The Travel Diaries: An ‘Original Volunteer’ In Ghana

Akwaaba, the welcome sign you see after dodging busses and other vehicles that don’t seem to take notice of pedestrians as you walk from the aeroplane to the terminal! Oh and not forgetting the extreme heat and humidity you’re also welcomed with, 34 degrees at 20:25, not something I am used to. Next, you’re in the queue for immigration and an hour later you’re at the front showing your passport and giving your fingerprints, the immigration guy then puts his thumb up, I put my thumb up thinking he is giving me a sign that my fingerprints have worked, he’s not, he is asking me to put my thumb on the fingerprint machine!

Once you’ve got through that, beware of the ‘miscreants’ as told by the warning sign. There are lots of Ghanaians that want to help you with your bags but unless you want to be charged an awful lot of money for them helping you, you say no.

Then it is time to collect your bags. An hour later, no bags, half an hour later, one bag, not a good sign when you’re waiting for eight bags and there is a lot of luggage coming off that plane. In fact, I have never seen so much luggage in my life, each person had about five bags each! So, at 10:30, two hours after we landed, we have our bags on two trolleys.

Finally we get through to arrivals and see an ‘Original Volunteers’ sign being held up, finally something is simple. We are welcomed by Rich, a local Ghanaian and another volunteer, Jess, who arrived a little bit before us.

First thing we are told, it’s a three hour journey and by this point it is about 12:30am so we are not going to be there until pretty late. Second thing we are told, there is no running water at the house and there won’t be for the whole time we are there, which means bucket showers and using a bucket to flush the toilet, every time you go. Oh good!

90 miles and 3 hours later we arrive at the house.

Our room was basic to say the least, we are talking two sets of man made bunk beds with no other furniture, flooring that doesn’t cover the whole floor and well that’s it. We were then shown the toilets and yes it was all true, buckets lined up outside and my goodness they smelt! The rest of the accommodation was as expected, quite dirty and well not great but I knew that I was there for a lot, lot more than the accommodation so I accepted it pretty quickly and by 4am, I was asleep in my top bunk.

Whilst I was getting dressed we were told that Rebecca was at the house to see us, she is one of the co-ordinator’s who set up the Original Volunteer projects in Ghana. Rebecca took us to the closest village to where we were staying, Mpraeso, we had shops near us in Asaka but you couldn’t really get what you wanted there. The town was totally different to anything I had seen before, lots of shacks and little stools on the side of the road selling all sorts of things.

The next day was the first day at Sunrise School, up at 7am ready for the ‘tro tro’ (minibus type taxi) at 8am, although in Ghanaian time that’s more like 8:30. The journey to the school was longer than I expected, it was great though, going through a couple of villages and seeing the mud huts that you see all over Comic Relief every year.

We stopped under a shaded tree and it was time to get out, lots of children appeared in their purple uniforms wanting to hold our hands as we walked to the school. It was so hot and the walk to the school from the tro tro was covered in rubbish, which was sad to see but its not like they have bin men like we do in England so where else is it supposed to go?

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Next thing I saw was the ‘Original Volunteers’ sign painted on the side of the school along with the Ghanaian flag and the English flag. It was a great feeling knowing I was part of something that built this school for children that really need it and that two totally different cultures have come together to help those who need it.

Walking into Sunrise School was certainly different to walking into a school in the UK. No walls or doors, just a roof and a low wall around each classroom and walls with huge cracks in separating each classroom and no toilets! If the children need the loo, they go to the side of the playground and drop their pants or knickers, a skill they all seemed to have learnt, although I did see a little boy just stop in the playground by the class, drop his pants and go for a wee.

The children were wonderful, full of energy and happiness and asking our names, from then on I was Madame Lauren. Badly behaved though is an understatement, I have never seen children fight the way they did and you really had to shout and scream at them to get them to stop, even pull them apart, but their Ghanaian teacher quickly intercepted and used the cane on one of the boys in the fight, hitting him very hard on the hand. That was impossibly hard to witness knowing you can’t do anything about it.

Another thing I noticed was the children had water bottles filled with a murky coloured liquid, I quickly realised that was their drinking water and I suddenly had that feeling of appreciation of how easy it is for us to just go to a tap and get perfectly clean drinking water, these children have never known such a thing. They can buy water sachets at 10 peshwars per sachet but most of the children don’t have any money to buy those.

Sunrise again! It was Wednesday so that meant outreach day. Outreach is when we would all go to a village in the middle of nowhere; far from any town and far from where the people who live there can get water.

On arrival at the village it was quite shocking, these people really had nothing, the children wearing filthy clothes that were too big for them and the adults were not in a much better state, something else that was hard to see! They all came running to the van and we could see some benches and seats had been set out. Dom from our house started explaining that the people from the village were going to do a ritual to thank the ancestors for sending us to the village, which was followed by having a shot of what the locals called ‘aberteshi’, pure alcohol made from the insides of a palm tree. The men of the village had a shot each and then it was passed to us to drink, it tasted like firegoing down my throat, worst drink I have ever tasted! After that they did a demonstration of how the water filter worked, and for something that costs two hundred pounds, it is amazing. You put the dirty water in one end and it comes out 99.9% filtered the other end which is invaluable to these people.

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We then gave out the clothes and rice etc, it was hard seeing desperation up close and personal like that, clothes that might have not even fit them they were desperate to get hold of, one bowl of rice was like giving out a hundreds of pounds to people in the UK, people pushing others to get to the front of the queue, grabbing the fruit juice and biscuits from your hands. It really was survival of the fittest.

The next day it was school again! We arrived and were told there was a spelling bee after break and that the children needed to practice their words.

The spelling bee went on for 2 hours, only 4 children from each class took part and the rest of the school just sat around and watched, not that you could hear anything and it was obvious they were all very bored, as were we. It also wasn’t just a spelling bee, they did a maths test and a tri test, it was way too much and very unproductive which irritated both me and Jess, another volunteer. Not only that, a cane had been given to a couple of the older children to keep the others in order.

After the ‘spelling bee’, the headmaster came over to us to ask what we thought, Jess and I didn’t hold back, we told him exactly what we thought, we agreed that the spelling bee was a good idea but not the way they did it. The headmaster agreed to meet us next week so we could explain our ideas on how to make what they do better for the children. That was a really big step, one I was excited about!

The next day we went to Fulani School as everyone who had been teaching there had left over the weekend, apart from two people and we couldn’t leave them to look after all the children on their own.

What I found hardest about going to Fulani is seeing another group of children that needed help, but these children really needed help. A lot of them didn’t have pants or knickers on, their clothes were filthy or ripped, their teeth rotting and a lot of them didn’t have shoes. It was so hard to see, knowing they were there and that they need so much and at that moment, there was nothing I could do for them. It wasn’t like I could just pop to a supermarket and go and buy a load of clean underwear, clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste and take it to them and that was a horrible feeling!

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The next day we started using a sticker chart! Two other volunteers had made it and it was a great idea. Throughout the day we gave and took away stickers for good and bad behaviour, then at the end of the day we awarded the best behaved girl and boy with a lolly pop and clapped and cheered them.

Over the next few days the children were so well behaved, like angels in fact, what a change! Not only that but the sticker chart had the desired effect on Marfo! He was like a different child, so well behaved and getting on with his work.

After school we went to outreach again, to the village before the one we went to last week. It was a lot smaller and again we had a water filter, rice, biscuits and fruit juice to give out. Another shot of aberteshi as well.

Second to last day with the children and the realisation that I was leaving them was setting in. Bismark (one of my faves) was quite sulky which made me sad because I wanted to see him happy before I left. It was spelling bee day again so we taught the children their words again which they all seemed to get so that was good.

At 11:30, half an hour earlier than last week the spelling bee was over, the headmaster had left out the tri test because of what we had talked with him about last week, it was a great start! We asked him when he wanted to meet with us and he suggested there and then, not only that but he had got all of the teachers together to meet with us too. We talked about our ideas and they all seemed happy.

We talked to them about a few things, the main thing being discipline. We said to them how we know they won’t totally get rid of the cane, it is what they know and it is not as easy as telling them not to use it. We gave them the example of Marfo in our class and how well he had responded to the time outs we gave and the sticker chart which they all seemed to really like the sound of. All in all the meeting went brilliantly, with one of the teachers handing over his cane at the end, even if it was a bit of a joke, I could tell he genuinely took on board all of what we had said.

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My last day at Sunrise. The children knew it was my last day and so kept saying it which was upsetting as I was so sad it was my last day. The first thing they had to do was a spelling test, I sat with Bismark and Saviour at the back and helped them out a bit. Once the children had finished they took their books up to their teacher and he marked them all, he then called each child up to the front and if they had got 20 out of 20 he told the children to clap and cheer! It was the best thing to see, the children got so excited and even the teacher was smiling too. The feeling I got was overwhelming, knowing that because Jess and I had that conversation yesterday with the teachers and now a change had been made, albeit small, it made a huge difference and I just welled up. Jess and I went out of the classroom and she felt the same, it was just amazing knowing we had done something to help.

Being with those children for two weeks changed my life, seeing how they live, getting to know their personalities, seeing how happy and full of life they were, I can see why people become teachers. Teaching is an amazing thing, especially teaching those children. I will never forget my time in Ghana, I fell in love with the place and the people. It changed my perspective a lot more than I thought it would and seeing mud huts for houses, children and adults carrying everything on their heads, eating nothing but rice, all very quickly became normal to me, sights I was so happy to see everyday. Not only that, it is another part of my journey that has helped me learn who I am even more and I know now that where ever life takes me, I want to make a difference to others, be it something small or something bigger, that is what makes me happy!

Thank you to the people of Asaka and Ghana and Original Volunteers for bringing me so much joy and happiness and for giving me the best experience. Ghana will forever have a place in my heart.

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