By Erica M. Lee
This Winter Term, I went to Ghana, located in Sub-Saharan West Africa, with Sarah Burnette ’11 under the protection of the International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). The website didn’t promise much—a homestay, a teaching program, low prices, backed by scores of positive reviews.
I left for Africa somewhat apprehensive but pumped, much as I leave for all of my travel experiences. Once I got there, my continuous affirmations that I liked this place, that everything I was experiencing was new and exciting, disappeared quickly.
A few days after I arrived in Accra, Ghana’s capitol, Sarah and I were dropped off at God’s Eye Orphanage, where we learned that our teaching placement would not start until Jan. “12th or 13th.” This was a major concern; we did not sign up for orphanage work—if we couldn’t start teaching until the 12th, why did we have to arrive in Ghana on Dec. 31st? This was just the prelude to the later knowledge that the first week of school consists cleaning the school, and so we would not have taught until Jan. 18th, a full three weeks into our five week stay.
Sarah and I were not prepared to work at an orphanage. I couldn’t tell where my money was going—despite the 7 foreign volunteers donating substantial amounts of money, the orphanage was pitiful and the kids were starving. They were fed two inadequate meals a day, slept on cement floors, and used communal toothbrushes. They latched onto volunteers, often choosing one of them to be their ‘mommy’ and begging them to take pictures. I wasn’t expecting my volunteer trip to be a lesson in emotional endurance, as previous volunteer trips have taught me that poverty does not equate to unhappiness. I was not prepared to hear a child screaming when given two shots for syphilis with blunt needles.
On top of the trials at the orphanage, we couldn’t fit into the town and were not really encouraged to try. Yells of “Oburoni (Foreigner)!” by every child who saw you or “White woman, come here!” by the men barraged us every time we walked into town. I had never been approached by so many children, asking so politely, “Do you want to be my friend?” followed by, “Can I have your watch?” The men would hit on us without looking at our faces or bodies—the fact that we were foreign women was enough. I had never felt so completely reduced to money and sex.
I firmly believe that the culture, though, would have been easier to adjust to if we had been living with a family that could explain what was happening and why. Instead, we were placed in a volunteer house that left us isolated among (mostly) Americans. We had to make sense of the culture shock without the help of Ghanaians, and no culture should be explained strictly by outsiders.
I’m writing this on the day that I would have returned from Ghana, had Sarah and I stayed for the full time. We were expecting a warm, sunny place to spend our Winter Term, and we looked forward to teaching as a somewhat casual placement. Ghana’s weather, which leaves one constantly dehydrated in the hot, smog-covered and constantly hazy sun, would not have deterred us from our month in Ghana had not so many other, graver problems faced us.
I haven’t regretted leaving early, and a lot of my perceptions of life have changed. I’ve learned that people don’t always try to do good when they can. They don’t always watch out for each other, and some volunteer organizations are looking for cash instead of looking to help. In addition, I’ve stopped feeling guilty that I want to live in a nice house, and I’ve stopped excusing people who do not think about the greater good of mankind. I’ve realized that the kids at the orphanage look at the same sun that we do, although they watch it set while we look at it high over our heads.
So be wary of volunteer organizations, Oberlin, because I think we’re an easy target. I’m trying to set up a faculty panel on effective ways to volunteer this month. Any suggestions about what should be discussed are welcome.