Developing a just society based on equity and equal opportunities for all with respect for diversity.

Friday, September 5, 2014

7 months in Tamale, Northern Region, Ghana

I thought I would share some of my thoughts and musings on my experience as  a Team Leader for International Citizen Service (ICS) in Ghana, from what made me apply for the position, to where I am now, about to end my placement.

Last September, whilst enduring a horrific time working for a very corporate, private software business, I realised that, although I needed a change and a new direction for my career, that particular foray into the world of Big Business was not the way to go. All my previous work had been in the development and social care sector, and I knew that ultimately, I want to be where diversity, social change and empowerment are celebrated. I need to work where my beliefs are reflected. I had never worked overseas and had always wanted to, and as I wasn’t getting any younger, I decided to look at what my options were. Welcome ICS.

I had initially applied through Progressio, one of the other organizations running the ICS programme, yet the central hub chose to place me with International Service. And following my assessment by them, I then became Team Leader for RAINS in the Northern Region of Ghana. Definitely the change I needed.

Ghana Team Leaders at Heathrow pre-departure - that's me on the left!

So what have I learnt during my time here in Ghana? There’s so much to choose from, from personal, cultural and professional development, but here are some of the highlights:

Orientating new volunteers to the country and the programme – a 5 day orientation programme after me and the other team leaders had only been in-country ourselves for a few weeks was certainly a challenge, but we managed it. This taught me so much in relation to safety, adjustment to a new culture, clear communication about expectancies and required work, and building teams who understood and inspired each other.

Ice breakers during orientation week

Working in a Ghanaian NGO – sharing an office with the other project officers in RAINS has been a wonderful experience in sharing ideas, seeing how other people work, and having the chance to work together. Particularly understanding how painstakingly working towards making a small impact in changing a community’s way of thinking, and working out exactly how to work with the skills and needs of a community, in a culturally sensitive way, is the essential foundation to making any short, medium or longterm change.

Mandela Day at Mandela Development Centre - some of the RAINS family!

 Managing a cross-cultural team and multiple projects – Having equal numbers of UK and Ghanaian volunteers on the team has been really insightful, as well as challenging in discovering how the cultural difference, as well as unique personalities, results in very different work styles and ideas of the team members. Our 3 major projects of Farming for Futures, Students for Schooling and Safe Choices has given me the opportunity to create and co-ordinate their project plans, as well as overseeing the volunteers in delivering the work.

Working with local volunteers – This was where I learnt the most. Any idea is useless unless you use the expertise, support and knowledge of the community. The opinions of the in-country volunteers regarding what is and isn’t a suitable way of tackling an issue was paramount. I’ll always remember Justice (ICV) saying ‘One way to hide something from an African is to put it in writing’, along with the shocking contrasts between our 2 cultures when it came to suggesting standard UK ways of delivering sessions aimed at teaching about sexual health. It took a while to ease the in-country volunteers into conducting condom demonstrations in front of an audience, but this slightly controversial activity was accepted with great interest by our target group of young people, if accompanied by the globally recognized sex-talk giggle. Discussing abortion or, God forbid, masturbation though? Forget about it. Striking a delicate balance of providing comprehensive information alongside religious sensitivity is now something I consider much more now. And in Ghana, if you can tie in your awareness activity with religion, such as declaring to richer students how they can support their less fortunate counterparts by donating their old or unwanted school stuff, which in turn makes them a good Christian or Muslim, you’ve captured their attention!

Teaching birth control through drama
 Working in and with local communities – Having local contacts in a community is vital for reducing the ‘them and us’  syndrome, and especially when dealing with a sensitive topic such as teenage pregnancy, it makes it easier to gain the support of a community when they can associate you with something positive, so they trust that their people will gain from our involvement. So the team at Create Change, the community volunteers in Nayorku, the Heads and teachers who have all been supportive and open minded in hearing about or projects, they have been invaluable. It’s an incredible experience when the village chief not only agrees to your work, but openly praises your efforts. The huge bag of groundnuts we were presented with went down extremely quickly, thankyou!

Loads of groundnuts drying at the Nayorku Chief's Palace

Living in Ghana – Finally, I’ve learnt a lot about the place and the people. Seeing the land change from scorched red earth, to a waterlogged expanse of crops is amazing. Every tree seems to have some use and purpose, and the knowledge of the local populations helps preserve their ability to survive when there is no rain. I just hope that climate change doesn’t lengthen their dry season further, and that development doesn’t lead to the loss of vital local, traditional practices.  

Getting fat on kenkey and aleyfu, losing it during Ramadan, and gorging on tiger nuts, shea fruit, too many mangoes and avocados, I’ve certainly begun to share Ghanaians love for eating more than you think is possible.  And experiencing the various levels upon level of bureaucracy that seem to be inefficient, yet celebrated here – the supermarket bagging system is always testing my patience, yet I’m starting to accept it as one of the many ‘quirks’ of Ghana!

Celebrating Sala, end of Ramadan at local mosque

But the main thing I think I’ve learnt is the renowned relaxed attitude of most Ghanaians. Too relaxed for the British work ethic it seems, so I’ve tried to accept in order to adapt. Unfortunately this relaxed attitude often stems from experiencing REAL worry and stress before – such as war, hunger, illness – so compared to these, why would you worry about being 10 minutes late (or 3 hours!). The Western afflictions of anxiety, depression, low self esteem etc, are less present here, and I think we can learn a lot by looking at children and adults with few possessions and preventable medical conditions, smiling and laughing because they are enjoying LIFE, the sacred gift they have been given, and boy are they going to get the most out of it.

The new Team Leader for RAINS is coming imminently, so we look forward to meeting her and welcoming her into the RAINS family. I’m certainly grateful and glad of my experience here, and for future fellow ICS volunteers coming to Ghana, I’m jealous!

Miranda Lawton.

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