International volunteering: by Douglas Mack
Everyone has volunteered their time for others before. However, not everyone has done so in a foreign land thousands of miles away from their home. Volunteering with Proworld, a nongovernment organization (NGO), gave me the opportunity to constructively give my time those in need in Ghana, Africa. Proworld is an NGO that touches multiple countries around the globe, and they are involved with a multitude of volunteer activities which they fuel with volunteers from all over the world. The entire Wayne State University Honors Ghana study abroad group had the opportunity to work with Proworld as we lectured school aged children on a verity of topics, addressed Ghanian civil rights to an older group, and manually aided in the construction of a library. Working with Proworld we were able to do more than just learn about problems and view the culture of the Ghanian society, we were able to make a visible positive impact with our short time visiting. There were pros and cons to working with Proworld, but doing so certainly changed my prospective as an American volunteer.
From what I know, Proworld did a lot of things to smooth over our trip from provide us food and transportation, as well as filling our schedule with meaningful volunteering activities. On the Proworld staff was kirsty, Mckala, Brynn, and Ben. All were very cheerful and seemed to do all they could to make us feel welcome, happy, and free to enjoy our Ghana experience to the fullest. From the moment we arrived at the airport Brynn was there to escort us to our bus and take us to our hotel which had food prepared for us. Soon we were introduced to Emanuel a Health and Life Protection (HALP) organization representative. Emanuel gave us information on the topics he wanted us to teach school children, and cheerfully explained the situation and what to expect. We taught children ages from what looked to be elementary school to high school, and in some of our cases all grades at once. The topics we covered ranged from sanitation and hand washing, to sexual education, to drug abuse. Luckily, coming from America, these were all topics our whole group was very accustomed to.
Teaching children in Africa was an experience that I will not soon forget because the memories are happy, gratifying, and eye opening. In the Rosenthal and Baer text I learned about traditional medicine as understood by probably many of the children I was going to teach to in the following days after Emanuel’s discussion. How was I going to teach children what I knew about bacteria and how it spreads when their community influence might say that disease and health are given to one by supernatural forces? Would they believe me? Fortunately for me and the rest of our group, the schools teach a western style of medical care (as gathered from most of the teaching staff I and our group talked to). However, I think it would have been a good idea if Emanuel explained a little more about how some children who believed in traditional medicine may have seen our style of western thinking. Maybe they would not have accepted our message as well as they would have if we bridged the gap between our cultures. We could of at least mentioned that we understand what they believe, but protect themselves by washing themselves with soap anyways for instance. However, the only instance where I really heard any kind of relation to traditional beliefs was when one person asked if they could transfer HIV/AIDS to another person through dreams. In retrospect, even though Emanuel told us to answer these types of questions, “NO, you can’t transfer HIV through dreams.” I now wonder whether it was civil to answer the question in that way. Maybe we should have been more careful to respect their culture and perhaps address the question more carefully.
Along with receiving a little more understanding of cultural relativity from Proworld or their affiliates, Proworld could have also done a few other things to improve our volunteering experience. When each person or our group was creating their lesson plans to teach our classes it was difficult to create because we did not know what the class room conditions were going to be. Proworld could have alieved some of this problem by bringing a white board and markers to each school to ensure there would be a board to write on. It would also have been a good idea to have a more concrete plan for distributing gifts. Many students mentioned that either the gifts made their class to rambunctious or they were not amused at all. It may have been a better idea to allow everyone to give their gifts at the conclusion of the lesion to the respective schools each student was at.
It is my hope that Proworld learned as much from us to improve as I learned from the children I taught. Never have I had to speak before an audience whose dominant language was different than my own. It was a major challenge to break this barrier as at times there was no one to translate, and if you asked if the class understood the class would respond “Yes Sir!” even if they didn’t. The trick was to be repetitive, use a lot of body language, and if available, use the chalk board. I can’t be sure if everyone understood what I was saying all of the time, or if they even understood the bulk of what I was talking about. As long as some of them did it is my hope that the others who did not understand would be interested enough to ask their class mates to find out.
See more pictures of children we taught HERE
Out side of teaching children we also had the opportunity to lecture to adults of varying ages about Ghanian civil rights. This event offered a very different experience than I had ever encountered before. Each one of us had about two sentences to put into our own words and enlighten our audience. However, for every one word that came out of our mouths it seemed like sentences came out of our translators. It felt like our prepared presentation was not important, but we just needed our bodies to be there to emphlaphy our translator’s message instead of our own. I understand the reason for doing it, our translator knew a lot more on the subject, and knew how to explain it to his people better than we could if he was talking for us word for word. However, it would have been nice to have know ahead of time that he was going to use what we said as a guide for his speech rather than a direct translation of ours.
Other interesting things happened at the civil rights discussion including a fired discussion on gay rights that threatened to turn into a wild fire. When the topic came about in our presentation, we were supposed to inform our audience that even the homosexual have the right to vote and do not deserve to be treated unfairly or aggressively. However, our group began to look more like a gay rights activists group than a Ghanaian civil rights group (which was supposed to have a tone of women sexual rights if anything), and almost set our audience into an uproar as our audiences culture did not approve of homosexuality and especially marriage between same sex couples. This fired debate coupled with church prayer being played for the whole area to hear, and very poorly placed power outages made many people uncomfterable, and probably even a little frightened.
All in all, even though things did not go smoothly in every situation it is the bumps that I will remember the most. I now have some familiarity with speaking in front of audiences that do not speak English as their first language, and I learned to address situations more carefully – to know my audience before I go before them, and to walk through other cultures with a lens of cultural relativity. In my opinion, everyone should have the opportunity to volunteer internationally and experience their own brush with bumps so that we all can be formed into the charters we wish to be.
Rosenthal, Judy. Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Print.
Forni, P. M. Choosing Civiligy. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2002. Print