Nine years ago I volunteered to work in an orphanage in a small village in the Eastern part of Ghana I am no Mother Theresa so I didn’t do it for a humanitarian or altruistic reasons.
I had 3 months to spare and nothing better to do but I am thankful I did it. It turned out to be one of the best things I have done in my life! Four volunteers, 2 lads (Si and I) and to lasses (Nana and Rach), I remember the first day I turned up at the orphanage. There were about 25 children, the oldest 14 years and the youngest was about 2 years. I smiled nervously as we were introduced to them and the 2 ladies that worked there. This was nothing like I had imagined. Well I did not expect the kids to be in 5 star accommodation and to be treated to a feast all day everyday but what I saw was well below my expectation. The children looked malnourished for a start and what they were having for breakfast? A tiny pot each containing Heinz baby food. Every child was to eat that, even the 14 year old! We all looked on in shock. I think Grandma (the owner of the orphanage) noticed this, she pulled up a pot and offered it to us, “try it” she said, “it tastes good”. Apparently they had been donated to the orphanage by her daughter who lives in Italy. We later had to explain its food meant for little babies. Bless her, she is illiterate so could not have read the labels.
After breakfast the children started getting dressed for school. I notice the clothes were either too tight on them or hung too loose. It was as though they had a pool of clothes from which each child had to take a dip every morning and don whatever their tiny bodies pulled out. The orphanage building itself was in a pretty good state. It’s a 3 room semi-detached house. There were massive straw mats spread in all the rooms suggesting every room was used as a bedroom. The area in front of the building was where they had their shower and is also used as a cooking area. Later on that morning we made our way to the “school”, it’s about 50 metres from the orphanage itself. I am not sure if you would call it a school, it’s a church hall which doubles up as a classroom for these children. Grandma could only afford to employ 1 teacher so all they had was one big class, with children of varying ages. Teaching aid was the billy basic. Two 3m x 2m chalk board painted black with carbon from used dry cell batteries, a few boxes of chalk and not enough books, pens and pencils for every child.
All four of us seemed confused. I bet the same question was ringing through each of our heads “where do we start?” We all imagined we were going into a structured organisation were we would be given defined roles but what we had was the exact opposite. The only structure we had was the orphanage building itself! After long deliberation, we decided Nana and Rach would take care of the orphanage – food, accommodation etc Si and I would take care of the school with the teacher. We got to work that same day. We split them up into 3 classes based on their ages and that was no mean task as these children had no clue how old they were! We each took a class. We managed to get some more books, pens and pencils. We had a good routine going and we had some pretty clever students too. Plans were in place to get some of them into the mainstream local government school.
Fast forward three months and you had 25 children in tears and 4 volunteers fighting to hold back theirs. It was time to say goodbye, it was time to go back home. Four ordinary people with a few months to spare had made a whole world of difference in the lives of these children. There are many orphanages and like institutions in dire need of voluntary workers. These institutions do not have the funds to employ full time workers. Most of them are started and managed by benevolent individuals out of the kindness of their hearts. Like the one I worked in, Grandma started and funded it from her own pocket, with donations from her daughter who is resident in Italy. During our time there we met an Irish timber merchant who lived in the next village. He made a couple of donations whilst we were there and hopefully that continued.
I am well aware that in Ghana there are only a few organisations which run such voluntary programs so let us make good use of them. You don’t have to be a professional teacher or a social worker. All they need is a willing heart ready to help. It does not have to be 3 months; it could be a few hours a day, a week or a month. Many Ghanaian university graduates often complain about the lack of work experience when they come out of university which is a major requirement for most employers. Well here is my simple, common sense solution. If we make it compulsory for all students in Ghana to spend at least one holiday period during their four years at university to do some sort of voluntary work, then we would have killed two birds with one stone. One, students will leave university with some work experience for their CV and two; they would have provided a great service to the very needy in our society. It will also help teach our youth the priceless value of volunteering for unpaid work in a world where money is held in high esteem. Let us encourage the spirit of volunteerism!