Had I been asked six months ago to locate the country of Ghana on a world map, I probably would have clumsily gestured in the direction of Africa, and then rapidly changed the subject. I, like most sparingly traveled inhabitants of Canada, had regarded the continent of Africa as a singular entity, and although I was aware of the many different countries that it encompassed, had little to no idea what made any of them unique. Happy to while away the days in my cozy, safe hovel nestled in the broadly overlooked interior of BC, I was content merely to hear about the rest of the world from others, and not to actually see it myself. Since most of my life had been spent meekly traversing back and forth over my little slice of home, I had never known the vast degrees of poverty and destitution that plagued most of the other people on this spinning blue marble.
Oh, I had an idea of course; being not particularly unintelligent and had heard of the plight of the poor and the hungry, but these realizations were happy to stay locked in the subconscious, rarely tasting open air except when such calamities as the Haitian earthquake broached the media of my corner of the world. It was something to talk about with people occasionally, but any action anyone took had an underlying selfish element, like recycling so as to beautify one’s immediate surroundings, or donating a dollar a month to alleviate one’s guilt. Like most of the other inhabitants that surrounded me, I had always had enough to eat and never been without some kind of shelter and comfort, but this detached philosophy of blissful ignorance was soon to be challenged. It was a simple change, really. Nothing drastically altered in my life, but the small happenstance of a book crossing my path was enough to encourage these latent suspicions of imperfection to surface to conscious thought. After reading “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry (I know, pretty much the coolest name for an author I have ever some across too) I began to reshape my view of the world. This novel, which is a fictitious – if not entirely plausible account of four lives in mid seventies India portrays the perils and struggles of the poor in such relief that after reading, were impossible to deliberately forget. The world, I realized, was not a macrocosm of the peaceful, clean corner that I was otherwise privy to. I was simply one of the precious few who were lucky enough to be born into such circumstances, and most of the other humans on this planet were not. Spurred on by this revolutionary (to me) idea I began to really look into the state of the world and realized that it was on the shoulders of us, the privileged, to do what is within our rather staggering means to lend a hand to our fellow man scattered across the planet. This is where YCI comes in.
Coincidentally it seems, (although through certain experiences I am led to believe there are no coincidences) right at the moment this idea had been leading my search for a channel to this esteemed purpose, seemingly by chance, an outlet was proffered. Running into an old friend at a bar, the talk turned to travel, and, as she told me of the volunteer work she was doing in Tanzania for YCI, a chord was struck. After some research, I could no longer battle the notion that this was the solution to the nagging tick in the back of my mind. Soon after, signed up and prepared, I was on my way to Ghana. I researched all I could before leaving and found out that I was surrounded by resources, though I did not know it. I was even fairly decent friends with a couple of Ghanaian brothers, who were happy to tell me all they could about their beautiful homeland. Off I was on a nerve wracking plane ride into the world of the unknown, and only when I finally arrived, was I to find out that all my so-called preparation might as well have been for naught.
Reading about a foreign country and its customs in the basement of your home with all the comforts we westerners employ is one thing. One can try to memorize social and cultural traditions and think they have developed a realistic picture of another world. But suddenly being dropped in the middle of a city, in a country, on (literally) the other side of the world is another experience entirely. Every sense is bombarded with input from the moment of stepping off the plane, and one feels that if one could take in and process ten times the information one is capable of, it would still not be enough. Being from a small lake town in the BC interior, for me, stepping off the plane into the heavy Ghanaian humidity was like walking into a recently Windexed patio door. The sudden realization of being very, very far from home and that all the people one has ever known and loved are separated from one’s being by a chunk of rock tens of thousands of miles wide is quite a daunting thought. There wasn’t an off switch I could activate, and there was no familiar lifesaver I could cling to. Dealing with the brunt of the information provided was a task left solely for my self, my mind and my body.
Though becoming acclimatized to the vast differences between my previous life and this impulsive spell took some time, after a while I really did begin to feel at home in these so alien of surroundings. Although it is true that the basic functions of society vary only subtly, the accumulation of all these miniscule nuances results in a very different picture of daily life than what we Canadians are used to. People still eat, sleep, need to move around, take pleasure in the company of others and fall in love, but sometimes the means by which they go about these functions is unexpected. One small example is the custom of eating with one’s hands, which isn’t fundamentally different from eating with a fork, but over time this affects food service, the form of the food itself and even customs such as sharing food and shaking hands. Another distinction that took me by surprise occurred in Accra, where we landed and stayed for the first few days during orientation. Being the major city of the country, the highways and streets are an unsurprisingly busy and chaotic mass of impatient and irate drivers all trying to go every direction at once.
What is surprising is that braving these clogged arteries are countless vendors willing to risk bodily harm to sell their various products to passing motorists. As impressive as their dedication and sheer fortitude was, I was further baffled by the grace and balance displayed by these people as they chased down prospective customers in a moving queue of traffic in the hot sun on a blackened freeway whilst unflinchingly balancing a giant bowl of plantain chips of water sachets on their heads. Understandably, not everybody can afford a shop or even a booth, but I was amazed by the alternative some people embraced. Taking pride in the most menial of tasks is another, if only mildly, foreign concept to me. One will find everywhere one goes, the practice is to carry one’s burden on one’s head, be it a rack of sunglasses, bricks, baskets of fruit, water bottles or almost any other product. I tried it one or two times and, contrary to how people make it look, it is quite as tricky as one would think.
Though the differences in culture are countless, one also finds that the things one has in common with almost any passer by are more than one would expect. This paired with the natural friendliness (which at first to us Obrunis seems almost forceful) prevalent in the Ghanaian people makes it easy to spark up a conversation with almost anyone you meet. It is true that some locals will play on this reputation of welcoming air, and seemingly appear friendly, only to wring more and more money out of tourists, these people are few and far between. Most others simply want to know you. I found myself answering the same questions countless times (Where are you from? How long are you in Ghana for? Why did you come? …) but curiously it never got tiring. I found that although most conversations start the same way, they end up following very different tracks, and the end result is seldom similar. People feel free to talk about almost any subject, and I found on more than one occasion, topics which one might think could get heated, such as religion, end up solely being interesting and thought provoking. If I ever were to visit Ghana again, it would be this feeling of warmth (having nothing to do with the weather) and integrity and love so widely spread that would bring me back.
–Nolan Boehm, Youth Ambassador, Ghana 2011
Nolan is currently wrapping up an 8-week project in Ghana. Nolan has been working with a small team of four in Takoradi on employability skills training with the YMCA Vocational Training School. Nolan’s team has also worked on environmental issues, HIV/AIDS outreach and has organized a networking event to celebrate woman business leaders in the community for Woman’s Day.
There is currently a scholarship available for our 6-week project in Ghana this spring.
For more volunteer blogs, check out our Travel Diary category