Roman Christoforou – A Ghana summary

Roman volunteered with KickStart Ghana at our summer school and coaching with Dynamo FC during the summer of 2014. Here are his thoughts on his trip, the joys of fundraising and international volunteering. The following is taken from his blog.

So I’m back to where I started: by myself in a double bed with the covers annoyingly tucked under it so that you feel trapped and claustrophobic and frustrated, in a luxurious free hotel in Cairo, courtesy of Egyptair. The start of our trip was just under two months ago, but the start of the whole journey was way before then.

The first time I heard of the IP Project in Ghana was in December, where I saw an email advertising for project leaders to go to Ghana for the summer. I considered it for about two seconds, made a mental note to follow up on it and then carried on scrolling. The next time I heard about it, my flatmate and good friend Alex was telling me that he’d got this leader thing in Ghana. I congratulated him, as even at that time I could feel he would be a good candidate, and threw the thing from my mind.

A couple of months later, maybe in early February, Alex knocked on my door and asked why I didn’t join the team anyway. Good question. By that time applications were closed but apparently the project needed another person with coaching qualifications, so Alex turned (probably as last resort) to me.

Fast forward again a few months and cake-sales, and Alex and I were setting out on our ten-day trek from Exeter to Birmingham as part of our fundraising campaign. Looking back, it was one of the most memorable things I’ve done (who would have thought walking would be memorable?). The experience was a fantastic one, in which I think I enjoyed nearly every bit, including massive blisters and an endless A38. The worst bit of the whole campaign was definitely asking for sponsorship: it’s never something you want to do, asking people you know and strangers for their well-earned money. If (when) I do something like this again I’ll focus more on trying new things for fundraising, if possible, which would not involve the people I know, as it’s not their fault I’m being annoying! So to everyone who sponsored us, thank you very much and once again, sorry. I hope many of you agree with Alex’s favourite quote: giving is better than receiving!

So with our fundraising total nearly complete, on a Monday towards the end of July I boarded my flight from Barcelona to Cairo. Guess where I ended up? Yes, in a luxurious free hotel, courtesy of Egyptair!

So, was what happened in between the hotel visits worth the hassle?

Well, I’ll explain what we did in our time in Ghana and then hopefully we can decide.

After a night in Accra waiting for everyone to arrive, we all headed down to the beachside resort of Kokrobite to get to properly know the full team. At that point, I only had my first impressions of everyone: Alex, who I already knew, a figure of calmness and forgetfulness; Ellie, who I knew to a lesser extent, a twin who constantly baffled me regarding her identity; Becca, the last person whom I faintly knew, the founder of MetalSoc who ironically enough was a calm and organised person; Lydia, the eccentric and boisterous Irish who lived next to my block; Becci & Georgia, who for some reason I struggled to tell apart and whom the only thing I really knew about them was that they were already thinking about their wardrobe for Ghana; Joely, the IP person who was in charge of Sam Project; Sophie, the unintimidating interviewer who had been to Sierra Leone before; and Doug, the “Plug-For-Doug” guy that I had barely seen at meetings. Later on in the trip we were joined by David Kennedy, who was the brother of a girl who had been on the project the year before.

So that first week was interesting, and much needed, as we all needed to suss each other out before beginning to work with each other.

Exactly a week after arriving, we started our project in Ho, the capital of the Volta region. This meant awakening at around 7.30 to be at the school before assembly, which was at 8.15. Classes would follow, until 2.30pm with a 40 minute lunch-break to savour some mouth-watering (in taste and spice) dishes from Vivian, both a wonderful chef and person. At 1.30, however, there was the reading club, in which, as you might have gathered, children were encouraged and helped to read. So at 1.30 we would split up and those in charge of the reading club would head there, leaving us with a diminished yet manageable teaching force.

At 2.30 we all finished, except us boys who at 4pm were back at the school for football coaching. On Mondays we had the Under-12s, which for some reason I’m still yet to understand although rumours that it is to do with weight included some players that were 13; on Tuesdays we had the Under-15s, who had up to 16 year olds; on Wednesdays we had the Under-17s, of players up to 22 and 23; on Thursdays we mixed the U-12s and the U-14s; and on Friday we all came together to have 11 a side matches, as they have finished their season and therefore have no matches to in which they could showcase what they had learnt/not learnt.

The pitch we played on was the school ground and wasn’t the best pitch I’ve played on. Stones, gravel and long grass (although this did get cut twice) combined to create a sloping pitch which wasn’t ideal, yet more than playable! Their level was varied: generally, from my experience, I’d say they were similar in level to their Spanish counterparts, and their style was similar as well, which was surprising considering you never knew which way the ball would bounce. This has an explanation, as Doug and I both confirmed in Inverting the Pyramid: A complete history of football tactics, by Jonathan Wilson: their most popular game is a match in which the goal is a large rock. Therefore the games are dominated by players trying to weave their way through the middle of the pitch in order to score from close range, as defending teams often have a player covering the rock. Counter-attacks have little importance, whilst wing play and crossing barely exist.

So by the time us boys got back to the house, a ten minute taxi drive (everyone in Ghana uses taxis, as they’re everywhere and pick up anyone if they have space) away from the school, it was heading towards 6.30pm. Then we had to shower, eat and evaluate the day, headed by our coordinator Ruth, who was great fun yet still responsible at the same time. I didn’t know those two were a combination… So until 8pm and often after if there was still lesson and coaching plans to do for the following day we didn’t have much time to ourselves. By then we were exhausted, so it was put a film on and then go to sleep. (Copy and paste this for six weeks).

So that was the programme. In the classroom we were meant to be five volunteers at a time, although this rarely happened, and only did really when a group of cadets from Essex came and we had some of their leaders in our class to help us. Whilst five seems a lot (and is a lot), most of the time there was something to do as we separated them in to smaller groups to try and pay each individual child more attention.

Our lessons were based around four major aspects: cognitive development (so mental capacity, logic, solving problems etc…); social and emotional development (how they behaved in a group, discuss society, feelings etc…); Communicational skills, which are self-explanatory; and physical development which was mainly touched upon in David’s PE lessons. Having said this, a lot of our lessons partly took place outside to keep them dynamic and interesting. We did not teach them their own national curriculum: KickStart Ghana, the charity which we were with, employs teachers to do this who were also part of the summer school.

The reading club worked with five volunteers who had their own group, and who would work as a group through games or exercises to help them read; and with the one on one volunteers who took them one child at a time and helped them read out loud, whilst evaluating them for the charity’s purposes.

So how did I think it went?

On a whole, I look at it positively. On the footballing side, where I took a bigger role than in the school, there were some definite improvements and I would have loved to have stayed a few more weeks to properly ensure they had understood what we were trying to say. Our basic aim here was to make them more effective in front of goal and to work as a unit rather than individuals: the first aim was definitely achieved, however I felt that more work on the second, especially defensive, could have been useful. Fortunately Andy, a separate volunteer who arrived on our last week, is there for three months to carry on overseeing the development of the youngsters.

At school I felt I was less effective and certainly less motivated. That is not to say that I did not enjoy it, but anything compared to football tends to be less interesting. Having said this, our lessons were dynamic and interesting, so the children were generally entertained and learned quite a lot at the same time; and if the children were interested, basically I was as well. I felt that on occasion in class I was tired and could have contributed more, and if I have any regrets from the trip it is that, as sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture and carry on through.

Our last day was emotional, as you saw the children completely change for the day and became emotional, as did we. We finished it on a fun-day, with the four classes coming together and going through different stations: An obstacle course, an Ultimate Frisbee session, some mind puzzles, an art station, a music stop and a station where the Ghanaian teachers had their own football session going on. Then we had a graduation ceremony, and finally the sad goodbyes which were kept as brief as possible.

In the afternoon, however, it was football’s last day and we decided to have a full-out tournament which was a success as the turnout was very impressive, considering the Ghanaian culture (more to follow). Medals and trophies were handed out for all participants, and the winning team was presented with a yam (a sort of large yet rather tasteless potato) as a trophy. All in all that day was definitely one of the best of the whole summer, as the previous six weeks seemed to culminate in one amazing day.

Back to Ghanaian culture, it is very relaxed. There is a concept known as Ghana time, which basically means that nothing happens on time and everything is very chilled. You might arrange to meet with someone at 12, and at one it’d be perfectly normal to still be waiting. These sort of things are frustrating at the start, but one grows used to it and eventually welcomes it as it is away from the stress of a hectic day in the UK, where this concept known as time takes priority over everything else. Days start early and end late: to the point where one Saturday morning we ventured down for a kick-about at six-thirty and were told they were nearly finishing. Two weeks later we started at five-thirty in the morning: it is a fantastic time to play, as no one possibly could have commitments (in the UK, at least), before 8am, leaving you two and a half glorious hours of football.

As a group we got on very well. If I’m not wrong, Ruth said that we were, along with her group a few years back, the tightest she had seen. This could have been possibly down to some problems some members experienced which just brought us even more together, or because the people were downright nice people. Obviously there were minor disagreements and arguments, but nothing major and I think generally everybody felt comfortable in everyone’s presence. Note, this is not an easy thing when you are spending all your time with the same people for nearly two months. Yet I think we managed to do it well and I feel as if from this experience we all have gained friends that will last for a lifetime.

On the weekends we visited places together: we visited the picturesque Ada Foah, with its palm trees and beaches; we climbed the mountain next to us, a steep one and a half hours trek which we did when it coincided with the yam festival – everyone climbs it then, so it was a thoroughly enjoyable yet challenging climb; we visited a monkey sanctuary, danced with locals, visited the fantastically wonderful Mili falls, the highest waterfall in West Africa, and went home via Togo and our tro driver nearly got into a fight: all in one fantastic day, Sister Ellie’s birthday; we went to see how they weaved the Kente, a traditional method which literally takes ages to complete a piece, but the result is worth it; we went to Cape Coast and visited the famous slave castle there, and also went on a rainforest canopy walk which climbed up to forty metres high!

After the project finished, some of us visited Kumasi and a nearby lake. We were even fortunate enough to watch Ghana – Uganda, the weirdest football match I’ve ever seen, in the Africa Cup of Nations Qualifier. The market there was hectic: the biggest in West Africa!

The boys kept ourselves entertained during the weeks as well watching football at Stamford Bridge, a place where flocks of Ghanaian men would go to watch the games. Burnley – Chelsea was great fun, as Doug is a Burnley fan and there was a great atmosphere which matched the occasion.

The market in Ho was another place frequently visited: the girls had many a dress tailor made for them, whilst we all got shirts and various other pieces of clothing made for us. The process in itself was fun, as you flocked through the material shops and found the pattern you wanted, and then took it to a tailor who would make it for your size. Fun times. Uncle Rays Boutique was another regular weekly fixture, as he sold a vast number of sports clothes including football shirts at ludicrously low prices. I won’t disclose how many Doug and I bought either for ourselves or as presents, but let’s just say that we can survive for a long time without doing any washing.

Obviously the market wasn’t just clothes: there were stools and stools of fly-covered dried fish, beans, nuts, peppers, meat, etc… I found the food in Ghana incredibly tasty. Being a rice lover, I had no problem with rice nearly daily and the sauces that accompanied it were very interesting. Red-red was a group favourite, so we all relished Tuesday lunchtimes when we knew we had that, accompanied by fried plantain chips. Brofroot was another group favourite: mini-doughnuty things that were always piping hot. I personally loved the even more local dishes, like Banku and especially Fufu. I liked Ghanaian food so much that I even purchased some of their pepper, which not only adds hotness to the dish but also taste.

Don’t worry, all our trips, clothes, any Western luxuries we could find; we all paid for ourselves out of our money. The money we raised went towards firstly our flights, then towards paying for the house we were renting, the chef, the running of the summer school and other projects which include sponsoring individuals. Check KickStart Ghana’s webpage for more details.

Yet the best thing about the trip, for me and all the others, I think, was getting to know Ghanaian people. If you can find me a place in Europe where people walk along the street smiling at others and saying hi, going and shaking hands and hugging others – I’ll be very surprised. Yet here it is normal. So many wonderfully simple things that we miss in our daily lives back in the UK are present in the continent so many pity, Africa. The most memorable parts of the our time in Ho for me were running back from football to the house, a pleasant twenty-five minute jog, and just stopping to say hi to everyone. It is something so simple yet so pleasant that could and really should cheer up dark and miserable old England. In just six weeks we’ve all made friends here that we think will be our friends forever.

But despite it taking two people to maintain a conversation, remember that it only takes one to start one. Through doing something different I’ve met some absolutely phenomenally interesting people, going from Nicola, the deaf person we met on the walk (see previous blogs for more details), to our fellow IP members and Ghanaian friends, down to a nineteen year old Cypriot that I met on my final flight home who earns ten thousand dollars a month travelling around the world. Without this experience not only would I have not met all this fascinating and wonderful people, but I also feel that I would not meet these types of people in the future, as I would be less accessible.

So if you’re still with me, let’s go back to the first question. Was it worth it?

On a personal note, I definitely believe it was worth it. I’ve had an absolutely smashing time seeing and doing some fabulous things, whilst meeting really genuine people in the process. So have I “found myself”, as some people say they do? Not really.

I definitely believe that I have changed, even if it is with small things. As I just mentioned, I believe that this has made more approachable and open. However when I go back I might just be the same as ever: who knows? I hope now I will also not place much importance on small things: but I know that’s not true, especially considering how annoyed I got on my flight to Cairo when someone sat next to me, thwarting my plan to lie down using all the seats. It was also good to escape the bubble of University for a while and go out and live in what we know as the real world, especially seeing conditions such as ones we have seen.

But here is a big issue on current volunteering. I started talking about myself when evaluating the whole experience, rather than the impact I’ve made. Now we’ve just entered into a debate that I was vaguely aware of before coming out to Ghana but that I know regard as very important: last night, in Accra, I was talking with two complete strangers for nearly four hours about this very subject. Would I have done that before? Who cares, it’s not about me now. This is a big issue.

From Day One I mentioned that I was not going to come back with my new profile picture of myself holding a smiling, young black child on my shoulders. Even without being aware of voluntourism, I already disliked seeing these photos on Facebook. It seemed as if they were using other people in order to generate sympathy to gain likes on Facebook and to visit new places. That was just my opinion. I also didn’t really understand two-week projects where one built shelters, paying thousands of pounds to do so. Are people who go on these projects qualified builders? There have been occasions where it just creates hassle for the locals, who have to knock them down as they are poorly made.

You might argue that we were not qualified teachers. No, we weren’t: and that’s why all our lessons were not orientated towards academic learning. Being people, we were trying to develop the children as people in a way they hadn’t been developed in any way before. Footballing-wise, I mentioned right at the start that the charity requested qualified coaches, so there I think I did have some authority to speak up. Even then, there is no one way to play football and it was all about offering other options and possibilities to the children regarding playing styles, rather than making them hoof the ball up in a traditional English way.

I am not going to into the details of the volunteering debate: I’ll just give my five cents, occasionally touching on ideas that Ruth, our volunteer coordinator, wrote about in her article for KickStart. Read it here. But this is what I think:

There are many things wrong with volunteering: people volunteering for personal reasons; organisations who exploit the situation to make money out of it; children being taught in a completely new way which just confused them more; emotional attachment…

The principal, however, is spot on. People helping others. And that is exactly what it should be: people actually helping others, rather than using them as a mean for personal gain.

With volunteering, I believe that if you go somewhere and make a positive difference, influence someone in the “right” way, you can be happy with yourself. Obviously there will always be a more effective method, or something you could do differently, but if you do something positive then you have done some good in the world.

I am no saint nor am I one of those people who constantly restore one’s faith in humanity with selfless acts. Obviously, when I told Alex I’d come out to Ghana I was thinking mostly about myself: What would I gain from it, how employees would look at it, what the food would be like… the thoughts most people would think. But partly I decided to go to Ghana because I could do some good in the world. Even if it was 1% of my reasoning behind it, surely that is better than going on a Lads holiday to Ibiza and thinking 0% of doing some good in the world?

Therefore I believe that the concept of volunteering is correct. As long as your heart is where it should be, I don’t think you can really go wrong.

Now that we’ve established that volunteering is morally right, now we have to look at the form. There are many aspects which we must consider before deciding to volunteer somewhere. These are taken from Ruth’s blog:

1. Think about what your own strengths are

2. Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with

3. Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you

4. Always consider what best practice is in the UK

5. Hold people and organisations accountable

Whilst, like Ruth, I’m not saying KickStart Ghana is the perfect charity, but I definitely do believe from what I’ve heard and seen that KickStart Ghana has all the right intentions. All decisions are made focusing on what will impact the community most, even if it is inconvenient for the workers. Therefore I am proud to have worked with the charity for the summer, and do not regret it one bit.

So let’s go back, again, to my first question. Was it worth it?

Without a doubt. Not only did I turn my summer into one worthwhile personally, but I also made a difference, be it big or small, in the lives of children I will possibly never see again: and that makes not regret the small action of leaving my door open, which lead to the small action of Alex coming in, which ultimately made me come spend nearly two months in Ghana this summer.

You can’t write about two months in four thousand words. But I feel the main topics have been covered here. Hopefully I have written enough so that you can make up your own mind about what I did in Ghana and judge me and the project accordingly. Hey, maybe you might want to try something similar: I’d definitely recommend it. But apart from that, sorry for boring you all. But I had ten hours by myself in a lonely hotel room in the middle of Cairo, and a lot of time to kill.

But if you ever do want to hear more, just stop me in the street. After all, I said I won’t be walking looking down at the floor, didn’t I?

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