Alice Wonnacott - Sports, Teach Physical Education in Ghana
There came a point, mid April, when I began to think ahead to the summer. I had already got a trip with a couple of friends to Barcelona planned after AS-levels, but that was more of a chill-out break rather than a hard-headed action trip. I realised that I was far too late to sign up for the India World Challenge Trip that had been organised at school and I was overcome with a sudden urge to do something worthwhile with my summer. So, I quickly researched into other options with various companies.
I was looking at doing a teaching based project, in a developing country and with a well-known company. In the end Projects Abroad emerged as the one most suited to me. I had heard from various people who had been on their gap year that from their experience Projects Abroad was a very reliable, well organised and diverse organisation to go with. It was great to 'hear from the horse's mouth' that it really did live up to its reputation. Rather conveniently Projects Abroad came to my school for a gap year fair in late April so I quizzed the poor representative for a good half an hour trying to squeeze out any flaws or problems with Projects Abroad. So far so good.
My next move was to phone up the head office in West Sussex and speak directly to the Projects Abroad staff. I was put through to a young, friendly and extremely knowledgeable representative who, after speaking for about 45 minutes, had confirmed all my doubts and removed all fears. With this feeling inside and going by my gut instinct, I made out a cheque to Projects Abroad .
Although it seemed like a colossal amount for just two weeks, I can assure you now that I would have paid three times over for the experience that I gained from it.
I had signed up for a two week summer course teaching in a Sports Academy. The two week placement was specially designed for AS-levels students who weren't sure what they wanted to do with their summer: but who knew they wanted to do something. Since I was going for such a short amount of time teaching in a classroom was not an option. It would be disruptive and unfair to the children to have a teacher only for 2 weeks. Since I wanted to work with children and since I was keen on sport this project turned out to suit me down to a tee. Included in the package was food and accommodation as well as a trip to the National Park where you would cross the jungle on a canopy walkway made of rope and then spend the night amidst the creepy crawlies and terrifying noises. On top of these delights for were all the taxi rides, various meals when accompanied by the Projects Abroad staff and the general knowledge that you would not just be left stranded. This was the difference between braving it alone as a fearless gap year student or being a better looked after slightly clueless AS student. Since I fell into the latter category, this last point in particular came as a relief to me.
The summer term flew by and apart from receiving half a dozen forms to fill in, I didn't really hear from Projects Abroad. I bought various things in preparation for Ghana (a mosquito net, some mosquito repellent containing the magic DEET formula, some long sleeved non-revealing clothes) and then before I could blink, I was standing in front of my somewhat tearful mother reminding me to take good care of myself and not to talk to strangers.
Although I most definitely did take good care of myself, and hence obey one of my mother's conditions, I broke the second almost within the first minute of arriving on Ghanaian territory. The friendliness and openness of the Ghanaians is what first struck me about Ghana. I think it is partly because of the coldness and reserved nature of the English and partly just because of the wideness of the Ghanaians' smiles - one could not help but feel instantly at home. The second most noticeable feature was changing my money. I handed over a single £20 note and a couple of minutes later received an inchful of Ghanian cedes (pronounces see-dees). I quickly put them in my money belt looking pregnant and feeling richer than the Queen of Sheba.
I was met by perhaps the most friendly Ghanaian of them all - Annane (meaning 'God') and was taken to my home for the next couple of weeks. I was living with a Ghanaian couple called the Wolves and there were 3 other girl volunteers living there as well. They had the second floor of a 3 storey building conveniently placed right in the centre of Accra. Furthermore there were lots of other volunteers nearby, which was easy when it came to sharing taxis in the evenings.
My first day was an induction of Accra. Projects Abroad has three main bases in Ghana, the Akuapem Hills, Cape Coast and the bustling city centre Accra. Many people mix and match their placements, but since I was only there for two weeks, I would spend most of my time in Accra. With an increasing population and a lot of room for expansion - I soon found out that there was a lot to see. I managed to pack so much into my couple of weeks - looking back I'm surprised how I did. All the main sights were pointed out to me and the big landmarks, so that if I got lost I would have some idea of where I was. The most attractive features of the tour were the drink in the Western style bar Frankie's, the stunning beach and being shown the 5* hotel that many of the volunteers have membership's to. I met all of the other volunteers that evening, all of whom were keen to get to know the 'girl footballer' as I had been known before I came out and who were keen to relate their various stories, experiences and tips. For example a good price for a taxi, or how not to get lost, or which tro-tro to take etc. all useful, priceless tips that I was frantically trying to make a mental note of.
After arriving at my placement which was about 45 minutes out of Accra I met the overall organiser of the project - Salim. Since he went to school in England until he was 16, his English was perfect, which was a pleasant change from having to speak English slowly and in a Ghanaian accent just to be understood. He and four other men were the ones in charge of the project. One who owns the land, one who is in charge of the maintenance of the land, one who used to play for a Ghanaian football team and one who provides some of the funding for the academy. The ex-footballer comes from one of the worst slum regions in Accra and he, every day, gets a bus full of keen children, aging between 5 and 12 and gives them the opportunity to get some fresh air away from the bustling, polluted city centre. I cannot express in words the joy that I saw on the faces of these little children whilst playing football and having a good kick around. Every one of the children comes from a family with problems, whether it be that they are orphaned, or abused, I find it hard to stress just how worthwhile this project is. It gives them the invaluable opportunity to forget their family problems and just to play hard. I was proud to be involved. The first week was mainly just settling into the placement and getting to know the other volunteers. I signed myself up for African Tribal Drumming and Dancing lessons, without really knowing of what they would comprise. It turned out that I have never laughed so much ever so much so that the following mornings I would have bruised ribs without really remembering why. The very enthusiastic Ghanaian, Evans, who takes the lessons was so inspiring; he was so knowledgeable about his culture and so keen for us to learn - you couldn't really but take an instant like to him. I still look fondly upon my African drum that hangs in my room at home and remember all the happy memories that are associated with it.
That first weekend was the weekend I went to Cape Coast (where the Projects Abroad head quarters is) and did the canopy walkway. It was simultaneously one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life. For the second week, I had the option of doing normal teaching in the morning; working on a project in the centre of Accra called GLONA, as well as continuing with the normal afternoon placement in the afternoon. I also, advised by the Projects Abroad UK staff brought out my rounders bat to bring a bit of variety to the Sports Academy. It was a busy week and topped off with a Ghanaian football match which was unlike anything I've ever seen before resulted in being one of the best weeks in living memory.
For the second weekend we decided to go to one of Ghana's neighbouring countries Togo. So Jayne (the Projects Abroad Assistant Manager), two other volunteers and I all set off to go to Togo, which was an experience in itself. Transport in Ghana is interesting to say the least! After making your way to the main tro-tro park in Circle, central Accra, and having located the right tro, you then have to wait for it to fill up. This could take anything from half an hour, to the rest of the day. It is lucky that everything is so relaxed in Ghana, even if you tell someone a time to meet, the likelihood of it happening on time is somewhat slim. I rather enjoyed this laid back approach to life, though back in London I couldn't imagine everyone adopting this lifestyle. After an uncomfortable, bumpy and rather smelly journey to the Ghana/Togo border, our next challenge was to change our money without being ripped off whilst crossing the border. This would have proved to have been an impossible task, had it not been for the Regional Director of Projects Abroad in Togo, Augustin. He successfully conducted various deals with several customs officers, passport control guards and some unsuspecting Togalese men whilst keeping a fixed grin on his face. All of this to me seemed something less than a miracle.
Visiting Togo was a great experience; it was interesting to note the many differences between itself and Ghana, even though they are next door to one another. Togo is very much influenced by the French way of life, even though they gained their independence many years ago. French is the first language, the food is French and one can make out similarities with Togo and France. Since I am studying French at A-level, it proved to be really useful to see whether I would like to spend more time there say on a gap summer, or if I took a gap year, as one of my destinations. Not only would I learn a lot about Togalese history, culture and way of life, but also my French would improve unrecognisably. But having said that, I must inform you that I did in fact prefer Ghana. I cannot pinpoint exactly my reasons for this opinion, perhaps it is the warm nature of the people, perhaps it is the simple values, or perhaps it is simply the je ne sais quoi about the place - whatever it may be I most definitely felt a certain affinity when I was there. Although I did miss my family, this was not a big enough reason to draw me back to England, so I e-mailed my mother telling her that I wanted to stay another two weeks and I hoped that that was alright. All was arranged, everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do and if I did not do this then I would regret it for the rest of my life. So I turned up at the British Airways head office, asking for available flight dates in the next two weeks, and they shortly informed me that there weren't any for 4 months. Not a single flight! Unfortunately this was the case as it stood, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Looking back on my time in Ghana, not only had I acquired a very impressive feature on my CV as well as an invaluable once-in-a-life-time experience also I had improved my suntan! From going to Ghana and seeing such acute poverty contrasted with such happiness I will carry my memories with me forever.