December 12, 2009

About the Journey to Ghana and more

We have a new site www.g-lish.org where you can read all articles from This is Ghana in a much more organised fashion. Read About the Journey to Ghana and more there.

Very soon we’ll be posting a 22 page Insider’s Guide to Volunteering in Ghana as a PDF that you can download for free. It will include the sum of my and Godwin’s experiences—as volunteers and managers of volunteers. It will include this journey, posted below, key attributes of a good volunteer, key skills, reviews of 6 good volunteer programmes and NGOs, an item by item outline of costs I incurred over 11 months volunteering and a budget for a volunteer coming to Ghana for 3 months today, words of caution regarding bad and downright terrible volunteer programs based on our first-hand experience in more than six different organisations, specific warnings for women, warning signs of a dodgy programme and solutions to those signs, and some positive final words on what to expect once you apply to an organisation.

Be sure to sign up for email updates in the top right hand corner if you want to be kept up to date on this release.

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When I decided to volunteer I knew virtually nothing about the developing world. I didn’t do development studies or international relations; I majored in Japanese and Korean language and had worked for Japanese corporations for ten years until 2004.

I had been planning to work in England (probably for an oil company) when the tsunami hit on Boxing Day 2004. I worked in the oil and gas industry then for the Japanese Government and had researched gas exploration around the area of earthquake’s epicenter that caused the tsunami. Offshore Aceh in Indonesian waters was my backyard, in many ways.

And Boxing Day was, for my family and me, the one day of the year that our thoughts were firmly focused on the ocean already. Dad is a sailor and every year he heads off in an ocean yacht race that begins on the 26th of December.

News and images of the tsunami began streaming in soon after the race began on Boxing Day that year. I had a very clear and conscious thought while watching TV that evening that people were drowning so close to home and I was glad Dad was nowhere near there. Dad and his crew made it safely to their destination, but we’d been inundated with footage of the tsunami for days by then.

Sometime between Boxing Day and the 31st a thought crept in to my mind. I could do something to help. (Gotta watch those thoughts!) I felt I owed a debt to the region. And that’s when I started looking online to volunteer in the aftermath of the disaster.

I have to say, again, that I had no idea about the developing world. I knew nothing of volunteering. I’d never heard of Peace Corps or VSO. (I’m Australian, but still.) I searched and searched but I discovered that NGOs were overwhelmed with offers of help from professionals like doctors, builders and nurses. By early New Year their waiting lists were filled for months. I couldn’t see how my business skills would help.

So I finally decided to leave tsunami recovery to the experts, but the idea of volunteering somewhere in the developing world stuck. My new year’s resolution became: “Volunteer on the way to London.” I had no idea, back then, that this whim would take me to three continents, over a dozen countries, for the next five years—and I’d be paid for it (or at least come out even).

So I cast my net wider. I looked at Sri Lanka, since it was also hit, but I couldn’t find a suitable project. As much as I loved the idea of caring for orphan elephants, I didn’t feel like it was “doing the hard yards,” and I had this insane (in retrospect) notion that volunteering was about pain and sacrifice.

I started looking for orphanages but there were so many I felt overwhelmed. I was obsessed with belly dancing at the time so I looked towards Egypt and Turkey. But I couldn’t find anything and, by then, Africa was coming up in all my searches.

But I was not interested in Africa at all. I knew about oil interests in various countries, and I knew about Mandela, Biko and Tutu, but that was it. I had not even heard of Nkrumah. I didn’t know more Nigerians speak English than the English. But, I decided to focus on orphanages in Africa—the whole cliché—another life-changing thought/decision.

It was sometime late January that I found idealist.org which happened to have a database for a search of “business” and “women”. Ten seconds later I discovered my volunteer project in Africa. As soon as I read their ad I knew it was right—it was business oriented, for women, and they produced batik textile products (I’d studied textile design for three years after university) and they exported (I’d worked in a Japanese trading company for three years too). So I emailed them and received a swift reply. I made an instant decision to volunteer in Ghana.

But where on earth was Ghana? I didn’t even know what or where West Africa was. I remember thinking, west of what? I narrowed my searches for orphanages to Ghana and quickly found a reputable organization. That was it: six months in Ghana then off to England.

And then the orphanage coordinator wrote and asked if I would teach Japanese at a primary school instead. My problem with this was that I had a huge fear of standing in front of a class to teach (quiet voice) and I also have irritable bowels (IBS). I worried that I’d get nervous and want to run to the loo all day. I wanted to say no, but he begged and explained that they had too many volunteers booked at the orphanage already, so I agreed. I never did get to work at an orphanage but I did visit the one I initially was posted to. And I didn’t end up teaching Japanese (much anyway), because there was a greater need at the school for literacy teaching. One of the many things I learnt was to do what was needed, not necessarily what I wanted to do.

But I found my feet. Working in this environment satisfied me more than anything ever before—and I was good at it. That ten years of soul-destroying corporate work paid off in its own way—I had skills and knowledge I could adapt in a meaningful way.

Your skills and life experience—so long as you can adapt them to the local context—is something that developing communities can truly use. Anyone interested in this work would serve struggling communities anywhere better with solid skills and experience. The know-how you gain from a few years in the best-resourced businesses or organisations like JP Morgan, McKinsey, or any large corporation like Sony or Microsoft (the founder of Room to Read www.roomtoread.org is an ex-Microsoft man) are the very thing developing communities may never have access to. You can bring and transfer your skills where they’re most needed. In short, practical skills that meet a need are invaluable.

It took me a month to warm to Ghana and find my feet. After that, I loved it. I finally got to England after eight months in Ghana (I had frequent flyer points from all those oil company meetings) and applied for a job with Traidcraft almost by accident. I interviewed for it while still on that trip and received an offer of work—in Cambodia—after I’d come back to Ghana to finish my volunteering. So I left Ghana after a year for S E Asia. But I then received an offer to return and work for WiP. I was torn. I finally decided to return and work in Ghana for WiP.

Like many who travel to make a difference, I often feel the travel has benefited me more than I’ve benefited any place. It’s a facile, unquantifiable idea, but it certainly seems to have some truth in it. And I found my place where passion meets talent and experience—at last.

I believe that if my ambition upon leaving had been to work in Ghana or Cambodia, I would have tried too hard and missed other things going on around me, and it probably wouldn’t have happened.

I feel that fate played its role at each of the turning points in this journey— some call it “cosmic choreography” (I read that phrase in Caroline Myss’s Invisible Acts of Power.) But there was also a fair dose of “opportunity meets preparation.” What I mean is that I was in the right place (by accident), at the right time (unplanned), with the skills needed (accidentally acquired, but acquired nonetheless) and the heart to do it (that was natural).

My second trip to London for a week’s training with TC before heading to Cambodia coincided with the judging of the Top Shop/Tabeisa Design 4 Life comp that I worked on during my final months as a volunteer with WiP. I became a judge by virtue of being in London at the right time. I met Annegret, one of the winners, for the first time in person in late 2008 when she came to Ghana to work on her next season after we’d exported a few orders of her designs to Top Shop, which happened shortly after I returned to work in 2007. There was so much cosmic choreography it was positively Russian (ballet—alright, perhaps that’s streeeeeetching the idea).

If you made it this far, anyway, you have what it takes to volunteer or work in the developing world: patience and determination. A sense of humour, especially when it comes to toilets and departure schedules, helps too. We’ll get on to this in more detail further below.

Incidentally, there are so many ways to “make a difference” that don’t require traipsing half-way across the world, or even making great changes to your routine. We’ll outline one such opportunity below too, in case you should be interested but you have commitments where you are, for now.

A final word on this journey. In December 2004, if I knew exactly what was in store over the next five years, I would have thought I was not capable of it. I would have thought I was not mentally or physically strong enough. A lot of mistaken beliefs have been busted over the past five years. I urge you to go bust yours too—wherever it happens.

As an interesting aside, in 2006 I discovered that the BBC did a story on the phenomenon of post-tsunami volunteering. I read that tens of thousands of people felt compelled to volunteer after the tsunami, often far from where it hit.

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