Updates from Ghana - November, 2009
By Cole Freeman
“Adwuma, adwuma” is a Twi expression that is literally translated as “work, work.” It is commonly used to ask someone who is occupied with work how said task is progressing. For example, I may pass a tailor on the street who is busily sewing a shirt in his shop, at which time it would be appropriate for me to ask, “Adwuma, adwuma?” His response would invariably be “Adwuma yε,” or “work is good.” Now, at three months into our volunteer experiences with various organizations and with only about one month left until we change assignments, it has become pertinent to ask ourselves, "adwuma, adwuma?" It is this very question that has occupied much of our thoughts recently; what we have discovered, not surprisingly, is that the answer is not as simple as "adwuma yε."
When we first began working at our respective service placements, we all had tacit notions of grandeur about what we would be able to accomplish during our time here. Although they were not very specific, these unspoken expectations—and our inability to live up to them—have inevitably shaped our perceptions of our work. For example, Nick admits that when he first learned that he would be teaching English at Maamobi Prisons JSS No. 1, he had “lofty, unrealistic expectations” for himself. He had hoped to be able to start teaching and “miraculously transform [his] students’ English speaking abilities.” After three months, he has definitely seen progress, but it is certainly not the tremendous leap that he had somehow envisioned he would trigger. Similarly, reflecting what she initially imagined her volunteer experience would be like, Jessica explains that she fancied she would be a trail blazer, “forging relationships, forging solutions, and forging a new path of change.” While she certainly does valuable work to help blind students by providing Brailed copies of classroom texts to them, the office work she is doing is a far cry from the pioneering advocate she had hoped to be. If we had been asked what we expected to accomplish during our period of service abroad back in August, I doubt that we would have outwardly expressed such lofty sentiments. Indeed, we were asked questions like this when we were applying for the Bridge Year Program, and I, for one, certainly did not express them. Nonetheless, they were planted in our subconscious whether we recognized them or not. Having been given time and a solid dose of reality, we have been able to reflect on them and also consider how these expectations have affected our work experiences.
Admittedly, our idealistic hopes, which were perhaps more a product of our relative inexperience than anything else, have led to some disappointment and frustration. I am performing my service at Self-help Initiative Support Services, an NGO which trains residents of one of the poorest slums in Accra with employable skills. When I first started working here, I was very excited by the prospect of aiding the organization through fundraising, advocacy efforts, planning and development, and other areas. I have found, though, that progress is much slower than I would have hoped for; in fact, some days I arrive at my workplace only to have to return home because of a power failure. Such incidents, as well as other obstacles, including lack of resources, political impetus, and apathy, have shown me that the initial visions I had of rapid progress and development were downright unrealistic. This has made work difficult at times, and I have sometimes been so disappointed that I have questioned whether my work has any value at all.
Although the circumstances are different, Kathleen also struggles with her satisfaction with work. Having gained a fair amount of experience working at an autism center in the U.S., she undertook her service at Ghana’s Autism Awareness, Care and Training center with a belief that she could be of tremendous value to the organization—and she has been. However, it is difficult for her to see progress because she must constantly contend with the question of whether she should work within AACT’s current system and methods or try to apply the techniques she has learned from her experience in the U.S. Because of this, she has to accept some things that frustrate her, and she has to try to play the parts of impartial observer, engaged participant, and loyal volunteer simultaneously. Such a stressful position, brought about in part by her unrealistic preconceptions of her work, has surely affected her work experience. How can she hope to make a lasting impact when the change she wishes to see is based on an American standard that is not relevant in this unique Ghanaian context? The available resources, awareness level, and culture are all very different here. Although she clearly recognizes that, in this context of service abroad, her initial expectations were unreasonable, they continue to be a source of consternation.
We have all been frustrated in some way by our idealistic notions. Despite this, we have come to realize—with the help of each other’s insight and perspective—that the impact that we will have on our respective organizations is immeasurable and invaluable. We know that we are “making a difference:” Jessica feels it every time a blind student is able to read the material for a course because she put in the time and effort to Braille it; Nick sees it whenever one of his students uses a word or grammatical construction correctly that Nick taught him; and Aria recognizes it when she teaches two year olds the difference between “up” and “down” using a ball game. We all have those small successes and tiny triumphs that make our work worthwhile. None of us can say that we do not find our work rewarding or meaningful. The problem arises, however, when we try to quantify the impacts of our work. It is understandable for one to desire something tangible or at least measurable from the effort he or she puts into a project. Yet how can one measure the positive effect he or she has had on a person’s life, given that it is not an outright increase of finances, living conditions, or something of that nature? Can we even expect to make a substantial difference if we are only with these organizations for four months? It is indeed important to ask these questions, but it is even more important to ignore them, for they are counterproductive and even selfish. Instead of wasting our energy desperately searching for something to claim direct responsibility for, we should accept that we may not be able to know how great our impact will be and focus instead on trying our best, day in and day out. It would be more useful to examine how we can best assist future volunteers or how we can avoid creating a situation in which our absence will harm these organizations than to look for something specific to claim credit for.
Having asked these questions and properly ignored them (at least for now), we are much better prepared to begin an entirely different service assignment in the village come mid-January. We will be able to adapt to the work environment more quickly, and we will not have as much trouble with pesky expectations of humanitarian grandeur. Further, we are looking to our last month of volunteer work here in Accra with optimism as we look for ways to foster some kind of sustainable growth in our respective organizations. Most of us have expressed sentiments that this is best done by increasing involvement with co-workers and working within the already established frameworks. Aria, for instance, has many ideas to improve the daycare she supervises at Kimbu Creche from her past experience working with pre-schoolers; however, she has stated that the best way for her to implement changes is to “communicate more closely with the teachers [to] brainstorm ways to make the classes more effective.” Kathleen also hopes to support her co-workers more, for she recognizes that they are the most important components of a functioning autism center. Making them feel encouraged and appreciated is one of the best ways for her to indirectly benefit the children in the long run. Nick is currently coordinating fundraising efforts to provide some much needed supplies to the school that will ease the stressed teachers’ work. He has already raised enough to purchase an English dictionary for each student, and he hopes to raise enough to replace the school’s chalkboards with dry erase boards. These kinds of improvements will have an impact that, while not directly measurable, will produce a ripple effect. While we may never know exactly what this effect will be, we have learned to be content with our service assignments and make the best of them.
Our experiences thus far have served us very well, and it is with bold strides that we continue traveling the path of service. Some days we may feel, as Jessica has put it, “distinctly like a cog—functional and necessary, but replaceable;” however, we cannot question the value of the work we are doing. Do your part, and do it well: that is the humanitarian charge. And we are trying our best to do just that in Ghana, West Africa.