Me: I’m going abroad to volunteer for a couple of months
Other: That sounds interesting, where are you going?
Other: Oh…..that’s cool
The conversation with a lot of people when I told them I was going to volunteer in Ghana usually went along those lines. Some would go on to question why I would choose to go to Ghana at all. Now this had nothing to do with the alleged rivalry that exists between Ghanaians and Nigerians (as I am Nigerian). For some it had to do with the preposterous idea that I would choose to volunteer in a country so close to home. If I got a paid job in Ghana, now that would be a different story – but volunteer?! If I wanted to volunteer, why not choose a more exciting option like Bolivia or Palestine? After all, Ghana is less than a day’s drive from home if I ever needed to visit.
This reaction is not unique to just me on the team I’m sure. Ghana being a safe, stable and relatively silent country in the media doesn’t make it a particularly exciting place to tell people you plan to volunteer. Take Burkina Faso for example; the very fact that a lot of people have no clue such a country exists makes it exciting.Couple this with the fact that it is facing instability due to problems unfolding in neighbouring Mali and to top it off, they speak French! I don’t know why, but the fact that their official language is the language of love makes it even more exciting than English which is the official language of Ghana. Is English even the language of anything?
However, it was not these reasons that made me seriously consider the choice to volunteer in Ghana; it was something entirely different. It was the fact that I was an African going to volunteer in Africa. It was the fear that because I look and speak like Ghanaians, I would be overlooked at the expense of my white colleagues. I have justifications for this fear, as it will not come as a shock that people tend to look at others of a different colour and culture with a sort of curiosity and wonder. This not only translates to shouts of ‘white person’ as white people walk the streets but also large crowds flocking to them in the belief that they carry the answers and help they need. While this will not happen in every African country, I was haunted by the experience of my friend who volunteered in a Central African country. She told of her opinions being disregarded and those of her white colleagues celebrated despite them essentially repeating hers. The glorification of her white colleagues’ opinions over hers is not her colleagues’ fault but has to do with redefining the mentality of these Africans not only to see past colour but to not be essentially racist to their own race. But that is a topic for another blog post.
It was stories like this that made me apprehensive about volunteering in Ghana. Being the only African on my team from the UK meant not being able to talk to anyone about it. Therefore I prepared myself that I would have to work harder to prove myself and show that I was competent of providing some valid and intelligent ideas. However, my time in Ghana has completely quenched my fear. It’s been the opposite experience as I feel that being African has allowed me to easily interact with the Ghanaians I meet both at work and outside it. I feel more confident in having conversations as I am familiar with some of their banter. Taking a keen interest in Ghanaian politics has also helped. Also, being mistaken for a Ghanaian works as an advantage, as it provides a conversation starter when I explain that I’m actually Nigerian. And while I still get disregarded in some situations, I am grateful that this has never happened at work. This has gone a long way to allay my insecurity issues and is a small testament to the development of Ghana as a great country.
So almost 3 months into my time in Ghana, my advice to any Africans looking to volunteer in Africa is to go for it! There may be various blows to the ego along the way but my experience has taught me that you see it as a life lesson and move on. While it is a positive thing that people from different continents are helping in the African development effort, there is the need for more Africans to tell and redefine the African story.