“There’s no sugar coating it, cultural differences hit you hard and instantly”
Joe Pearson, Marketing Executive at African Adventures, shares his experience of volunteering in Ghana.
Despite working for a well-established volunteer travel provider, I’m not really a seasoned traveller. In fact, before volunteering in Ghana, I’d never left Europe. Naturally, when I was presented with the opportunity to volunteer at two schools located in Woe, a rural fishing village in South-Eastern Ghana, I eagerly grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Upon arrival, you’re immediately hit by the culture shock. There’s no sugar coating it, cultural differences hit you hard and instantly. Everything is different. Even relatively simple local customs are hard to get to grips with. For example, it’s impolite to use your left hand to gesture or take money. Customs like this present a fun challenge and yet they’re constant reminder of where and who you are.
People wear the most beautiful, colourful clothing and seem unfazed by the poverty that surrounds them on a day-to-day basis. To say that Ghanaians friendly is a huge understatement, I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve felt so welcome.
Despite being one of Africa’s real success stories, evidently Ghana still has some way to go. In Accra, you don’t need to go far to find areas where people live way below the poverty line and struggle to get by on a day-to-day basis. One wrong turning can take you into an area where prostitution is abundant and young men sit drinking by the side of the road with little else to occupy their thoughts and time.
There’s a real contrast between the more beautiful aspects of the country and those that are considerably less savoury. In a way, though, I think this is part of what made the trip so fascinating and eye-opening. Despite some of the blatant and widespread corruption, crime and poverty, there’s an overwhelming sense of positivity that courses through the country’s veins.
Volunteering was the name of the game; it’s why I was there. Our destination was Woe, a beautiful, rural fishing village in the Volta region. Geographically unique, Woe is situated in the middle of the massive Keta lagoon and is also located close to Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in the world. Woe is where African Adventures partner schools are based, some of which are private while others are government funded. All of them are understaffed, under-resourced in need of basic assistance.
Poverty in Woe is very different from the poverty we saw in Accra. As a small village, there aren’t sprawling slums where thousands go hungry daily. In Woe, people don’t really go hungry. It’s a rural community so if someone is hungry they can quite literally live off the land. It’s not encouraged, but someone could forage for food on neighbouring farms in the most dire of circumstances. The problem is more a lack of opportunity – there’s a real glass ceiling for some of the children. Many of them recognise that they will inevitably end up working in agriculture and thus education is not given the same value that it should be. It’s really telling that so few children remain at school much past the age of 15 or so. It’s a viscous cycle because ‘middle-class’ job opportunities are so few and far between so there is very little wealth creation and thus this lack of opportunities persists. I’d like to think that we are a part of the solution; Jack Freeman, a year 11 volunteer, wrote that “even if it is just a small difference to us, to these kids even a small difference is potentially life-changing”.
“I’m convinced that volunteering gave me a deeper insight into Ghanaian life and allowed me to dig deeper than the average tourist”
I’m convinced that volunteering with African Adventures gave me a deeper insight into Ghanaian life and allowed me to dig deeper than the average tourist. As tourists, we so often mentally separate the places we visit from the struggles faced by resident communities because it is convenient to do so. Volunteering allows you to become one with the community, playing an active part rather than observing from a distance. If you truly want to experience a different way of life and a different culture, do it through volunteering. The experience will utterly consume you, you’ll come back a different person.