I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up for an 11-day service-learning program in Ghana.
In fact, I didn’t know much about Ghana.
Sure, I was keenly aware of some of the stereotypes that exist of countries on the African continent: poverty-stricken and vast with golden sunsets. But were they true? Regardless, the idea of going to volunteer abroad appealed to me. So, as my friends packed their suitcases for ski trips or vacations on the beach, I decided to grab a mosquito net and some sunscreen and throw myself into a completely foreign experience, aptly called an “Alternative Spring Break,” that led me to the coastal fishing village of Winneba.
I and the other program participants – a group of college students from Montreal – were assigned to volunteer with Challenging Heights, a grassroots NGO that has worked in the realm of child trafficking prevention and response for over ten years (http://challengingheights.org/). The organization operates a school for children in Winneba and surrounding areas who have been previously trafficked or sold, or are at risk of being trafficked or sold, into the fishing industry.
When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by over one hundred students, screaming, clapping and banging on the side of our bus in excitement. I felt welcomed – and appreciated – immediately.
“I had travelled to Ghana with a vague notion that I would be “helping people”, though I was unsure of what that really meant”
We settled into our rooms before reassembling with our program leaders to review our mutual expectations. From then on, I knew that this was not going to be an ordinary trip. We were asked to abide by a “no camera policy” for the first five days; this was to avoid the insensitivity of snapping pictures simply because something appeared “different” and to allow ourselves time to absorb our new surroundings without feeling the need to capture everything on film. We also discussed a “no giving policy”; this one was quite controversial among members of our group. We were asked not to give any gifts, food or clothing to anyone we met in Ghana in order to avoid creating a culture of dependency. I found this very difficult at times, especially as we formed connections with the school children. Instead, we were asked to focus on creating relationships. It was not what I expected.
As volunteers, we were charged with the tasks of painting several living quarters and helping to construct a gutter (unbeknownst to us, we had to build the gutter from scratch, mixing the cement for each brick used in its construction). The climate was hot and the work was tough. The local labourers who worked alongside us were kind and patient as they demonstrated the proper techniques needed to complete the job most efficiently, and they watched, bemused, as we attempted to model what they were doing. Though we managed, by the end of the 11 days, to get the jobs done, it occurred to me that the final project could have been completed by anyone. In fact, it may even have been done faster – or better – had it been done by other local workers.
It was something I hadn’t considered before I left home.
I had travelled to Ghana with a vague notion that I would be “helping people”. Though I was unsure of what that really meant before I left home, I anticipated that the work project would be a big part if it. While it was certainly significant, it was not the piece that had the greatest impact. It was the process of creating connections that left the clearest memories.
Yes, we witnessed strife.
We visited a rehabilitation center for former child slaves who had been rescued from fishing boats. We met the eyes of hungry children on the streets. We endured a water shortage that lasted five of the eleven days that we were there.
We saw the physical need. But that is not what I remember most.
I remember playing, laughing, and learning with the schoolchildren for hours.
I remember the soccer games – the intensity, the sportsmanship and the brotherhood that the teenage boys played with.
I remember dancing, singing, and laughing with new friends at an evening dance party, and at the soulful Sunday morning service at the local chapel.
I remember the teachers and construction workers, all so hardworking; all grateful for what they had yet still dreaming of a brighter future for their children, just as we all do.
And, I remember feeling incredibly self-aware as I walked through the streets of Winneba with my peers. We were occasionally greeted with gawks, open jaws, and stares; it was a reminder that I was part of the obvious minority, for the first time in my life. More often, though, we were greeted by wide smiles and high-fives; that was a reminder of how similar we actually all are once the layer that separates us is peeled off.
“as I grew to become more included in their world, that layer separating us completely lost its meaning. It became so clear to me that while Ghana was very different than my hometown of Montreal, the people were not.”
Traveling with a service-learning program was an eye-opening, often challenging, but very rewarding experience. Being integrated into the community by the community members themselves added a very unique dimension. It connected me more deeply with the people and the town, and as I grew to become more included in their world, that layer separating us completely lost its meaning. It became so clear to me that while Ghana was very different than my hometown of Montreal, the people were not.
We are all anomalies; it just depends on context.
Words and Photos: David Kovac