Monday, September 11, 2017

A Personal Paradise

I always visioned that one day I'd find myself in Africa. I didn’t know where and I didn’t know when but, one day, flicking through Facebook (as I usually did in my mindless trance), I was suddenly awoken by a page called 'International Citizen Service'. I instantly knew that this was my sort of thing, so I clicked ‘like’ and scanned the page for pictures and more details on what the organisation was about. It just so happens I loved it and…I applied!
A bustling market day (every 3 days in Sandema)

Six months later, I found myself landing in a place I had always dreamed of, AFRICA - a place full of potential and opportunity! As we made our way through the Northern and Upper East Regions of Ghana I couldn’t believe my eyes! The sights before m were scenes I had previously only ever seen on TV screens – it was as if my visions and expectations had merged into one! Everything I could have ever imagined, and more, was right there in front of my eyes -women who balanced their livelihoods on their heads in buckets and baskets, whilst their baby stayed comfortably strapped around their waist. There were trucks loaded with livestock, hundreds of motorbikes weaving in and out of gaps so tiny you hold a breath on their behalf, honking horns, traders busy selling and buyers willingly investing. All this, and goats roaming loose whilst chickens are on the run. As I looked around and observed my environment from an open glass window, I tried to soak up everything. It took me a good few weeks after our arrival until I could honestly say that my eyes stopped flickering from place to place. But, that feeling of ‘I’m here’ never really went away - I felt content.

Collecting water in the scorching heat!
Although poverty is high and people’s struggles are real, I felt like I was seeing Sandema at its finest. When I look around I see so much potential, and that excites me! It is important to recognise different cultures but also understand when things need to change. Interventions like International Service promote positive change within communities especially in education, healthcare and human rights awareness. Grass root charities alone have a major influence within rural communities because they’re able to help motivate and encourage people. The work helps change negative mind-sets and everyone involved act as a positive advocate for people whose voices may not usually be heard. There’s a lot to take in when working within this environment, but it is experiences like this that helps motivate me for my own personal future.

Memory "dust" lane
As our time is coming to an end here in Sandema I’ll be truly sad to say goodbye. I have taken a lot from this experience -the relationships between family, friends and strangers, the simple luxuries of eggy bread and running water, the opportunities we’ve had, the difficulties we’ve shared and the goals we’ve achieved. For me, this is still an ongoing project when I leave Ghana. I am incredibly passionate about continuing to empower vulnerable groups all around the world. 

Until next time, Ghana!
Love Megan Huggins

Monday, September 4, 2017

New Relationships; New Perspectives

New experiences can open your eyes; and making relationships with people from entirely different cultures can help you see the world from a fresh perspective. I have lived my entire life in Ghana, hearing myths about 'the white people' (and their supposedly dangerous nature), which I never questioned. This 'fear', passed down from our fore-fathers, has stopped some people from travelling outside of Ghana. Some people are hesitant to leave, even for the sake of their education – with some parents expressing concern for the safety of their children. I have heard of many friends declining scholarships to study in European countries for this reason. I believe that such misconceptions have prevented many in Ghana (and other African countries) from fulfilling their full potential in our small world.

My counterpart Robert, a friend of mine, and I.
But being part of International Service, and working alongside a diverse group of volunteers, has taught me to question such myths. I told my counter-part, Robert, some of the popular stories, such as that there is only one TV Channel in the UK; or that people 'make love' in public – this was met with a mixture of laughter and confusion. It's easy to see how such ideas can spread in rural Ghana: with most people living their lives without travelling or interacting with people from other countries. For this reason, other people, particularly Europeans, are viewed as very alien, perhaps even possessing super-powers. Since learning that my perspective may be wrong, I've become very interested in learning from other people's culture: and I have encountered plenty of interesting differences!

For example, the general UK attitudes towards marriage, are certainly surprising – I was shocked to find that some people wish to marry with no intention of having children. I doubt this would ever happen in Ghana; as infertility is one of the most common reasons for divorce.  In fact, the UK attitude towards the family and community is almost entirely different: some often prioritise work and individual needs. For this reason there are less clearly defined roles for men and women; women for example aren’t as stigmatised for choosing not to breastfeeding their child, or for their virginity status– but are instead given the choice and are viewed more as equal contributors to the economy. Throughout the placement I've learnt to question these taken-for-granted gender stereotypes, even if accepting this means I have to (reluctantly) do more cooking and cleaning! In everyday interactions I've noticed that the UK volunteers also have different priorities.

In the UK, people have a more direct way of talking; they are not prone to keeping secrets; and unlike in Ghana, they place little significance on which family they come from. Unexpectedly, I've learnt from the UK Volunteers the importance of being aware of your language: I now realise that it is insensitive to refer to someone simply by their disability, be it mental or physical. Myself and the other in-country volunteers had become used to calling those suffering from mental illness 'mad' or ‘crazy’, however we now understand that this can belittle people and ignore their condition, which only worsens the stigma they face in society. Similarly, nobody is just 'blind', they are people with a 'visual impairment'.  Such insensitive language, even amongst some government officials, is a major issue in Ghana; and I hope to spread this message to others; because everyday actions, such as inclusive language, ultimately helps integrate the most vulnerable of our society into the community. In terms of social change, I've also realised the importance of social policy in bringing about positive change.

Government policies towards education can have a huge impact on society: in the UK I was surprised to hear there are very few illiterate people – this is because the government provides free education for students, right up until their first degree. In Ghana, the main reason some people drop out of education is due to financial restrictions. Education is very important in empowering those throughout society; and I now strongly believe the young people of today should lobby for better funding in this department.  To make people aware of social issues we need to change our work-style, which has changed considerably during my placement.

The "loveliest" team L.I.F.E ever!
I have definitely learned to be more assertive – a skill I've noticed helps with group communication, and helps to achieve our goal more effectively. I've learnt that unlike in school, we should not just wait to be called upon, but instead actively contribute when required: this is challenging as it involves constantly being prepared and informed; but it keeps me engaged.

I had heard great things about International Service, but the placement so far has exceeded my expectations. As someone who has never left Ghana before, ICS has been an eye-opening adventure. I've learnt a lot of things, and despite being more scientifically minded, I have become interested in social action and how it can change our society for the better. Going forward I'm excited to learn more and teach others in my local community to make a practical and lasting change.

By Abaaween Raphael

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No Hurry In LIFE

As I reflect on the life I live in the UK, I think of my everyday routine as a student in part-time employment. I consider myself to be very in tune with time. Time dictates what I do and when. In fact, I often find myself stressing over it. Most days, I wake up to an alarm I’ve pre-set the night before which corresponds with the schedule I must adhere to the following day. It’s in my nature to make sure I’m on time, or I face the consequences. Therefore, without much forewarning, we UK volunteers began to find ourselves arriving on time for business meetings or functions here in Sandema, only to wait for the other attendants to filter in over the course of about 2 hours.

When trying to comprehend this unusually casual approach to time-keeping, the word ‘future’ sprung to mind. This word exists in both cultures, but can be understood conceptually in very different ways. For us Westerners, time is mechanical; business demands that time must run at a constant speed for everyone. Our arrangements, payments, deliveries etc. are very precisely drawn onto our timelines. Conversely, some Ghanaians seem to believe in no such unshakeable future -which leads me to the concept of GMT (no, not Greenwich Mean Time) – ‘Ghana Man time’. Some Ghanaians express that they don’t like to speculate about the future, anything could happen in the course of getting from one place to another. For example, you may encounter a rain storm, or bump into a relative. By tradition, if you fail to greet someone you pass, that person has no obligation to warn you of any approaching dangers, and so you’re potentially putting yourself at risk. Basically, some Ghanaians tend to rest on emotional marks in time, and as far as the future is concerned, these marks are yet to be made. Subsequently, a Ghanaian may considers his/her influence over the future as small, so why waste time worrying about it? In fact, here in Sandema, everyone is constantly reminded there is no hurry in life – it’s signposted everywhere!

Our local 'No Hurry In Life' Supermarket. 
Each culture has a specific orientation towards time and a set of corresponding priorities for various proceedings within its cultural life. In a western society you may often hear the saying “time is money”. Western cultures emphasise promptness and regard the completion of tasks as most important, hence our stress over deadlines. Whereas some Ghanaians tend to take a more flexible approach to time as they consider relationships to be more important than jobs at hand. So if you bump into a friend or relative on the way to work, or have a family issue to deal with, it’s acceptable to attend to them over any other work related or social commitments.

In a way, this attitude is refreshing to me. I look back to my everyday life in the UK, and realise that in my race against the clock, I am barely able to live in the present and truly appreciate it. Coming to Ghana has highlighted the importance of greeting others and maintaining the relationships you form within your community. After all, it’s these relationships that keep you connected, and help you maintain a sense of belonging. For the duration of our stay here in Sandema, it is essential we adopt this attitude to ensure the work we do here can be sustained.

On the other hand, I have also been witness to the draining effect of GMT both emotionally and economically. GMT seemed a laughable concept at first, and to some Ghanaians, it still is. Unfortunately, the development of some local associations and committees is impacted by the lateness and overall lack of commitment shown by some of their members. Valuable contributions are delayed and development is halted. In the grander scheme of things, the impact of GMT is felt all over Ghana. The Chairman of the National Media Commission, Kwasi Gyan Apenteng, has described GMT as an “age-long problem” that needs addressing as a nation. After all, as a developing country, time and resources have been spent on improving the systems, structures etc. of Ghana. Therefore, time is an important resource that must be managed efficiently if any such development is to continue at the necessary pace.

Whether you see time as money, something to be controlled or something that will guide you from one point to another. I think we can all agree that time is one of the most precious commodities. What is the time? To be on time, to have time, or to make time. These are just few of many expressions we use that involve time. But when such variation in time perception exists across cultures, these expressions can all mean very different things. Witnessing these cultural differences first hand, I have learnt to manage my time more efficiently. Time management was always something I felt I had nailed down to a tee. Ghana has opened my eyes to how very wrong I was. It’s time I start living in the present, stop stressing over the future, and appreciate the past.

Written by Tia Molloy, UK Volunteer on the L.I.F.E Project, Sandema.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Zaakira's experience: From Yendi to Sandema

When I was selected by ICS, I continually asked myself “how will I deal with this?” When hearing I was placed in Sandema I still continued to doubt myself. The challenge ahead seemed like something I might not be ready for. I have left home before, but never for this length of time - A daunting thought.  Then I start investigating if people had ever heard of this place called Sandema. Everyone had the same story to tell; “Sandema is very nice, and incredibly peaceful”. It wasn’t until I came to know this that my doubtful thoughts disappeared. Then I advised myself not to do the investigating anymore, I will get to know more for myself when I reach there. I had a new wave of confidence and I became to feel excited. The day we started our journey, everything seemed very tense until reaching Sandema. Our host mother welcomed us respectfully, and took our bags inside the house for us. She was so warm and welcoming, and I soon realized the benefits of this experience. It wasn’t long until I started to learn a lot about other people’s culture, thanks to the help of my new host family and my UK counter-part Megan.
My host mother Madam Diana, a friendly stranger, my UKV sister Megan and I attending a teachers vacation party in the community. 

It is never an easy thing to leave your home town and go to another place whilst staying with people you don’t know and have never met before. It is really fortunate that my host family are like my real family, my host parents are like my own parents. Because of this, I never feel down or uncomfortable at my host home. I am always happy and tend to feel like I am at my real home. In fact, we communicate, solve any minor problems together and do a lot of things just as a normal family would. I feel so blessed with the host family I have been given.

I am a Muslim, and as a Muslim there are some things we don’t eat. The host mother knows what is good for me to eat, as well as what I cannot. I cannot eat all of the meat that you may find others here in Sandema eating. For example, I cannot eat pig (pork), dog, or cat. But this has never been an issue I needed to raise. I am not the first Muslim she has hosted, and I probably won’t be the last. The food is very delicious. My favorite food is rice balls with groundnut soup. I also really enjoy rice with vegetable stew. In my own house the food is different. Cooking techniques vary a lot and so, even for an in country volunteer like myself, dinner time can be a novel experience. All in all, I am incredibly happy with my placement. It feels like home sweet home, with the exception of my parents and siblings, whom I miss dearly.

Frankly speaking, it is a good idea that ICS is here for young people, like myself. It is really helping us to build our confidence. Even though we are mixed with university graduates, and some of us are only senior high school graduates, we are given the same opportunities and experiences, and treated as equals. The benefit of this is that my skills are developing every day and I am constantly learning so much from the people around me. Looking to the future, I hope to get another chance after this one to build my confidence even more. The more you put into your ICS experience, the more you learn, and therefore I strive to be a team leader one day.

Written by Tungteeya Zaakira Abdulai, ICV on the L.I.F.E Project, Sandema