Giving Back - the volunteers descend on Ghana

Submitted by Holligurl on July 14, 2008 - 12:51pm.

That time of year is upon us again in Ghana – the time where every international flight that arrives, pours out scores of the bright and bushytailed, the hopeful and positive, the naïve and trusting… they are…


Most of them come for the summer, some come to build a school and leave, some come for 6 months or even 2 year contracts. I hear that some of them pay thousands of hard earned or raised money to come and volunteer.

Either way, they come, like pale ants, they line the streets of Osu, dressed in the vibrant local designs that clash and look garish against pale skin. They don bou bous and Birks, or local ‘Charlie wotee’ (pronounced CHAH-LEH-WO-THE) – the common cheap imported Korean flip flops on every foot in Ghana. They get ‘corn row’ braids, exposing the pink fleshy skulls, and weaving in various colours of plastic ‘hair’. They think it makes them look ‘local’. In reality it makes them look like new prey, fresh meat for the hustlers and the 419ers. It pegs them as idealist, naïve, giving, gullible.

They sit in cafes gibbering away happily in packs. 90% are female between the ages of 18 and 25. They scratch at the pocked calves which peek out between the boubous and the ‘Jesus sandals’, dotted with tender pink or brown scabbing remnants of mosquito bites.

And then they disappear out into the ‘bush’ to work with ‘the people’. They cram into the tro tros, happily taking babies and parcels on their laps, smiling too widely at everyone. Trying not to look conspicuous but realizing slowly over time that an Obruni can never, ever ride a tro tro without looking conspicuous. Maybe some of them never realize this.

Most are wearing very bright pink rosy glasses with which to view the new world around them.

Inevitably they will spend some days close to a toilet, worshipping from both ends, having been ‘cool’ enough to try the street food, with LOTS of pepper. Some will brave the ‘mystery meat’ in the stews…

They will be robbed, if not directly, then by coworkers who see a chance and inflate prices. By the taxi drivers and the market sellers seeing opportunity stare them in the face… By landlords and ‘friends’ and the system in general.

It’s a cycle. They fit the role within it.

Now before I get accused of being horribly harsh and unnecessarily negative, I must qualify my observations. I know these girls. I am these girls. I lived it, breathed it, sat in the 40 degree tro tro, stuffed like a sardine with 40 others (in a 12 person capacity van built in 1970) hundreds of times. I held babies and smiled a lot and pretended the density of human flesh, with it’s pungent overpowering smell was fine. Pretended that my knees against me, pinned in on both sides by the volumous arms of the market women, with the radio blaring at it’s loudest through fried speakers, bouncing without shock absorbers through the potholed roads of Accra was fine. In a way it was. What doesn’t kill you….

12 years on, I have the clarity of hindsight. I see the well of experience that lay ahead of me back then and I watch them all fall straight down it now, year after year, time after time.
More and more volunteers come each year. What with Angelina Jolie, Chris Martin and Bono engaging the Hollywood crowd in the plight of Africa and the value of ‘giving back’, it has become glamourous, trendy.

There are new organizations popping up both locally and internationally, cashing in on the guilt trip dolled out to the impressionable in the west. Help Africa! Give back. Donate your money and your time.
No one has looked much at the statistics regarding the success of all of the donations and exchange programs and volunteer time… but that’s another story. What counts is the rich experience everyone has.

I found a travel blog website and zoned in on Ghana and the stories of this year’s volunteer troups. The diaries and accounts read just like a book. A book I’ve read so many times. The positive attitude reigns – despite being pick pocketed in a tro tro, being food poisoned at the dump of a hotel, having local groups only participate in the great programs if they are paid.

I ache to ask the new recruits – and mostly because I don’t know what I would have answered back in my volunteer days – “What is it you feel you need to give back? Why is it that you will put up with fraud, discomforts, delays, disorganization, filth, and so many other obstacles that you would never put up with back home?”. “What is it that you took that you feel the need to give back?”.

Every one of them who actually does a job here will be frustrated and will feel despair at some point. Every one will marvel at the chaos and the poverty and the resignation they see around them.

But they will go back remembering the bright eyes of the children, the friendly banter with the market sellers, the journeys where they saw goats tied to the tops of tro tros and Jesus stickers on the back windows. It will be the memories of the ‘kitch’ and the kindness not the overbearing corruption and chaos they will take away.

This in turn breeds more of their kind.

But then they meet me – the one who stayed too long. The one who hears the annoying patronizing nasal tone the children use when they chant “Obruni, obruni, give me a pen. Give me money, be my friend” and run off laughing. Instead of their innocence I see the way they are being programmed from a tender age to take advantage, to hold their hands out, to accept the mess around them and not strive for better.

My perspective is dangerous. I’ve lost my pink glasses.

Perhaps I should stay indoors this time each year.

Submitted by wannabe on July 18, 2008 - 9:34pm.

i enjoyed this posting and I am sure your reaction is is natural. I imagine, too, that these groups of volunteers are largely white, upper-middle class etc. I think that they use these experiences to pad their resumes as well.

But I am perplexed, personally, as to how make a living doing this. How do aidworkers with children manage? Isn't this why this industry of altruism with 18-25 year olds is flourishing?

Submitted by Holligurl on July 19, 2008 - 12:09am.

There are so many types of volunteers and then there are the people who work in Aid in the fully Expat package side of things. These people are given housing, vehicles (usually Land Cruisers), and $15k per annum private school fees paid by the NGO. I know many of these as well. Some of them started out as volunteers. So there's just no saying whether money cqan be made in the field. Some pay their own way to come for the experience, some are given a modest 'stipend' and some rake in the cash.... :)

Submitted by Margaret on October 9, 2008 - 3:04am.

i found this posting very interesting. so basically, is it your veiw that people should not be envolved in these organisations and exchange programmes? do you not feel that at least some form of minnimal care is being brushed upon the people of the countrys they are effecting? Obviously there are those extemly naieve and therfore vounerable voulenteers who pay thousands of hard earned cash to take part in these experiances.. they pay this cash to experiance the discomfort and to veiw the horrors that you see every day. But the question that should be asked is WHY do they do this? the answer is that they are told to do it. We see everyday on national television images of starving children. We are shown these images in the hope that we will cough up out money and send it out to these organisations. so in that sense the media and those effecting organisations are telling us that this is going on (and rightly so). However, when the dodgy organisations begin to pop up, and are raking in thousands of dollars per-voulenteer, without any verification that the programme has any permenant effect what so ever, NO ONE IS TELLING THEM. these peole are being told that what they aspire to do is a noble and just thing. they spend their money and are unknowingly being esstentially ripped off. To write up this post about the naieveity of these people is, in my eyes, both wrong and right on severl different levels.
The fact that you are showing the sheer predictability of these voulenteers definatly shows that there is a sure pattern. but why not tell those who are doing this? why not try to change this pattern? also, many Aid Workers do begin their carrers doing some king of voulenteer programme, is this blog demening these people?
over all i do agree with this blog, it is very true, but i do feel that something should be done. if you feel so strongly about the essentially stupid people investing thir money in such organisations, surely this kind of comment should be told to those about to spend their money rather than to those who have most likely already done so. eg. ourselves.

Submitted by jcravens42 on October 9, 2008 - 8:18am.

"WHY do they do this? the answer is that they are told to do it."

I disagree. No one tells these volunteers "You must go to Africa and help people!"

They go because they don't want to just give money to causes they believe in; they want to get closer to the "cause", have a personal experience with such. They also want a bit of an ego trip, there's no denying it -- it's a rush to say, "I'm just back from working with orphans in Ghana", or show off your photos or whatever.

I don't think these people who pay a fee to volunteer are naive or being forced to do anything. And they aren't children. They are the most cyber-savvy generation ever, and if they do any *research* at all before they pay a big fee for their feel-good volunteer experience, they will find things like this article by the BBC about how VSO feels about volunteer vacations:

Or VSO's own words on the subject

Or the ethical volunteer guide, that helps volunteers evaluate such programs:

Or this site that reviews abroad programs

Or my own site on volunteering abroad:

Yes, there are aid workers who get started volunteering, at home or abroad, but not all volunteering programs are created equal. There is *plenty* of information out there to help people make an educated decision about what fee-based volunteering might be worthwhile. We can't force people to read this information anymore than we can force them to volunteer in the first place.

Glad to see this being discussed! Thanks for all the posts so far!

Jayne Cravens
Bonn, Germany

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