My Ghana experience! By Alile Tshume
Why I chose to volunteer
During the last year of my A Levels I decided to take a gap year and do some volunteering in Britain and Africa. I looked at several countries and decided to go to Ghana and teach English. An organisation called Original Volunteering provided information and I applied to go to Ghana for a month to explore and realise the needs of the community. The tickets were booked and stationery and sweets were collected for the children.
Waving ‘goodbye’ to my parents was hard. My heart was beating fast and I was shaking with anticipation. I felt that once through the departure gate I would come back a different person and would have many stories to tell. That anything could go wrong on the trip did not enter my mind. There was trouble getting my visa in the UK as planned and but discovered that it might be possible to get a visa on my arrival at Accra Airport.
Visa challenges at Accra airport
On arrival at Accra Airport I went to the reception desk. Everything seemed to be fine until I handed in my documents. The man behind the desk came out of the office and told me to stand aside. He asked me questions about my reasons for coming to Ghana. I explained that I was there to do volunteer work and that I do not get paid for my services. Internally, I was panicking because of the simple fact that I was alone and was used to having my parents help me. All I could do was to send them text messages updating them on what was happening.
The coordinators, Rebecca and Fred from Original Volunteering were calling back and forth speaking with the man. I was told to stand and wait for news that I would be able to pay for the visa and hotfoot it from the airport. Time was ticking by and I remember thinking all sorts of scenarios in my head about what is going to happen next, are they going to send me home?’ Or, ‘Am I going to have to stay here in Accra?’ All sorts of unwanted questions were churning around in my mind. After waiting for two hours I left the airport and met the representative from Original Volunteer organisation outside.
All sorted and on my way…
The drive to the volunteer house was a very long and bumpy trip. It gave me plenty of time to think about the coming weeks. I sat in the car next to a wide open window, looking out at the road before me and feeling anxious about how was it going to be staying in a house with strangers for four weeks? How I was going to survive this trip all by myself without my parents? Basically, I was having a mini nervous break-down. I think the driver sensed my uneasiness because he kept asking me how I was every few minutes.
The streets of Ghana were certainly eye-catching. It was past midnight and the people were wide awake, not sleeping, but were out in the open, listening to music and selling food at their stalls. The scene reminded me of New York which I visited with my mother and sister. We were walking around the streets late at night and were intrigued by how people were still walking around at midnight.
Arriving at the volunteer house early in the morning I realised how different things would be.
Arrival at the volunteer house
We arrived at the volunteer house in the early hours of the morning. I was shown around and told where everything was. Feeling very tired and desperately needing the toilet I discovered there were buckets of water next to the showers for showering and separate buckets of water used for flushing the toilets. I filled my bucket for my toilet trip and realised how different things were going to be. The tap water was not for drinking purposes. When my allocated room was reached, I met my room-mate who was half asleep but still kind enough to fill me in on what I should expect. She gave me fair warning about the noise that came from the rat-like creatures called ‘Tree Hyrax’ which make unforgettable noises like a wailing child. The atmosphere was thick and humid so I did not even use the thin blanket on the bed.
The town was busy, taxis buzzing everywhere with the sun beating down.
A shopping trip into town
It was weird waking up on the first day in an unfamiliar room. The first day was an introduction of what I would be doing and I also had a mini tour of the town, called Mpraeso which was going to be where I lived for the next four weeks. Rebecca, the volunteer coordinator, made sure to fill me in on everything and gave me a full debrief on essentials. The town was busy with people, market stalls all along the streets, taxis buzzing everywhere with the constant heat of the sun beating down. This was an opportunity to buy some essentials like sachets of water, bread, eggs. I learned to say few phrases in ‘Twi’ which is the Ghanaian language, “thank you” is “medasi”.
Town was an opportunity to buy some essentials and practise saying thankyou in Twi which is “medasi”.
At one shop the people I mingled with seemed very kind and their faces were full of smiles of greeting and the enjoyment of scrutinising me. The shopkeeper was having a debate on how he saw women in society and it was interesting hearing the light-hearted banter put into the debate. Ghanaians love to talk and I think that this is true of all Africans. I also love to talk and it was very interesting and entertaining hearing other peoples’ points of view on different subjects.
Meeting all the volunteers
After the trip to town, we returned to the house with the groceries and waited for the rest of the volunteers to come back from work. When they arrived they related many stories about life in Ghana, schools and building projects they were involved with. The boys were heavily involved in the building projects and the girls, teaching in schools. Everybody was very excited and motivated and that made me feel comfortable and excited to be involved.
The Obo library, built and started by volunteers a few years ago was impressive, with lots of organised activities and books it was always packed with children.
A visit to a library started by volunteers
Once we got to know each other, I was invited to a community library where the volunteers went after work to supervise local children. The library was built and started by volunteers a few years ago. It provided after-school activities such as assisted homework as most of the parents are illiterate. The library provided books to encourage reading and also internet use for children and adults. We reached the library by taxi and there was a crowd of children gathered at the gate with big smiles on their faces. They were so excited to see us that they were cheering. They affectionately called us ‘obrunis’ which referred to people with ‘white skin’. Some of the children were confused about what to call me as I am not dark. They were perplexed how to classify me as I was not white but I have a fair skin. Some of them called me ‘obruni’ or ‘obibini’ which is the name for people with darker skin. Being a South African and having a fair skin tone caused some confusion for the locals as well as curiosity upon hearing my British accent.
There was one laptop donated by the volunteers and two old computers that did not work. The laptop was used to show videos. The children were very interested in reading books and would fight to obtain them. Some books were very old but the volunteers donate books when they come to visit. Some children were very good at reading but others were struggling and needed attention. There were a few children who had no interest in reading but were demanding our attention. Some of the children told us they were running away from home because of the hard work they had to do there and used the library to escape. The children enjoyed colouring, drawing and painting. There is a demand for colouring books and colouring pencils. The library offers very important after-school functions for children. I was very impressed by the volunteers starting up a library for the children which included adults who were interested in reading as well. The library was always packed with children of all ages. It was enjoyable watching the children trying very hard to read and being able to assist them. Their faces lit up with joy when I complimented them on their efforts.
The other volunteers were excited and motivated and that made me feel comfortable and happy to be involved.
During the first week of arrival it was the sports week competition for all the schools in the area. This was an important event and parents came to cheer their children on. The event was well attended and most of the children participated. There were prizes presented for winning schools. The weather was very hot and dry and there was no drinking water except the controlled sachets of water. Every child gave their all and everyone was cheering and singing. It was really good to see pupils of all the schools singing and dancing, including the volunteers. What was quite upsetting was seeing just how much the heat got to the kids. After each race the children would finish breathless and pass out. Everyone gathered round with sachets of water for them to drink and sprayed it all over them. Not having access to a water tap if they needed a drink was painful to see. This showed how dangerous the heat was and how much the children pushed to be number one. They were running bare footed on the sparsely-grassed sandy ground. They ran as fast as if they were wearing trainers. The most fun sport to watch was football because of the passion it invoked. It was funny to see all the teachers showing competitiveness, arguing with the referee and with each other over rules or cheating.
The Nkyenenkyene primary school where I taught was in one of the most deprived areas in the Kwahu region.
Teaching in the poor schools
On the second and third week I started teaching at a school called Nkyenenkyene Presbyter School which was located along the KwahuTafo and Adwaso main road. It is one of the most deprived communities in the Kahu South District in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Teaching at that school was the most terrifying and awesome experience ever encountered. Standing in front of the children with no prepared lesson plan, no previous training but having to draw from my own school experiences. The children were forced to listen carefully as I could not speak their language but they were enjoying themselves. It encouraged the children to be attentive and listen carefully because there was no interpreter. I was paired with another volunteer who taught the class a couple of weeks prior to my arrival and she supported me. The school grounds were bare and dusty. The classrooms had walls that stopped half-way, therefore, there were no windows as the walls did not reach the ceiling. It is impossible to occupy the classrooms when it rains because of the lack of windows. The writing boards were not in good condition, some of them were broken, but it was better than nothing. There were desks for the children and some of them were in a bad condition. It was encouraging to see children motivated to attend school in these conditions. They were always laughing and keen to work and listen. Children appreciated the attention they got and were all willing to work. This was new – to see children loving school and participating fully.
We are used to class mates making fun of the person who has their hand up first and always labelled him/her as ‘teacher’s pet’. That class in Ghana had children who were very bright and knew every answer and others who were struggling but persevered and did not give up. The children were not afraid to raise their hands and answer questions. The pure enjoyment when getting something right warmed my heart.
Read all about how volunteers built the Sunrise school from scratch and how this has positively made a difference to children going to school for the first time and improved literacy rates.
Children wait their turn to play. But lunch break was not just play time, the children also received a meal, possibly the only one of the day.
Maths was great for competitions
My favourite subject was Mathematics because there was so much competition and they could identify the numbers. The children enjoyed sums and would plead to do more but I had to follow the time table. They also enjoyed the Mathematic period as I would give them small rewards if they gave the correct answers. The next favourite thing at the school was lunch time as it gave me time to bond with the pupils. They would always involve me in playing games and I also used the opportunity to continue testing them on their maths or spelling. The volunteers always enjoyed singing the local songs and we were taught the famous Ghanaian dance called the ‘azonto’. It was great fun laughing with the children and being attentive to them. During break the children ate food which was provided by one of the women who lived in the village where the school was located. She came to the school with a big bucket of food. She cooked the food everyday and donated it to the children. During break the children stood in a line without being instructed to wait for their turn to get food. The village woman always had a helper who dished out the food. Lunch break was the most important time for the children as we were aware that some of them do not eat in the morning or in the evening at home.
Building and painting at a new project
The teaching continued and I had the opportunity of visiting the building site where the volunteers were building a community centre in another location. There I tried my hand at building and painting. This really made me appreciative of where I come from, specifically to have been able to attend a school in a well-built building with all the necessary facilities like toilets and a library. The fact that the Ghanaian children have to walk long distances to attend school even when they had no shoes or were sick was inspirational.
My last days in Ghana were very difficult as I was torn – being very homesick but at the same time being very attached to the children and did not want to leave. I even tried to change my flight ticket.
My concluding thoughts
Seeing first-hand the struggle the children have regarding their education motivated me to try and look for assistance to continue my mission in Ghana. On my return I decided that it was imperative to continue to be involved with the schools. There is a need for continued support of the school and the surrounding community. The children do not have shoes and some do not have uniforms. They mainly walk bare-footed. Stationery is not provided and the children depend on stationery brought in by volunteers. Although being in Ghana for only four weeks I felt a strong kinship with them and wanted to repay the love I received. Ghanaians are so welcoming and genuinely kind people. When walking down the street in town people always greet you to say “good afternoon” or “hello” or “akwaaba” which means “welcome” in the Ghanaian language. There was a wonderful atmosphere in Ghana, everyone was relaxed and no-one in a hurry. People were happy, even though they did not have much.
My plans for the future
Plans are already in place to go back particularly as I promised the children that I would return. It would be good to be able to make it an annual trip and I want to show my parents what I have seen. I would like to continue and contribute my services to the people there, especially the children. Ghana will forever have a special place in my heart; it is where I grew up a little, it is where I experienced living by myself and where I saw many things I will remember forever. It was definitely an experience as I had not imagined. If an experience similar to this one was offered, I would say ‘yes’ in a heartbeat.
If you would like to get involved, check out our Top 10 Reasons to volunteer in Ghana!