I spent an amazing two weeks in Gboloo Kofi, a rural village in Ghana's Eastern Region with Village by Village, a tiny grassroots charity, and it was everything I hoped for and more. I think the really unique aspect of this project is the way the charity and the volunteers are so integrated into the community. We lived on a base in the village and interacted with the locals constantly, particularly the children. We were welcomed with open arms and although we inevitably stood out as foreigners, the people in this area are used to having volunteers come and go and it was clear that they were happy to have us there.
The charity employs local people to work on its building projects, including in senior roles, and works closely with the village Chief, Elders, headmasters, medical staff etc. to ensure that everything it does is in the best interests of the community. I had wondered about how much impact such a small charity could have, and like a lot of people I had had some reservations about the ethics of Westerners going in as short-term volunteers, but I was reassured by what I saw - their emphasis on working with the community means that Village by Village has a really positive impact.
The charity offers a number of different projects, so I was there primarily to help with childcare in the creche and at the weekly baby-weighing clinic, while the other volunteers who were there at the same time were on the building or film and photography projects. It was really flexible though - the volunteer manager was keen for us to get as much out of the experience as possible so we could get involved in different things if we wanted to and were encouraged to travel. In addition, what we did varied from day to day depending on what was going on in the area and what specific activities the charity had going on (for example, a new school built by the charity had it's grand opening while I was there). That said, a "typical" day for me would involve childcare in the morning and then various different activities in the afternoon - often some informal teaching or helping the kids with homework, playing some sports with them, or sometimes heading to one of the other villages. There were 4-5 volunteers while I was there as well as the volunteer manager, and we lived and ate together (mostly pasta, noodles, toast etc), and the base's location in the centre of the village meant that the kids would often come round after school, so there was no chance of getting lonely! We also ate Ghanaian food at a local family's house once or twice a week, and once a week made the trip to the nearest bar in the next village to relax and unwind a bit. There was no electricity in the village itself, which was great as far as I was concerned but the lack of light after sunset does take some getting used to! For those that wanted to, it was possible to charge phones etc. and get signal and even internet in nearby villages.
The language barrier was more of a challenge than I thought it would be, even though I'm a linguist myself and relished the chance to learn about a new language completely different from any I've been exposed to before (we had language/culture lessons from an incredibly knowledgeable local teacher once a week). I knew that Twi, a local language was used, but English is the country's only official language so I expected it to be pretty much universally understood. That wasn't the case though - most of the teens and a lot of adults had a conversational level of English so it wasn't a problem most of the time, but I did feel that there was a limit to how useful I could be with the kindergartners when we couldn't understand each other.
The potential downside of the flexibility of the projects is that it could also lead to a lack of structure. I think this depends a bit on the volunteer - you need to be willing to throw yourself in, be proactive and take some initiative as some of the projects (especially oneslike film and photography) are unstructured and you won't be told exactly what to do. I think this is a good thing overall but for some people, perhaps younger volunteers especially, it could be a challenge.
Nonetheless, the support from the charity and from PoD (Personal Overseas Development, the UK non-profit who places volunteers) was excellent, from the moment I expressed my interest right through the project and after I got back. PoD vets both the charities and the volunteers, which I found reassuring, and I know that they collect constructive feedback from volunteers afterwards and discuss it with the charities. It wasn't the cheapest way to volunteer but it was reasonable priced compared to similar options and considering the support provided.
Overall, this was a fantastic experience and well worth it. I spent a long time researching to find a legitimate, responsible company that I was comfortable with and a project that I felt would be both rewarding for me and genuinely positive for the local community, and I definitely feel that I made the right choice. My only regret is not going for longer!