By Robert Rudy
University of Vermont Student
Summer 2010 (May 20-June 10) Global Impact Fellow
At roughly 2pm Greenwich Mean Time on May 20th, 2010, I awoke to screeching Airbus tires and a welcome, “Akwaaba” in Twi, to the country of Ghana. Over the next three weeks, I was to volunteer with Unite for Sight, a New Haven-based NGO that provides access to eye healthcare and provides free surgery to those who otherwise would be unable to receive it. These 3 weeks proved to be an irreplaceable experience, provoking new ideas and exposing, if only very briefly, the reality of life in a different part of the world.
Ghana is 50 years post independence, and while I was there, the country celebrated Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first president. The capital city, Accra, is a sprawling, massive mix of dirt roads, small shops selling all sorts of stuff, and a lot of churches. Accra felt incredibly safe, and everybody I met was friendly, welcoming, and excited to talk about Ghana and the direction it was taking. Outside of the city is home to beautiful, picturesque landscapes spanning as far as I traveled. Along the road, you can find pineapple stands that sell the best fruit you can imagine and then some. With Unite for Sight, I traveled to different locations every day, and helped conduct outreaches in which our team, led by local eye doctors, screened for eye afflictions ranging from presbyopia to vernal conjunctivitis to cataracts. In this function, I was able to observe many different settings within greater Accra and in the Volta Region.
As a Global Impact Corps volunteer with Unite for Sight, my tasks rotated from conducting visual acuity tests to dispensing drugs prescribed by the local doctors to assisting with patient registration. I worked 14+ hour days where our team saw over 200 people, and some other days that lasted only a couple hours where we saw less than 30. Outreaches are the bread and butter, so to speak, of volunteering abroad with Unite for Sight. As a volunteer, this is what you will do. Every morning you wake up, eat and head out to a location anywhere from a half hour to 3 hours away. Upon arriving, stations are set up where people are registered, measured for visual acuity, seen by the doctor, and administered medicines. Unite for Sight provides amazing eye care through this model, and as a volunteer, I was able to both participate in and learn from such a system.
Volunteering through UFS involves a heavy responsibility to both attempt to understand as best you can the people whom you are serving, and to do everything you can to accommodate their needs. This sounds pretty straightforward, but my time in Ghana highlighted the complexity of this responsibility. As somebody new to the many cultures found in Ghana, I found it frustrating at times, exhilarating, and profoundly interesting. While Ghana may be more developed then its neighbors, it is still home to a great deal of poverty and suffering. This poverty translates, amongst other things, into a lack of educational opportunities. Thus, the story of Colin Mensah stands out to me as both tragic and extrapolative. Colin Mensah, a pseudonym, is a vendor at the Art Center market in Accra. Unable to attend middle school or above since his father was unable to pay the tuition, Colin was forced into a job as a vendor, selling woodcarvings. What I found fascinating about the man is that he could name the capital of every country in the world, every state, province, and territory in the U.S. and Canada, and could rattle off each state’s animal and slogan. He held up under persistent trivia, and later explained that his greatest love in life was learning. While waiting for customers, Colin would read textbooks, and while a group of volunteers were in his shop, he enthusiastically showed us a book on California he was halfway through. However, shortly thereafter, Colin hung his head and lamented the fact that he was unable to finish his schooling and work in a position somewhere that allowed him to use his academic prowess in a productive manner.
Volunteering with Unite for Sight in Ghana was a life-changing experience. Through this capacity, I learned a great deal about Ghana and about effective global health delivery models relating to eye care, but with the ability to extrapolate to medicine in general. Eye health is a very large concern in many parts of the world, and to be a part of a team aiding those in need was an honor. After being in Ghana, I cannot stress enough the importance of each volunteer's fundraising efforts to treat cataracts. Unite for Sight in an incredible organization, and the opportunity they offer college and medical students is, well, life-changing. I had the time of my life, learned more than I could have imagined, and made very good friends with people whom I would have never otherwise met. To all those thinking about participating in the Global Impact Corps, I strongly encourage you to go for it. You will have an dramatic, positive effect on many people and will have an amazing experience in the process.