18 August, 11:30pm GMT – Tawala Beach, Accra

Today, we drove back to Accra. We had hoped to drive back early so we could visit Cape Coast, but it looks like getting to Cape Coast would be a six-hour trek via van, bus, and taxi. By the time we arrived, we may not get any daylight hours to see the crocodiles, the slave castle, and the canopy bridge before checking in to the treetop lodge. It sounds like fun, but the other volunteers warned us that the treetop hotel is not all it’s cracked up to be; more like a single-room cabin with shared cots. Besides, Brian and Lianna wouldn’t be able to join us because they’ll be leaving for an overnight outreach starting tomorrow night. Instead, we walked to the old Chinese restaurant we visited the last time we were here, and took a taxi to a beach.

I didn’t get to visit all the touristy spots I wanted to, but that was never the point of this trip. I think that I learned more about Ghana through volunteering than through looking at pretty things, the same way that someone visiting DC will learn more by taking the metro to Busboys and Poets (where you can run into a U.S. Senator on lunch break while having great coffee) rather than a tour bus to the Washington Monument (spoiler alert: it looks just like the pictures, just with more stairs than you could ever imagine, AND it’s closed until 2014 because the East Coast is terrible at handling earthquakes).

It would appear that our team of six has had a very different experience with Ghana than the volunteers who were now living at Telecentre when we returned. Just as all the veteran volunteers from this summer left on August 10th, a new set of about a dozen volunteers, almost all of which are staying for just 10 days, arrived. They had no one there to teach them the lay of the land, so they cautiously dipped their toes into Ghanaian life instead of diving into the deep end like we did with the veteran volunteers. Amusingly, they thought that we had just arrived in the country when we got back, and started to teach us how to do basic things like buy cell phone minutes when we corrected them. Since our team was small and away from everyone else in Accra, we built our own daily way of life in Kumasi, just as the Friends clinic group did when they were alone in Kumasi and Tamale. What we thought was normal – taking the chrochro, drinking bagged water, buying dinner from street vendors – was apparently terrifying to some of the new volunteers. We relished at the opportunity to be able to walk to dozens of restaurants, since any restaurant in Kumasi was 40 minutes ride into town, but when we invited these volunteers to join us at the Chinese restaurant just down the road, they preferred to stay in the hotel and eat Ramen, even though they had never been to there.

Perhaps after reading all this, you will think that volunteering abroad is not for you.  But honestly, the discomforts and inconveniences did not define the trip. It’s all about being flexible and accommodating to a new set of cultural norms. Can you be enthusiastic in your work, even when you are frustrated by lack of food and restrooms? Can you be a dependable and yet humble guest to respect the efforts of your host country? Can you understand that circumstances here are different from those back home, so although they may not use the same technology as you, that doesn’t mean they don’t get the job done just as well? Is your goal to provide a sustainable, effective solution to a problem using local resources rather than to fix as much as you can as fast as you can?

For anyone who is considering volunteering abroad, I would highly recommend choosing a program that emphasizes fundraising (for the cause, not to fund your own trip) and training before you arrive. I chose Unite for Sight not knowing where I would be going or what I would do there. We learned about the volunteer aspects of our trip from extensive training, about how to live day-to-day from previous volunteers, and about the sights and adventures from our host clinics and our own exploring. In contrast, many volunteer abroad trips are volunteer tourism, which is more like a summer camp for adults. For fear of actually doing anything on your own, you are given a few coordinators that do everything for you, including feeding you, setting up playtime with the local kids, and making sure you don’t wander off and learn something. At one point I looked at Me to We trips, until I realized how ridiculous they were. Here is their version of volunteering in Ghana, also a 3-week trip. They basically did the same thing we did, except with a few more touristy adventures and with a lot less ground covered (the trip goes from Accra to Cape Coast and back, probably a tenth of the mileage we covered). However, the trip is $5000, including room, board, airfare, transportation, and admissions. In contrast, I spent $600 for room, board, transportation, and admissions in Ghana, plus $1450 for airfare. Now, let’s add $200 since Me to We’s airfare is out of Toronto (and D.C. is closer), then add $50 for admissions. Most of our van rides were covered by Unite for Sight, as was other equipment for volunteering, so let’s add $150 (enough to take a bus halfway across the country 20 times). This brings us to $2500. That means that at least half the cost of the trip is going to your coordinators, to overhead, and to making the trip far more expensive than it needs to be (by staying in 5-star hotels, only eating at upscale restaurants, only buying bottled water, etc). In sanitizing your trip like that, you may make it less stressful on yourself, but you are also putting up a fence around yourself, saying “I’m too good to live like everyone else in this country.”

I’m not saying that Unite for Sight is the only group that avoids this problem, but it did a good job doing so. Unite for Sight took my $55 application fee and nothing more, and in return provided hours of training, a coordinator who checked up on my progress, instructions on everything from what to pack to how to speak Twi, all my hotels booked, and all my transportation in-country booked. Meanwhile, they paid the salaries of the drivers and clinic staff, paid for the vans plus gas and maintenance, and paid for medications and other outreach and surgical equipment. Some of these later expenses were covered by the $1800 I was required to fundraise, but I know that this money did not go to overhead, as Unite for Sight pays for its 0.9% administrative expenses through non-donation sources.

Side note: In the Me to We itinerary, you'll also notice that they never mention what volunteering you'll be doing. I personally enjoyed going to Ghana with a purpose rather than with an obtuse goal of helping people. Also, I found that a lot of the work we did could have been done better by paying the salaries of more nurses and local coordinators. This sometimes made me feel as if the entire point of me being there was to give me incentive to raise money and bring eyeglasses, but I would be happy to exchange that for an expanded worldview any day.

My advice to those who want to volunteer, or even travel for that matter, abroad is this:
      -     go beyond your comfort zone. You won't learn anything unless your expand your horizons a bit.
      -     recognize your impact. Don't let the feeling that you aren't helping ever stop you from trying.
      -     get lost. Ignore the guidebooks at least once and force yourself to ask the locals questions.
      -     take the advice of those who can put it better than I can:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain (illustrated by Zen Pencils)

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