This summer I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer in Eastern Ghana for two months. I spent 8 weeks in Kpando, which is right next to the Lake Volta. My arrival was pretty hectic. I waited two hours in the airport; then a taxi driver came to pick me up and dropped me off at a hotel. The day after, I took a tro, the Ghanaian name for van, to get to Kpando. It took us about 7 hours on a rocky road , with luggage and kids everywhere and barely any space to put my feet. As soon as we stopped, women carrying huge barrels on their head rushed to the window and offered different treats to eat, or bags of water. I remember finding it charming and overwhelming at the same time. Then I arrived to the NGO headquarters, and I got introduced to the volunteers and to the NGO staff. It took me about two weeks to get accustomed to the idea of me being in Ghana, and to start enjoying my time there. It also took a while to get things started with the NGO, but I just had to learn to be patient and adapt myself to the Ghanaian timeframe. Furthermore, I discovered that as ready as I thought I was, I was still taken aback by plenty of things, and I ended up doing something completely different than what I expected.
Ghana is a relatively developed country in West Africa. Early on in its history, Ghana was colonized by the British because of its valuable gold mines. It is a rather small country, inhabited by around 25 million people, and divided in different ethnic groups. However the ethnic dynamics are relatively peaceful in Ghana, despite some clashes from time to time. Like most other developing countries, Ghana lacks an efficient network of infrastructures or even a general record of organizations and individuals in the country. The natural and financial resources are not efficiently and evenly distributed throughout the country, and corruption is still prevalent. Moreover, it is widely argued that more concern should be given to human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. Despite all this, Ghanaian democracy is rather solid, and economic and social development is thriving.
During my time in Kpando, I closely worked with a local NGO called UNiTED (Unifying Neighbors Through Education and Development). The organization was founded in 2007, when the director established a children’s home to welcome orphans and neglected children of the community. Since then its projects have diversified a lot, touching upon different domains such as health, education, and social and economic development. Its main goal is to empower the community notably by granting easier access to information. UNiTED is an extremely active NGO, influencing an extending sector around Kpando and welcoming about 80 volunteers per year.
I lived in the children’s home with about 25 kids and 4 caretakers. My time was divided between the mornings when I would work on a specific and individual project, and the afternoons during which I did tutoring to help out the kids with homework and exams, like most other volunteers. I worked on the social map project. A social map is a map that gathers and displays information of all the organisations and institutions that exist in a region and their locations. A social map is usually the first thing a NGO does when settling down in a region, because it gives out a good overview of what exists there, how to improve it, and what else can be created in order to promote development. It is a combination of a physical map where all the locations are traced down and a folder containing all data about the organisations. Practically, I biked around in surrounding villages to detect and record the different organisations existing. Afterwards, I would go in for an interview with the director, asking about instances whether they lacked materials and/or funds, or whether they would need volunteers to help them out. This way, the NGO had an organized and collective data about the whole regional district.
I found the Ghanaian community extremely welcoming. Everyone greets each other on the streets, and most people addressed me as a very good friend after I had only talked to them once! I found one of the most prominent traits of Ghanaians to be their deeply rooted dignity. Even when some people are considered at the very bottom of the society, they display an incredible fierceness in their eyes. They also have a great sense of the aesthetics. On Sunday for instance, people wear incredibly colorful clothing made of the finest fabric when they go to Church. A final characteristic that I found about Ghanaians is that they know how to celebrate life – in other words, party. Every Sunday we had music and dance with the kids. We would give them drums, put music on and all dance together. These little guys really had the rhythm in their blood; I was pretty embarrassed by my white-washed and hung-up dance moves. My favorite moments were when the Football World Cup was happening. Every night, the father of the NGO’s director, who was one of the only people to have a TV in the neighborhood, would take it out and dispose chairs in front of it. Then everyone from the neighborhoods, kids and elders alike, would watch, make bets and exclaim their joy/frustration trough dance moves or yelling.
Honestly, it is hard to express into words what this experience brought me, though I know for sure I matured a lot during these eight weeks. It was an amazing experience, and I am even thinking of going back again this summer. First of all, I was able to get immersed in a culture opposite to my Western one, which is always great and disconcerting at the same time. What I loved about it was that the ancient traditions were still very relevant, and people were extremely proud to be Ghanaians, and to be part of Africa in a wider sense. It was an eye-opening experience, both because I could discover other features of a totally unknown culture and dialect, and because it affirmed myself in my own identity. Something else that I learned was that if you want to get something done with a grassroots NGO, you have to take on the initiative and offer some realistic ideas to the director of the NGO to implement a relevant and sustainable project. The most conspicuous problems of local NGOs in developing countries are their disorganization and lack of funds. Volunteers usually need to build up their own project and find resources to support it mostly by themselves. Therefore, it is a great learning experience. Finally, I would like to add that in the end what really struck me was not the country in itself but the people I met there. This may sound a bit cheesy, but some people were extremely inspiring. I have the image in my mind of a disabled fourteen-year-old kid, who never went to school, who was sold by his parents and had to work his whole life, when he finally was admitted by the children’s home five months ago. You could see he went through unimaginable struggles in his life, but still he was one of the most joyful kids, and he had a smile that could brighten up anyone around him.