Kate Gerrand - Public Health in Ghana
I had just finished my penultimate year of school and I always knew that I wanted to travel and explore as much as I could before all those niggling responsibilities of adulthood, university applications and final exams rest upon me. Apart from the slight embarrassment I felt towards being the embodiment of the cliché of the young middle class European girl heading to Africa to volunteer, I persevered. And I’m glad I did.
Volunteering in Ghana
I headed to Ghana, Kumasi in the summer of 2014. I was 17, and thrilled to be heading off essentially alone and armed only with my love of biology and fascination with people. I participated in a Public Health project in the sprawling city of Kumasi.
Part of my project involved setting up ‘camp’ in public areas Monday to Wednesday which involved carrying out many different tasks. To be a little more specific, we would test adults for a range of health issues from blood pressure to hepatitis B and everything in between, depending on how well staffed we were that day.
This provided ample opportunity to have brief chats with the locals, and I can’t say I ever had a bad experience with a patient. It was busy work due to the sheer amount of people; literally hundreds of people would line up keen to see what the sterilized tables and white people in gloves were all about.
On Thursday and Friday, we would arrive at school bearing liters of antifungal treatment (ringworm is extremely common) and bandages to treat small wounds and infections. I cannot express how excited the children were for us to fawn over them, well, either that or they hid behind teachers, presumably unfamiliar and terrified of new people.
My host family in Ghana
‘Always remember you have a home in Ghana’, is what my host Dad said to me the day I left to head home. Even though adjusting to new surroundings always takes time, it really did become a home. I urge all new volunteers to put in as much time with your host family as possible – it enriches your experience and theirs.
The staff at the Projects Abroad office were also very helpful introducing me to Ghana. Every volunteer receives a personalised tour around Kumasi before they start their placement; they show you exactly which bus you should take to go where, where the all-important internet café is, and give you a taste of Ghanaian food.
Free time at the weekends
Most weekends I went traveling, catching the public bus. Traveling around Ghana was much less daunting than I originally imagined: as long as sensible precautions are taken and you follow the advice of the Projects Abroad staff. One day I headed to Lake Bosomtwe and enjoyed being out of the city, and I made the trek down to Cape Coast which was fantastic!
I found weekends absolutely invaluable for many reasons. Firstly, it gave you an opportunity to get to know your fellow volunteers and build a proper relationship with friends who will last a life time. Also, it allows you to take a breath of fresh air away from the city and the bustle and the difficult things you may see at work sometimes.
I found myself valuing the experiences I gained with people more and more. On my taxi ride to the airport, I had a lovely conversation with the taxi driver (his name was Anthony) about how he enjoyed living in Ghana and his weekend plans, pretty average stuff.
I came away with the pride of only having paid twice the normal taxi fare and felt quite accomplished with time spent in Ghana, but above all I valued the human connection I formed with him and many others during my time there.
As the British anthropologist Nigel Barley says, ‘If anyone approaches you in a British Territory speaking a totally unintelligible tongue of which even the basic sounds are quite unfamiliar, it is probably English’. I had to embrace the fact that everything (even the English language) would be alien, and this really helped me land with an open mind and a sense of adventure.