Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Personal Impact of ICS - A Return Volunteer's Journey

Alex – Ghana case study

Hi. I’m Alex, a 25 year old from South-West England living in London. In June 2014, I was working in a job I did not enjoy, doing something that did not interest me. I decided to throw myself into something different, something fresh and something rewarding. I applied to volunteer with the International Service and was successful, being granted a placement in Ghana, specifically on the Yumba Special School project.

The build-up was exciting; fundraising, visiting the High Commission to acquire my visa and in some respects getting my vaccinations, although this was a little less exciting it did mean I was approaching my departure date!

At our pre-placement training, my project brief was appealing; we were the first cohort of volunteers working on this project which in my mind meant we were starting with a blank canvas, a project where any idea would be a considered idea and where we really had no boundaries. On receiving the project brief, it is all too easy to think of all that your project will entail. My advice to you, just starting your placement, is to go out to West Africa with a completely open mind. The brief is but a small document, your placement is ten weeks and it is impossible to summarise what your work will involve in those ten weeks in the confines of a few paragraphs.

We arrived in Ghana and a lot of our project plan had to be heavily amended, circumstances change and you will almost certainly learn to become flexible during your project. Our work to begin with was research, a necessity on any project and in particular a start-up project. You need to justify everything you are doing to the project leaders, the project partners as well as the team itself. This was challenging at first, the feeling that you are not doing anything immediately can be frustrating but stick with it, it is all worthwhile! Any document you produce, even if it is not used in your cohort is incredibly important in the long run. For example, our team was responsible for creating a fundraising strategy document, although this does not seem as grand as painting a wall in a school, that document will now be used for every single cohort going out and working with Yumba. Also, after we had worked on the research, there were plenty of opportunities for work that was not office based, we delivered presentations, spoke on the radio and got to deliver lessons we had designed to the teachers of Yumba. There is just so much you can do and everything that you work on in the project will be beneficial in some way.

As our project was in its infancy, it was easy to see what needed to be worked on, but it takes time. You cannot walk into a project and plough through with your plans, especially as you are new to the culture. Do not expect to get things done immediately, enjoy the slower pace and enjoy the fact you are working in a beautiful country with beautiful people. It is a unique opportunity, don’t waste it being frustrated at the internet not working for a day or wishing the time away thinking about the food from home that you miss. All these things will be back home waiting for you, I can promise you that!

Whilst volunteering another piece of advice I would offer is to embrace everything you can and soak up as much of the Ghanaian culture as possible. Get involved in conversations with local people, eat street food on the roadside, learn some local language, meet the Ghanaian volunteers’ friends and, most importantly of all, dance wherever you can without feeling self-conscious. It is an amazing feeling to dance however you want to in a club or bar knowing it will always be well received as you are just giving it a go and not worried about making a fool or yourself. My experience has left me with a host of friendships, some amazingly fun memories and some really important work experience that has been essential for my current role.

I am now working in a school in South-East London, specifically on raising students’ aspirations. I took a gamble going to Ghana when I had a job that was adequate and paying for everything I needed but I wanted to work doing something more satisfying. My time in Ghana has helped me achieve this and I can honestly say that I would not be working where I am now without the work I did in Ghana being on my C.V.

I left for Ghana with the intention of helping others and making a difference to the Yumba project, I did not realise how much taking part in this programme, living and working in Ghana and working with the dedicated staff at Yumba would make such an impact on my life. 

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