Anna Marianetti - High School Specials, Care & Community in Ghana
I began thinking about traveling to Africa a year before I stepped onto Ghanaian land. I knew that I wanted to volunteer abroad, and I have always had a passion for Africa, and Projects Abroad allowed my curiosity for the two to turn into an experience that will be forever treasured.
I signed up for the "2-week special" for the 15-29 of July. This session allowed me to be with other volunteers my own age (all the volunteers in my main group were between 16-19 years old) and also allowed me to experience different aspects of volunteering in Ghana.
When we landed in Accra, my heart was pounding. I was in Africa, and I was in the country that was renowned for having the friendliest people. I was ecstatic. We stepped off the plane right into the open and I remember taking my first breath of African air, standing in awe of the scenery and realizing that I was actually there.
There were seven of us on the flight together and right away we were greeted by gleaming smiling faces of Projects Abroad staff members, and taken to the office in Accra. There we were given our first water sachets, and I remember how confused I was as to whether I was to drink it or use it as an ice pack. Andy, a staff member, took us around Accra and then we went back to the office (also director Tom's house) where Tom's wife made us our first Ghanaian meal - Jollof Rice. It was amazing: orange rice with vegetables with a sort of sauce over it. At that point I didn't realize how much I would learn to like rice.
From there, five of us were taken to Good Shepherd Orphanage in Ofaankor, about an hour outside of Accra, where we would be spending our first week. All of us volunteers automatically clicked and became very quickly comfortable with each other. On arriving to the orphanage, the children were automatically attached. Immediately after we stepped out of the tro (mini-bus), they were pulling at our shirts asking "Madam! Madam! What is your name?!" In a matter of seconds, I had a child on my hip, and others grabbing my hand to show me through the grounds of the orphanage. We stayed right at the orphanage, which was an incredible experience in its own because we were constantly around the children, and the bonds that we created with them in even just one week are unbelievably unforgettable.
That week, our days started at around nine in the morning, and we were to fix up the rundown primary school at the orphanage. We started by taking down some of the planks off the walls, and replacing them with "better" planks of wood. Then, with the help of some of the orphans, and Eric, an awesomely friendly Projects Abroad staff member, we painted the school white and blue. Because the walls of the classes are not floor to ceiling (you can see in every classroom when standing outside/you can see out when inside) we were always entertained when painting by the school songs the little ones sang (such as head shoulders knees and toes, and some others in their tribal language of Twi).
We would break with the children for about a half hour at half ten, and they were always eager to have their picture taken, or snap ones themselves. Then we would go back to work, and continue painting, and then break for lunch at noon. After lunch, we would return to work, and on the days later in the week when we had finished painting, we would hammer chalkboards and one day we also cemented floors, and that day I got to try to carry a bucket of water on my head - I am now even in more awe of the people who do it everyday, I could only manage for a half a second for a picture. Another day we were able to teach the children a hygiene lesson, where we were told to encourage them to not pick up band-aids off the ground and use them, to use their new toilets as opposed to going outside, and to clean themselves.
After work we had time to play with the children, and also get to know some of the volunteers who had been for a longer time at the orphanage. I'll never forget when one day I sat on the porch and opened a pack of pencils. Before I opened the package, no child was around. In a matter of a minute they were all gone. Getting out toys that we brought for the children was also extremely memorable and rewarding. The excitement in their eyes is engrained in my memory and their faces themselves expressed how thankful they were. They were all (mostly) extremely willing to share, and found great joy in blowing bubbles, skipping rope, and they were very impressed to find out I could kick a mini soccer ball. They also loved when we brought them paper and crayons to draw with - I now have a very loved pile of pictures, all addressed to 'Madam Anna.'
One moment that always sticks out in my mind is when Romeo, the youngest child at the orphanage, took a pair of sunglasses from another volunteer and put them on, and started singing "Shakira, Shakira!" and "Bye, bye miss American pie," and dancing on the porch. The children also would spontaneously sing a song that we named the "Cape Coast Song," which was a beautiful song that they would gladly sing however many times we asked them to sing it. Jacob, a young orphan even wrote me down the lyrics, and I have it posted in my room, and every time I look at it, I tear up thinking about it.
The relationships that we created with both the children and the other volunteers at Good Shepherd are so cherished. The volunteers who had been there for months before us helpfully showed us how to get to, from and around Ofaankor, Kasoa, and Accra, and how the tros worked. They took us to the streets of Osu to shop with the vendors and taught us the art of bartering, and what it's like to lower "Obruni prices," and fight with the vendors in a way that you end up walking away with a new local friend. They also showed us the nightlife of Ghana, and the places where Shakira is extremely popular to play on repeat.
Our first weekend, we traveled (on a very speed-bumped filled road) to Cape Coast. We visited the Slave Fort there, which was really moving. The cultural history was so apparent and real there. The tour of the fort was informative and very interesting. There we also went to the gorgeous beach, which was very relaxing. We also visited the rainforest, and survived the Canopy Walk, which was, while terrifying due to my fear of heights, well worth it. It's beautiful there and we learned a lot about old life in Ghana, and traditions such as the tree that will make people tell the truth, and the vine that will test your ability to marry.
The second week, our group traveled to The Akuapem Hills. The scenery there was breathtaking, and the rural community was so different than that of busy Accra. We stayed with a host family there (Diana) who was so welcoming and conscious of making us comfortable. We had our own building in the compound, and I was always at ease while staying with Diana. The dinners Diana made were always plentiful and wonderful - my favorite being red-red, which comprises of fried plantains and a red bean stew. We were to paint another Primary School (Akropong Methodist Primary School), which was just a taxi ride away (which was always provided for us by Projects Abroad). We also planted trees, in order to shelter villages from strong winds, which have been known to take roofs off of houses.
We went to a restaurant one night while we were there, Palm Hill, where there was a spectacular view.and they served chips and beans.
One day in The Hills, some other volunteers and I were attempting to find the Bead Market, got lost, and ended up at a Bead Factory. When we got there, they sat us down and enthusiastically said, "We hope you are here to learn how beads are made!!" We all glanced at each other and finally one of us agreed that that was exactly why we were there.It turned out to be a very interesting process and the man showed us the different stages and then took us into their shop. It was lights off there (a common occurrence in Ghana where electricity gets turned off in a certain region for anywhere from a couple of hours to day or two to reserve electricity) so we had to adjust a minute to the darkness. When they did adjust, necklaces, bracelets and beads that were all made right in that compound surrounded us. Everything was cheaper than they are on the streets, and needless to say, with five girls there, we spent a lot of money - so much that they made us each take a bracelet for free! I'm thankful we ended up there because it's even more touching to know that I know exactly where, how and who made a good amount of my Ghanaian souvenirs.
So over 400 pictures, some very close friends, and several faces of orphans instilled in my memory later, I am back home, wishing I were back in Ghana. My advice: stay for as long as you can (I wish I stayed longer than two weeks), take lots of pictures, journal, come with an open mind, and use lots of bug spray (I only got bit four times in two weeks, but, I also constantly reeked of bug spray).
For my first abroad experience, I couldn't have asked for a better trip. It was life changing. It was unique. It was incredible and just writing that can't do justice for how much I mean it.