Melody Ambrose - General Care Projects in Ghana
Having never taken a year out and knowing I had a two month break in my contract at the BBC I decided it was the perfect opportunity to take myself off and do something that would benefit someone other than myself. So after much deliberation as to which NGO and which country I should go to, I chose to go to the Akuapem Hills in Ghana with Projects Abroad. A couple of weeks later I was on the plane telling myself that for the next nine weeks this was going to be my life and to accept it with an open heart and open arms.
The first 24 hours after landing were a complete whirlwind of new sights, sounds and information. After the full-on induction of my local area and nearest town, I had time to settle in, meet the other volunteers and my new ‘family’ that I was living with. For the next four weeks my life consisted of being woken at 5am by the sounds of either the local church, slaughtering of pigs, hens outside my room, kids playing football or just general Ghanaian chitter chatter. Then a quick bit of jam and bread before heading off to my placement at the Adom Day Care Centre. I’ve nannied before but this was a real challenge.
The class I assisted with were 4-5 years old and only a handful spoke English which made teaching and keeping control of the children very difficult. Luckily I had taken out an old CD player with children’s songs, so I found myself being able to connect with the children this way rather than through language. I learnt here that in Ghana discipline is dealt through ‘beatings’ and that is how you gain respect. Although this didn’t happen that much at the day care centre, a smack on the head here or there, it was for me very difficult both ethically and morally. That’s what was great about living with a host family because with situations like this I was able to go home and discuss the thinking behind this method of control with my ‘host’ mother. It really helped with understanding the local culture so much more. I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t sit there all high and mighty when it was only a few decades ago that the cane was outlawed in UK schools; however I still chose to use the ‘naughty bench’ method.
Once I finished at the centre I would head home for lunch and then head off to the orphanage which I attended not as a formal placement but in my own time. For me, I was in Ghana to volunteer and so I wanted to spend as much time as I could doing this. I spoke to my Projects Abroad manager and he happily arranged for me to be able to spend my afternoons in an orphanage, which I did for the next 9 weeks. I took a lot of books out with me that friends and colleagues had donated.
I remember being sat there with some of the children all reading to me from different books and it was then that I realised for the short time I was to be in Ghana that the best thing I could do was to just be what these children wanted, not what I thought they needed. They just wanted someone there to listen to them, read, praise them for doing something well, answer their questions or just sit and cuddle them. That was a liberating moment, I stopped applying my Western attitude of trying to change everything to what I thought was the right way of life and just let things happen how they were used to. That’s how I could make a substantial difference in the short time I was there.
I spent my final 5 weeks in another village where I took part in the building project. Living in this village was a completely different experience and I was so glad that I had decided to split my time. I had less interaction with the ‘host family’ but it felt a lot more back to basics then my previous home, which brought about it’s own challenges. The building project was a great way to feel actively involved in contributing to a change in someone’s life. There were days when it was difficult to get work but on days like this I would take myself of to the orphanage early and help prepare lunch. Other spare time was spent with the children of the local community or just people-watching the locals going about their daily lives.
Every weekend volunteers would take themselves off travelling around the country and on two occasions I joined them. The first time I ventured out of the hills since landing we went to the ‘Accra Party’. This is an opportunity for all the volunteers from all over Ghana to come together at the head office and have a good time and share experiences.
Then the next day we headed off to spend the night in the middle of the rainforest with an African Huntsman spider 100 yards away. Something I never thought I would do in a million years. The other time saw nearly all the volunteers from the hills go on a 10 hour ‘road trip’ to the idyllic ‘green turtle lodge bay’. It was here that I realised what the other side of volunteering is about, the new friends for life that I had made.
The time I had in Ghana was limited but what I got out of it was more than I’ve got in my 26 years living in the Western World. On the surface I learnt that I could deal with spiders, that festival toilets are not the worst toilets in the world, that I could wash with a bucket of rain water, share a toilet with 14 other people, cope without the TV, electricity or running water, and live without a variety of foods. However what it really did for me was to give me back my inner strength.
To spend nine weeks interacting with people that constantly have a smile on their face, welcome you with open arms and will do anything to help a stranger, it just reminded what being a human being is all about. I can hand on heart say there is not a day that goes past when I don’t think of my time in Ghana in some way or another. I made some very difficult but important decisions upon my return to the UK and without volunteering I can honestly say that I would not have been able to do them.
Volunteering was one of the most challenging experiences of my life and so now I’m planning the next trip, this time to South America for 6 months! All I can say is if you have ever thought about volunteering, stop thinking and do it. Don’t wake up regretting the things you didn’t do only ever regret those you did and I promise you this is one thing you will never regret
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.