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Main content start

WANG Kai Yuan, City University of Hong Kong

 

I have wanted to see Africa with my own eyes ever since watched it through Discovery Channel as a child. I also want to do something meaningful this summer instead of switching between laptop games and using way more time than necessary to prepare for IELTS. So I decided to go volunteering in Africa. I chose Ghana as its official language is English and have been politically stable for over 20 years. It is a comparatively developed country in West Africa thanks to its rich gold mine. Unlike Kenya which is a famous tourist destination, most of the foreigners in Ghana are volunteers.

 

IVHQ (International Volunteer HQ) is an international NGO connecting those who want to do something for the world with places that are desperately in need of help. They have several program placements throughout Ghana. The volunteer house I was staying is located in a small village called Frankadua in the Eastern Region. It is a 5 hours drive on a bumpy road to north-east from Accra, the capital city of Ghana. There are quite a few schools nearby, EP Primary School, Baptist Primary School and a junior high school. Another school called Freedom Orphanage International is a little farther which takes approximately 20 minutes in a mini-van.

 

On our first day, 16th of June, we went on a tour around all these schools and were asked to make a decision of where we would like to stay and teach. Most of the schools looked the same with several classrooms and a little office for the headmaster. The headmasters’ offices are the only room equipped with fans and lights. All the others just have desks, chairs, a blackboard and walls surrounding with a few instructive posters hanging on them. Ghana map, human digestion system and life circle of mosquitoes are most common. I had no preference about which school I was going to stay at all until I saw the Freedom Orphanage Int. It is the poorest among all schools and the farthest. There are four classrooms separated by wooden boards. I am not sure whether these four areas could be called classrooms; after all, what is a room without walls? Two-meter-tall fences are all that differentiate inside from outside. It is an orphanage school with approximately 90 students set up and funded by a local civilian priest without any financial support from the authority. I was deeply touched. I felt that god was no being fair to these kids by robbing them their parents and if not for the struggle and strive of the priest as an individual, these kids would be completely forgotten. I spent my one-month here because I wanted to be a part of something meaningful and noble as this.

 

All the weekdays were quite similar. That might be one of the reasons why I felt time was passing so fast. Breakfast is around 7:00, after that we would wait on the road for a van passing by that can pick us up to the school.

 

These mini-vans are called ‘trotro’ in Ghana. They drive around, taking passengers on the road and charge a certain amount of money according to the distance. It is possible because there is only one road crossing most of the towns in Ghana. So all we need to do is to stand on the right direction of the road and wave, kind of like hitch-hike.

 

School starts at 8:00 and ends at 12:30 with 30 minutes of break in between. I stayed in the primary-three classroom. Volunteers come and go, but it is easy to keep consistency because we all teach according to the text book published by Ghana Education Department. Every student is supposed to get one for their own but here in this school, there is only one book available in each class. I would have to copy whatever is on the text book onto the blackboard so that all the students could see. They have Mathematics, English, Religious & Moral Education, Natural Science and Environmental Study. The gap among students in one class is huge. Some students could read and write while others could not understand that English words are a combination of letters. It is really up to us to help them catch up since they do not have anyone else. So sometimes we would take a few kids back to the volunteer house and teach them one by one. After 3:00 when work is over, most of the volunteers would go to the playground and play basketball or football with Ghanaian kids.

 

There were so many unforgettable moments as well as feelings like the depression I felt when kids could not understand what I had been teaching again and again and the exhaustion when I tried to find an easier and more concrete way to illuminate a new concept like division. I remember shrugging and shaking my head with a genuine smile coming from deep down when I saw the cuteness of a sleeping kid in class. I remember pretending a serious face when some kids misbehaved. I remember squatting down, looking into these little boys’ and girls’ eyes and saw a sense of perplexity, curiosity and a little fear when they could not tell the answers. There was one day that all the kids were just so absent-minded that they could not get what I had been teaching at all. I was frustrated about their messing around with others constantly during class. Later when I was resting, one of them came to me and said ‘thank you, sir, for teaching us’. These simple words felt like a silver lining to me at that moment. Because I knew by then that my doing was appreciated and all the efforts seemed worthwhile all of a sudden.

 

The most memorable moment was at break between classes. I was standing on the soil ground and all these little children were rushing towards me. Just a second later I was surrounded by many layers of kids with their arms stretched trying to get a hug. I bought them a football and cheered up the entire school. A bunch of boys and girls were playing and kicking balls around the classrooms. Some of them were just following around cheerfully without actually touching the ball at all. It was awesome to see how a little deed could bring them so much happiness. From a poor family in a poor region, you would expect the kids to be at least a little selfish about the food they had but they were not like that. Sometimes I would bring biscuits and saw whoever was holding the snack running around, sharing the food with his or her friends.

 

And then there is the volunteer house where we lived. It has bricks and concrete for wall and wooden boards for roof. It is quite nice compared with other buildings nearby which just had mud walls and grass roofs. But you could not find a bathroom inside. There were just two small empty cabins where you had to use a bucket and pour water on yourself. That was the closest we could get to a shower. And the water we used was just rainwater, a gift from god as they call it. There was a Canadian who would put on swimming suit and get outside to take the rain shower whenever there was a heavy rain. Fortunately I got used to the bucket shower after a week, we all did except for an American girl who dropped out earlier than scheduled because of the harsh condition.

 

New volunteers come from all over the world twice a month and friends leave for home every weekend. I met Americans, Canadians, Britishers, Swedish, Australians, an Irish and a Netherlander during my stay. Some nights we would sit around a plastic table and chat over drinks. They all have quite a story to tell. There was a newly engaged couple who have been travelling around the world. Volunteering in Ghana was just a mid-point in their long journey. There was also a woman in her late 30s coming from Wall Street. She decided to make a change in career and wanted to figure her future out while volunteering in Africa. There was a British, coming to Ghana, the country where his parents were born for the first time trying to find out more about his ‘root’ and an American soldier who had been to Afghanistan. We all built quite a bond. We got along smoothly in spite of the fact that where we come from is thousands of miles away. It is not really surprising since we all had a similarity: we all chose to come here. Guess volunteering in Africa could tell something about a person.

 

Kids would play outside the volunteer house every day after school until 19:00 when it’s too dark that they had to go back home. Sometimes you can see them sitting on the ground, making bracelets out of ropes. They would call your name while running to you when you are passing and present the bracelet as a gift as a result, every volunteer would have some on their wrists. Those who hanging around the volunteer house frequently can speak better English than their peers as people would expect for all these time we spent together.

 

There are no classes on weekend. We made full use of these small windows and travelled around Ghana. We went to Cape Coast which was a slave export harbor back in 1660s, now it is a vacation spot as well as a memorial place to remind everyone of the past. I walked on rope bridges high up between the tree canopies (called canopy walkway) while bird’s-eye viewing Kakum rainforest and got robbed of my dinner by a baboon in Mole Nation Park.

‘To travel is to feel the culture.’ I never understood this sentence until now. You could feel the cultural difference almost everywhere. Maybe it is because Africa is so far away from home. Or maybe it is just because it’s Africa, the magical and mysterious continent. Walking in the village I was staying, you would have to greet and wave at every person you encounter as they were doing the same to you with passion written on their faces. Most of them are complete strangers. It is a nation of belief. 68.8% of Ghanaians are Christians. As a result, you can see shop names like ‘God is able’ or ‘God is King’ everywhere. The most interesting culture difference would be what is called Africa time. Africa time means a thing happens when it happens. A bus that is supposed to leave at three can leave at six without any explanation. One time our ‘trotro’ broke down. The driver told us it could be fixed in an hour but it took 4 instead. After the engine is up and running, the driver sat down and chatted with mechanists for another half an hour. However no one in the van seemed to be annoyed by the delay so we all just sat around quietly and let Africa time work its magic. Gradually we stopped asking when the bus would leave at bus stations because the answer would always be ‘when it is full’. After all, what’s the rush, it’s not like these small town people have an agenda or a lot of things on their schedule.

 

Seldom does a Chinese come to this place. The volunteer program has been set up for over 5 years. Out of approximately 600 volunteers who had come before, there was only one Chinese. Kids would call me ‘yavu’ which means white person in their local language when I am walking by and adults would ask me ‘Korean or Japanese’.

 

Volunteers coming here were enrolled in different programs. I am doing teachings; some are doing orphanage care; some agriculture and some construction work. A question I asked myself so constantly was that ‘Could we make a difference?’ The answer is a yes and it was getting more and more certain after every single day I have spent here. There is another volunteer placement nearby which I think was the model of our kinds of work. It is a big yard consists of a volunteer house, an orphanage house and a school. About 1 year ago, an Australian couple came and spent 6 months building all these houses. After that they start to take orphans in. Volunteers doing orphanage cares feed and bath them. Those doing teachings educate them. All of these took place in the facilities volunteers built out of scratch by themselves. Those volunteers who do agriculture give these kids half of the product they grow and sell half of them to purchase more seeds and fertilizers. That is also the case in the orphanage school we are teaching. As long as volunteers keep coming, orphans in this area would always receive care and education and volunteers would keep coming for sure. Where would these kids be if there were no volunteers? I am just glad that we do not need to find out.

 

I felt so blessed when I was boarding the plane on my last day. Because that was when I realized that I got the opportunity and resources to experience more than one culture, to reach out to places completely strange from home while chances are that most kids I met this month would stay in their little village for as long as they might live. 

 

I wrote two questions for myself before departure and intended to answer them after I got back. What did they get from me? Three kids started to learn how to read because of me. The rest of their class could read already but they were left behind. I have taught them all the vowels and asked another volunteer to keep teaching them after I left so that it could be a long-lasting activity until the objective is achieved. I brought a moment of happiness for the children as we were always running or playing balls between and after classes. I told them what it is like in China and told them to cherish the things they have that we do not like the star-studded night sky and plain green landscapes extending to as far as eyes can see.

 

The other question is what do I get from this? At 8 o’clock, surrounded by total silence and darkness, I got a chance to enjoy solitary more than ever. In an idle afternoon during constant power cut, we would share our own stories and get to know what life means half-way around the planet. When around those children, just by simply looking at them, I could feel the innocence and simplicity like in no other places for that they do not crave for your digital games or fancy devices but your attention and care only. Getting back from school in the middle of a day, I was sweating under the blistering sun, physically exhausted but still energetic in heart because you can never get tired inside with these kids. People would take souvenirs, photos and sometimes even keep a journal to remind them of their journey but there is none existing that could record feelings and feelings were mostly what I got from this remarkable month along with some valuable thoughts. I could only try to describe them and hope for one day when I was looking back at these descriptions, some long-lost emotions could be brought up again.

 

There is no exaggeration when I say I come home with a small part of me changed. If there was a little shyness and introversion inside me before, it is gone now thanks to the melting pot (the volunteer house) which consists of a diversity of nationalities. The word ‘volunteer’ means different as I now know for sure that we can make a difference and even if our efforts are just drops of water in a boundless sea to make the world a better place, which have ocean it if not a large number of water droplets?  

 

If there is any advice I could give to potential recipients, it should be seizing the present to do whatever you want. Mimicking others would make you a knock-off of others at most. Creating your own life story is all that matters and the time should be right now as never before and again in the future would we be as free as now so we might as well think and act likewise, to explore and experience our planet, for that we are lucky enough to be blessed with the means.