“Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
― Marian Wright Edelman
This is the core of why I am interested in working in underserved populations. It has been my drive to get involved and stay involved with GHEI since first hearing about this organization last fall. GHEI is a rare organization that actually does development and sustainability the right way. There are countless organizations out there that exploit vulnerable people groups and entice college students from Western countries to make a profit off of poverty. This profit manifests in two ways: monetary and experiential. These companies make money off of the guarantee that the communities they are exploiting will always be in poverty, and will therefore always require a “need” that college kids will feel they have the skill and responsibility to “meet.” These college students will profit off the experience they receive, something to share on Facebook, something to brag about when they get home. And they’ll have no idea that what they did in this impoverished country was unnecessary, unhelpful, and actually harmful to the community they took up space in. This has been aptly named voluntourism. Voluntourism is a disgusting manipulation of poverty-stricken people as well as unsuspecting college students who have this internal nagging to go and “experience the world.”
I preface with these harsh realities in order to expose what the majority of non-government aid to foreign countries looks like, and to also provide a perspective to which I can confidently make a distinction between all of that mess and GHEI. I can say from my personal experience with GHEI that it is the day opposite the night of voluntourism. There is no comparison between the two. GHEI encompasses what a quality development organization should look like. It is designed to provide education and health services to a small group of people that help them to thrive in their current situation. GHEI also provides an opportunity for people who have the skills to carry out projects and tasks that are necessary for its operation. For example, GHEI has done a phenomenal job to train local staff to implement the projects that are needed in Humjibre and the surrounding villages. Local staff interview the communities for the annual surveys, lead various portions of the Mother Mentor program, organize and implement Girls’ Empowerment, provide after school tutoring, and much, much more. GHEI also provides opportunities for students and professionals abroad to assist in the research portion, and provides medical students with opportunities to implement specific health services throughout the year.
Let me say that these tasks for foreign people traveling to Ghana are not outside of their skillset and they have direct positive impact on the communities. Essentially, GHEI is adequately training local staff to manage the bulk of its operations and then using outside resources to supplement the planning and improvement of programs.
Cue where I, as a volunteer, come in. I had no idea what to expect going to Ghana. I’d never been to Africa before, and that can be pretty intimidating the first time! But, from the beginning, I was getting emails and information throughout the spring after my acceptance into the program. We had context calls involving video conferencing with my future colleagues and Diana, GHEI’s co-founder. Those were very helpful in understanding the nature of GHEI’s work and goals. It showed me the authenticity of GHEI and how it is a really awesome organization that focuses on sustainable development. When I arrived in country, I didn’t have any expectations of what life was going to be like for the next 3 weeks. But I felt safe with Nikki, Mensah, and the rest of my colleagues as we were all anticipating a wonderful experience. GHEI provided a lot of opportunities to learn about Ghana “in context.” In context means we were totally immersed and completely connected to our environment. We got personal testimonies and firsthand experience of living in rural Ghana. We did have some luxuries like flush toilets and a generator for occasional use when the electricity went out. But I think I got more than a glimpse of what living in Ghana is like. I may not understand it completely because I’m an obruni and I will never be able to truly understand life as a Ghanaian, but I have a good grasp of Ghana culture and the way of life. GHEI was a perfect platform to provide this experience. We were doing real work with local staff in coding surveys and entering and cleaning data. Much of our time was spent doing the work we all traveled so far to do. This was not a vacation, and I’m so happy it wasn’t, because immersion through service is so much more rewarding than vacation. Making a difference is better than feeding an industry that preys on poor people. I take pride and joy in the work we did as volunteers because I’ve seen the results firsthand and the data we collected will be put to good use for the future of GHEI.
While I did scold vacationing, I can’t lie and say we didn’t have some fun. GHEI provided some really cool opportunities like learning traditional dance, having clothes made from a local seamstress, learning some basic Twi, trying out local foods, going to the biggest market in West Africa, experiencing Accra night life, touring the slave castles on the coast, and of course, the beach! These were all extremely fun activities that I enjoyed with my fellow volunteers and the local staff. But I also viewed them as cultural experiences that helped me to get a better look at Ghanaian life. I didn’t see them as purely for my entertainment. I saw them as an opportunity to shift my perspective and learn from Ghanaians.
GHEI also has a really great relationship with the communities it serves. This allowed for us to move about Humjibre and be welcomed by everyone we passed. We were able to strike up conversations with anyone and those were great cultural experiences to learn from. School children were constantly intrigued by us, and people always said hello and waved to us. We felt safe and welcome in Humjibre, as it was our home for 3 weeks. It’s a great place to learn from and I was amazed by the diversity within the village.
These types of activities aren’t provided in voluntourism companies. That’s why I talk about GHEI in the States with anyone who will listen. It’s a unique organization that deserves attention, support, and praise. I would recommend GHEI’s Summer Serve and Learn program to anyone who is looking to make a positive impact, learn from a beautiful culture, and understands the difference between service and tourism. GHEI deserves hardworking people to contribute to its success. I don’t want to say this was a once in a lifetime experience, because I plan to continue working with GHEI in the future to promote its initiatives, its goals, and its success.