The headmaster and the teachers at the school want more than anything to convert some of their classroom space to dormitories so that they can accommodate more students. They estimate, with a couple of dorms, they could increase their enrollment from 20 to 40. More importantly, they could board the children at the school and the students would not have to face the denigration of daily life among the populace. They are confident that the government will provide more support once they become a boarding school and are hopeful that the initial foray into dormitory status will spur the government into building more dorms so that a greater percentage of those who would benefit by living at the school could be served.
Two days a week, I spent part of the morning working at the local Catholic hospital disseminating health information. Some Dutch university students assembled pamphlets on 10 of the most prevalent health care problems in the Volta Region.We were assigned a nurse (Mary Anne) who spoke Ewe to help us explain the content of the pamphlets to patients. Mary Anne was so effusive in her thanks for our presence and in her praise of advanced medicine brought by White people that I again became uncomfortable. I spent my career evaluating major medical malpractice claims for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. I am a lawyer, not a doctor. That did not keep Mary Anne from referring to me as a doctor when she would introduce me to patients. No matter how often I told her that I was not a doctor and that I was just there to explain the contents of the pamphlets in the event the patients had questions, she would ask me about my impressions as to diagnosis and treatment. My standard response was for the patients to discuss their symptoms with their physicians.
The hospital was staffed by Ghanian and Cuban physicians with much help from waves of volunteers from North America, Europe, and Australia. There has been national health care since 2007 but the government is often late paying the hospitals for the care that is provided. The hospital where I was volunteering was under great financial stress. The staff had not been paid in over a month and the administration was exploring various cost-saving measures. Malaria was universal and many people had typhoid and parasitic infestations. The hospital provided adequate medical care, but many people who needed surgical intervention did not get it.
Every afternoon, we would go to the Home, a refuge for children who have been abandoned or lost their parents to death. Several of the children are HIV positive from birth.Some of the children were rescued from fisherman on Lake Volta. The latter were the victims of human trafficking. The fisherman would often pay parents of these children paltry sums and would use them in the fishing business, paying them nothing and feeding them just enough to keep them alive. At the Home, these marginalized children find an environment in which they are well fed and clothed, and where they attend local schools. More importantly, they become members of a family. This year, the older ones were sent to boarding schools. This was done at great cost but was deemed in the best interest of the children even though it put a strain on resources.The constant theme is always, “What is in the best interest of the child.” We were impressed with the fact that it was an institution run by Ghanians and not by outsiders.We also appreciated that, unlike some well funded orphanages where children are Westernized, a great effort was made to ensure that these children would be able to reintegrate into Ghanian society. To better meet the growing needs, the Home staff is in the process of building a new facility for the children that will be much superior to the present home.
One of the most important needs met by the Home is health care.Only through the children’s home do the children have access to medical care.Several of the children are HIV positive. When we first arrived, we were told that these children have access to medication in relation to their HIV status. The major drug companies have gained much positive publicity by maintaining that they have provided HIV medication to sub-Saharan African countries at no cost. We were disappointed to learn later in our stay that this is true but somewhat deceptive. The medication received by our children at the Home was first generation HIV drug cocktails.They do not receive third generation drugs that are available to patients in more developed countries. For that reason, in our children, HIV advances to full-blown AIDS and the children die at a young age. The drugs hardly extend their lives at all.
The children are delightful. We assisted with homework, read stories, taught and sang children’s songs and played games. We also taught personal hygiene classes and helped make Christmas cards to be mailed to volunteers and donors. We accompanied them to play soccer on Saturdays and to watch the local premier team play on Sundays. But most of all, we just provided love and support for a couple hours per day. Between 5 and 6 in the evening, we made our way back to our host family where we would inevitably be met by many children from the surrounding area.After dinner, which was always substantial, we would help the neighborhood children with their homework, play board games and engage them in conversation during which we learned about life in Ghana.
Overall, the experience rejuvenated me and reawakened the child in me. I know that it is somewhat of a cliché to say about a volunteer experience that the volunteer receives as much, or more, as he or she gives. There is a reason, however, that it has become an oft repeated observation by volunteers. It is truly a symbiotic relationship, with both sides gaining. My education and experience were not the main attributes I brought to the task.All that is necessary is to love, care and to bring a sense of humanness to those encountered, and the volunteer experience will be rewarding for all concerned.Do not think of it as a giving experience but as a series of sharing encounters. Finally, if you dream of volunteering, but are waiting for the perfect time, the opportunity may pass. There will never be a “perfect” time. If you wait too long, health and ambulatory issues may intervene to keep you from having a magnificent and even life-changing experience. Volunteer now and enrich your life and the lives of children who will fill your heart.
ABV Ghana Volunteer, 2011