Ghana: Diary of a Volunteer

(August 2013)

Just before heading to Barcelona, I received an email to say that I’d won a competition (courtesy of Opodo UK) to spend a week in Ghana, volunteering with a charity called Worldreader who supply remote village schools with e-readers so that the children can have access to hundreds of books and have the chance to improve their education.

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Naturally I was ecstatic and when I got sign off from the boss to say I could go, I set about organising injections (yellow fever & typhoid), malaria tablets and visas. Luckily my flights and accommodation were paid for and organised through the competition as I barely had a spare moment to think about the trip before suddenly it was time to depart.

Accra

I arrived into Accra late on the Sunday evening and waited for what felt like an age to collect my luggage. I’d almost given up hope when I spotted my bright red suitcase slowing making its way around the carousel.  I had to remind myself, ‘you’re not in London any more, Lauren’ and take the time to enjoy the more laid back pace…and that I did!

That night I crashed as soon as my head hit the pillow at the Novotel in central Accra, ready for an early morning pick-up from Beatrice who would be taking me to the Worldreader offices for an orientation day.

Meeting Beatrice in the reception that morning put any worries about the trip firmly to the back of my mind. Her warm, friendly smile put me instantly at ease and I knew the rest of the trip was going to be fun. When I arrived in the offices to meet the rest of the team, it soon became apparent that friendly faces aren’t rare in this part of the world as each of the team welcomed me to the fold.

They spent the morning introducing me to Worldreader’s history and mission, giving me some insights into the people of Ghana and what to expect from my time at the school and in the village. They also set me up with everything I would need for the week – two kindles, lesson plan guides, a list of the most popular children’s stories, a phone and notebook. Then we headed out to lunch where I discovered that Ghanaian food portions are similar to American’s – huge!

Village life

After lunch we packed up and set off on a two car journey; firstly along a busy motorway and then onto the more bumpy roads through the villages to the North West of Acrra until we reached Asamankese, our home for the next four nights.

Doris, one of the Worldreader volunteers, was to be accompanying me throughout my stay which was especially welcomed as it meant I had some company in the evenings after school. Beatrice also came out with us and stayed for the first evening, so once we’d arrived at the J’uneil lodge, we went off to unpack and then met back up again for dinner. Considering the style of village accommodation we’d passed along the way, I was expecting something a little more basic but the J’uneil lodge was newly built and modern, complete with a plasma TV on the bedroom wall –not that I watched any TV while I was there but it was nice to have some home comforts at least.

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That night we headed to bed early, ready for our 7am wake-up call the next day.

A bumpy start…

Due to the state of the road from Asamankese down to Adeiso (where the school was), what should have been a 20 minute car journey to school took just under an hour, thanks to the driver having to navigate the pot holes along the way. We left the lodge at 8am, arriving just in time to greet the first children arriving at 9am to help open up the classrooms.

Having never really had any experience of working with children before, that first day I mostly just observed Beatrice who was looking after the Grade 2 class (7-12 year olds). The first part of the morning was spent on ‘Individual Reading’, so our job was to ensure that every child had an e-reader that was fully charged and then they would sit quietly (for the most part) reading whichever story they chose. Break time soon came around which was a welcome distraction for some of the younger children who were starting to get a little fidgety. Twenty minutes running around the dusty playground was just about enough to let off some steam, ready for the next part of the agenda, OCE or Out-of-classroom experience.

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Whilst Beatrice looked after Grade 2, Mohammed the head teacher, took me into a class with some of the older students. We each took it in turns to read out loud from the book Mohammed had selected, stopping every few paragraphs to discuss themes in the book or for Mohammed to explain some of the Ghanaian traditions for my benefit. At one stage, he even asked the girls to demonstrate one of the traditional games played by the children in the evening.

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During the next break, this one a little longer than the first, some of the older girls gathered around and began asking questions about my life in the UK. They’d noticed me taking pictures and asked to pose for some, flicking through some of my photos from previous trips and stopping to enquire about my friends and family. Their curiosity was endless!

Soon it was time to pack away the e-readers, tidy up the classroom and close the doors on school for that day. By this point I was pretty exhausted from answering so many questions and was a little relieved to be heading back to the lodge to re-coup.

That night I sampled some of the local cuisine – Banku (a mushed up corn soaked in water for two days giving it a sticky consistency) served with fish and some deliciously spicy pepper sauce, all eaten with our hands. After that, I relaxed on the terrace and read for a couple of hours, soaking up the last rays of sun and wondering if it was too early for a beer.

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Settling in

My second day at the school I felt much more at ease and enjoyed the experience even more. I’d gotten over my initial shyness and learnt to speak a little slower so that my accent wasn’t as difficult for the children to understand.

I started to notice some of the little traditions of the Ghanaian way of school life. I loved how each morning all of the children would greet me ‘Good morning Madam Lauren’ and the boys do a little salute, I felt so welcomed after just one day.

After the morning individual reading session, a few of the boys were getting a little restless and hung outside of the classroom rather than taking a seat, so I grabbed a ball from the playground and taught them ‘Piggy in the middle’. It was mostly just distracting the rest of the classes but it was fun all the same! When everyone else came out to join us, the girls persuaded me to play with them so we all stood in a big circle and passed the ball across.

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The day was over in no time at all and once again it was time to pack up and head back to the lodge, but not before we took a walk through the village to visit the local seamstress.  Doris and I had our measurements taken, ready to head to the market the next day to buy some fabric for the skirts we wanted to have made.

Market Day

Thursday is ‘market day’ in the village so instead of the usual 60 students in my class, I had around 30 as the rest were busy helping their parents out on the stalls. We arrived at the school earlier than usual and first headed to the market to buy some fabric to take to the seamstress, bumping into many of the students along the way.

As we headed through the bustling crowds, I heard more than once the term ‘Obroni’ which is the word for white person in Twi, the local language. The Worldreader team had already taught me to respond with ‘Obibini’, which got a giggle or two.

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Back at school, once the individual reading session was over, I decided to teach my class how to play Pictionary. Recruiting Kate, a local volunteer, to act as ‘interpreter’ we soon had the children taking part and laughing good naturedly at some of the drawing attempts including one ‘whale’ which someone guessed to be a ‘tiger’ (we tried our hardest to hide our laughter.) Next, we had a ‘spelling bee’ which seemed to be a favourite activity in the OCE sessions.

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Once again the day was over all too quickly. Back at the lodge, it was time to try some more of the local dishes, today ‘Red Red’ – a mixture of spicy beans, beef and vegetables, served with fried plantain – delish!

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By Thursday I couldn’t believe how quickly the week had gone. Although excited to head back to Accra and discover a bit more of Ghana, I was sad to be leaving the children. I’d had a wonderful experience living and working in the village; the Worldreader team were fantastic at supporting me throughout my time there and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to experience the wonderful people of Ghana.

Makola Markets & Kokrobite

Saturday morning, back at the Novotel in Acrra, I enjoyed a leisurely morning in the sun as I waited for Doris and Clara to collect me from reception and head to the famous ‘Makola Market’.

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When I pictured the markets, I was imagining something similar to London’s Camden Market, but the reality was even more hectic. Stalls are spread out across quite a vast area, most of which are dotted along the side of the busy roads. There’s definitely not a ‘stop and browse’ feel to the market, the focus is on buying as quickly as you can. I must admit, once we’d bought some fabric, I was glad to leave and head to the real destination of the day – Kokrobite beach. (But not before we’d been to visit the chief!)

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Once we’d met the chief and some of Doris’ family, we caught a taxi, then a tro tro (local transport) then another taxi and finally we arrived at the beach. Once I’d unburdened my shoulders from the heavy backpack I was carrying around and settled my towel on the beach, the sun was just about ready to set but there was still the evening to enjoy and I knew we would be in for a fun time.

After a quick shower and change at ‘The Dream’ our accommodation for the night (40 cedi per night or around £14), we headed to Big Milly’s Backyard for dinner, drinks and lots of dancing! With live entertainment in the form of acrobats, followed by a live band playing reggae music, it was the ultimate beach party and everyone was up dancing until the early hours. I knew I had a flight to catch the next day but I was having too much fun to be sensible and wanted to make the most of my last night in Ghana and spending time with the lovely Worldreader team.

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The next day I was feeling a little worse for wear as I bid farewell to Ghana and boarded the plane back to London. One thing that really struck me in particular about this trip was just how much of Ghana I felt I had experienced after just one week. Spending time with local people, sampling the cuisine and having a local tour guide were all the highlights of the trip and I felt like I actually had a genuine ‘Ghanaian experience’ as opposed to the typical tourist or backpacker hotspots – something I hope I can experience more of as I continue my adventures.

I just want to say a huge thank you to Worldreader and Opodo team for making this whole trip not only possible but extremely pleasurable too.  I can’t express my gratitude enough! Since returning to London, I have set up my own donation page for the charity and I am taking part in a 7k obstacle course to help raise money for this great cause. If any wants to sponsor me, it would be very much appreciated!

Finally, here’s what I loved most about Ghana & the Worldreader experience:

  • The people – friendly, welcoming and always, always smiling!
  • The food – banku, red red, tilapia – I’ll be trying to recreate some of these dishes to share with my friends.
  • Witnessing village life. From seeing people carrying huge suitcases on their head. Road-side stalls selling everything from coconuts to bed frames, to watching how everyone interacts.
  • Learning about some of the Ghanaian traditions. Names for the day of the week you are born (Monday = Ajoba ), tribal markings and children’s games.

Next on my adventures, I head back to Africa, this time to the north –Marrakesh.

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