I’m not sure what I had in mind when I signed up to volunteer in Ghana. Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. Somewhere during the process, the image of me cuddling snuggly, serenely cherubic infants may have floated past in a daydream. The reality quickly quashed that fantasy.
Volunteering in Ghana
It is not quite six in the morning, and I am squashed half asleep into a cube van that in the US would seat maybe six people. Here in Ghana though, its insides have been gutted and replaced with wooden benches that can accommodate twelve of us. I use the term “accommodate” loosely; we are squeezed so tight in together that sometimes my arm goes numb. There are no seat belts, no elements of comfort.
I do this every morning, Monday to Friday, for two hours and then back again in order to get to the slum town school I teach in.
Midway through the journey, there is a stop at a depot where we switch buses. It is here that you get the real sense of Ghana; the chaos of hundreds of these so-called buses (or Tro-Tros), the merchants selling everything and anything. It is absolute chaos, but finally weeks in to this daily journey I am learning how to confidently navigate this market.
Ghana seems different than the other developing countries I have encountered thus far. Though we make this journey every morning, I have yet to see another Caucasian soul other than our little meager group. We are far away from the tourist attractions, well off the beaten tourist trail out here in Western Africa it seems.
Little children like to point us out to their mothers, and my finger waves back are often met with stormy silence. Perhaps the best part is that we aren't treated like tourists: we pay the same price as the locals for our breakfast; nobody comes up to harass or scam us. We blend in whilst we stick out, a strange paradox.
Arriving near the school always fills me with dread. While I had originally volunteered to help out with the orphanage, when I arrived I told them to place me where there was the biggest need for help. That ended up being this one room 12m x 10m derelict school room out in the slums.
It originally functioned as a daycare type service free to children of prostitutes, set up to stop the mothers from bringing their children along with them on the job. As the children have gotten older, the coordinator took it upon herself to divide the room with some chalk boards, pop in a couple of desks and teach. Unfortunately, not all the adults in Ghana have writing and arithmetic; fortunately, thats where the volunteers picked up.
Into this tiny room, they have thrown anywhere between 80 and 120 children under six. It is literally so full of children that you have to move them out of the way by shoving them with your feet lest you step on them.
It reminds me of overturning a rock and having hundreds of ants run loose. There is no rhyme or reason in this room: the children maintain the discipline themselves, the older ones yanking apart toddlers intent on murdering one another. The headmistress rules with a firm hand, resorting to smacking with a stick when she loses complete control of her charges.
At first I was horrified by this corporal punishment. By now, it has become an accepted standard, brushed under the rug of cultural differences. The children don't seem to mind; their faces laughing and happy moments after they've had a smack across their bottoms.
I spend the first five minutes while the other three volunteers set up the ‘classroom’ picking up the youngsters and cuddling them. There is one baby in particular who is universally loved here. He never seems to cry or fuss, and is always insanely happy.
We often teach our class of hellions with him perched on our hips. At six months old, he is so well behaved you can actually leave him on the desk where he will patiently wait until someone picks him up. I think of American babies who would throw themselves off the edge to their doom or scream for attention.
In the classroom, it is almost always chaos.
Within days, you have their names learned, all thirty or so of them. There are the trouble makers who spend their time hitting one another and causing chaos in hopes their negative behavior will gain them your attention. All of my child psychology classes implore me to ignore the behavior lest you reinforce it by responding. Easier said than done when they’re viciously stabbing their classmate to death with a newly sharpened pencil.
Then there are the ones that make your heart bleed. The five year old girl who sits front row, studiously quiet, ready to learn whatever meager scraps of learning we can throw her way. She learns everything we teach her, at a pace that takes my breath away. She far outpaces any Western five year old I’ve ever worked with, and she's learning in English when her family only knows and speaks Twi.
I look at this decrepit classroom and these children in their ragged clothes, and think of how different this is than the American classrooms I’ve known. I think of how different they are and how different their lives will likely be. My volunteer coworker is trying to gain their attention to start lessons, but they're all chattering excitedly over him and it is impossible.
I hold up a bag above my head and within ten seconds, the classroom is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. All the children are staring at my $2 bag of candy hastily picked up at the market in a stroke of genius, and I realize maybe they're not that different after all.
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