Volunteer in Ghana – Jonty in Cape Coast

Posted on the 9th August 2019

Kiwi “gapper” Jonty was a volunteer in Ghana with Lattitude, based in the beautiful coastal city of Cape Coast. Placed in the Football for Hope centre, he was able to immerse himself in this incredible culture while doing something really meaningful during his gap year.

What made you volunteer in the first place?

Choosing to volunteer was incredibly easy. I’d been planning for years to take a gap year between high school and university, and volunteering overseas just seemed like the best way to make the most out of a year of freedom and no responsibilities. If you can string together a few thousand dollars over high school, a gap year is your chance to get outside of the houses, streets, and cities you’re bored of seeing, and make some memories you can look back on for the rest of your life.

Volunteering is entirely different to globe trotting; it gives you a chance to develop workplace soft skills, add some glow to your CV, and get to know some incredible people over time. Staying in the same location for some months will also develop you in different ways, as you really get to know the culture, lifestyle, and differences between foreign societies and our own.

Why Ghana?

From the opportunities Lattitude offered, Ghana stood out to me. I’d been through Southern Africa for a family holiday some years ago, and I loved the relaxed, happy, but intense African lifestyle. My dad also lived in Ghana for a few years when he was young, so I was able to hear first-hand how unique, (and safe) the country is. Ghana was the first African country to achieve independence, and it’s one of the more developed countries on the continent. It’s been called “Africa for Beginners”, due to its embrace of Western Culture – for example, English being widely spoken as the first language – but still being richly dressed in it’s own culture.

I thought it was the best option to be able to live cheaply, travel regularly, and become more attached to Africa. Though, that being said, the opportunity of working at Football for Hope and teaching African kids soccer five days a week was definitely the selling point.

Can you describe your placement in detail?

Having applied specifically for the role at the Football for Hope Centre in Cape Coast, I was lucky enough to get it. In my opinion, Cape Coast is the best city in Ghana. Known in the local dialect, Fante, as Oguua, it’s the oldest city in Ghana, and richer in history than anywhere else. When Ghana was first colonised by various Europeans, the Cape Coast Castle was built to be one of the most important forts along the West African Coast. Despite being a beautiful building, and now a well-maintained tourist attraction, it has a dark history, being the central point of the old African slave trade. The castle itself, and two related forts standing upon hills nearby are permanent memorials to the inhumanity the city saw.

Initially the countries capital, Cape’s development slowed down compared to cities like Accra and Kumasi. In my opinion, that’s left it the perfect size for a volunteer; big enough to explore the streets, enjoy the famous marketplace, and feel the buzz of a city, but small enough to never feel too busy, and over time, you begin to recognise faces and make friends of people you’ve seen before.

There’s an odd balance of poverty and wealth in Cape; the communities along the beach are all fishing based, with very little income, but the further inland you go, across the highway, the more imposing the houses. A lot of rich families move to the area to bring their children to attend the best and oldest schools in Ghana that Cape hosts – the likes of Mfantsipm, Adisadel College, and Wesley Girls High. But the majority of people are well educated middle class, so you can hold a conversation in English with anyone.

Another plus for me, Cape was just about the middle point of all the volunteer placements, and with the castle, the beach, the marketplace, and Oasis – a popular beachside bar, well known for attracting volunteers – we had a lot of weekends together staying in Cape, with me and my host family, or with beds at Oasis.

What are some examples of the duties you performed there?

As a volunteer in Ghana, my role at the Football for Hope centre was one of the most diverse and interesting volunteering positions available. I worked with two other international volunteers – one from Lattitude in Canada, and one from a different organisation in Germany. At the centre (Play Soccer), we also had five Ghanaian volunteers called Young Leaders, who we worked with a lot, and became really good friends with. We all worked five, sometimes six days a week, if we didn’t travel on Saturdays.

The main program ran every weekday, from 4pm to 5pm. We called this Homework Session, as when we first started, we were told to bring in the kids, organise them based on year groups, and then sit down with them and help them figure out any homework their school has set them. After some time, when we were more confident, we began to operate our own extra-curricular classes. I always taught ICT, using a basic curriculum to teach year four on Mondays, year five on Tuesdays, and year six and above on Thursdays.

On Wednesdays and Fridays we brought the kids out to our football turf, and worked more as sports coaches. On Wednesdays we ran something called core program, essentially a series of three activities with a topic, either educating them on health topics (like lungs, muscles, nutrition), social topics (like communication, leadership, friendship) or teaching them basic soccer skills. Fridays were always free play days, where we’d organise the kids into soccer tournaments, play a different sport like basketball or volleyball, or drop some footballs on the field and let the kids chase each other until they tire.

On Monday and Tuesday mornings, we ran the same core program at the next door Mfantsipim basic schools, normally working as the coach’s assistants. And on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons one of us would visit one of six local schools in less wealthy areas with two of the Young Leader volunteers and run the same core program, while the other would open and supervise a small library at the back of the Centre.

On Thursday mornings, we did home visits with an older volunteer, walking around different communities, basically advertising our work. Our only non-kids associated work was a recycling project, where we used used plastic water sachets to weave football nets, which we would later donate to local schools.

Can you describe your accommodation? Your host family?

My accommodation and host family was incredible, and it was really hard to leave them when the time came. The first time I arrived, I was welcomed loudly and excitedly by Mercy, my host mum, who brought me inside and showed me the house. It was much bigger than I ever expected. There was a living room, a kitchen, bathroom, and a big bedroom for myself.

My bedroom was entirely my own; I was allowed to decorate it, reshuffle it, and my family was completely respectful of my privacy, only coming inside if I invited them. The bathroom was good by Ghanaian standards. The house was in the ideal location; directly across the road from Play Soccer, and just 10 minutes walk to the market, and 30 minutes walk to the beach.

I had three host brothers, and they were all really friendly and welcoming. My host dad travelled a lot, but whenever I saw him, he would welcome me and try to talk, despite his poor English. Mercy however, had extremely good English, and would always go out of her way to make me comfortable, cooking the meals she knew I liked, and allowing other volunteers to come and stay the night at a moments notice.

How did you get by with the language barrier, if any?

Except in small, uneducated areas, and with a small amount of people, there was never a very difficult language barrier. English is spoken widely, from the coast, right to the border in the North. Even if it is just a few broken words and phrases, everyone, except very young children, can communicate in English. However, most children are brought up learning their local language, such as Fante, Twi or Dagbani first, and English second, so unless a Ghanaian is from a very rich family, their local tongue is their language of choice.

Many Ghanaians, though speaking English, will choose to speak to you in their own language. This can be quite frustrating, so I’d highly recommend trying to learn as much of the language in your area as you can, both as a sign of respect, and to respond in type to any foreign conversation.

What kind of things did you do during orientation?

Orientation was pretty simple but effective. Kweku, the country manager, picked all of us up at the airport and took us to our hotel, about twenty minutes drive away. The first afternoon went by in a bit of a haze as we all felt the effect of the massive temperature jump. Some of us went for a small walk down the road, then retreated under the pressure of the heat.

But the next two days, we adapted, and got to know each other, and volunteers from the last group with a few days left themselves. Kweku and Agnes, the volunteer coordinator talked us through what we could expect, what they expected of us, and some aspects of the culture we’d come to know so well. We were all taught some simple words and phrases we could use in our respective local languages. Later, we were divided into medical placements and teaching placements, so we could receive more focused information about how to fulfil our roles.

On the first afternoon, we went into the city. We saw Black Star Square, the national stadium, and visited the craft markets, rounding off with a stop over at the Accra mall for our last taste of Western food for sometime. The second afternoon was free for our own downtime, another opportunity to get to know each other before we separated to our individual placements.

What are some of the big differences between Ghana and home?

I’d say the biggest differences between Ghana and home are;

  • The people:
    The Ghanaian people have a reputation for being friendly, and it’s pretty accurate. A massive part of the culture is about helping and caring for each other. Every time you want to talk to someone, you must begin with exchanging their conventional greeting: ‘How are you’, before getting to your point, or else they will take offense.
    Standing out as a westerner in Ghana can be intimidating, as Ghanaians you pass will often try and talk to you, beckoning you over to ask a few questions, but it is always good intentioned. They are just curious about what you’re doing in their country, and what you’re doing at that time. Often, they will enthusiastically try and help you with anything, whether it be carrying bags, showing you the right path, or even finding you the right mode of transport.
  • The market
    The Ghanaian economy is pretty stable, but because there’s so much market competition with people walking around selling food and small items, prices on most things are really low compared to New Zealand. To buy a small loaf of bread in Ghana may cost one cedi or two cedi, (one cedi being about 30 NZ cents), compared to the $2.50 we would expect here (about 8 cedi). It makes for very cheap living, as 4 cedi can get you a sizeable meal if you know where to go.
  • Transport
    Getting around Ghana is definitely the most dangerous part of living there. Everyone uses either taxis, tuk-tuks, or trotros to get around. Trotros, basically minivans full to the brim with people, are the primary form of intercity transport. They don’t follow a schedule, simply go when they’re full or the driver is impatient. A trotro from Cape Coast to Accra is 18 cedi, about $5 NZD.
    Taxis also patrol the highways, but are more expensive, so they and tuk-tuks (little three wheel motorbikes) are efficient at getting around small cities, like Cape Coast. Each area has a different standard price for the taxis to follow. In Cape, 1.30 cedi will get you anywhere.
  • Religion
    Almost everyone in Ghana is either Christian or Muslim, plus a small population of rastafarians. In six months, I only met two atheists. Religion is really visible on the streets; shops will have names like “Accept God Pharmacy” and every taxi will have a Christian car sticker.

What kind of things can you do in your downtime?

Your downtime, when it comes around, is yours to make the most or the littlest of as you like. If you’re tired, it can be great to go back to your house and watch Netflix, read a book, or contact people back home.

We were really lucky in Cape Coast to always have options for things to do. We can visit the markets, look into buying fabrics to make new clothes, relax at Oasis, or even visit our friends bar in town to play billiards. Often we’d get a cheap lunch near work, then go back to relax with our friends at work until the next session began. In my own time, I explored a lot of Cape Coast, getting to know the different areas and back streets. The evenings are also free time. You can spend it with your host family, relaxing in your own room, or taking a taxi down to a restaurant or bar for a few hours.

What are the Ghanaian people like?

In two words; good-hearted. Most Ghanaians are really interested in what you’re doing in Ghana, and will ask a bit about where you’re from and what you think of their country. A lot of them will see it as a privilege to be friends with a foreigner, so be prepared for a lot of random people you’ve never met calling out to you on the street, telling you to come and have a conversation.

They’re also very religious, and very passionate about sport. There is a massive football culture, but very focused on Europe. Most kids are brought up playing football with each other on the streets and at dusty school fields, and many dream of becoming pros and getting out of Ghana. The kids in general are very respectful of their elders, a characteristic of the culture. And they’re quite comfortable with technology; I made the mistake of letting the kids use my phone early on, and they managed to find a game which they’d always ask and ask to play from then on.

Did you feel safe in Ghana?

Ghana’s definitely one of the safest, if not the safest African country. I very rarely felt nervous about my safety; no more so than I would in New Zealand, and probably less than being in Europe. My host mother said that Ghanaians actually fear to do bad, because of their strong religious code. I also never saw any animal showing signs of rabies, and if you’re strict in taking your malaria medication, mosquitos aren’t a worry.

Tell us about how you got on with Ghanaian food.

The Ghanaian food was my biggest worry about adapting to Ghana. I was especially afraid, living on the coast, of having fish as a regular dinner. But right on arrival, I was able to explain to my host mother what I thought I could eat, and what I didn’t want to risk, and she understood.

I ate most of the traditional Ghana dishes quite regularly. ‘Banku’ and ‘konkontae’, weird cassava based dishes, are the only ones that stand out as ones I never enjoyed, but could manage to finish. Otherwise, I grew to really enjoy rice and stew, plantain and beans, jollof rice, and especially fried rice. Weirdly, the instant noodles brand ‘Indomie’ is really popular in Ghana, and you can easily access delicious fried indomie off the streets when travelling.

What do you think was your favourite moment?

After two months on placement, the Easter holidays rolled around, and we got a month’s worth of travel time. Being a big group of 18 volunteers, we split into two groups who would follow similar paths but at different times. I moved between both groups, visiting some incredible locations. We started off at the mouth of the Volta River, the largest man-made lake in the world, where it flows into the Gulf of Guinea.

Over nearly thirty days, we visited every corner of the country. We did six hour mountain hikes to see the biggest waterfall in West Africa; we explored ancient caves along the border with Togo; watched elephants play-fight in the watering hole; sat on ancient crocodiles, and visited a village on stilts. The freedom and independence travelling offered was incredible, and unlike anything I’d experienced before. I loved the day to day life of waking up around friends, finding cheap breakfast, and deciding what amazing thing we had planned for the day. For me, it’s the richest source of memories I have from Ghana.

My favourite moment of the whole experience came on this trip. We were staying at a beautiful lodge in the highest village in Ghana, with a really friendly host. Late at night, a couple of us decided we wanted to go climb a nearby summit, known at Mt. Gemi. We left the lodge with one torch and no warm clothes, but as soon as we began the climb up, adrenalin overtook us. We ran to the top, and the view was unlike anything else in the world. It’s impossible to forget that feeling at the top.

What positive impact, even small, do you think you made?

Sometimes the work can be stressful; trying to manage a big group of kids with little to no experience in teaching is impossible. But the more you practice, and the more effort you put into it, the more you and the kids get out of it. I was thrown in the deep end teaching, and, though with a few small successes, I was never as effective as trained teachers.

But I developed really good relationships with a variety of kids. Being a foreigner, the kids look up to you. It can make a big impact simply having a figure they can come and see after school, who’ll encourage them to keep learning and keep playing football. I tried to use this influence in different ways. I picked up on a movement called ‘Keep Ghana Clean’ in response to the countries pollution problem, and I tried to spread an understanding of this around the kids, encouraging them to be tidy and avoid littering.

We became very close with the locals that worked with us. We spent a lot of time with them, and as willing as they were to share their culture with us, they were equally interested in learning about ourselves and our culture. We created a really good atmosphere, always laughing and talking, which will hopefully be sustained now we’ve left.

Did you travel much in Ghana?

As well as our whole month devoted to travel, almost every upcoming weekend was a chance to get out of our cities and explore wider Ghana. Most weekends we travelled in small groups, sometimes visiting each other, sometimes visiting Cape Coast, sometimes exploring new areas. As a group we definitely had our own go-to location; Busua Beach, in the Western Region. We visited five times in total, going for a festival, birthdays, and just to swim and enjoy good food.

I had a few chances to do my own exploring along the coast. There’s a series of old forts and disused castles from the days of the slave trade littered every so often, either side of the central Cape Coast Castle. I visited eight in total, including the three in Cape Coast. My favourite is Elmina Castle with it’s maze of turrets and courtyards.

Did you get on well with the other volunteers?

Leaving Ghana was hard, but leaving the other volunteers was harder. Spending six months with people, and sharing such amazing experiences builds really strong relationships. Everyone got on pretty well with each other from the first day at orientation. We mostly just saw each other on weekends, but every weekend you’d hear a new collection of stories picked up since last time. Over time, especially in a big group like ours, you find your like minded people, and they’re the ones that make every experience together that much better. I’m pretty happy that I can say I’ve left with a few lifelong friends.

Can you give examples of any personal development you may have gained during your time there (don’t be humble now!)

Ah it’s pretty hard to pretty hard to pinpoint how exactly you change while overseas, but coming back, you definitely know that you have developed. That said, I can easily point to my independence and self-reliance as skyrocketing. That just comes from being in a foreign country, having to take the initiative to learn how to live effectively there, and how to best enjoy your time. Also, I spent a lot of time alone, whether travelling or at work, so I sort of learned how to enjoy my time alone, and in turn appreciate time with other people more. Similarly, while organising plans, because you’re working with other volunteers, I think I learned when to take on matters myself, when to embrace help, and when to let others take responsibility. I definitely felt that I left Africa feeling more well-rounded, and I’m sure everyone feels the same.

Finally, what are you planning on doing next, and has your Lattitude experience helped or influenced your path in any way?

I went to volunteer in Ghana without a plan for my future, and I’ve returned with a rough one drawn up. I’m staying with my family in Dunedin for six months or so and working, and, when March rolls in I’m going up to study at Victoria University. In particular, I’m interested in doing a BA with a Major in Development Studies, a degree all about different cultures and societies, their historical development, and their predictable future. My interest in this subject was completely borne through my time in such a different level of society, and I couldn’t have developed this focus without having felt that societal contrast for myself. Even just having the six month opportunity of no pressures or heavy responsibilities to think helped me choose a path. Furthermore, whatever doors the degree opens in that line of work, I now have an understanding of and connections in one such culture I might be studying.


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