The taxi was firmly lodged into the mud that day as we tried to make our way to the school. A twenty-minute drive away sat our volunteer house, right next to Mpraeso: the capital of the Kwahu South district in the Eastern Region of south Ghana. The word ‘capital’ suggests BMWs prowling the roads or shops lined with the likes of Ted Baker, when in reality, women here sit among stalls wreathed in home woven fabrics or laden with fruit.
The squawking of chickens and the sound of Twi, often mixed with some of the other tribal languages (Ghana is home to over seventy tribes, all with their own individual language), fills the market from dawn until dusk. The houses in the surrounding villages resemble lidded, concrete boxes; their size the sort that you’d pull the short straw for in your University house, but here are often home to a family of ten.
Drivers are normally well adapted in avoiding the holes covering the roads around Mpraeso. The stray cars and taxis that rarely venture down them often carry a spare tyre in the back as a ‘just in case.’It was a Tuesday morning, 8am Ghana time and it had rained the night before, filling the small craters in the road with thick sloshy mud. The five of us, taxi man included, got out and tried to push the car forward but the tyres had sunk in deeply.
Another car drove down the dirt track and four Ghanian ladies, smartly dressed with perfectly patted weaves, tried to help us, but as our driver switched the engine on and revved the car, the classical splattering of mud fanned upwards covering the poor women’s dresses. They left soon after that, muttering and wiping away stray flicks of mud from their faces. We stood around the taxi, the five of us a sweaty mess and a good mile away from the school.
It soon became clear that the taxi was not going to move so we started to walk. We’d taken this journey for the past three weeks and the hole-filled track was familiar to us. For miles around there was leafy vegetation broken up by similar dusty paths. Herds of goats and cows shambled along every now and then, lazy and hot in the rising, morning sun.
As we walked, the clearing became closer and we could see a cluster of cows surrounding a large trunk, enjoying the shade they had found. They watched us, with tails moving and ears twitching until the children’s’ squeals started and they backed away, eyes rolling. The children were so much fun. I think that’s the right word to describe them.
They were almost every definition of ‘happy’ but as a tangible, live representation. I remember during a teachers’ football match, I sat to watch with some of the children and asked them what made them happy. One of the boys, Aaron, piped up, ‘when I am at school learning’. I smiled at him and he smiled back then went back to sucking on the soggy rice bag clutched in his hand.
Victoria thought for a few seconds, she was a pensive, serious eleven-year old with strong cheekbones and a demeanour that sometimes made me feel as though she was the adult and I the child. ‘When I pray’ she said. I smiled at her too and she nodded as though confirming it to herself, as though that question was not one she’d ever really considered before.
The month I spent in Ghana ticked all of the stereotypical boxes expected when travelling around somewhere considered a ‘developing’ country: eye-opening, inspiring, incredible, soul-settling. I can try my best to arrange words together to give an impression of the sort of place it is but of course I can’t do it justice.
I remember arriving home in England and standing in my kitchen, shaking my head at how it didn’t seem possible that these two places: my kitchen and Victoria’s outside cooking pot, exist in the same world.
A trip to a place like Mpraeso is humbling at any age, but as a student with decisions and coursework weighing heavily on me, I felt that Ghana shifted my perspective. Seeing young girls with real baskets of work (plantain chips or bottled water) weighing heavily on their heads, I felt a jumbled mixture of shame and gratitude, a feeling I still get now.
If you’re considering taking a trip then book it today. Not only was the experience humbling, it was exciting and awe-inspiring. I was lucky enough to take a shower in a waterfall, to jump from a boat into Lake Volta, to dance on a bar in Cape Coast, to eat fufu with a family from one of the poorest communities, and to meet some wonderful people: volunteers, children and adults.
If you’re unsure about which company to go through there are some great ones out there. I’d advise doing your research before booking though just to feel more secure. I went with Original Volunteers and this was the second trip I’ve taken with them, so from my experience they’re a reliable and excellent company.
DMU Global also have opportunities to travel abroad. They are currently offering a trip to India for students and have excellent schemes to help with finances and planning. I would advise you to start browsing now, as a student with a four-month summer coming up; this is certainly the best time to do it!