If someone had said to me 12 months ago that I would be going to Africa with a group of people I had never met before, to do voluntary work with International Service and live with a host family for 3 months, I would have most likely laughed them right out of the room.
Travelling to West Africa, essentially on my own, really pushed my comfort zones. Yet here I am, 12 months down the line, having recently returned from Ghana. Although it was one of the most daunting experiences my life, I am so glad that I went. It has been one of the best things I have ever done, if not one of the best things I’ll ever do.
I made the decision to volunteer with International Service when I stumbled across their website while randomly searching for ‘free overseas voluntary work’ (emphasis on the ‘free’ bit). I knew immediately that it was something that I should do. Not only did it satisfy my desire to travel with minimal expense, but I also strongly believed in their mission statement. Unfortunately not many people have heard of International Service so for any readers who do not know, International Service is a human rights-based charity, working to protect and promote the rights of some of the most marginalised people across the world.
One of the things that hit me the hardest about being in Ghana was the relaxed attitudes towards education. Within Ghana, education is not compulsory nor is it affordable. Seeing young children who ought to be in school out selling items at the market was a far too common occurrence. For the most part, it was young girls who were out of school.
After a bit of probing, I found out that boy’s education was prioritised, mainly because of the gendered stereotypes that are so entrenched within Ghanaian culture. It is the responsibility of the girls to take care of all of the domestic tasks on behalf of the family so that one day they will make the perfect wife who will know how to care for her husband. The expectations placed on young girls seemed, to me, unreasonable. Girls’ education should not be neglected and it should be considered of equal importance to that of boys. Yet this is not necessarily the case.
Gender is not the only barrier to education. Low family incomes and lack of funding also play a massive part in low school attendance. Whilst out in the community of Kpunduli, I met a woman who could not afford to send either of her two teenage daughters to school. Instead, she sent them to Accra, the capital, to earn a living at a popular hotel carrying guests’ luggage. It is a saddening and sobering thought to know that without formal education, the employment that these girls have obtained will possibly be the best employment they can gain. Yet this situation is not an unfamiliar one — many parents cannot afford to pay school fees.Naturally, one would think the school fees are an extortionate amount but they are not. It costs 500 Cedi a year to send a child to school — this equates to £100, an amount I could quite easily spend in a day or two on things that have no real impact on my life. Here I was met with a strong sense of appreciation and a profound sense of guilt. I am well educated, I have received a degree from a good university, and the opportunities that are open to me are vast. It takes an experience like this to truly appreciate what you have and how lucky you are.
It costs 500 Cedi a year to send a child to school, this equates to £100, an amount I could quite easily spend in a day or two on things that have no real impact on my life
Having seen first-hand the barriers that exist preventing children (mostly girls) from receiving an education, I am incredibly proud to have worked with International Service.
Throughout the three months we were partnered with a local Ghanaian charity, Create Change, and the work I was doing was on their behalf. The work of Create Change and their overall agenda is incredibly admirable and does not have the praise it deserves. Having been in operation since 2007, Create Change have, on a yearly basis, supported over 1000 girls through school. This support comes in many forms, be it material, monetary or moral, with the ultimate aim of giving these girls a chance of gaining meaningful employment, and thus breaking the cycle of poverty; because without addressing the importance of education, we fail to tackle the issue of poverty.
Whilst I could not see the difference that I had made she could, and her gratitude was overwhelming.
Three months is not enough time to make the changes that you want to see in the world and the results-orientated part of me really wanted to see the difference I had made but I know now that I won’t see the results of my small part. Sometimes you can’t see these things for yourself; upon leaving I received feedback from the country director of Create Change. Whilst I could not see the difference that I had made, she could, and her gratitude was overwhelming. The children’s English was improving, they were becoming more confident in their reading and writing, and the charity was receiving more public awareness. That alone was enough for me, and while I know that international development does not happen overnight, I know that I have played a small part in the larger scheme of things.
Adapted from an article originally written for Exploration Online
Featured image © Francisco Anzola