Changing Gears in Ghana

Volunteering in GhanaI woke up with a feeling of excitement and anxiousness, as this was the day that I was going to go see the village for the first time. Nicole and Fred had been speaking of the village ever since I first reached Tamale [ed. the capital of Ghana's northern region], and although their description seemed interesting enough, I still had no idea what to expect. It all seemed so unreal to me still – what did an African village look like? The only images I had were the dreary infomercials that play in the wee hours of the morning at home in Canada, long after people had gone to bed. Nobody ever actually watched those things; I’ve been guilty of it myself. The program would come on, and I would say, “Oh that’s sad, look at those children, isn’t that awful?” and switch to some brain-numbing sitcom. That day, I was actually going to see such a village.

That first morning I was awake long before I needed to be. I learned throughout my time in Ghana that if I am told to be ready by 9:00, it could mean anytime between 7:00 and noon. That morning I was the first person up. Still unsure of my surroundings and typical morning protocol, I got showered and dressed, and sat in the barren living room of Fred’s house until finally Boakye entered the room.

“I will make tea."

As Boakye went to boil some water, I took a good look at where I was living. The rooms in Fred’s house were barren, save for a few biblical-type pictures, and a row of pictures of people I didn't know - possibly family. I always sat on the same chair. It was well sunken in and shocking if it didn't have a few ants crawling on it, but I considered it the most comfortable. The couch along the right hand side of the room had three cushions, although only one had the framework to support someone sitting on it, and the couch along the left hand side of the room had the most worn in, uncomfortable cushions one could imagine. There was also a steady, audible hum of electricity in the room.                                                                                                                                 

Sometime around 8:00 am, the school across the road from Fred’s house opened its doors to throngs of children. I remember thinking how similar it was to when I was a child, waiting in line with other children as the recess bell clanged and we all filed out of school for fun and back in afterward. Africa really was much the same, with one exception. As the schoolchildren would gather in the yard before the bell, a constant beating drum played that sounded through the entire neighbourhood. It may have been 8:00 in the morning and I had not yet had a full cup of caffeine, but the sound was wonderful. I can still hear the song that the drum played every morning for those children. 

Eventually Nicole woke up and joined me in the living room, and shortly after that Boakye returned with hot water for tea and a large loaf of bread. Since all I had eaten for the last few days were old granola bars that I had brought from home, I was quite eager to eat as much bread as possible. Once we finished breakfast and I had my morning cigarette, Fred pulled up in the rusted old Honda and we were finally off to the village.

A short ten minute drive away, the village I was going to be teaching in was in many ways everything I had expected it to be, and yet so different. We turned down the road to Wulanyilli, which was a long and winding pot-holed filled road through the middle of nowhere. There were no trees, only a few shrubs, and the road was lined with random collections of mud huts and women walking with buckets of water atop their heads. There were a few smaller settlements along the road, nothing more than a few rounded huts and maybe some goats. I could do nothing else but stare in amazement out the dusty windows of the car. I felt so elated and somewhat overwhelmed. I also couldn’t help but think two things: How could someone live in such poor conditions and what the hell had I gotten myself into?!

As we rounded the final bend, I could see the school buildings off in the distance. They had clearly been constructed fairly recently and sat on a wide expanse of arid land, which I presumed to be the play area. Fred parked the car underneath a large tree, the only one in the area, and as the engine rolled to a stop, the children began pouring out of the school buildings at full speed. It seemed like there were hundreds of them. The older children ran at the front of the pack, racing each other towards the new volunteers, while the youngest ones struggled to keep up. The sight brought tears to my eyes. I was not sure if these children were coming to beg for money, steal my belongings, talk to Fred or just to come and check out the situation. I was moved, however, to see the smiles on their faces.

Up to this point, I had been in large crowded areas in other parts of Ghana, where there seemed to be absolutely no sense of order. Bus stations, the market in Accra and the first night at Fred’s house during a little girl’s birthday party all included some level of confusion and mayhem. Still, I was not prepared for the village children. As they finally reached Fred’s car, I stood there confused while they ripped my backpack off my shoulder and grabbed my water bottle from my hand. The final straw was when one little girl took my camera strap from my wrist and ran off with my camera in hand. Pretty sure I was being robbed by a child gang, I looked at Nicole with an obviously bewildered look. I couldn’t believe that Fred and Boakye were just standing there laughing as all of my belongings were being taken from me. 

“Um, Nicole, what the hell are they doing?”

“They just want to carry your stuff! Relax!”

The one child grabbed my left hand, and another boy grabbed my right. Seeing that both of my hands were taken, about eight other children decided to grab my wrists, my arms, and even my hips. I’m pretty sure I even had one kid clinging to the shirt on my back. Nicole and I wandered around the playgrounds for a while with a slew of children following us, until the Head Master of the school came out to greet us. Carrying a tree branch, he raised it into the air and began shouting in a language which l had no hopes of understanding. Most of the children ran back into the school buildings, while a few rebellious ones hung around and tempted the Head Master who continued to raise his branch in intimidation, and that eventually seemed to do the trick. Along with the children, however, went my belongings. I was concerned about the whereabouts of my backpack and my camera, but having spent a whopping twenty minutes or so in the middle of the African plateau, I was mostly worried that my water had vanished for good. I felt incredibly selfish. Here I was worrying about if I could last a few hours without my water bottle while these children are drinking murky water from a pond that was filled with months' old rainwater. 

It took me nearly a month to figure out why, exactly, I had decided to cash in my retirement savings and come to Ghana. I did not come here to teach English to impoverished village children, nor did I come to improve the living conditions of the locals. It would be preposterous of me to think that I, some nobody from the other side of the world, could do either of these things in such a short time. In fact, if I had all the time in the world, I could never put a dent in children’s educational initiatives in Ghana. Instead, I am here to learn the ways of another culture. Simple as that. I will live as they live, eat as they eat, and I will try my very best to accept the fact that I am thousands of miles away from my beloved bed and instead sleeping on a filthy mattress in forty degree heat. I am here to bring hope to the children of this village. Every time they run towards us across the school field because they see our car approaching, I understand a bit better. 

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click  Full name: Republic of Ghana

 Population: 25.24 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Accra

 Largest city: Accra

 Area: 238,533 (92,098 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Asante, Ewe, Fanta,  Boron, Numerous Others

see  Major religions: Christianity, Islam,  Traditional, Other

 Monetary unit: Cedi

 GDP per capita: US $3,100

 Internet domain: .gh

 International dialling code: +233

 Source: CIA World Factbook