An African Summer: Reflecting on a Volunteering Experience

Summer, warmth and sunshine often feel far away at this time of year so we thought it would be a good time to catch up with one of our earlier guest bloggers.  In June we caught up with Rhian and Banaeshia who were about to embark on a summer volunteering experience in Africa:

https://psychcardiffmet.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/challenges-experience-and-fun-a-summer-of-volunteering-in-africa/

In this post we hear from Rhian about her life-changing experience in Africa:

What were your first impressions of Africa?

My first impressions of both Morocco and Ghana were of how crazy the drivers were! When I arrived in Morocco I was instantly hit by the beauty and culture of Marrakech. When we arrived in Ghana, however, we arrived late at night and were instantly welcomed by the intense humidity and rain. As it was the evening and dark I was only hit by the feeling of ‘I really am in Africa’ the next morning, I remember standing by the window for a long while just in awe of the little children running around outside our new volunteer home without any footwear, and the countless women passing carrying their belongings on their heads.

Rhian - Teaching

What was the accommodation and place like?

The Moroccan accommodation was lovely. In the heart of Marrakech’s medina, we were privileged to have running water, westernised toilets and nice beds. Even Wi-Fi and a terrace to sunbathe on after work! This traditional Moroccan home was called a ‘Riad’, shared with around 30 other volunteers. The Ghanaian accommodation was far less luxurious, no running water meant we had to rely on rain water for showers and working toilets, so if it didn’t rain, or if the rain water got dirty during storms, we just wouldn’t be able to shower. The rooms were damp and we had the odd mouse and lizard friend, but other than that it was completely fine. After seeing the ‘houses’ that the locals surrounding us were living in however, I honestly felt like I was living in a palace in comparison.

Rhian and Elephants

What was the support like?

In both countries the support was fabulous. In both houses we had an employed coordinator living on site, therefore, if we ever needed anything they were always there. They also welcomed us when we arrived, settled us in, explained everything to us and even took us to the local supermarket to pick up some essentials.

 

What was the work like?  

In Morocco I mainly worked in orphanages in Marrakech and in Tamslot, an extremely poor region of Morocco about 1 hour from the city. We were based in a number of orphanages (specialising in babies, boys, girls and children with Down Syndrome) and moved from one to the other in shifts. We taught basic English (as the main language is French and Arabic) and the language barrier was so intense that we mainly just did arts and crafts and played countless amounts of games. We also took the children with Down Syndrome swimming one day which was amazing. We also conducted feeding programmes where we would all collect money and buy food for the homeless people living on the streets of the city.

In Ghana I was primarily teaching. In our first week we were based in a school; in the middle of nowhere in the centre of a massive cornfield! This school had only existed for 6 months, and so the children were virtually illiterate. The school relied solely on volunteers to run; therefore if we didn’t turn up the children would remain unschooled. This school was challenging as they hardly spoke any English and so it getting them to understand what we were teaching them was extremely hard. As they were not used to the schooling structure, the children were very strong-willed and found it difficult to concentrate and complete their work without thinking that they’d rather be doing something else. For this reason, we played mostly educational games with the children and taught them nursery rhymes. However, we did manage to teach the older children the English words for body parts. For the remainder of my time we moved to a different school (called Lisa Finlay) where the children were much more behaved and accepting of the schooling structure. Later, however we found out that this was sadly because the use of the cane was being enforced upon the children in the classrooms. Despite this unhappy form of discipline, we managed to teach quite advanced English, maths and science to our students (mostly children age 8-9). In this school we even managed to conduct a sports day for the children.

Was there anything that shocked you?

What mostly shocked me was obviously how different their lives were in comparison to ours here in the UK. I saw people without things that we Britain’s see as a right of life; things such as water, shelter and even simple items of clothing like shoes. Children in Morocco were mostly beggars which was so hard to see, especially when I thought back to my childhood of climbing trees, riding my bike and going home to a nice warm bed with a full tummy with a family that cared for me.

In Ghana, the poverty really hit me hard. I was so overwhelmed by it constantly, seeing malnourished children without clothes daily. Even more so, we were accustomed to have children in our class that were so ill (from malaria or whatever reason) that they even found it difficult to keep conscious during lessons. On Wednesdays in Ghana we’d all venture to different in-need tribes nearby and give them items such as water filters, soap, industrial sized bags of rice, biscuits and juice for the children, worming tablets and anything that we volunteers had brought over with us to give (such things as toys, clothes etc). Here we would get a clear insight to what everyday life was like for many. The tribes would welcomed us so warmly and offer so many things (such as whiskey shots!) that you would never imagine that they were so deprived. It shocked me how generous these people were when in reality they didn’t have enough things for themselves, let alone for strangers. One woman even offered us her home for the night so she could show me how she manages her crop!

 

What was your most memorable/ favourite moment?

My most memorable moment by far was meeting the group of children that I had bought health insurance for. While in Lisa Finlay school I got quite friendly with the headmaster, and he informed me that hardly any of the children had health insurance, and so when they get ill, they simply can’t afford to get it treated; this is how so many people die in Africa due to malaria.

Meeting them was an incredible experience as they were the most poor children of the school, but I couldn’t help notice how completely happy they were, which made me very emotional.

Rhian and her young charges 

What do you feel that you have taken away from this experience?

Apart from the obvious things like lovely photos and great stories to tell, I definitely feel like I’ve taken something from this experienced that has changed me. I feel so privileged these days, for things like a loving family and a comfy home. I feel incredibly privileged for all the experiences I’ve had so far in my life, where in Ghana, the people there are unlikely to even venture to the neighbouring town in their life time, let alone cross continents as I have. After this experience, I now realise how insignificant most of my previous daily problems were; things such as not being able to go out as I didn’t have enough money etc. I have my health, and that’s more than enough for me to be grateful for.

I also now have a very colourful CV! Working in Africa enriched me with many skills that the UK could not (for example in the UK I never would have found the strength to nurse an unconscious child with malaria in the middle of a classroom).

Rhian - Having fun

Would you ever do something like this again?

I would definitely do something like this again… in fact I’m already planning to! Working in a country gives you far more than just simply going on holiday there ever could. Not just that, the good you see yourself doing every day makes you feel amazing. Even now I’m still overwhelmed by everything that’s happened to me this year. I’ve seen so much, done so much, and I honestly can’t wait to go do more of the same thing.