For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to Ghana in July 2019 with Buck-I-SERV. My group and I performed chores at a children’s home that The Akumanyi Foundation had helped establish. The chores and activities we did included mopping floors, cooking meals, bathing, washing laundry, and playing with the children.
Before I embarked on this journey, I had no idea of what my stay was going to look like. I thought I had only one expectation—that we would have flush toilets. My assumption was quickly proved wrong, and throughout my trip, situations I encountered turned over more assumptions I did not realize I had. When two little girls grabbed onto me within one minute of seeing me for the first time, I was shocked at their quick trust. I had thought we would need a few hours to gain the children’s confidence. As I cleaned myself each night with a bucket of water and a pail, I surprised myself with how little water I used. When I visited a nice house in one of the nearby villages, I realized that I had created an inaccurate depiction of what all houses in villages looked like.
My small realizations added up to form a vibrant picture of Ghana. I saw that the friendliness of the children manifested in others I met. I loved sitting in the window seat of the van on our excursions; every village we passed, people would smile and wave to me and I would do the same. Our coordinator, Prince, told us that Ghanaians had a saying: “You should treat everyone kindly because you never know if someone you’ve helped will be your benefactor one day.” Not only did I experience the welcoming atmosphere of Ghanaians, I was humbled by their patience and hard work in their daily activities. From pounding palm nuts for soup to carrying large buckets of river water on their heads, the Ghanaians I interacted with put dedication and persistence into their work. Still, they knew how to have a good time. Many villages we passed while driving blared upbeat music, and the children at the home loved to dance. I saw that Ghana was truly a beautiful country.
When we first arrived to Accra, vendors came up to our car window and said “Akwaaba,” or “Welcome to Ghana.” Though our group received a lot of attention and elicited shouts of “Foreigners!” from Ghanaians, I did not feel like an outsider. People waved to and greeted us with enthusiasm and excitement. Their ability to embrace those with completely different backgrounds than that of themselves inspired me to treat everyone around me with a positive attitude. While I looked out the window during our van rides, I smiled and waved frequently. People always smiled and waved back. On this trip, I learned that smiles go a long way, and allow people who otherwise may lead very different lives connect. I hope to share this friendly form of nonverbal communication with more people on campus this year.
Before our trip, many of us had heard of the stereotypes often said about Africa. I had seen advertisements about donating money to feed starving children and save the poor people or comments about how everyone in Africa has HIV. Though during our pre-trip meetings, we watched videos and read articles about the importance of taking an unbiased perspective and being open to learning the full story, experiencing Ghana was the most powerful way to see that these stereotypes could not be more misleading. The children at the orphanage were fed three meals a day for example. As I described above, we passed bustling markets and people happily blasting upbeat music. During one of our group discussions, we talked with Prince and Patrick, our Ghanaian volunteer coordinators. I really enjoyed this conversation because they not only refuted the common stereotypes Westerners have of Africa, Prince shared some of the stereotypes Ghanaians had about America. He said that some believe all whites carried guns and shot people randomly. I found that this comment put into perspective inaccurate generalizations people had about Africa. Though we do have shootings quite frequently, many families in America do not own guns and many more do not condone this behavior. I have learned to be more aware of the dangers of having a one-sided story and to save my judgments for after I have gained more knowledge of a matter.
This trip also made me realize my role as a volunteer. I came to Ghana thinking that I was to help lessen the burden on the caretakers at the orphanage. After living at the home for a few days, I realized we created more burden at times. Teaching us how to cook for the kids, carry water from the river, and to clean and wash laundry probably costed the caretakers more time and energy than if they were to complete the task themselves. When I was on mopping duty, the woman who usually mopped stood in the room watching me and would have to correct me or mop the areas I missed. As we passed the buckets filled with river water down our assembly line, kids would pass us with buckets on their heads, walking the whole way to the reservoirs. I quickly saw that our roles as volunteers were more to experience their way of life, to build understanding and respect between people of different backgrounds, and to carry our memories and new knowledge of Ghana back home to educate our families and friends. Our roles were to give happiness, love, and attention to the children and to let them know we care about them and traveled thousands of miles to see them. I doubted that our two-week visit made a great difference in their lives, but I know it changed mine. I learned sometimes we must experience and understand first before we can truly change lives, and this stage is just as important.
Throughout our stay, we had group discussions about the “Now what?” part of our journey. For me, I believe Ghana changed the way I view service. I used to think it was necessary to change lives and that I wanted to fix people’s problems. I have realized that to truly serve, we need to stand on the same level as the people we are serving. This means understanding their situation fully, living through their shoes, and refraining from taking one-sided stories as facts. My trip gave me a tiny taste of life in a small Ghanaian village, though I am sure we still lived on the more comfortable side. I think that as an aspiring physician, I will take what I learned and apply it to the way I treat patients. I will always keep the patients’ perspectives close to heart and understand that I am serving them, not fixing them. With this attitude, I can give my patients higher quality of care, the emotional comfort they need, and respect for their individual beliefs or way of life. This trip taught me to be open-minded, patient, understanding, and ultimately to serve. I will carry these valuable lessons into my career and beyond.