From June until December 2017, I volunteered in Ghana, with an organisation called the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) under the UK-government scheme called the International Citizen Service (ICS). The first few months involve fundraising for the organisation and the last few months involved working in Ghana.
I know that before I started working with VSO there was very little information for me on how to prepare for the trip. That's why I have decided to write up about my experience - about volunteering, VSO and living in Ghana - right from the beginning to the end, so, read on!
Prior to departing for Ghana, I spent three months fundraising a target amount of £800 which was a requirement to get on the programme. I fundraised largely through donations contributed by generous people through my JustGiving webpage and also through a bake sale at work. (A big thanks to all my friends and family who supported my cause and helped me reach my target ).
Packing for my Trip
I followed a list provided by ICS to complete my packing, mostly buying comfortable and handwash-friendly clothes from the market and buying most toiletries from Primark. I followed the list to the T, and this list can be found here.
Arrival to Ghana
The plane journey to Ghana was not too bad, but nothing prepared me for that slap of heat when I stepped off the plane and hit the Ghanaian concrete. The humidity in the air was thick, and it was just something I had to get used to for the next three months.
We stayed in a hotel in the capital city for a week to prepare ourselves before leaving for our individual communities where the projects will be based. All the British volunteers and Ghanaian volunteers were put in pairs and then split into three teams to deliver projects in three different regions of Ghana. Later, these three teams were split again within the regions to work in different communities. I was in a small team of four, however within the region altogether we were a large group of approximately 21. I can say that it was down to every single individual from the whole team that I made it through the three months in the village, hands down the best group for me to work with.
The night before departing for the village called Tepa, I prepared myself by having a good night sleep, on a proper bed, and a hot shower, knowing this might be the last time I do so for the next three months.
Departure to Tepa Community
The journey to Tepa proved to be very long, eight hours to be exact. It was a wonderful journey through, I tried to not sleep to take in all the views. I watched how after every so often when we stopped at traffic, local vendors or traders pushed their products through the open windows of our vehicle to persuade us to buy their products. The fact that our vehicle was full of ‘white foreigners’ made them press their appeal more desperately, as in most cases in Ghana, indigenous people assume foreigners come with a lot of money.
I have to admit though when we eventually arrived in the Bechem office near Tepa, I had a breakdown. Meeting the host parents who have arrived to pick up their volunteers made me quite overwhelmed. I thought to myself, ‘This was a bad idea, how can I live with some strangers for the next three months?’ I felt sorry for Edward, my host-father when we first met because it was obvious that I had cried a few minutes before meeting him. However, my counterpart Afia covered up for me well and she made me feel more comfortable. Thanks, Afia!
The journey to my village was quite strange, the taxi that was taking us to the village was like four pieces of tin put together, barely put together, and all three of us, Edward, Afia and I were squashed together at the back. I knew that I was living in a village called Old Brosankro, however, when we approached the town ‘New Brosankro’, I thought about how rundown the area looked, a few pop-up stalls on the side road every so often but very scarce besides that. I thought if this is how rundown ‘New Brosankro’ is, then how would ‘Old Brosankro’ be like?
Arrival to Tepa
As we approached our village, all the onlookers stopped their activities to see who the new visitors arriving were. The taxi stopped in a plain under a tree, surrounded by shacks of homes built of mud, some fenced with unstable pieces of wood. Only one home in the corner was built with concrete with a wide yard – which happened to be my host home. I carried all my luggage inside and stepped into a room that I was to call home for the next three months. The room consisted of only two single mattresses on the floor and a small coffee table, Afia and I tried to make ourselves comfortable in the small space. A local Ghanaian lady knocked on our door within a minute of us being inside, and when she spotted me her face lit up, and she shouted with delight, ‘Hey, Obroni (foreigner)!’.
Later on, in the night, Carla, another UK volunteer from Ireland who shared the same village as me, came over for a visit. Her host home was directly next door to mine, so we saw each other often. She observed my room and agreed that it was in better condition than hers. Finally, we just sat down, looked at each other and burst out laughing aloud. It was a very confusing moment for Afia and Anita (Carla’s counterpart), they could not understand our hysteria – ‘If we don’t laugh then we’re just going to cry!’ Carla said, amidst laughter, she couldn’t be more correct.
The purpose of our project in the village was to help local farmers seek alternative economic opportunities, so they don't only rely on cocoa farming. This was seen as important because when they're not farming for cocoa beans, villagers remain idle throughout the year with limited access to income. Therefore, the development consisted of inviting local facilitators with different speciality skills to come to the village and deliver workshops to help our farmers learn alternative sources of income. This was received quite well by the local people, but initially, they arrived at the training sessions in small numbers, as slowly as everything in the village life went - which was something I found hard to deal with. Eventually, the crowds got bigger in numbers and we had a fair mix of men, women, young and old. We are aware that at least a few people have proceeded further with constructing mushroom farms and this made all of our effort worthwhile.
Throughout my three months of living in the rural village of Ghana, the experience taught me a great deal. Firstly, to earn the trust of the locals in the village, Carla and I felt encouraged to learn the local dialect, Twi, to help us interact and communicate with villagers who knew very limited English. We also learnt to pass time without relying too much on technology. It was refreshing and I yearn for this simplicity now. The only part of this experience that I am glad to pass is, handwashing my clothes every Sunday, I left this chore till the end of the week because I dreaded the pain of grazing my knuckles through handwashing.
Nonetheless, besides delivering skills training, our team ventured on other activities to occupy our time in the village. We taught reading English in a local Methodist Primary School, Roman Catholic School and the Junior High School. Teaching and reading English in the local schools was an uplifting experience for someone who told herself she’ll never work with children. The children’s eagerness to learn in a classroom, where three or four were squashed in a two-seater bench and the walls were bare and crumbly, was truly remarkable. You find yourself wanting for them to do well and succeed in their learning and that motivates your enthusiasm to deliver at the school for every lesson.
Towards the end of our time in the village, we hosted a Community Action Day for the community to raise funds for the construction of a health clinic in the community. I participated in a cultural dance with young people from Junior high School. Carla dressed as a cultural Queen in a traditional ceremony, we sold raffle tickets and the school did a play – and a whole lot more. It was a lot of fun and worth all the stress from organising the event. With the community's support, we managed to raise around GHc 943 (approx £135)!
Final Day in the Community
Alas, it was bittersweet when it was time to leave the village. The whole team was excited to be back in the arms of technology and basic commodities, however, it meant leaving behind the loving friends that we had made during our three-months stay. I will dearly miss my little host family, a family of four - parents with two young boys - who looked after Afia and I and made sure our stay was comfortable.
The Return to Real Life
We returned to Accra, which was another eight hours journey, but it was a blissful feeling to return to air conditioners, bouncy beds, busy roads and the buzzy urban city centre.
I probably hadn’t realised how much I take for granted at home as I longed to unite with my Hotpoint washing machine at home and my bed that stood on four legs. But I learnt to value the contentment and the humility like the people in the village embody. The whiteness of their teeth that radiates in the darkness of the night as they all laugh and sit together out on the patio.
If I went to volunteer in Ghana to make myself useful during my gap-year, then I had returned with the Ghanaians teaching me a much greater lesson. That is, value sincerity and humility, value good company, appreciate all blessings and don’t worry about problems that happened and had gone.