I work at a small school in California, USA. Having been an IVHQ volunteer in Ghana, I am now hoping to connect my students to IVHQ in the hope of encouraging them to do a volunteer-based high-school experiential learning program. I really think it will help to enrich the lives of both the students and the community members that host volunteers abroad. I have seen the benefits of volunteering abroad and I want to encourage it. Here are the seven reasons I loved being a volunteer in Ghana and why I think others should volunteer abroad with IVHQ.
1. The support
When I arrived in Ghana for the trip with IVHQ, I had no idea about the upcoming sense of family, warmth and ease that would come. On arriving at the airport in Accra, I got in touch with the contact given to me by IVHQ for my pick-up. Two minutes later, he responded that someone would be picking us up within the hour. Two of the staff came and grabbed our bags and loaded them into a minivan, which kind of made me feel like royalty!
I noticed the van was adorned with a sticker in the top left of the back of the van that read “Namye Adom”, or “God’s Grace”. I would soon find out that in Ghanaian culture, stickers related to God, spirituality and feelings of warmth are all really popular. The meaning behind these stickers is influential in how people live, and this was reflected in the warmth I felt from the beginning of the trip.
2. The people
The Ghanaian people, and especially the program staff, treated us like family. Our initial accommodation was in Accra, where we stayed in a beautiful 4-5 bedroom, 2 bathroom home, complete with a living room and three cooked meals a day.
Later, as we headed on a 2 1/2 hour drive to our placement in rural Asempanye, our driver would regularly ask us, “If anyone wants anything to drink or eat, we can stop at the side of the road and take a break.” To me, this displayed the fact that the people of Ghana were warm and always thinking of other people, perpetuating “Namye Adom” on those around them.
The locals were so welcoming and hospitable nearly everywhere we went. This friendliness came through while we were volunteering, while we were walking to and from our work site, being greeted by nearly every villager with a smile and a “Maa chi! Good morning!”, while we were going to town on a tro-tro (a western-style version of a local city bus) and while we were visiting tourist sites at Cape Coast. In all of those times, the way we were hosted and treated and looked after by placement team in Ghana was superb.
On top of that, the local children who lived in Asempanye were the sweetest bunch of children ever! They treated us like older brothers and sisters. As soon as we arrived from Accra, before I could even say hi, they had already grabbed our luggage, and carefully placed it in our rooms. Without even being asked and without being given any reward, they were more than happy to help us, and they always had smiles on their faces as they did. These little brothers and sisters were just so kind.
3. The options
I’d thought a bit about what to do with my time as a volunteer - there were choices in Teaching, Childcare, Medical, Sports Education, Agriculture and Construction and Renovation. I work as a teacher, but I figured I would try something different to what I do to make a living at home. So I went for Construction and Renovation. It felt really great to be able to try something new, and IVHQ was receptive to allowing volunteers to volunteer in a specialty other than their occupation in their home country. Although I did find it amusing that I would be helping construct, of all things, a school!
4. The volunteering
At our construction site, we worked from 7:30 AM - 11:30 AM daily from Monday to Friday. By volunteering for half a day, we were able to accomplish a great deal as a team while also enjoying the other half of our day exploring the town and embracing the culture. At our work site, we were able to construct mortar from sand and water, build bamboo and wooden scaffolds and create bricks using mortar from the molds that were provided for us. The way everything was run illustrated that the local team in Ghana always had our health and safety front of mind as we helped them.
5. The weekends
Not only were the staff conscious of our health and safety, they also had possibly the most important aspect of the trip, FUN in mind! Come Friday, we were told that we could go to Cape Coast for the weekend, a trip that would include lodging, transportation, meals and entertainment. These weekend trips were reasonably priced (all meals, transportation and a hotel with air conditioner and running water for US$200) and really cool.
Cape Coast is a sweet beach-side fishing community, and a place rich in history and culture. It’s home to a number of popular attractions, including the national park, museums that once housed slaves from the Portuguese slave trade, and hotels that play host to spectacular dancing and acrobatics shows. Think people spitting fire and doing backflips, like you would see at a city fair or even performance center - it was inspiring to see such color and zest for the arts!
We also had organized trips into town with local drivers, both of whom accompanied us and made time to sit, have a meal and drink with us while we were out. All of these outings, and the way they were arranged by the local staff, made me feel like I was not only a volunteer, but also a friend and family member in a country I had never before visited in my life.
6. The learning
I spoke with one of the librarians and health clinic workers who we came to know. He runs a small library, which was donated to the community in 2018, and he told me that he runs a literacy program for students, in order to help them learn to read. In other words, he inspires students to move outside the boundaries of their small villages where their parents work as subsistence farmers. These villages are often perceived to be the totality of their worlds, and many children don’t have the opportunity or desire to go beyond it - both literally and in their imaginations. The program helps to encourage local children to see that the world is full of people, nuance and ideas that they never could have dreamed of had they not opened a book and begun to see what life might be like on the other side of the world.
As a result, students have the opportunity to be mentored and guided by an adult in literacy and new ideas, while also maintaining a connection to their home country. It was my hope that simply introducing a book, or, in my case, my perspective on things as a foreigner, that students might begin to think more about things outside their world in Asempanye. Maybe they will dream about something something else worth seeing and learn about different ways of living around the world.
7. The experience
There are so many more activities I would love to share about this trip. This was my fourth international trip, but what I feel distinguished this trip from others was the extent to which I felt greeted with a sense of warmth, family and ease. I felt the same feelings (in addition to plenty of new ones), I had at age 9 in Michigan, having dinner with my rambunctious family members; my uncle who always tells jokes, my wise grandmother slaving over the food and my kid cousins and I having all sorts of fun adventures.
My top tip for volunteers in Ghana
My greatest recommendation to volunteers in Ghana is to bring with you some sort of communal gift. Things like crayons, colored pencils, pens, notepads, a soccer ball, musical instruments (a small ukulele or drum), lego, or even an arts-and-crafts-related game all are considered by the children to be so great.
I was also struck by how many children loved our phones, specifically the cameras on them. Many times, they asked, “Do you have pictures or a camera?” In hindsight, this makes me think that an old-school Polaroid camera would be an excellent gift - what better way to help them feel happy than to GIVE them a picture after it is taken? Basically, any sort of hands-on activity that allows all of them to be engaged in an activity seems like the most successful way for them to be engaged in the world around them.
As someone being welcomed into their community, being housed, fed, taken on hikes and shown around their village as if I were a cousin from out of town, I felt that having received so much kindness from these children, it would only be fair to give them a gift from my home in response.
With that in mind, my other suggestion for what to bring to these children would be books, books and more books. I would often read with some of the children and they would absolutely devour books. They would ask a whole bunch of questions (“What does democracy mean?” I remember one asking, as we sat outside the small 12-bunk living quarters in our volunteer compound), and it was amazing to see them thinking about what life was like outside the roads, ridges and roosters of their rural homes. Having books available, as well as your time and energy to read with them, may in fact be the greatest gift that you, as a volunteer, can offer to these students.
I cannot emphasize enough how fun this trip was. It was an awesome time in Ghana! Thank you for this great experience, and I hope to be a part of IVHQ in the future. I look forward to seeing you all soon! :)
Click here to learn more about volunteering in Ghana, or register your interest and apply now below!