A Volunteer Experience in Ghana

Alex Medlicott, Ghana, global education magazine

Alex Medlicott

International Volunteer

alex_medlicott@hotmail.com

Website: http://dreamafricacarefoundation.org

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Abstract:
I arrived in Ghana unsure of what to expect. I had done little research on the country and was completely unaware of the culture that I was about to become immersed in. I had arranged to volunteer with a local non-profit organisation, but I had absolutely no idea what sort of project I would be working on. I went into this experience completely blind, and as a result I was amazed and overwhelmed by my experience in Ghana. After an orientation day spent exploring national landmarks, local markets and impoverished neighbourhoods, I was thrown into a teaching position and given a few of my own classes. The days and weeks that followed were a whirlwind of new experiences and learning that would stay with me forever. The people that I met, the children that I taught and the volunteers that I worked with have left me in awe and completely inspired.


Keywords: Volunteering, Ghana, Africa, Teaching, Orphanage.

 

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It’s the middle of the day, and in Ghana that means it is very hot. I am running down an uneven dirt road as fast as I am able, completely drenched in sweat. I struggle with a heavy sports bag, shifting its weight every minute or so from one shoulder to the other, occasionally dropping it down into my hands to give my back some respite. I look up. The heavy storm clouds are rolling in fast.

I cannot help but laugh at the situation as I attempt to race home before the storm inevitability hits, bringing with it the heavy tropical rain. I pass a group of old ladies sitting in front of their shop. We would usually exchange pleasantries as I pass, swapping between English and the five words that I could speak in Ga. They take one look at me and fall about laughing, clearly amused by the silly ‘Obruni’ trying to outrun the rain. I will get this reaction from just about everyone that I pass on the two kilometre journey between the school and the volunteer house.

Halfway home, a taxi pulls up beside me and the driver leans forward to talk to me through the passenger window. Seeing my predicament, he smiles broadly as I tell him that I need to go just down the road. Holding back his laughter, he tilts his head back and offers me a price five times higher than what I would usually expect to pay. I laugh, impressed by his boldness, thanking him for his time as I return to my painful rush home.

I turn down a path that runs between a creek and some family homes. I run past some goats and chickens that are let lose on the path. The wind picks up. A sudden flash of light is followed by rumbling thunder, and within seconds the downpour begins with full intensity. I hunch forward over the bag, using my body as a shield from the rain. I shuffle along slowly now, my back aching unforgivingly as I battle through the last few hundred metres.

Dream Africa Care Foundation, Global education magazineHow did I find myself in this situation? Earlier this year I spent two months volunteering in Ghana. The organisation that I worked for, Dream Africa Care Foundation, had several ongoing projects working with children in the local area. When I arrived, there was an unfortunate lack of teachers, so I found myself teaching my own class at a local school.

The school facilities were basic to say the least. A dirt yard was surrounded on three sides by wooden shacks that served as classrooms. The classes were small, but with only a blackboard seperating the rooms lessons were often loud and full of external distractions. The headmaster sat by the small canteen area, overlooking the whole school and keeping the children in line. A small fire would usually be burning in the corner, an unfortunate solution to garbage disposal. There were no bathrooms. Despite such humble conditions, the children were always in amazing spirits.

With literally no teaching experience or qualifications, I will admit that at first teaching seemed pretty daunting, though this feeling passed in a matter of days. The kids were amazing. They responded enthusiastically and respectfully towards me and every area of study in class.

I began teaching maths, the subject I felt most comfortable in, and was immediately impressed by the capability of the class. Despite the many educational disadvantages these children had faced, they were extremely fast learners and could absorb and apply new information very easily. Within those first few days, I became more and more impressed with my class. Their attentiveness, eagerness to learn and continuous excitement at my mere presence made my time teaching amazing. From my first day with that class, I loved every moment of teaching.

It was during my first week at the school that I approached one of the head teachers, who I only ever knew as Madame, asking which subject I should teach that day. She handed me an IT book and asked that I teach the children about computers.

 Dream Africa Care Foundation, Global education magazine, ghana

I began the class that day talking about the difference between hardware and software. As always, the students were trying their best to learn as much as possible, but there was a distinct barrier preventing the class from understanding the topic at hand. I asked the class if anyone had ever used a computer before. The kids jumped up excitedly, telling a story about a class trip to the local internet cafe. I questioned further only to discover that, while everyone had been on this class trip, not one student had ever actually used a computer before.

These children were growing up completely removed from an integral part of the modern developed world, and as such would be severely limited in their capacity to seek a higher level of education. While the reality of career and education prospects for many children in Ghana had already begun to sink in, the fact that these children were not exposed to technology on any level certainly affected me deeply. In the short amount of time that I had been their teacher up until this point, I had seen many signs of great intelligence in several students, and it troubled me greatly that even the smartest students in this school might never be given the opportunity to realise their own potential.

I set out upon my own personal mission, and began fundraising with friends and family back home. Within a few short weeks enough money had been raised to buy three laptops that would be used by the volunteers as an educational tool for children in the care of Dream Africa Care Foundation.

I will never forget the first day that I brought the laptops to school, the class was buzzing with excitement and curiousity at the sight of the mystery sports bag strapped over my shoulder. When I began explaining the rules about acceptable behaviour in a computer lab, they began shouting and dancing around the room. Eventually they settled enough for the laptops to be distributed between small groups. For the next three hours the whole class was transfixed to the point that we completely skipped recess without even noticing. Basic computer skills were picked up rapidly with the aid of some mathematics and spelling games, and it didn’t take long for the students to find that innate spark of curiousity that children in the developed world seem to have when it comes to technology. Within that first lesson, the class went from being completely boggled by the touch pad to racing through the icons in search of new entertainment and stimulus.

Interestingly, it was only after purchasing the laptops that I learned that having computer skills can drastically improve employment opportunities for locals in Ghana. As computer skills are perhaps not so common, those that have a good understanding of how to use computers will be able to find better paying work much easier. With this in mind, I believe that exposing children to technology on a regular basis seems like a good way to increase their opportunity for further education, or at the very least expand their job prospects for when they finish school. All these children need is opportunity.

Opportunity. That is what is lacking for these children. They have the desire to learn, to move towards their potential. They have the ability, the inherent intelligence that would allow them to succeed in life. I was reminded of these traits on a daily basis.

Every day my class would dance around and get excited when I arrived at school, not because I was anyone special, but because my arrival meant that they had a teacher for the day. When teaching a new topic, the students would never hesitate to ask me questions to make sure they understood. When teaching geography, the class would crowd around the world map trying their best to make sense of it. When teaching mathematics, the capable students would beg for harder questions. No matter the topic, the children wanted to learn. They wanted to do better.

Their intelligence surprised me no end, simply for the fact that they had faced numerous obstructions in gaining an education so far. I was teaching long division one day, a subject that I had never really understood myself as a school student, and once again the class impressed me with their quickness of ability to understand concepts. In fact, a few students excelled, managing to tackle harder questions. One girl was miles ahead of the class, and would fly through the questions faster than I would find time to mark them. At the age of only eight, this student was the youngest person in the class, yet was undoubtedly one of the brightest. It was a wonderful to witness such intelligence, but also it was a heavy moment, realising how gifted this young girl was. In a different setting, her intellect would be identified; she would be placed in an accelerated class and would be given every opportunity to further her education. But in Ghana, in an underfunded, understaffed local school, it was much more likely that such opportunities would never be afforded to her. Her potential would probably never be realised, simply for the lack of opportunity. I still struggle to come to terms with the harsh reality.

While the lack of opportunity is perhaps the greatest obstacle in improving education in Ghana, it is also a gift that can very easily be given as a volunteer. These children have the potential, the intelligence and the desire to learn. The only thing that they need in order to succeed is exposure to knowledge and ideas. Offer these students this, and the rest will happen organically.

I first realised this truth teaching at a nearby fishing village. Every afternoon, after school, a small group of volunteers would head out to a seaside community to provide the children in the area with the opportunity to improve their learning. We taught in this suburb for the simple reason that it was one of the worst performing regions in Accra in terms of academia. We had no facilities to teach in, so every afternoon we would drag blackboards, tables and chairs out of a storage room and teach in the street. Classes varied in size day to day, but the constant onslaught of distractions meant that classes were usually a bit more difficult to manage.

Despite being late in the afternoon, the sun would feel hot. Yet when the sun eventually fell over the horizon, it would become too dark to teach. The dusty road would be kept relatively clean, though a quick look towards the ocean would provide a view of mountains of garbage lining the nearby coastline. The air would be heavy, thick with too many smells to recognise. This would be the setting for my afternoons in Ghana, but for the children in my class, this was their world.

During a class one afternoon, I was teaching multiplication to a small group of students. Despite all being in the same class at school, their skills and understanding ranged between two extremes. I tried as always to cater for this disparity, providing practice questions of varying difficulty. I was doing my usual loop of the table of students when I found a girl, hunched over her book, defeated. I asked her what was wrong, and she explained that it was impossible for her. As far as I could tell, she had missed out on learning the basics, and ever since had feigned understanding, and thus was being left behind.

I gave the class work to do, then sat down and tried my best to explain the basic concepts that she had missed. I showed examples and drew solutions, hoping to create some clarity. I left her with a simple question, two multiplied by three, and she busied herself away trying to solve it. A minute later she ran up to me, shoving her book into my hands excitedly. I gave her a tick and another question, and again a minute later she ran up to me, eager for me to mark her work. It went on like this for the rest of the lesson, I would write her a question, she would scurry off to solve it then rush back proudly with the answer. By the end of the day she had gone from a complete lack of understanding of the topic to being able to solve six multiplied by seven. This girl would normally hide her work from me, ashamed of her ability, but that day she was full of pride and excitement. I could not have been happier that day.

Basic mathematical skills are a necessity in Ghana for any sort of work besides manual labour, so helping children tackle even basic concepts can help them find decent work in the future. For this reason, I felt as though I had contributed something of worth to this child, and yet it cost me so little.

I think, in talking about doing volunteer work, there is often a great emphasis placed on how rewarding and fulfilling volunteer work can be. While this is certainly true, and by no means a bad thing to discuss, I think it is perhaps more important to highlight the impact that volunteer work can have on local communities and the people within those communities. As rewarding as it was teaching multiplication successfully to a struggling student, that child will benefit so much more from gaining that skill than I ever could from sharing it.

Of course, knowledge is not the only gift you can offer as a teacher. The young students that I worked with learned very quickly, but were also so easily inspired and filled with wonder. During a geography lesson, learning about oceans and continents, it became apparent that most of the students had never seen the ocean. The school was only two kilometres from the coast, so this troubled me. If these children were so rarely given the opportunity to leave their immediate surroundings, then their goals beyond living in their suburb surely could not feel real to them. I had students who imagined themselves becoming doctors, fashion designers and nurses. They fantasised about seeing other countries, often asking quesions about Australia and other countries I had seen, yet they had never even been taken for a walk down the road to see the ocean.

A friend had made the same discovery with his students, so we joined classes one day and went for an excursion to the beach. Of course, classroom management skills count for nothing when twenty excited children are about to see the ocean for the first time, so to say the day was filled with shenanigans would be an understatement. Challenges aside, it was a great experience. The kids were filled with wonder and excitement as they raced around the sand. We managed to reign them in for a twenty minute lesson before letting them run around by the water. The ‘no swimming’ rule that we tried to impose was quickly translated to permission to roll around in ankle deep water, despite wearing their full school uniforms. They played games and splashed around, posing here and there for the occasional photograph. It was a day that the children won’t soon forget.

On the walk back, I talked to one of the older girls in my class who had previously been so scared of the beach that she had tried to get out of the excursion. It took some convincing and promises to get her to join us that day, and in the end she had had a wonderful time. I asked her if the ocean was as scary as she thought it would be. She looked up at me, smiling, and told me it wasn’t. It may not sound like much, but to me that was a perfect moment. Her view of the world had changed slightly.

Ten minutes later I fell in a hole in the road, known affectionately as an ‘Obruni trap’, twisted my leg and smacked my knee against the pavement so hard that I couldn’t walk properly for two weeks. And still, the strongest memory I have of that day is of the young girl, looking up at me, telling me she had overcome her fear.

While I spent my days teaching, hoping to assist in the education of these young minds, other volunteers worked in many other projects across Accra and Ghana. Teaching, to me, seemed very important, but there are many other problems faced by communities in Ghana. It was always inspiring to hear what other volunteers were accomplishing in the face of different challenges.

During my short time in Ghana, the local orphanages we worked with underwent dramatic improvements. Wooden classrooms were built on the premises; teachers were hired; foam mattresses on the floor were replaced with bunk beds; fans were placed in each bedroom to decrease heat rashes and mosquito bites; health insurance was purchased for all the children; grey walls were painted colourfully; photos were spread throughout the bedrooms; seeds were purchased to help grow food; chickens were purchased to provide eggs; clothes were provided to break the hand-me-down cycle, and the children were all taught basic hygiene skills.

All these initiatives, and many more, came from volunteers. Everyone that I worked with had so much to bring to each project, and I became inspired by their work on a daily hasis. Everyone had a great capacity to make a real difference.

I am unsure of the extent to which I was able to help my students in their education. I cannot know if I managed to inspire any of them to seek further education. I cannot know whether the laptops will make a difference. I cannot know if anything I did will affect their lives in any significant way beyond the time I spent with them. I do know, however, that as long as there are more volunteers, more people trying to help these children, that a real difference can be made. As long as these children are exposed to new opportunities to learn, they will get closer and closer to reaching their potential. Seeing the potential in these children is among the most inspiring things in the world.

Of course, beyond the seriousness of providing opportunity to these amazing children, there are special moments to be treasured forever. It was a hot day, and my students were exhausted from the lesson so far. They soldiered on nonetheless, though I could easily see that no more learning could be done in the remaining half and hour of class. I finished the lesson early that day, then set about trying to keep the class occupied during the time before lunch break. I ended up showing a couple of students a simple coin trick, nothing fancy, and the kids loved it. Within minutes the whole class began jumping about excitedly, begging for me to teach them the tricks.

The lesson flew by, and by the end they were all practicing with coins of their own, trying their best to fool each other. When they time came for me to leave, I realised that I had lost a coin, a fact that troubled my class greatly. I assured them a dozen times over that it didn’t matter, and that they should continue having fun, but it was too late. They all began searching the room, adding up their own coins and trying to account for my missing coin.

 Dream Africa Care Foundation, Global education magazine, Ghana, Alex Medlicott,

One girl approached me, telling me she had found my coin, and the rest of the class backed up her statement. I looked at her, trying my best to read the situation. I counted the coins in her other hand and realised that she was one coin short. She was offering me her own money so that I would not be at a loss. After much insistence, the girl sheepishly accepted her coin back.

What followed can only be described as bedlam. Students would run up to me in waves, falsly claiming to have found my coin, while other students would sneak money into my pockets. As I headed for the exit of the school, my class were holding my arms trying to pull me back, completely determined to have me accept their money to pay for my small loss. I have never felt so humbled.

Despite having so little, my loss became their loss. They gave to me freely, what little they had, in the belief that they could only be happy if they knew I was happy.

If only this attitude was more apparent in the developed world. There is so much need in the world, but there is also so much capacity for people to give.

This article was published on 22nd March 2015, for the World Water Day, in Global Education Magazine.

 

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