'Imagination is the key’ is the
motto at the Preschool Academy, located North of the Capital, Accra, in a large
town called Dome - where I chose to volunteer for two months in October and November
2009. As far as I am aware, all schools in Ghana have a motto. Among others were
‘Kingdom Occupiers‘ and ‘Success is key’. Call me biased but my favourite has to
be ‘Imagination is key’. One does not have to be successful in life to bring happiness
and rewards, but a little imagination can be potentially valuable, certainly more
exciting without putting a price on it. I practiced a little imagination, which
in turn led to taking initiative and it has been very rewarding.
I am delighted to say that ‘Auntie Eunice’ (founder and head teacher of the Academy),
gave me the inspiration to want to make a difference to this school. With the encouragement
from the other teachers and her family, and the financial support from Travellers
Worldwide / British Gap Foundation and the generous contribution from my own dear
friends, we managed to give the Academy a full cosmetic face lift for want of a
better description amongst other benefits to the children and the development of
the primary school.
It was instant friendship with Auntie Eunice and the other teachers - my first full
day at the school as an assistant was Tuesday October 6th. Two days later after
having spent time in the classroom with these gorgeous children, I was in Accra,
at the main central market buying essential reading books amongst other materials
after I had expressed that I wanted to contribute a small way with my own funds.
Before I knew it, 8 weeks later, I was saying goodbye on Thursday, November 26th
flying home. Just where did the time go?
School starts officially at 07.30am but some parents will drop there children off
extra early if they are working in the city. The school officially finishes at 14.00
but the parents come to collect their children anytime between 15.30 and 18.30.
[Auntie Eunice] is a pretty remarkable character to admire! And she still blesses
us everyday with her warmth, boundless energy and laughter! I feel privileged to
have met such a person. I have travelled in other parts of Africa, the world in
fact but only on excursions, never as a volunteer. I came away with a new perspective
on life. I was raised without taking anything for granted but even so, I now appreciate
the western lifestyle much more than I ever did before. Having electricity constantly
is a good example! (Even when I worked in the middle of the Sinai desert for 4 years,
we did not always have electricity nor water but that inhospitable environment was
actually easier to live in than Ghana sometimes).
In my last week, when all we set out to achieve was complete, Auntie Eunice called
me Angel Becca. Irrespective of whether you are religious or not, that is quite
a touching compliment no? I certainly took it that way. We laughed and argued over
who was the bigger of the Angels. I told her she won hands down after all she has
achieved having built her own ’Academy’ from scratch!
The Host Family:
I was blessed yet again when I met my host family. Sister Lizzie as I called her
and her 5 children were all so obliging and lovely. My goodness, as soon as I arrived
two of the boys were carrying my 30 kilo suitcase between them and showing me to
my room! I could not have asked for a better service at a smart hotel! Lizzie was
very sweet and only ever aimed to make me happy!
One of the reasons I chose to live with a host family as opposed to a hostel with
other volunteers was so that I could quickly learn and understand the Ghanaian lifestyle.
This I accomplished after my first week there. The fact that I did not come across
any volunteers did not worry me at all as I was so well looked after by Lizzie and
so busy with my projects at Uniqueen. I could not have been happier! I was blessed
to be given the opportunity to accompany Lizzie to her church on two occasions.
Definitely an eye opener for me as it was for the locals who saw me wear a traditional
African dress bought by Auntie Eunice in appreciation for achieving what we did.
A story I shall never forget was when I showed the youngest child a photo of me shimmering
across a rope in an obstacle course I took part in a couple of years ago. There
was only blue sky in the background of the picture. She, being 6 years of age asked
me if I was on my way to see Jesus? I laughed out loud and smiled at her. (Isn’t
innocence wonderful? You cannot put a price on it!) I grinned and thought to myself,
I sure hope not. I would like to do a little more living down here first of all
Another story which really touched my heart was when I brought back a pizza with
me from the city. It was a ‘buy one get one free’. I did not think anything of it
and just offered it to them and I could not have predicted the excitement that one
‘plain cheese’ could have brought. The icing on the cake was when I heard that the
older boy of 15; he saved his piece and took it to school the following day and
even the teacher asked if he could have a bite!!!! Watching them all, it could have
been Christmas day! For those of you that enjoy pizza, remember this story when
you next eat a slice!
I loved the day to day Ghanaian lifestyle - jumping in the tro-tro on my way to school.
Every day brought something new. I experienced both taxi operating systems; the
‘drop’ that we are familiar with and the ‘share’ taxis. A shared taxi is as you
might guess, is like taking a tro-tro with people you do not know but heading in
the same direction. My first shared taxi was a little different. I had treated myself
to a taxi on one occasion (all of 60p instead of 10p in a tro-tro but still, it
was a treat). Two women got in the taxi just before I was due to get out but we
were held up in a traffic jam. They must have been in their early 20s. They asked
me if I was happy and if they wanted to make me happy. (They must have been in recovery
mode from a party I imagine but I did not smell alcohol on their breath). After
I had acknowledged them I kept a low profile for the remainder of the journey which
fortunately was short! Totally harmless people though.
On another occasion, I took a shared taxi to Accra with two young businessmen. They
were polite and respectful. I did not have any reservations about sharing a taxi
with them. They were most inquisitive about my own background and how different
Europe is from Ghana….
Even though I am always careful of course wherever I travel and to whom I talk to,
I like to make an effort and greet the locals. Some of the faces that I saw in the
mornings on the way to school and afterward work I would stop and talk to. In some
respects, I felt like the local lady Vicar, waving to someone, or just saying hello
even if not stopping to chat. I did make an effort to speak the local language of
twi, but I did not get further than the ‘greetings’ depending on the time of day
and asking how someone was and ‘thank you’. I liked to make an effort and was never
put off even when they laughed at me, so I just laughed with them!
Nearly every evening, or when it was possible, Auntie Eunice would accompany me down
to Atomic Junction. We would normally wrap up the day’s events or discuss what the
following plans would be. A couple of times I would greet somebody by their first
name. This surprised Auntie Eunice as much as anyone especially if she did not know
them. It was wonderful!
Shopping Spree for the school
It was an absolute delight to go on a shopping spree with Auntie Eunice! So much
nicer to share the joy of it all especially as she knows what is necessary for the
children and materials to buy at the best price too! As a volunteer, we are encouraged
to buy crayons, pencils etc. For those that are in a financial position to buy some
goods for the school, wait until you are on location! It is much more fun to go
shopping with a teacher and it is much cheaper too. We can get twice as much with
Ghanaian prices! A 50 kilo bag of rice I purchased provided the school lunches for
a month, feeding circa 35 mouths, cost approximately £30.00.
My biggest contribution to the actual Academy was building a playpen. It soon became
apparent that we needed to improve the facilities for the younger ones and ease
the pressure on ‘Auntie Tina’, responsible for the crèche so that she could concentrate
on some of the other youngsters without worrying about the adventurous crawlers
amongst the party! The colourful playpen was quite popular and some of the parents
expressed their admiration. A head teacher from a different school made a special
visit with a carpenter as she wanted one made too. I was not aware of this at the
time but I was delighted to hear it!
Generous contributions from well-wishers
Within my 3rd week there and falling more in love with Uniqueen Academy than I thought
possible so early on, I decided to approach Travellers Worldwide, asking for financial
support. I practised the principle “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. Well, we got
and we got again!
Auntie Eunice and I prioritised what Uniqueen needed most and a list was sent. Within
less than 24 hours I was able to share the wonderful news that Travellers would
contribute the sum of £400.00 to the specific items that we had requested. My contact
at the UK office, Katie, emailed me and followed it up with a welcoming phone call!
This makes such a big difference - especially as a failure of electricity supply
does not allow us internet access!
An additional £800.00 from a small party of good friends was also sent. On reflection,
one of the reasons why I think there was such a terrific response within a 3 day
turn-around between asking for donations and receiving them, is that as I was physically
there to oversee the projects and monitor the roll-out. Perhaps that is why I received
such a magnificent response…
I gave myself a deadline of 7-10 working days for the respective projects to be completed
before my set departure date from Ghana. I had several meetings with Aloysius (Travellers’
rep) and we had his full support all the way! We accomplished the following; Two
Uniqueen advertisement / direction boards - professionally designed and erected;
one at the main junction and the other closer to the school, additional reading
books were bought that were essential, paint for the exterior walls to make it more
attractive, colourful artwork with a wooden sign reading “Welcome to Uniqueen Academy”
was mounted by the principal gate, at least a 6 month supply of blackboard chalk,
another 50 kilo sack of rice, additional smaller food and cooking items including
charcoal, cleaning materials, repairs to Auntie Eunice’s freezer (when preparing
meals in advance for the children), bags of cement, a full truck of sand, another
truck delivering stone, iron rods (the latter three for the ongoing development
of the primary school), overall workmanship and an official school mobile.
It might not seem a tremendous amount but when the budget is tight and one is spending
a lot of one’s own money and trying to accomplish a lot in a short time frame, the
challenge really is on! Thank you again on behalf of Auntie Eunice as well as myself
for your contributions! It really has made a significant difference.
When you get a quote for a job to be done, multiply it by two at least. To be even
safer, multiply it by 3. I learnt the hard way but the results were appreciated
by everyone so I don’t begrudge it but I am still the wiser. It was also my choice
to travel less and put my money towards the Academy. If I had to do it all again,
would I change anything? No, not a single thing.
I am laughing but I don’t know if I could ever really get used to this. We are warned
about the ‘tro-tro’ (public transport) that might arrive in the next hour or next
week or alternatively, if you set a meeting for 09.00am, expect them an hour later
and you will not be disappointed. Also, set deadlines three days earlier than what
you need so that you have a safety net to play with and constantly constantly, put
pressure (in the nicest and diplomatic of ways) to those that are working for you.
I set myself my own challenges and loved every minute. I was as
much out of the classroom chasing people who were involved in our projects as I
was in the classroom, either changing nappies, dressing them, tying shoelaces, singing
a nursery rhyme, laughing and cuddling the children, wiping the chalk from their
faces, helping them write the alphabet or their numbers.
The biggest challenge was on my last day though, having to say ‘goodbye’, or rather
‘see you soon’. I thought I was prepared for it but I was a long way off! I don’t
think one can ever be prepared for that. I’m playing the glad game though, I’ll
be back at the Academy!