How volunteering can change your life

Posted on: 3rd November, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

At the Day Care Centre with baby SallyIn August 2014, Samantha Shortall (17), a fifth year in Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty, travelled to Ghana, in connection with Projects Abroad Ireland, a leading volunteer organisation that has sent over 50,000 volunteers to work in developing countries across the world. Samantha speaks about her experience and how it changed her perspective on Africa and overall outlook on life.

After months and months of planning and anticipation, I’ve concluded that nothing can prepare you for the African experience.

As the plane touched the ground, I felt relieved that the journey I had waited so long for was about to begin at last. We had landed in the capital city, Accra. What struck me whilst walking through the poorly maintained airport was the friendliness of the people: they were all quick to say “Akwaaba” (meaning welcome), and many smiled as I passed.

Despite being in West Africa and close to the equator, there was only a one-hour time difference, for which I was thankful – we had already been travelling for over twelve hours. We headed for the hostel where we would spend the night. The following day, we were to make the one-hour drive to Akuapem Hills, to meet our host family. There were nine volunteers in my group, seven girls and two boys — volunteering for ‘Care and Community’ and staying with the Dawson family.

We were immersed in the Ghananian culture on the evening we arrived. We were taken on a brief tour of the area, trekking up dirt roads that made the potholes in Ireland seem non-existent. Eventually, we reached a gathering of people; young children were outside scarcely dressed. Their clothes were dirty, and they shuffled about in bare feet; it was a surreal sight. Some of the older women carried buckets on their heads and others carried babies on their backs. I was shocked when, as soon as we rounded the corner, one little girl came running straight into my arms; she was fascinated by me, touching my face and hair, whilst giggling joyously – a language that is universal.

The next morning, we drove in the blistering heat to a nearby town to exchange our currency. There were people everywhere – mothers with babies tied to their backs, and buckets and baskets propped casually on their head. These were brimming with fish, bread, plantain, water, and just about anything they could sell. The air was stale – something over time that I grew accustomed to – and there were open sewers in the street, from which the stench was overpowering.

Every child who managed to spot us shouted “obruni” – meaning white person – smiling and waving as we passed in the street. These people lived in inhumane conditions, yet I had never before seen such a genuinely happy and grateful community.

My placement was at Adom Day-Care Centre, and as soon as I entered those large blue gates, I fell in love with the children. They arrived in the morning, eager to play, reaching up to us, craving our attention, our affection and our comfort. My heart melted every time they called for me: “Auntie! Auntie!” they would say, before latching onto my leg or throwing themselves into my arms. Playing with those children, feeding them and showing them love and affection was the most rewarding – and inspiring – experience. They had so very little, yet, they did not complain. I never once heard “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired” in the course of my stay. One morning, there was a terrible storm, and though the windows and doors were poorly fitted and the noise and rain and sheer darkness were frightening, the children weren’t fazed. They played games and hugged us and sang – but not one child cried.

In the evenings, we painted a local nursery school. We first painted the outside and then the classrooms, office and storage room. Some of the local children even came in to help us and watched in amazement as we worked, entranced by the vibrancy of the colour. We painted the alphabet and numbers in each classroom, as well as painting different pictures such as fruit, books and animals.

At the weekend, we drove three hours to Cape Coast to visit the Cape Coast Castle and Kakum National Park. We cautiously shuffled across canopy bridges, which stretched 350 metres across the treetops and 40 metres above the ground – so it’s safe to say it tested one’s nerves. I was taken aback by the views over the treetops; the landscape I found incredible, as we ventured through Cape Coast castle, receiving a detailed history lesson about the colonisation of Ghana. We trudged through the dungeons heavy-hearted in a deeply oppressive silence, frightfully aware of the two hundred slaves shackled in that very room at any one time.

We had various organised activities to further immerse us in the culture and involve us in the community: during the second week we went to the pitch to play with the local boys’ soccer team. They were all young children and had no shoes, but I knew they were going to be twice as fast and skilful as any of us…and they were. We were lucky that the teams were mixed between the volunteers and the local team because otherwise it would have been incredibly ill-matched.

A few days before I left, I gave a packet of baby wipes that I had for the children to a mother living next to the Day Care Centre. She was so grateful that she hugged me — an emotional moment I will never forget. With a ten-week-old baby, her husband, her mother, and her niece living in one room, this small token meant a lot to her.

I feel as though my entire world perspective has transformed as a result of my trip. I can’t stress enough how rewarding this experience was — there were tears in my eyes leaving such an amazing country, and I yearn to go back there. Ghana has matured me immensely and has made me so grateful for everything I possess and every opportunity I receive. Anyone who has ever dreamed of volunteering, I urge you to do so! You will not be disappointed.

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