It takes a special person, with a big heart and love for children, to volunteer abroad in an orphanage. Michelle, 21, is a native of Bedfordshire who was an orphanage assistant in Ghana. Here’s her story…
What were you doing before you went abroad?
I had just finished my placement year, which is part of my psychology degree at Loughborough University.
Why did you want to volunteer abroad?
I wanted to learn about life in a culture completely different to my own, and experience what it’s like for people living in poverty in an African country.
What did the job entail?
I spent time with the children living in the home, played games with them and helped them to learn English. The children were mostly independent in terms of looking after themselves, but they needed love and attention.
Do you need to be qualified to do this kind of work?
How much money did you have to raise to go out there?
I paid a programme fee of around £500 which also included language lessons and a village stay. My flights were around £600. There were no requirements for the programme other than being able to speak fluent English. This is because I went with a Ghanaian charity and not a European one, so they don’t have many requirements, they are just eager to receive volunteers.
Did you get paid or was food or accommodation included?
Accommodation and food was included in the programme fee. I stayed at the orphanage and food was cooked for me by staff members.
Did you have to organise visas and so on?
Yes I organised my tourist VISA and made sure I got the injections I needed.
What was an average day like?
I would wake up usually at about half five in the morning when I could hear the children running around the orphanage. We would all sit outside cooking breakfast, which was cooked on the fire. Then I would go to the market with the children, who would all carry huge amounts of food like yams or rice back on their heads. They often had to walk very far in the heat just to have food to eat that day. Despite all the hard work the children had to do, they had plenty of time to play. In the afternoon we would play games and I would help some of the children to read English. There was no electricity in the orphanage so after dinner it would start to get dark and we would sit in the dark singing songs until the children were tired and went to bed.
Did you find language a problem?
Sometimes it was difficult to communicate but I was surprised how much you can understand despite the language barrier. The children were so easy to get along with and play with even though they couldn’t understand me most of the time.
What did you do on your cultural program?
I had a week of language lessons (Twi) where I learnt some basic phrases which helped me to get by in Ghana. We had lessons in the morning and then we would explore the town in the afternoons, returning to our host families in the evening time. When our language lessons finished, we went to stay in an Ashanti village called Ntiribuoho, where we learnt about how the locals live their lives. As part of the programme we took part in farming, palm wine tapping and collected water from the well, to try and experience life as part of the village. The locals found it very amusing when we struggled to carry buckets of water on our heads! We also watched local dance and drumming performances, and spent time getting to know the villagers. It was fascinating to learn about their cultural practices.
What were the hardest challenges/negative parts?
It was challenging to be brave when I was put in difficult situations where I didn’t know anyone. I’m quite shy!
And the best bits?
Getting to know so many new people and hearing about the way they live their lives was fascinating. The children were so strong and sweet despite what they have been through and it was a pleasure to spend time with them.
Most memorable moment?
When I returned back to the orphanage from a weekend of travelling and all the children ran to greet me, pushing each other out of the way so that they could hug me first.
I met so many people who were kind and welcomed me into their lives and their homes. Ghanaian people are so warm and generous – it’s almost unnerving at first! I also became close friends with two girls who were volunteering. It was great to have their company throughout my trip, and to share so many experiences with them.
Is there any type of social life?
Ghana is a very sociable country. I didn’t go clubbing or anything like that because that isn’t what I went to do, but there were always people around and places to explore. We went travelling at weekends and were always busy.
Would you do it again or recommend it to others?
I would do it again if I could. I’d like to go back one day. I would definitely recommend it to others, being part of this culture and spending time with the children was an amazing and humbling experience.
Any advice for people thinking of volunteering?
There are so many charities that need volunteers it’s difficult to decide which one is the most appropriate. And when you get there its easy to feel like you want to help everyone but you can’t. Remember that you can’t change the world by yourself, but you can spread the word about what life is like in these countries and encourage people at home to appreciate what they have.
Is there anything you know now that you wished you’d known before you went out there?
Through my web research I found a Ghanaian partner company who put me in contact with MCDC. I had a bad experience with the Ghanaian company and they currently owe me six hundred pounds which I am having trouble getting back. I would encourage future volunteers to contact the MCDC directly or go through a respectable partner company with links in the Western world. See recommended companies below.
Would you recommend MCDC?
I would recommend the charity, as they work hard to ensure volunteers feel at home and get the most out of their experience. They are currently working on building a school so need as many volunteers as possible.