That time of year is upon us again in Ghana – the time where every international flight that arrives, pours out scores of the bright and bushytailed, the hopeful and positive, the naïve and trusting…
Most of them come for the summer, some come to build a school and leave, some come for 6 months or even 2 year contracts. I hear that some of them pay thousands of hard earned or raised money to come and volunteer.
Either way, they come, like pale ants, they line the streets of Osu (Accra's main strip - affectionately called Oxford Street), dressed in the vibrant local designs that clash and look garish against pale skin. They don boubous (flowing shapeless long originally muslim gowns- very comfortable and cool and not unsimilar to a big nightgown) and Birks, or local ‘Charlie wotee’ (pronounced CHAH-LEH-WO-THE) – the common cheap imported Korean flip flops on every foot in Ghana. They get ‘corn row’ braids, exposing the pink fleshy skulls, and weaving in various colours of plastic ‘hair’. They think it makes them look ‘local’. In reality it makes them look like new prey, fresh meat for the hustlers and the 419ers. It pegs them as idealist, naïve, giving, gullible.
They sit in cafes gibbering away happily in packs. 90% are female between the ages of 18 and 25. They come from upper middle class families from across North America and Europe. They scratch at the pocked calves which peek out between the boubous and the ‘Jesus sandals’, dotted with tender pink or brown scabbing remnants of mosquito bites.
And then they disappear out into the ‘bush’ to work with ‘the people’. They cram into the trotros (over crowded privately run vans/minibuses in lieu of a formal public transport system in the country), happily taking babies and parcels on their laps, smiling too widely at everyone. Trying not to look conspicuous but realizing slowly over time that an Obruni (the local term for white person) can never, ever ride a trotro without looking conspicuous. Maybe some of them never realize this.
Most are wearing very bright pink rosy glasses with which to view the new world around them.
Inevitably they will spend some days close to a toilet, worshipping from both ends, having been ‘cool’ enough to try the street food, with LOTS of pepper. Some will brave the ‘mystery meat’ in the stews…
They will be robbed, if not directly, then by coworkers who see a chance and inflate prices. By the taxi drivers and the market sellers seeing opportunity stare them in the face… By landlords and ‘friends’ and the system in general.
It’s a cycle. It's a system. They fit the role within it.
Now before I get accused of being horribly harsh and unnecessarily negative, I must qualify my observations. I know these girls. I am these girls. I lived it, breathed it, sat in the 40 degree trotro, stuffed like a sardine with 40 others (in a 12 person capacity van built in 1970) hundreds of times. I held babies and smiled a lot and pretended the density of human flesh, with it’s pungent overpowering smell was fine. Pretended that my knees against me, pinned in on both sides by the volumous arms of the market women, with the radio blaring at it’s loudest through fried speakers, bouncing without shock absorbers through the potholed roads of Accra was fine. In a way it was. What doesn’t kill you…
12 years on, I have the clarity of hindsight. I see the well of experience that lay ahead of me back then and I watch them all fall straight down it now, year after year, time after time.
More and more volunteers come each year. What with Angelina Jolie, Chris Martin and Bono engaging the Hollywood and corporate crowd in the plight of Africa and the value of ‘giving back’, it has become glamourous, trendy.
There are new organizations popping up both locally and internationally, cashing in on the guilt trip dolled out to the impressionable in the west. Help Africa! Give back. Donate your money and your time. VSO, Peace Corps, Operation Crossroads, African Impact, Volunteer for Africa, Volunteer Avroad, i-to-i, Right to Play, Save the Children, Fight for the Children, Go Africa, Oxfam, Ripple Africa, Wish for Africa, Teamworks Abroad, Unite For Sight, Stand Against Poverty, Global Volunteers, Cosmic Volunteers, GapYearGhana, Cross Cultural Solutions, the list goes on and on and on...
No one has looked much at the statistics regarding the success of all of the donations and exchange programs and volunteer time… but that’s another story. What counts is the rich experience everyone has.
I found a travel blog website and zoned in on Ghana and the stories of this year’s volunteer troups. The diaries and accounts read just like a book. A book I’ve read so many times. The positive attitude reigns – despite being pick pocketed in a trotro, being food poisoned at the dump of a hotel, having local groups only participate in the great programs if they are paid to join in. Fist fights breaking out when some villagers hear others were paid more... Meanwhile these programs are designed for their benefit. Sigh…
I ache to ask the new recruits – and mostly because I don’t know what I would have answered back in my volunteer days – “What is it you feel you need to give back? Why is it that you will put up with fraud, discomforts, delays, disorganization, filth, and so many other obstacles that you would never put up with back home?”. “What is it exactly that you took that you feel the need to give back?”.
Every one of them who actually does a job here will be frustrated and will feel despair at some point. Every one will marvel at the chaos and the poverty and the resignation they see around them.
But they will go back remembering the bright eyes of the children, the friendly banter with the market sellers, the journeys where they saw goats tied to the tops of trotros and Jesus stickers on the back windows. It will be the memories of the ‘kitch’ and the kindness not the overbearing corruption and chaos they will take away.
This in turn breeds more of their kind.
But then they meet me – the one who stayed too long. The one who hears the annoying patronizing nasal tone the children use when they chant “Obruni, obruni, give me a pen. Give me money, be my friend” and run off laughing. Instead of their innocence I see the way they are being programmed from a tender age to take advantage, to hold their hands out, perpetually begging, to accept the mess around them and not strive for better.
My perspective is dangerous. I’ve lost my pink glasses. Perhaps I should stay indoors this time each year.