We travel junkies love a good adrenaline filled adventure to write home about, (or to post about on our blog as the case may be). We love to climb a mountain or go to the top of a building and take breathtaking pictures to post online and email to friends. But after we go home, tell our stories, and give out the souvenirs we brought back, the most precious takeaways are the relationships we’ve built across cultural and geographic divides, and the knowledge that we made a difference in someone’s life.
My mission while working with Pagus:Africa was to evaluate the quality of education students were receiving in the new Airfield school building, and to learn more about the population of students we are serving there. The task was not an easy one. Before I could observe classes, I had to win over the teachers and headmaster. Once I was in the classroom, I witnessed things that made me feel disheartened and sometimes uncomfortable. From my Western perspective, I often found the teaching style and discipline tactics frustrating and ineffective. I surveyed approximately 80% of the student population, overcoming a language barrier with the help of two student translators who became my research assistants. We surveyed as many students as we could each day until my computer battery died. I walked to the villages where the students lived and interviewed family members, often waiting an hour for transportation home afterwards.
Through this process I formed close relationships with the Ghanaians who saw the value in what I, as a part of Pagus:Africa, was trying to do. The family I lived with became my family. I would share my concerns with them as I would with my own. They were encouraging and supportive in any way that they could be. Likewise, a woman from the government who works with the school system became our biggest advocate. She would come to our house to talk, and then go to the school and fight for the necessary changes. I formed a very close relationship with the two students who were my research assistants, especially once they became comfortable around me. In Ghana there is much reverence given to elders, so relationships with those in different age groups can have a formality to it unlike what I am used to in the United States. It took a while for my research assistants to let down their guard with me, but once they did, we formed a close bond. Outside of my work, I formed relationships with many others. A boy who lived near our house would go on long Sunday runs with me, sometimes running five miles in flip-flops as we shared my Ipod, one ear-bud for each of us. The people we saw regularly around town became friendly with us- the attendant at the internet café, our favorite sellers at the market, the woman at the fruit stand, and the cashier at the grocery store, all knew us and extended warm greetings.
As a volunteer of Pagus: Africa, I felt I had a lot of independence and autonomy, but at the same time I benefited from the support of an existing network that has been built around the organization. As a Pagus volunteer I felt welcomed and valued, even as I confronted challenges. In the end, I worked closely with the Executive Director to figure out how best to move forward given the findings of my research. She was very receptive and appreciative of my work, and in the end, many changes were made. I feel very proud of the contributions I made to the Airfield school, although there is still a lot to be done.
This is a perfect volunteer opportunity for someone who is not afraid to live outside of their comfort zone, someone who is strong-willed and yet culturally sensitive, and someone who is motivated to truly make a difference. There is no cookie-cutter experience here. You bring to the table your own skills and ambitions, and make of this experience what you want. You have to be ready to engage and connect with people inside and outside of the Pagus network, and not get discouraged when change doesn’t come as quickly as you hope. This is a great opportunity to make a huge impact on the education of eager Ghanaian youth, and a chance to make unique and meaningful relationships as well. And of course there will be no shortage of adventure, breathtaking photos, and souvenirs for your loved ones.