Jessica Dingman, a hospital social worker in Washington state, visited Ghana in March 2011 as a volunteer through Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS places volunteers in a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe for between one and 12 weeks. Program fees start at about $1,900 and include placement, activities, lodging at a home base, meals and safe water, ground transportation, medical insurance and pre-departure support. Volunteers are responsible for airfare and the cost of obtaining a visa and necessary immunizations.
Jessica volunteered in a hospital in the town of Hohoe, in the Volta Region of Ghana, where the Ewe people make up the majority of the population. I asked her some questions about her experience in Ghana and with CCS. All of the photos are hers.
Q: How did you hear about Cross-Cultural Solutions?
I just looked online and researched various different volunteer programs. I really liked how Cross-Cultural Solutions was set up to include volunteering, cultural immersion activities, excursions and free time. It seemed like a safe way to travel to Africa on my own for the first time. The meals, lodging and transportation were included and I had help navigating all of the preparation that was needed prior to travel (visa, immunizations, etc.).
Q: Why did you decide to participate, and how did you choose Ghana?
A few years ago I had started the process to go Ghana with the same program for three months (for a quarter of my Masters program). Unfortunately, my father passed away quite suddenly and that was put on hold. At the time, I was in college and had more free time. Now that I have a full time job, the most I can really take off is a week or two at a time. This seemed like a way that I could still get to do what I had wanted to, even if it was for a shorter period of time. I was concerned that a week in Ghana wouldn’t be enough time, but it was amazing how much I was able to experience in a week. It definitely left me wanting to go back though!
I am a social worker in a children’s hospital, so I decided that I would volunteer in a hospital in Ghana. My mornings consisted of volunteering at the local hospital (Hohoe Municipal) in the children’s ward. The first day, I was able to tour the whole hospital including the emergency room, physical therapy unit, HIV clinic, prenatal clinic and the mortuary. The waiting rooms were all open air, and there were often chickens and goats wandering through.
The hospital overall was nicer than I had imagined, but many of the supplies were old and it definitely didn’t seem very hygienic. I think there were only a few doctors covering the whole hospital. Many of the children in the unit had malaria, colds and diarrhea, and many had been there for months with all-over-body burns. I was told that many children get burned with the boiling pots of water left outside for cooking. The nurses told me that when children have cancer, tumors or more serious illnesses that they are sent to the larger hospitals in bigger cities. My role was really just to play with the kids. I brought activities and just coloring and looking at books made them so happy. I brought a few pictures from home, which were a big hit.
The first day at my volunteer placement was a little rough. It was hard to find my role. The nurses weren’t very welcoming and they didn’t seem to have anything for me to do. The next day I had practiced some words and the traditional welcome, I made more of an effort to connect with the staff and they welcomed me with open arms. I think I was probably misreading them due to my own anxiety. I really had to just make myself busy holding babies, talking to parents and playing with the kids. They hadn’t had many volunteers at the hospital other than medical students, so the idea of “play” in the hospital seemed foreign to them. I ended up loving my placement by the end and it was sad to say goodbye.
In the afternoons we would have lunch and then head off to an excursion. We went to a waterfall, a monkey sanctuary, to the market, participated in traditional dancing and drumming, learned how to “batik” which is who they imprint their fabric, and attended a traditional church service. We had some free time to walk around the community and get to know some of the local people. Everyone was so nice, friendly and interested in learning about our culture. We really did stand out. We were the only volunteers there, and we were definitely not in a tourist area.
All of our meals were prepared by staff who lived in Ghana, so it was authentic and fabulous. The mangoes were to die for. We showered using buckets and garbage cans of water in the hallway. It was a unique experience that made me realize how much water we waste here. You can really get clean with just a few buckets of water! This also made me more appreciative of the luxuries we have here, and not to take them for granted, or misuse them. The mosquitoes weren’t as bad as I thought, which I was grateful for. The weather was hot, but every afternoon there was a huge rainstorm and all of the power in the town would go off; in fact, the power was out more than it was on.
Q: How was your experience with Cross-Cultural Solutions?
I would absolutely travel with Cross Cultural Solutions again. The staff was amazing. In fact, I am already thinking about my next trip. I would love to go to Belize, South Africa or India next. It is a great way to travel on your own, meet great people and experience new cultures in a short amount of time. While I think two weeks would probably be better than the one week, I was amazed at everything I was able to experience in just a week! I didn’t feel any jet lag until I got home. There was too much to do and see to be tired. The program also connects all of the volunteers by email, before the trip so you have a chance to get to know one another before meeting, which makes it less intimidating going into.