A Parisian in Ghana
By ANITA TORMOS
Published: April 10, 2011
Where to begin?
This is a constant question most volunteers ask themselves when they go abroad for the first time. When I first arrived in Ghana, I had no expectations. I simply joined my mother who had talked about volunteering for a long time and was finally making it a reality. My field of interest is in humanitarian work and health education, and as such, I thought this opportunity would afford me with a much needed, hands-on, field experience. I worked in Kasoa, which is about 25km from the capital Accra. It is around a 2-3hours drive from Cape Coast Castle. The Castle, which has exited since the 17th century, was built for the trade in timber and gold. Later the structure was used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and currently serves as a museum.
At first, I was a bit scared. I knew I would be the only ‘Obruni’ (white) volunteer at the clinic I was assigned to and I was a bit anxious about walking to work on my own in a village I was a stranger to. However, my fears were assuaged once I met the inhabitants of the village who, in my experience, are the most hospitable and loving people I have ever met. I was treated like a family member in every household and when I think back on my time in Ghana, I truly have not a single negative thing to say about it.
The original plan with my mother had been for her to work in an orphanage and for me in a maternity clinic. After two days at the clinic, being neither a doctor nor a nurse, all I was capable of doing was measuring their weights and heights. So, I decided to teach at the school nearby that welcomed volunteers to teach subjects that were most convenient to us. I was expected to make my own course plan, assign and grade home-works, administer in-class tests, and also be available to offer extra help after class.
At the school, students were divided into grades not based on their age but on their level of intelligence. On my first day, I served as a substitute teacher and taught alphabet and pronunciation to the kindergarten class. The next day, I was assigned to the library where I had to rearrange and organize all the books. When I came back after my lunch break, I found the library in its original state, as if I hadn’t been there that morning. For the rest of my stay, I was placed as a teacher in a class that had students ranging from ages 7-11. I taught simple mathematics and spelling. I grew very found of my students, they would always run towards me and hug me once they saw me on the school grounds.
One of the challenges I encountered with my students was their use of razor blades as pencil sharpeners. Moreover, they would keep their razor blade safe ‘in their mouth’. It was very difficult for me to ignore this and whenever I saw them possessing a razor blade, I confiscated it and offered them a pencil sharpener. Although I knew they had been doing this long before I came along and would probably continue to do so after I left, I wanted to try to teach them the dangers of using razor blades during my short stay. My second challenge was the variety of levels each student had. Some were ahead of others and it was difficult to find a middle ground at times. Because of this, I gave individual class tests that differed by level.
The most important lesson I learned in those few weeks was that as a volunteer, you are there to freely provide your time in any way that is needed. No matter what they ask of you, you are at their disposal. For most students, school was a haven away from home. For my younger class, they were mostly there to have fun. On the other hand, the older students were inspired when they encountered volunteers with a higher level of education; it pushed them to achieve the same. The other lesson I learned is this: don’t take all the things we have here in Paris for granted. For instance, when I arrived in Ghana, we had no running water and this lasted for a seven days. On the eighth day, when one of the volunteers turned the knob of the shower hoping water would spray down but not expecting it would, water came bursting out off the shower head. All 6 of us in the house stood around the shower room entrance dancing and screaming, laughing and almost crying of happiness. It was one of the best feelings I have ever had.
I don’t think there is a definitive way to start attacking problems. I think it is about education and not simply giving money as an aid. I don’t think that makes any difference. What is needed is first identifying the problem, and then, ways it can be solved. Obviously money is involved, but the ideal thing I think would be to go there and see what is needed. For instance, help build a new classroom or donate actual materials like sharpeners and pencils for schools and medical equipment for clinics. By giving money, you will never know how it will be used. But by actually donating the material itself, it could make a big difference.
Let me leave you with thoughts of Ghanaian women whom I found to be incredible. They do everything. They balance a bucket of water on their heads, have a baby tied on their back, carry a bag on one shoulder, holding the hand of another child with the other hand that is also holding bags of food. They go home, feed the kids, help them with their homework, take care of the baby, make their own dress for the following day, and they make the environment at home a happy one for the husband to come home to. They are strong women, physically and mentally.
Anita is a first year MPH student at EHESP’s MPH program in Paris. She was born in London and has lived in many parts of the world including Nicaragua, Brazil, Turkey, United States and France. She speaks French, English and Spanish. Anita is passionate about humanitarian work, loves sunny weather and traveling.