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Volunteers' Stories





Volunteering to Care for Orphans and Pre-School Children in Accra, Ghana


'Imagination is the key’ is the motto of Uniqueen Academy, located North of the Capital, Accra, in a large town called Dome - where I chose to volunteer for two months in October and November 2009. As far as I am aware, all schools in Ghana have a motto. Among others were ‘Kingdom Occupiers‘ and ‘Success is key’. Call me biased but my favourite has to be Uniqueen‘s ‘Imagination is key’. One does not have to be successful in life to bring happiness and rewards, but a little imagination can be potentially valuable, certainly more exciting without putting a price on it. I practiced a little imagination, which in turn led to taking initiative and it has been very rewarding.

I am delighted to say that ‘Auntie Eunice’ (founder and head teacher of Uniqueen Academy, formerly known as Uniqueen Kindergarten), gave me the inspiration to want to make a difference to this school. With the encouragement from the other teachers and her family, and the financial support from Travellers Worldwide / British Gap Foundation and the generous contribution from my own dear friends, we managed to give the Academy a full cosmetic face lift for want of a better description amongst other benefits to the children and the development of the primary school. (Specifics of improvements indicated further down).

It was instant friendship with Auntie Eunice and the other teachers - my first full day at the school as an assistant was Tuesday October 6th. Two days later after having spent time in the classroom with these gorgeous children, I was in Accra, at the main central market buying essential reading books amongst other materials after I had expressed that I wanted to contribute a small way with my own funds. Before I knew it, 8 weeks later, I was saying goodbye on Thursday, November 26th flying home. Just where did the time go?

Why is Uniqueen so special?

I have asked myself over and over again. I don’t know if I know the answer frankly. Perhaps it is because people like Auntie Eunice have such a big heart, they love to share, lead a lifestyle much less complicated than our own in a developed world. Few complaints if any at all and only ever obliging. I admire people like Auntie Eunice. Her average work day is 12 hours; sweeping the outside dusty ground before receiving the first handful of youngsters at 06.30am. (School starts officially at 07.30am but some parents will drop there children off extra early if they are working in the city). Not only is she the head teacher, but she cooks the school lunches, washes the 40 dirty dishes and entertains the little ones after school too (and that is just her main responsibilities as well as finding time to food shop and take care of her own family).

The school officially finishes at 14.00 but the parents come to collect their children anytime between 15.30 and 18.30. I think that is a pretty remarkable character to admire! And she still blesses us everyday with her warmth, boundless energy and laughter!

I feel privileged to have met such a person. I have travelled in other parts of Africa, the world in fact but only on excursions, never as a volunteer. I came away with a new perspective on life. I was raised without taking anything for granted but even so, I now appreciate the western lifestyle much more than I ever did before. Having electricity constantly is a good example! (Even when I worked in the middle of the Sinai desert for 4 years, we did not always have electricity nor water but that inhospitable environment was actually easier to live in than Ghana sometimes).

In my last week, when all we set out to achieve was complete, Auntie Eunice called me Angel Becca. Irrespective of whether you are religious or not, that is quite a touching compliment no? I certainly took it that way. We laughed and argued over who was the bigger of the Angels. I told her she won hands down after all she has achieved having built her own ’Academy’ from scratch!

I was stuck when Auntie Eunice asked me to teach the children a nursery rhyme as they were actually teaching me them. I had forgotten most of the songs. I decided to write my own Uniqueen Academy Jingle instead which Auntie Eunice adored and had all the children singing! I can hear the children now bless them.

“Oh Uniqueen, Uniqueen, Uniqueen,
We simply are the best.
The children are like toffee,
Dear Lord, we have been blessed.”

Now children, do remember, your ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’
Love your parents, and your teachers,
And the Lord will love you too……Amen!

God Bless you Auntie Eunice and Uniqueen Academy!

The Host Family
I was blessed yet again when I met my host family. Sister Lizzie as I called her and her 5 children were all so obliging and lovely. My goodness, as soon as I arrived two of the boys were carrying my 30 kilo suitcase between them and showing me to my room! I could not have asked for a better service at a smart hotel! Lizzie was very sweet and only ever aimed to make me happy!

One of the reasons I chose to live with a host family as opposed to a hostel with other volunteers was so that I could quickly learn and understand the Ghanaian lifestyle. This I accomplished after my first week there. The fact that I did not come across any volunteers did not worry me at all as I was so well looked after by Lizzie and so busy with my projects at Uniqueen. I could not have been happier! I was blessed to be given the opportunity to accompany Lizzie to her church on two occasions. Definitely an eye opener for me as it was for the locals who saw me wear a traditional African dress bought by Auntie Eunice in appreciation for achieving what we did. Alleluia!

A story I shall never forget was when I showed the youngest child a photo of me shimmering across a rope in an obstacle course I took part in a couple of years ago. There was only blue sky in the background of the picture. She, being 6 years of age asked me if I was on my way to see Jesus? I laughed out loud and smiled at her. (Isn’t innocence wonderful? You cannot put a price on it!) I grinned and thought to myself, I sure hope not. I would like to do a little more living down here first of all please!

Another story which really touched my heart was when I brought back a pizza with me from the city. It was a ‘buy one get one free’. I did not think anything of it and just offered it to them and I could not have predicted the excitement that one ‘plain cheese’ could have brought. The icing on the cake was when I heard that the older boy of 15; he saved his piece and took it to school the following day and even the teacher asked if he could have a bite!!!! Watching them all, it could have been Christmas day! For those of you that enjoy pizza, remember this story when you next eat a slice!

I loved the day to day Ghanaian lifestyle - jumping in the tro-tro on my way to school. Every day brought something new. I experienced both taxi operating systems; the ‘drop’ that we are familiar with and the ‘share’ taxis. A shared taxi is as you might guess, is like taking a tro-tro with people you do not know but heading in the same direction.

My first shared taxi was a little different. I had treated myself to a taxi on one occasion (all of 60p instead of 10p in a tro-tro but still, it was a treat). Two women got in the taxi just before I was due to get out but we were held up in a traffic jam. They must have been in their early 20s. They asked me if I was happy and if they wanted to make me happy. (They must have been in recovery mode from a party I imagine but I did not smell alcohol on their breath). After I had acknowledged them I kept a low profile for the remainder of the journey which fortunately was short! Totally harmless people though.

On another occasion, I took a shared taxi to Accra with two young businessmen. They were polite and respectful. I did not have any reservations about sharing a taxi with them. They were most inquisitive about my own background and how different Europe is from Ghana….

Even though I am always careful of course wherever I travel and to whom I talk to, I like to make an effort and greet the locals. Some of the faces that I saw in the mornings on the way to school and afterward work I would stop and talk to. In some respects, I felt like the local lady Vicar, waving to someone, or just saying hello even if not stopping to chat. I did make an effort to speak the local language of twi, but I did not get further than the ‘greetings’ depending on the time of day and asking how someone was and ‘thank you’. I liked to make an effort and was never put off even when they laughed at me, so I just laughed with them!

Nearly every evening, or when it was possible, Auntie Eunice would accompany me down to Atomic Junction. We would normally wrap up the day’s events or discuss what the following plans would be. A couple of times I would greet somebody by their first name. This surprised Auntie Eunice as much as anyone especially if she did not know them. It was wonderful!

Shopping Spree for the school
It was an absolute delight to go on a shopping spree with Auntie Eunice! So much nicer to share the joy of it all especially as she knows what is necessary for the children and materials to buy at the best price too! As a volunteer, we are encouraged to buy crayons, pencils etc. For those that are in a financial position to buy some goods for the school, wait until you are on location! It is much more fun to go shopping with a teacher and it is much cheaper too. We can get twice as much with Ghanaian prices!

A 50 kilo bag of rice I purchased provided the school lunches for a month, feeding circa 35 mouths, cost approximately £30.00.

My biggest contribution to the actual Academy was building a playpen. It soon became apparent that we needed to improve the facilities for the younger ones and ease the pressure on ‘Auntie Tina’, responsible for the crèche so that she could concentrate on some of the other youngsters without worrying about the adventurous crawlers amongst the party! The colourful playpen was quite popular and some of the parents expressed their admiration. A head teacher from a different school made a special visit with a carpenter as she wanted one made too. I was not aware of this at the time but I was delighted to hear it!

Generous contributions from well-wishers
Within my 3rd week there and falling more in love with Uniqueen Academy than I thought possible so early on, I decided to approach Travellers Worldwide, asking for financial support. I practised the principle “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. Well, we got and we got again!

Auntie Eunice and I prioritised what Uniqueen needed most and a list was sent. Within less than 24 hours I was able to share the wonderful news that Travellers would contribute the sum of £400.00 to the specific items that we had requested. My contact at the UK office, Katie, emailed me and followed it up with a welcoming phone call! This makes such a big difference - especially as a failure of electricity supply does not allow us internet access!

An additional £800.00 from a small party of good friends was also sent. On reflection, one of the reasons why I think there was such a terrific response within a 3 day turn-around between asking for donations and receiving them, is that as I was physically there to oversee the projects and monitor the roll-out. Perhaps that is why I received such a magnificent response…

I gave myself a deadline of 7-10 working days for the respective projects to be completed before my set departure date from Ghana. I had several meetings with Aloysius (Travellers’ rep) and we had his full support all the way! We accomplished the following; Two Uniqueen advertisement / direction boards - professionally designed and erected; one at the main junction and the other closer to the school, additional reading books were bought that were essential, paint for the exterior walls to make it more attractive, colourful artwork with a wooden sign reading “Welcome to Uniqueen Academy” was mounted by the principal gate, at least a 6 month supply of blackboard chalk, another 50 kilo sack of rice, additional smaller food and cooking items including charcoal, cleaning materials, repairs to Auntie Eunice’s freezer (when preparing meals in advance for the children), bags of cement, a full truck of sand, another truck delivering stone, iron rods (the latter three for the ongoing development of the primary school), overall workmanship and an official school mobile.

It might not seem a tremendous amount but when the budget is tight and one is spending a lot of one’s own money and trying to accomplish a lot in a short time frame, the challenge really is on!

Thank you again on behalf of Auntie Eunice as well as myself for your contributions! It really has made a significant difference.

The Birth of Uniqueen Academy
In addition to the supplies purchased, Uniqueen did not have a specific mission or value(s) of its own.

Auntie Eunice needed some material as she wanted to put an advertisement in her local church program when there was a special inauguration during my stay there. We laid down clear objectives and goals for the ad. A letter was also sent out to all the respective parents informing them of the new ‘Uniqueen Academy’ replacing ’Uniqueen Kindergarten’ so that they too can consider sending their child onto the school as some of the children move up into their next academic year into it.

This is a welcome to many of the parents as some of them had expressed to Auntie Eunice that they wanted their child to continue his / her education at Uniqueen!

This was really the stepping stone of building up the school and putting ourselves a step further up the ladder to compete against other schools especially as our goal is to have the primary school ready for the curriculum year September 2010. (This was further complemented by the ad / direction signs planted firmly in the ground to promote the Academy and give it more recognition - thanks to Travellers as already mentioned).

It is ambitious but we hope and pray that we can achieve this with more support from anyone who would like to make a difference! I am already saving my pennies to go back out there for part two!!!

Lessons Learned
When you get a quote for a job to be done, multiply it by two at least. To be even safer, multiply it by 3. I learnt the hard way but the results were appreciated by everyone so I don’t begrudge it but I am still the wiser. It was also my choice to travel less and put my money towards the Academy. If I had to do it all again, would I change anything? No, not a single thing.

‘Ghana’ time - I am laughing but I don’t know if I could ever really get used to this. We are warned about the ‘tro-tro’ (public transport) that might arrive in the next hour or next week or alternatively, if you set a meeting for 09.00am, expect them an hour later and you will not be disappointed. Also, set deadlines three days earlier than what you need so that you have a safety net to play with and constantly constantly, put pressure (in the nicest and diplomatic of ways) to those that are working for you.

I set myself my own challenges and loved every minute. I was as much out of the classroom chasing people who were involved in our projects as I was in the classroom, either changing nappies, dressing them, tying shoelaces, singing a nursery rhyme, laughing and cuddling the children, wiping the chalk from their faces, helping them write the alphabet or their numbers.

The biggest challenge was on my last day though, having to say ‘goodbye’, or rather ‘see you soon’. I thought I was prepared for it but I was a long way off! I don’t think one can ever be prepared for that. I’m playing the glad game though, I’ll be back at Uniqueen Academy!

“Angel Becca”

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