The Spider and the Sky God.

1 Mar

Living like a local in the poorest continent in the world

To say Africa has always had some sort of appeal to me would be a massive understatement. Eventually the allure of a black continent ravaged by competing white nations, robbed of its natural resources and rebuilt on a sort of corrupt fragility grew too much. So I researched, and read, and re-read, until I came across a three month long volunteer project in Ghana. It was run by BUNAC, a non-profit organization run by students, for students. And so it began.

After a few months fundraising for the project, including a ten-hour long stint of drumming, I boarded my flight to Accra in Ghana, leaving England and Western civilization behind. Ghana, situated in a pocket of English colonization between the Francophone Togo, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, is often referred to as the ‘Gateway to Africa’, on account of its accessibility and relative stability. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a complete culture shock. Cold showers, pit toilets, and the novelty of being a minority race soon shook me to the core, and revealed some humble truths.

My volunteer project involved working with HIV/AIDS around Ghana’s second city and home of the Ashanti Kingdom, Kumasi. I was teaching the susceptible how to prevent it and get tested for it, encouraging those living with it not to be ashamed of it, and trying to educate, removing the stigma surrounding people living with HIV that has painted them as contagious, dangerous and even offensive. It wasn’t easy. The lack of education was astounding; people assuming that HIV could be transmitted even through hand-holding or kissing.  Some didn’t believe it existed, or that it was a curse from an obayifo (a vampire-like witch) or even a plot by the US government, making my job that little bit more difficult, especially as we entered more rural villages and townships.

The challenges of the work notwithstanding, I still had time to enjoy myself, travelling all around Ghana and into bordering Togo. I saw elephants in Mole National Park, splashed in the Kintampo Waterfalls, went surfing in the treacherous Gulf of Guinea, fed wild monkeys by hand, was introduced to the local cuisine, food such as the starchy pastes banku and fufu, with an assortment of meats (don’t rule out things like cat and dog meat in some of the less reputable outlets), and delved into the culture of the Ashanti, stories of people such as Okomfo Anokye, the Ghanaian equivalent of Merlin, and Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Mother of Ashanti who led a rebellion against British colonialism that claimed the lives of a thousand British and allied soldiers, with far more girl power than any Spice Girl can claim.

Africa is a place of paradoxes. The weather goes from baking heat in the day to cold tranquillity at night, from a parched, dry day to a soaking wet one. The wealthy sit in their tower blocks in the capital Accra, basking in their opulence whilst the poor struggle over their next meal. Some Africans will treat you as an honoured guest, others as a hostile invader, some as a money pit waiting to be tapped, others still as a ticket to the hallowed, Hollywood-inspired African dream of Western civilization. My three months there were characterized by these, ups and downs, but that was what made it so epic, so life changing. The amount of effort I put into it equated to how rewarding it was, and how much I grew as a person out there.

What made the project possible was the support from BUNAC. Their support at home in securing a Ghanaian visa and preparing for my trip proved invaluable, and their representative office in Ghana, SYTO, afforded me the luxury of local knowledge, an orientation to the country and its customs and help with the incredibly taxing and confusing system of inter-African visas, necessary for my foray into Togo. BUNAC were so helpful and instrumental in this absolutely life-changing event that I am going with them again in the summer, this time to America for four months, and I implore anyone considering travelling in the summer or after graduation to consider taking that leap of faith, however difficult it might be – and on account of my experience, I can most certainly recommend it.

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