1 March 2016

What I've Learnt Working In A Developing Country

Tamale, Ghana, West Africa

Location: Swad Restaurant, Tamale, Ghana

This week marks eight weeks of my twelve-week placement here in Ghana, and so I thought it appropriate to share with you the revelations I've been having after two months in an extremely different environment to what I'm used to. So I'll go back to the beginning. I guess I'm guilty of a very nasty confession, but one of which you might be able to relate to, and this being my view of developing countries. When growing up, if you'd asked me to describe Africa to you, I would have thought of Bob Geldof and his team of pop stars joyfully singing, 'Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow'. My mind would have flicked towards the adverts of helpless mothers cradling their dying children covered in flies, too tired to brush them away. And then, in more recent years, the images of people cornered off into pop-up hospitals as the Ebola epidemic hit. Africa was a hot, faraway, foreign land, and one I clearly knew little about.

It was very easy, in my English life, growing up in a decent suburb, a five-minute train ride away from the bustling scenes of Manchester with a fairly good education, to dismiss this place called Africa. I didn't know anyone from Africa; to me it was a place on a globe that sat downstairs in my living room, but as I grew older my curiosity began to override and I started to ask myself how I could be so ignorant? 

It wasn't just Africa that gave me these perceptions, but the phrase 'developing country' conjured up similar images: shanty towns and slums, sickness, death, pollution. It was a bad relationship to have - the western world paired with these ideas. A kind of ignorance took hold of saying 'be grateful for the life you have' and of course you are, but you never really know what that means, and then you get on with your day.

So how do you understand a place, change your view, and see what you've missed? Well, you go there. I made a choice to volunteer in a developing country and see it first hand. I was sent to Ghana to the northern upper eastern region where poverty is a lot more prevalent than in the south. I'd be truly immersed into the way of life - living with an African family, working with both UK and Ghanaian volunteers within a small community. This was a chance for me to truly understand.
Firstly, I learnt something way more important than had ever occurred to me: that Ghana is its own country. See, I was so used to saying African - African people, African food, African way of life, that it became mechanical to think of Africa as just one place on a map. But then I considered that I'm not just European, or British, but I'm English: I'm Mancunian. I have an identity and I'm not the same as Greek or French or Spanish.We all have our roots and our ways, and we cannot be summed up so easily.

Secondly, I've seen something positive. I've seen that people in Ghana are happy, they have friends, they have technology, they have shops and fashion and music and cinema. They have hobbies and weekend activities. Yes, they have a poverty line and their own set of difficulties - just like every country in the world. But they aren't defined by their struggles, just like everyone else they are working for a better quality of life.

And now I've learnt to be thankful. Not thankful for having internet or a working shower or Mcdonalds, but thankful I've had an education, I have freedom of speech, I have rights and I've had the opportunity to go somewhere and help. When I was fundraising in order to come out and complete my placement, I heard the phrase 'charity starts at home' a few times. Well where is home? Should I only help English because I am English? Ghana is behind England in terms of development, but gradually it is catching up, and over centuries some countries have thrived and others have grown at a much slower pace. They haven't halted however, and so when I am in the lead, why shouldn't I go back and help others to run with me? Coming from a place where I have been so lucky to grow up and presented with an opportunity to help and to understand, of course I chose to come here. And that isn't shunning where I come from, it's in fact embracing that to me, the whole world is home.

'I don't have walls, just horizons.'
- Mario Quintara

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