Volunteering with International Service: Ghana

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Gha-na-na what's my name?

If someone had said to me 12 months ago that I would be going to Africa with a group of people I had never met before, to do voluntary work with International Service and live with a host family for 3 months, I would have most likely laughed them right out of the room.

Travelling to West Africa, essentially on my own, really pushed my comfort zone. Yet here I am, 12 months down the line, having recently returned from Ghana. Although it was one of the most daunting experiences my life, I am so glad that I went. It has been one of the best things I have ever done, if not one of the best things I’ll ever do.

I made the decision to volunteer with International Service when I stumbled across their website while randomly searching for ‘free overseas voluntary work’ (emphasis on the ‘free’ bit). I knew immediately that it was something that I should do. Not only did it satisfy my desire to travel with minimal expense, but I also strongly believed in their mission statement. Unfortunately, not many people have heard of International Service so for any readers who do not know, International Service is a human rights-based charity, working to protect and promote the rights of some of the most marginalised people across the world.

Not really sure of what to expect or what I would be doing, I got to work with my application. Within a week I had received a response and an invitation to an assessment day. And that was it, I was at the beginning of my International Service journey. Initially I had some difficulty in explaining to people what I would actually be doing. When asked I would always respond with a vague ‘Oh you know, teaching I guess.’ Not knowing really fuelled my anxiety about going, but as time wore on and the departure date approached, it became more apparent: I was to be working on a project which aimed to get more girls into school. This would involve teaching English in schools, running sexual health classes, going into communities to educate the local people on the importance of school, and various other activities.

A sexual health advert from the Ghana AIDS Commission © Erik Cleves Kristensen

A sexual health advert from the Ghana AIDS Commission © Erik Cleves Kristensen

Ghana truly surprised me and exceeded all of my expectations. First I must dispel any pre-existing stereotypes people may have of Africa. The image portrayed in the media sometimes presents Africa as a harsh, desolate place full of sadness, and while my experience of Africa is limited, Ghana certainly challenges these images. A country full of colour, dance, music and vibrancy, Ghana and its people enamoured me.

I remember watching a dance performance the first night I was in Ghana and I was amazed at how energetic and frantic it was. The dancers’ movements were so seamlessly timed to the heavy beat of the drum. Watching them dance was exhilarating and exhausting at once, and it has to be some of the most interesting dancing I have ever seen. They lacked the inhibitions that plague me and I admired how free and easy they were in their movements.  Anticipating some audience participation, I was keen to hide away at the back of the crowd, knowing full well that my dancing leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately my plan didn’t work, and I was pulled to the front by one of the dancers to join in. I made a valiant effort to copy their moves but my lack of natural rhythm and coordination really let me down. That, and keeping up with their pace, was almost impossible.

'A country full of colour' © Yenkassa

‘A country full of colour’ © Yenkassa

While I will not deny that Ghana has its own issues relating to poverty, hunger, discrimination, debt and corruption, these are not met with sullen, downcast eyes or despair. They are met with hope, smiling faces and a belief that there is a better life waiting for them. The humility, generosity and warmth I was met with was inspiring and proves that there is truth in the saying that those who have the least give the most. My host family were incredible. They made me feel so welcome, and within a short space of time I started to feel like one of the family as opposed to a guest in their house. They went out of their way to make me feel welcome, they cooked for me, invited me to family events such as weddings and Christenings, and would always refer to me as ‘sister’ or ‘daughter’.  They introduced me to the community and made sure I knew where I was going but never asked for anything in return. They became my Ghanaian family, and saying goodbye to them after three months of living with them was incredibly difficult.

They made me feel so welcome, and within a short space of time I started to feel like one of the family

Leaving my cushy first-world lifestyle in favour of a third world country has been a real eye-opener, as cliché as that is. In the UK I can turn on a tap and know the water is clean and safe to drink, and there is always water flowing. Life in Ghana was not like that. I couldn’t quickly run my toothbrush under the tap because one, I risked severe illness and two, the flow of water was hugely unreliable and it would shut off for no apparent reason. At one point my host home went 6 days without flowing water. Although my host family were used to this and kept water stored in tanks, there was not enough for everyone to wash themselves, their clothes, the dishes and flush the toilet (there were 6 of us in the house).

The heat was often unbearable, with temperatures reaching 42 degrees for the first few weeks of my stay.  There was no air conditioning anywhere, only ceiling fans which had little impact. Sleeping under mosquito nets didn’t help the situation either; they intensify the heat and make things so much stuffier and incredibly unpleasant. Yet, not sleeping under one is dangerous and you risk getting bitten by mosquitoes and catching malaria. Every time I needed to get up to go to the kitchen for water from the fridge, I would douse myself in insect repellent before leaving the safety of my mosquito net. My roommate, who was Ghanaian and also taking part with International Service, thought I was weird for doing so. Malaria is a reality for them and she didn’t understand why I was so scared of insect bites because, according to her, malaria ‘isn’t so bad.’ Despite her reassurance I couldn’t allow myself to get too comfortable in my surroundings because I knew that would mean I’d become complacent, yet applying and re-applying insect repellent was a difficult habit to get into and one I do not miss.

It has been one of the best things I have ever done, if not one of the best things I’ll ever do.

I’ve begun to appreciate how lucky I am to come from an affluent country. My upbringing has been easy and has been something that I have completely taken for granted; I have clean water on tap, I do not have to hand wash all of my clothes, I have not experienced poverty. I am afforded opportunities that many in Ghana could only dream of.

Featured image © Yenkassa

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