It had been in the diary since the start of the year, aided by my work’s generous mini-sabbatical for several years of service. Two weeks in Ghana working with Original Volunteers. ‘Putting a bit back’, ‘just doing my bit’, ‘saving some Africans’ were just some of the jokey or pejorative non-justifications for choosing to do something the likes of which I’d never entertained the prospect of before. Arguably it seemed out of kilter with my DIY belief system, but more of the debate around the worth of ‘the mission’, in a bit. I was off up to Asakraka (pronounced Asaka), near Mpraeso, a town near the southwestern edges of Lake Volta in the Eastern Region, accessible by a road which is often an extremely bumpy dirt track until you hit Nkawkaw, the main town in the area.
Nothing will prepare for you that first bout of homesickness – after the briefing by the co-ordinators, before you have got stuck in to any work, perhaps when considering the relative privations of the volunteer house (no running water, bucket showers). An acute, undeniable emotion – something which not everyone can suppress. But then nothing prepared me for having to pick up a bunch of pissheads – my soon-to-be housemates – on a leaving do on our way up from Accra airport at 2am. But give it a day, get stuck in to work, make a few friends and realise that not everybody is bezzie mates but just getting on, and the combined factors driving my feeling of ‘what the fucking fuck have I done’ soon fade. I was soon involved, happy to be enjoying it.
Two weeks of volunteering then – the merits of this particular type of hands-on western aid would be debated over and over, but most volunteers admitted they were doing it as much for themselves (a bit of personal development as well as tokenistic CV burnishment) as for the ‘cause’. Charidee begins at home. Our contribution may be a mere blip, but I would hope such postcolonial initiatives do not hinder the relatively stable Accra governing class from extending its footprint to less developed areas of the country (especially when we know the funds are there).
On further examination, many – especially we novice volunteers – were also honest enough to admit that Ghana was the preferred destination because it was not the poorest country and was safe. No Conradian Heart of Darkness urges here, though props to the man hitching from Morocco to Tanzania, stopping off at various places in west and central Africa to do some volunteering. If this was to be our entry point into sub-Saharan Africa, then what an entry. Few failed to be beguiled by Ghana’s charms, from the intricacies of the Twi language to the kids craving your attention at every moment. And whether it was in the popularity of Obama biscuits, the omelette ladies on the street corner (fresh omelette in a toasted bun for about 1.50 cedis – about 50p), the nearby Tafo waterfall for a proper freshen-up, the thrill of a ride in the boot of a packed cab (no public bus system outside of the main cities), the mad love for Akon or the musical fetish for Alkayida music, everyone found their curios and simple pleasures to take from the trip.
Let’s also be honest about the extent of the work – the basic ‘project’ work was a morning’s worth of either building (my main activity, on a toilet complex at a school in Adawso by the lake), painting (schools), teaching (at various summer schools), conservation work and so on. This was no green zone enclave of white workers either – locals worked with us on building, painting and other projects. While no one would burn out from that burden, there were also afternoons that took in house visits, to assess people’s needs and whether we could help, libraries, orphanages and a few outreach trips, wherein as many volunteers as possible take kit such as water filters and staples such as rice up to remote villages. Whether it was in the sometimes desperate scramble for goods, or the ceremony held by our local co-ordinator and the village elder (washed down with akpetishie – the local brew made of ethanol I’m sure could run a car) or simply the conversation with villagers, these made the biggest impression on many.
Alongside surprise at the relatively easy work schedule, the familiar refrain was ‘I didn’t realise it would be this sociable’. It did indeed turn out to be one long piss-up interrupted by a bit of work and recovery for some. But the set-up of the house – dingy bedrooms, not much of an indoor public area – made socialising in the outside yard necessary and inevitable, while the constant arrival and departure of volunteers ensured regular leaving dos and welcome nights. Chuck in barbecue nights, the new football season, etc. Perhaps the most biggest and most emotional occasion was for our housekeeper Frank’s 18th birthday – again, showing the strength of ties between volunteers and locals. I even played two full football games – my first in about 10 years. We beat the other volunteer house 4-3 but lost to them on the rematch 2-1 (locals tipping the balance).
And while I groaned on one or two nights where the yard speakers were still blaring out post dubstep lifestyle singalong mulch at 3am and I was craving sleep, the likelihood was I’d be one of the later crew (but never the lastie, I’m middle-aged) the following night. Student drinking games there may have occasionally been (a few of which I ducked out of), but socially this was great for me – meeting a load of new people mostly younger than me and generally nonplussed at my ‘glittering media career’ (lulz) thus far. For a fortnight I was thrown out of my comfort zone and having to make a real effort. Pleasingly for someone who has been in the capital for 16 years, this was a very provincial gathering, none of your aging metropolitan hipster sophisticates here – a reminder that the student circuit is less dependent on the lure of London. This was even more pleasing as first impressions yielded an image of everyone being either London orbital middle-class or generic northern (greater M/cr). Not a bit of it; this was a really good mix: Scots, Welsh, Devonians, East Midlanders; Yorkshiremen and Kent boys as well as young Londoners and Mancunians. Respect to those giving up six, eight even 10 weeks of their holiday to helping in Ghana. When the time came to put away the ethnic garb (necklaces, trousers, tie-dye gear) and return to the mundanity of British life, the adjustment would doubtless be a tough one for many.
At two weeks with a fair amount of leisure in the bargain (both weekends I joined up with the crowd at a Rastafarian-tinged resort in Kokrobite, west of Accra), any argument on the merits or otherwise of my own limited ‘contribution’ is a pretty specious one, perhaps best saved for celebrities who can only go with the helpful publicity of a full BBC camera crew. Preferably developing nations wouldn’t need this input at all, but having made the decision to go I was glad I got a lot out of it and would recommend to anyone who feels that holiday monies earned can be better spent away from the Mediterranean resort circuit.