... United for Change.' The day he came, the traffic was standstill.''

Around the time of the presidential visit, she met with the executive director of an organization that fights against "the nasty side of gold and diamond mining that causes pain to people,'' she wrote in her blog.

"They go against big mining companies who use mercury and cyanide to extract the minerals,'' wrote Svatek. "These same chemicals then seep into the rivers which contaminate communities' water supplies''

She also spoke to tribal chiefs about why female circumcision is practiced and conducted workshops with local community groups.

"The main reasons for female genital mutilation are to prevent infidelity/promiscuity, to make a woman's parts look less 'unsightly,' and to increase fertility,'' Svatek wrote. "Of course, none of these reasons are valid. In fact, female circumcision is actually correlated to maternal morbidity. It is not so much a religious tradition as a tribal one.''

Svatek was born in Seminole and moved to Safety Harbor from New Port Richey when she was 10. She attended Annsworth Montessori Academy in Clearwater and has traveled to Europe at least six times.

At UM, she is majoring in philosophy and international studies.

Her mother, Caroline Birch-Svatek, is proud that her daughter chose to help the people of Africa rather than hang out with friends on a beach this summer.

"This is not a vacation for Marlow,'' she said. "She is working hands-on for human rights in Ghana. At 19 she is witnessing real suffering and civil rights violations that most of us only see on TV."

Although working hard, Svatek and her English and Irish friends are also finding time for adventure and fun.

"We went to a traditional Ghanaian funeral yesterday (which was surprisingly upbeat) where we were the only obronis (foreigners) out of 100 Ghanaians,'' she wrote. "Of course, we have cheated a few times. … We went to a Western supermarket in the city centre which was very comforting and we paid 10 cedis to lay out by the pool at an upscale Western hotel on the beach. After a few days in a third world country, a bag of M&M's tastes absolutely wonderful.''

She even discovered an authentic Irish pub with a bunch of expatriates after strolling through some back streets.

Svatek wrote that the marriage proposals from Ghanaian men are "never ending,'' and she is keeping a tally now.

"One man at the funeral quickly introduced me to his mother and grandmother before proposing!'' she wrote. "I say that I have a husband waiting for me back home. However, Ghanaian men don't think that it's official if you don't have children. They feel sorry for you because they think your husband is impotent!''

Svatek is visiting as much of the beaches, wild savannah and dense rain forests as she can.

Recently, 10 of her group made a three-hour journey to Ada Foah, a small fishing community, and took a canoe to the island.

"We slept in thatched huts on the beach that can only fit a double bed with a mosquito net,'' she wrote. "It was the best night sleep I have ever had, bordered by the serene Volta River on one side and the crashing Atlantic Ocean on the other. At night, you can hear the waves crashing and the rustling of the wind blowing through the palm trees. I tried to take pictures of the shore, but my camera couldn't capture the beauty of everything, like the misty fog in the distance or the foamy crash when two waves collide, sending sea spray into the air.''

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Countryside High graduate is in Ghana to help human rights victims 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 9:05pm]

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