Finnbar Gallacher travelled from Wellington, New Zealand to incredible Ghana with Lattitude, where he assisted students in the lovely Wanda Goodman Christian International School. He’s been kind enough to share his tale:
What made you decide to take a gap year in Ghana?
I finished high school and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to study at uni. I had been talking to my teachers and they all said that a gap year was a great option for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. I didn’t want to just work for a full year because I thought that’d be boring. Then I heard about Lattitude and began to get excited that there was this possibility to do volunteer work and travel in a foreign country.
I chose Ghana because it was the most different out of all the placements they had to offer and it was also the most different to New Zealand. I really wanted to go somewhere completely different to Western societies and gain some real life experience living in a country that’s about as foreign to me as it can get.
I thought that if I’m going to do a gap year I may as well properly DO a gap year and go to Africa for five months! I was also thinking that if I am going to do volunteer work I should go to a place that really needs all the help they can get. I was also really wanting to travel to Africa and I knew that once I started uni I wouldn’t get too many opportunities to travel until I got my degree so I better make the most of this amazing opportunity.
Let’s start from when you first arrived. What happened?
The orientation programme on arrival was a great way to get to know all the other volunteers. We went from the airport to our hotel where we had dinner together. The next day Lattitude staff member Agnes took us out to go see some of the sights in Accra such as Black Star Square and Independence Arch. She also took us to a market and the Accra mall to buy some food and buy sim cards. We also got to wander around outside the hotel and explore the area a bit. The orientation itself was good. We wrote our goals and got told more info about what life would be like and what was expected of us. But the main thing about orientation is to get to know the other volunteers.
Walk us through a day in the life of your placement!
As a Teaching Volunteer in Ghana, a typical day would begin with being woken up by the sound of roosters and goats around 7ish. I would then get up, go outside and sit on the porch, wave to some of the kids going to school and just talk with the two other girls at my placement. Da (our host dad) would then have some boiled water ready so we can have coffee. We would then drink that and wait for him to finish cooking our breakfast (it was always fried egg and bread, without fail).
We would then get changed, brush our teeth and head to school. Usually we’d go to the kindergarten and nursery classes because we loved the teacher and the little kids were always fun to be round. Then I would head across to my class and wait for the teacher to finish teaching whatever he was teaching. I would then check what the kids were up to and write the lesson up on the board. I would get them to write down the lesson and then get them to do some exercises (maths) either as class work or homework. If it was classwork I would then go round and help them, making sure they understood the content.
When I finished my lesson it was usually lunchtime so we would head home and have some lunch that Da prepped for us (alternated between fried plantain and yam chips with beans). We’d usually be real hot and chill the rest of the day at home waiting for school to finish. When it did we would then wait for Mabel and Kofi (our fave kids) to walk past and then play with them until it was dinner time. Some other kids would also come round and hang with us.
As an occasional afternoon snack Da would get some boys from school to climb a coconut tree and get us a couple coconuts each. We would then have showers (late afternoon/early evening is ideal time to have a shower cause it’s still hot enough where the cold water is real nice and afterwards you don’t sweat as much as you would if you had it in the morning) and have dinner. Dinner would alternate between rice and stew, spaghetti noodles and stew, Indomie noodles with some veggies, fried rice and chicken and our all-time fave groundnut soup and chicken with a rice ball or fufu. The other volunteers and I would usually chill for a bit and then head to bed.
Tell us more about your host family
I stayed with Ma and Da (our host mum and dad). Da is the kindest person I know and would always be worrying over us and trying to take care of every little thing we could possibly imagine. He was also great to have chats with and never failed to provide some wisdom for us. The other volunteers and myself all loved Da. I was initially staying with just one volunteer but half way through another volunteer changed her placement and moved in with us. It was nice to have another person in the house as it meant there were more of us and we could have more fun.
How did you get by with the language barrier, if any?
If you google Ghana it will say the official language is English. However, I quickly learned that while it may be the ‘official’ language not many Ghanaians know how to speak it well. Most will generally have a basic understanding of English but I definitely found it difficult in the beginning speaking to Ghanaians and trying to get them to understand what you’re saying.
You do pick up some phrases in their local language and it always brings a smile to their face and makes them laugh when you say any of them. So I would definitely encourage people to learn phrases and use them! You also learn to speak a lot more slowly and clearly when speaking to them and even create a bit of an accent when speaking to them. At first we felt bad because it felt like we dumbing down the way we normally speak but we realised that if we were wanting to be understood we just had to speak that way.
Big differences between Ghana and home?
Going to Ghana is completely different to anywhere I’ve been before. There are honestly too many differences to count. Many people in Ghana do live in poverty, especially when you compare it to the poverty in western countries. It was very shocking to see and learn just how people live there and by the end of the trip it was really eye opening coming back home, seeing how everyone lives here and complains about the smallest things when Ghanaians have it so much worse off.
The limited internet and no wifi. It’s a bit strange to be in a place where you need to walk somewhere to get a good connection or where a submarine internet cable becomes damaged and you just lose internet for a week (a bit stressful when I was applying for uni).
The heat. We all struggled with the heat over there. I don’t think there was a time when I wasn’t covered in sweat. We did eventually become sort of acclimatised to the heat but we still found it real hard at times.
What are the local people like?
Ghanaians are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I used to think New Zealanders were some of the friendliest but I can safely say that Ghanaians trump us. Sometimes a bit too friendly but I never felt worried about my safety with anyone I met. They are always joking and wanting to have a laugh, a lot of the time at your expense, (especially at your lack of understanding of their language) but it’s all good natured. Even their marriage proposals are mostly jokes. They are very open and direct and don’t mess around when asking you for something or talking to you. They are not afraid like westerners to be direct and straight with you.
We would usually travel most weekends and meet up with the other volunteers. We ended up travelling all over Ghana and even popped over the border into Burkina Faso briefly. Some of the places we went to were Cape Coast, Nzulezo, Busua, Accra, Ada Foah, Wli Waterfalls, Amedzofe, Paga, Wa, Tamale and plenty of others.
It took me awhile to get used to the food there. It is very carb heavy diet and there is not a lot of veggies, fruits or protein in the meals (at least at our placement). I eventually did get used to it and had a couple favourite dishes that I loved but it was also really nice to travel in the weekend and get some “western” food from the places we stayed at or if we went to Shoprite (a supermarket) and picked up snacks.
I think it’s impossible to pick one singular favourite moment out of the whole trip. I loved the weekends where we would travel and meet up with the other volunteers. It was really cool to just have that freedom and do all these fun things with good friends you’ve made. Although, hanging out with the kids at school was always amazing and heaps of fun. they never failed to put a smile on your face or make you laugh.
What positive impact, even small, do you think you made?
I definitely feel as though the kids learnt a lot from us. Even if it was just watching and learning from our behaviour and listening to us talk. The other volunteers and myself also did some fundraising for the school to build more of the kindergarten block and I think that will really help the school.
Tell us about any any new friends or connections you made.
You make friends with Ghanaians wherever you go and they are always happy to show you around and take you to their house or a good spot. You will get plenty of Ghanaian’s numbers and they will always have time for you if you return to a place you’ve been. The kids at school were always great and I’m still in contact with two of the kids from school. And of course, the other volunteers become great friends.
Examples of any personal development you may have gained?
I have learnt a lot about myself and have majorly developed my world view and perspective. I realise just how privileged I am to live in a developed, western country. I really improved my social skills and communication. You also do develop leadership skills from teaching or planning trips away. I’ve gained a lot of self and social confidence as well. Every day you spend there, you are essentially out of your comfort zone and you can really see the change by the end of it.
Finally, what are you doing next, and has your Lattitude experience helped or influenced your path in any way?
I am going to university and am studying Psychology and International Relations. Lattitude gave me the time to have a proper think about what I was wanting to do and also gave me the opportunity to have a real immersive experience in a developing country. They majorly influenced myself and my path.