Service-Learning Trip in Ho, Ghana
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to the Volta Region in Ghana and participate in a service-learning trip. For two weeks, in the mornings, I volunteered at St. George’s Anglican Primary School in a first-grade classroom helping to teach Reading, Math, and Creative Arts. In the afternoons, we would have some sort of cultural activity, whether that be learning how to do traditional kente weaving or talking to a local doctor.
I learned so much about myself and the world in such a brief period of time. Although I was only in Ghana for two weeks, I was able to make lasting relationships and learn more than I ever thought would be possible. Being immersed in the culture of a small village in Ho, Ghana really did transform my view of at least that part of the world. To be honest, I did do some research before I left for Ghana, but for the most part, I just went in with an open mind ready to adapt to whatever was thrown my way. This ended up working in my favor because I did not go in with many preconceived notions, which I believe helped me to adjust more easily. One thing that I did assume was that there would be a huge culture shock, but at least for me, I was surprised to not experience this. I guess I just assumed that everything in Ghana would be so different than what I was used to that I would have a tough time adjusting, but this was not the case at all. Yes, the living conditions were very different, but since I was expecting this it did not come as much of a shock. Additionally, every single person that I met was so genuinely kind and welcoming that it made it easy to adapt to my new situation. Now obviously, depending on where you are traveling and who you are traveling with, culture shock can be much more intense, but this trip taught me that with an open mind and a willingness to try new things, immersing yourself in a new culture can go much more smoothly.
Now, I will get into everything that I learned about myself and about the world throughout this trip. I learned how to adapt to a new culture, and how to ask the right questions when it is necessary. I learned that just because something is not done the way we would normally do it does not mean that it isn’t an effective way to do it for that community. I learned that even with language barriers, it is still possible to make meaningful connections with people. I learned that the healthcare system in Ghana provides insurance cards for five cedi (around one dollar) and that so many people still cannot afford it. I learned that in the rural villages, many people have never even seen a white person before, which is made evident by some of the babies and young children crying at their presence or being scared to approach. I learned that it is possible for one country to be inherently nicer than another country. I am not saying that every single person in Ghana (or anywhere) is inherently good, but every single interaction I had felt pure and happy, which is more than I can say for other places that I have traveled. I learned that there are so many things that we can do to help, but being educated about events going on in the world is definitely the most crucial factor. I learned that it is possible to form genuine friendships in a very short amount of time. I learned how to be present and reflect, which is something that I have struggled with. Lastly, I learned that there is still so much for myself and everyone else to learn to start making steps to become a poverty-free and peaceful world.
One of the most transformational experiences during my trip was volunteering at St. George’s. I’ll admit, this was a little overwhelming at first because of how different the schools in Ho were from the schools I am used to. A dramatic difference that threw me off was the lack of specific curriculum and supervision. The teacher that I worked with was incredible and extremely passionate about teaching, but what I was not prepared for was how common it was for her to leave the classroom for a quick meeting with other staff. On my very first day, I found myself alone with a group of 20 plus students. I eventually figured out that the best way to keep their attention and keep them from running all over the place was to teach them a new song or game, but on my first day, I was a bit overwhelmed. After I came to know the students and adjusted to the crazy schedule, I looked forward to this time with my students and seeing their excited faces as we danced, sang, or played. This experience was transformational for me because it taught me how to be in the moment and focus on how to positively benefit the kids.
Something that I noticed throughout my time at the school was the lack of pencils available to the students. It was their responsibility to bring their own pencils to school, but a lot of the time, not every student would have one. Since there were no extra pencils in the classroom, activities would cut into crucial learning time as students waited to share a pencil. This showed me how much I take for granted. I would never think twice about having an extra pencil, but to the students at this school, that could make all the difference. Lastly, there was a specific moment at the school that gave me a sense of accomplishment and genuine joy. The students were reading, and I noticed one student, Kelvin, who was just sitting there. Because of how outnumbered the teachers are by the students, there is usually not a lot of one on one practice. I went over to Kelvin and sat down to help him read. I helped him sound out every single word until he could put everything together. I then asked him to read the passage to me, and he was able to do so with ease. The smile on his face after I high-fived him and told him he did an excellent job was one I will never forget. I could tell he was so grateful that I had taken the time to sit down with him and help with what he was struggling with. This taught me how important it is to focus on each individual person’s needs, not only in the classroom, but also in life.
The various cultural activities we did allowed me to talk to a wide variety of people, each with unique experiences to share. One of the cultural activities that stood out the most to me was the talk we had with a local doctor. This talk transformed the way I look at healthcare and medicine in general. I always assumed that medical training was fairly universal, but from this discussion it was obvious that this is not necessarily the case. The medical school and residency process is very different, and it is not common to specialize in anything. I also realized how lucky the United Stated is to have the highly skilled doctors that we do. In countries like Ghana, a major problem is getting trained doctors to stay. They are training enough doctors, but the problem is that a lot of them leave after school to go to places like the United States. The doctor we talked to said that there needs to be more of an incentive for the doctors to stay in Ghana and help the people from their area.
Throughout the cultural activities, and in our free time at the home base we stayed at during the trip, I was able to talk to some interesting people. Honestly, one of the most interesting experiences for me was talking to the taxi drivers. They were always so curious about our lives back in America, and we would gladly answer questions for them. Something that came up more than once was the fact that we, as a nation, voted for Trump as our President. Multiple drivers asked us why we would do that, and we had to explain that just because Trump won the presidency does not mean that we or everyone else voted for him. A lot of the times when we would be talking, we would come across a word that they did not know, and we would have to explain it in a roundabout way. They were always appreciative of our efforts, and were curious to know more. I noticed during my many taxi rides that there was a lot of honking going on, but it seemed like friendly honking. I asked one of my drivers about this, and he said that most honks here are to say hi to friends or fellow drivers, and not to be aggressive like is typically the case in America. This, along with the many positive interactions I had with everyone showed me how the priorities of most people in Ghana differ from many other countries. By this, I mean there is more of a focus on human interaction and less of a focus on schedules and timing.
Lastly, everyone was so willing to share their stories and take the time to answer my questions. Whether I was talking to my teacher, a staff member of Cross-Cultural Solutions, a local from the village we were in, or of course, a taxi driver, they seemed genuinely happy that I was interested in their culture and were more than willing to spend time with me to share their knowledge and experiences. This helped to transform the way I go about my daily life. I now try to really be present when I am talking to others, and to focus more on my relationships with friends and family. I also try to spend time reflecting on my day, and thinking about what I could do and learn to become a better friend and person in general.
These transformations, along with everything that I have learned are important not only for my personal life, but also my professional life. First of all, learning to be present and enjoy the moment will drastically improve all of my relationships. Whether it be friends, family, or coworkers, being genuinely present in a conversation shows them you care and can improve all aspects of your interactions. Being in the moment will be very important for my career as a doctor, so focusing on doing this will help me with my professional goals. Additionally, it has always been a dream of mine to participate in Doctors Without Borders. This trip has not only strengthened my desire to do this, but has also helped me develop skills that will be important for this endeavor. I have learned how to interact with children and adults while being immersed in their culture. I have learned how best to communicate when there is a language barrier present. I have learned to ask the right questions to be respectful of different cultures. These skills will be extremely helpful for what I hope to do in the future. Overall, my experience in Ghana was life-changing and the lessons I learned and the relationships I formed will stick with me for the rest of my life.