Today I take you back to the year 2006. The year I completed my first degree, and started the second one six months later. In the meantime, I decided to make the world a better place. At least, that was the plan. I wanted to get away from the Netherlands for a while, see something of the world and, if possible, make myself useful. Even though I had never been outside Europe and had little travel experience at the time, I chose (along with my then-boyfriend) to volunteer in Ghana. I didn’t quite dare to tackle everything on my own yet, so I signed up for a volunteer project at Travel Active. They arranged lodging with a host family, an intermediary and, of course, the volunteer project. March 2006 was the day: nervous as hell, I left for West Africa with a group of volunteers.
The arrival in Accra
After a six-hour flight, which I thought was insanely long at the time, we landed at the Accra airport. It was 11 o’clock in the evening and very dark. A Ghanaian affiliated with the organization came to pick us up. Once outside, all I saw were white eyes and even whiter teeth. Once with the group on the bus, we drove past slums on deserted roads. The days that followed gave us an introduction to the country, where we learned about the culture and how to interact with the people. I had to get very used to all those people who kept staring, shouting things, begging and touching me without saying anything. I quickly learned that here it is quite normal to shout Obroni (white) at a white person. Once the group was prepared for the real thing, we were split up across different towns in Ghana. Myself and five other volunteers were taken to Tamale, a sandy, scorching hot city in the north of the country.
Tamale: my temporary home
In Tamale, the small group was divided among several host families. We stayed with a Ghanaian woman and her two sons. Who were very happy with all the toys we had brought for them. In the house was a refrigerator, a (very hard) bed, a bathtub and a toilet. But appearances are deceiving, because except for the refrigerator, nothing worked. No water came out of the shower and the bathtub was filled only with giant spiders. Outside was a large water barrel with a small tap. With that I could fill my bucket to wash myself and flush the toilet. Teeth brushing I did in the gutter, through which the rats shot in the evening. And there were more pets, for example, the refrigerator was full of cockroaches that walked all over the food we got served in the evening. After a few weeks, the water ran out and had to be fetched from a well down the road. This water was so dirty that the whole bathroom began to smell like it. But, this was the only opportunity to sort of wash myself.
Volunteering in Ghana
I started volunteering at an elementary school. I bought a bicycle and drove there in the heat every morning. The first day I was shocked by what I found: the little school was nothing more than a cement shell with some shabby tables and chairs. The toilet was a piece of ground between some walls. My kids were about 8 years old (did vary a lot), wore broken shoes and clothes and had no means of writing with them. The teachers had a big stick they used to hit those poor little kids on the head when they deserved it in their eyes.
For the little ones, I had brought all sorts of things: crayons, pens, colored paper, markers and stickers. It is incredibly difficult to keep children’s attention when they know they will not be spanked. In no million years would I give such a poor Ghanaian a swat on the head. Fortunately, the pencils and stickers we brought worked pretty well to keep them quiet. Those simple things that are normal for Dutch kids, those kids seemed to have never seen before in their lives. And maybe it really was.
I found it terribly difficult to teach. In the end, we mostly laughed a lot, learned some English and did some math. I also had the kids draw, something I thought was pretty special. Because unlike what I drew myself when I was young, these little kids don’t put houses, but guns, thatched huts and Ghanaian flags on paper. We slowly got used to each other and with many I had nice conversations. Very nice to see those happy little faces.
What did I learn?
These three months were especially instructive for myself. Contributing something to the development of such a poor country does not happen overnight. Temporarily bringing some joy, that’s all I’ve been able to do. I found it extraordinary to see that such poor people are still so happy. The Ghanaians are cheerful and happy. It was an experience I would never have wanted to miss. However, I do now question what development aid actually contributes. Certainly with the corruption (even at the little school) pretty little, I think. In addition, I had absolutely no experience in teaching, I just come out of school myself. So I greatly admire people who manage to set up something on their own, such as a shelter or well. However, I myself would never volunteer in a poor country in this way again. Here you can read why volunteering abroad often turns out wrong. Things that could have been done long ago with all that money. Ghana is a beautiful country with incredibly kind people, where the difference between rich and poor is insanely large. After my time in Ghana, I have never seen poverty anywhere like there.
If you want to learn more about life and travel in Ghana, please visit the blog of Jennifer, a blonde girl who lost her heart to a Ghanaian and thus can be found there regularly and tells the best stories about life in this special country. Also volunteering in Ghana? Let Ghanacoach help you choose a good project.
Besides working at a small school, I also backpacked around the country, ended up in a shabby Ghanaian hospital where there wasn’t even running water and volunteered for two more weeks on a health project. When I set foot on Dutch soil again after three months, I had seen and learned an awful lot. I came home with a lot less pounds, but with the travel virus, an experience richer and beautiful memories. Backpacking turned out to be so much fun, after this year I had totally got the hang of it and many other (far away) trips followed.
Have you ever volunteered abroad? How was that for you?
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