What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

After my stint as a teacher in Taiwan, I returned home to Canada, where I worked a few different jobs. It was great to be back in Waterloo, living with Royce and some other friends who were either working in the area or wrapping up their degree.

But the travel bug had bitten me hard, and I was keen to add some more stamps to my passport. So as the end of my latest work contract drew nearer, I plotted my next move. After some late-night Googling, I zeroed in on my next overseas adventure — this time volunteering on a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana.

A few weeks later, I arrived at the camp in darkness. Without electricity, it was hard to see much of anything in this settlement, home to more than 40,000 asylum seekers. Our van’s headlights offered myopic glimpses of our surroundings as the driver slowly navigated the maze of rutted, dirt roads toward the volunteer guesthouse.

A crumbling brick wall … A pile of garbage … A group of men shielding their eyes from our lights as we lurched past them.

What the hell did I get myself into? I thought as I bounced in my seat next to the other international volunteers. Sweat poured down my face as my stomach churned — partly from nerves, partly from the bumpy ride, partly from the dodgy mystery meat I had eaten at the airport.

I had signed up to work for two months with a local water and sanitation organization. I hoped I would last two days.

The next morning, the hot African sun made things a lot brighter. I got to know my little corner of camp. I successfully untangled and set up my mosquito net. I met some of the neighbours and played with the throngs of kids hanging outside the guesthouse. Still, I had a lot to learn.

I constantly got lost attempting to find my way through twisting streets and cramped alleyways that ran between squat concrete shelters. The refugees’ thick accents and pidgin English led to more than one awkward exchange. Even the currency in my pocket took some getting used to as I discovered when I forked over 10,000 cedis for a beer instead of 1,000.

Everywhere I turned, my senses were assaulted and confused. A man charged past me using a wheelbarrow as a makeshift ambulance to carry his friend to the clinic. The unfamiliar smells from food stalls made me queasy. Loudspeakers blaring religious sermons at five in the morning wrenched me out of fitful sleeps.

Gradually though, things started to click. I learned which vendors sold the best goat soup and which ones were guaranteed to give me ferocious diarrhea. I eventually wrapped my head around how the camp was laid out, learning the configuration of the different zones and the shortcuts between them. I even figured out how to flag down a tro-tro minibus and find the one that would take me to the capital city.

Most importantly, I started to get to know the residents. At first, the throngs of people were nameless faces. I painted them all with the same brush — to me, they were just “Liberian” or “refugees.” However, as the days and weeks wore on, I learned more and more of their names and stories.

I got to know James and Whinnie, a lovely couple who had recently had a baby. They welcomed a few of us into their modest home where they made us cassava-based fufu for dinner.

I became friends with a 25-year-old named Samuel, who was the same age as me. He showed me the pot-holed dirt field where he and his friends played soccer, gave me a tour of the high school he attended in camp and introduced me to his family, who had fled the war in 1998. His father wasn’t there. He had been murdered in front of Samuel back in Liberia.

I met thirteen-year-old Rebecca, who was writhing in agony on a bed in the clinic. Her dad looked on, clearly suffering from a profound pain of his own as he watched his daughter suffer. “The medicine is there,” he told me. “But I can’t afford it.”

I also spent many hot days digging wells alongside some of the refugees. Between the swings of the pickaxe, I got to know Bernard, Patrick, Friday, Isaac and the other members of the water and sanitation crew. These people were busting their butts to provide safe drinking water for their families and community, and all of them had powerful — and too often, horrifying — stories to tell.

I soon realized how insultingly narrow and reductive the term “refugee” was. These were teachers, farmers, engineers, parents — everyday folk who were forced to endure unspeakable atrocities, leave everything behind and flee for their lives. By the time we completed the new well in Zone 1, it was abundantly clear that these were the strongest people I’d ever met.

I arrived in the Liberian refugee camp in darkness. My late-night van ride allowed me to only see bits and pieces of a much larger and more complex world. But with time, effort and an open heart and mind, I began to see things a bit more clearly. After two months in Ghana, I had only scratched the surface. But getting to know a bit about these people was a good first step.

My time in the camp reminded me to dig deeper. It’s easy to make snap judgements about people and resort to convenient labels. But everyone has a story to tell, if we only take the time to learn about the obstacles they’re facing.

We might assume the homeless woman on the street corner is just a lazy drunk. However, her story may be one of mental illness and a series of unfortunate circumstances outside her control.

It may be simpler to dismiss your irritable co-worker as an infuriating jerk. But look a little closer and you may find that he hasn’t been getting much sleep lately because he’s caring for a sick relative or going through some tough financial times.

And that car that just cut you off and is barrelling down the highway? Your first instinct may be to lay on the horn and flip him the bird. But who’s to say his pregnant wife isn’t in labour in the passenger seat?

Ghana taught me that there’s more to any story than meets the eye. Going through cancer reinforced that lesson. Walking down the busy streets of Toronto, no one would know I was fighting a deadly disease. Just like I didn’t know anything about the struggles they were facing.

Both experiences reminded me to be gentler with people — to make more of an effort to put myself in their shoes, understanding that we’re all just doing the best we can to get by in this wild world.


Next: Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience