By Erik Auker
Penn State Student
Summer 2010 (July 10-30) Global Impact Fellow
It was a regular day during a semester filled with biochemistry and other assorted sciences when I sat down at my computer to check my email. My flooded inbox contained many items that I expected to find from professors and friends of mine. There was one message, however, that really grabbed my attention. The Schreyer Honors College was informing their students of an organization called Unite For Sight that battles blindness around the world by partnering with local eye clinics to provide socially responsible global health to some of the world’s poorest countries. At the time, I had no idea that this simple email would change my plans for the summer and, ultimately, the way I view medicine.
I’ve always been in love with the world of healthcare. Since I was a little kid I had always enjoyed the intricacies of going to the doctor’s office. When I learned about the opportunity to go to Ghana in Africa for a discounted rate due to school funding, I naturally jumped on board. Soon I found myself aboard a plane heading for Accra, Ghana. I wasn’t scared initially, just excited at the thought of going to Africa and helping people with their problems. Like so many people that decide to participate in a program like this, I had a romanticized vision of what my trip was going to be like. If I could impart one statement of wisdom to anyone considering volunteering for Unite For Sight or any organization like it, it would be to roll with the punches and keep your mind free of such utopianism. The training online is helpful and should definitely be the focus of your time leading up to your departure. Just be aware that there is so much more to learn once you arrive where you’re going.
I stayed one night in Accra and was brought the following day to Tamale. I learned a lot during the drive to Tamale, including the correct way to pronounce a lot of the local words. People in Ghana are really impressed when you speak to them in their own language. I would recommend that anyone traveling abroad completely immerse themselves in the local culture. Learn everything you can about as much as you can. You won’t regret it later.
When I arrived in Tamale, I met up with the rest of our group and was shown where I would be lodging for my stay. I also met Ali, our local Ghanaian coordinator, who was one of the most likeable and well mannered guys I’ve ever met. The other people involved with taking care of the house and those in the local community were also unspeakably gracious and full of life. People from Ghana are almost always happy and ready to get to know you and anyone who walks into their general vicinity. Ghanaian hospitality is world renowned, and the local people take pride in welcoming strangers. As a foreigner, they are also curious about your culture and life experiences. I frequently found myself conversing with people about the finer points of soccer and American sports, like baseball and football.
I learned a lot of information from the team of volunteers that I worked with. Even though we were from the same country and had similar interests in health and volunteering, we all seemed to interpret the world and what was currently happening around us in much different ways. Reading was a huge leisure activity while in Ghana and my fellow volunteers introduced me to a plethora of literature that I would not have been exposed to otherwise. In retrospect, I learned just as much about myself through this journey as I did about a foreign country.
Now, to address the best part of the whole experience…outreach. Going to the villages and screening people was enlightening, educational, and extremely meaningful. I came in contact with eye disorders and levels of cataracts that are nearly non-existent within the United States because of our healthcare system. Some people were completely blind with cataracts that made their eyes appear as white as a pearl. One young student we saw at a school outreach had a traumatic injury from a nail that had punctured his eye, and some people even had cases of pterygium with a thin tissue that had developed to cover the eye. Learning about these problems and seeing them up close was a terrifically useful medical experience. Screening began with acuity testing, and then the eye clinic's ophthalmic nurse would do a check on the individuals, and finally reading glasses would be given to those who had presbyopia. Distance vision issues and conditions that required surgical correction were referred to the ophthalmologist at Eye Clinic of Tamale Teaching Hospital for further assistance.
After the first two days of outreach, Dr. Wanye, Ghanaian ophthalmologist and director of Unite For Sight's partner clinic, made a visit to the house to talk with all of us and discuss the plan for the following days. He wanted some volunteers to come with him to the hospital and observe the surgeries we would be conducting. Being a medical-minded student seeking a career in surgery, I quickly volunteered to help in this regard. This allowed me to have the privilege of witnessing 54 cataract surgeries conducted over the course of ten hours the following day. As you can imagine, this task was daunting for all those involved. However, the gratitude and reactions of the people we helped during this process made the hard work rewarding and worth every second.
The major experience that I had while in Ghana was unlike any Unite For Sight volunteer had ever had before me. One day while screening the village of Janjori Kuku near Tamale, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the elders. I had learned a small bit of Dagbani (their local language) by this point and wanted to see if I could piece a small conversation together with them. With Ali’s help, I was able to communicate decently with them about our team’s mission and the nature of the help we were providing. Then I went back to my work of performing visual acuity tests on the village children. I had learned all the terms necessary to conduct these screenings entirely in Dagbani, which made it much easier for the kids. They would occasionally laugh at me, however, for mispronouncing a word or two. In any case, I must have really left an impression with those elders (who I later found out were chiefs), because I was informed that night that they wished for me to accept their offering of becoming a Chief of Friendship for their local community. As you can imagine, I had no idea what this entailed or what significance it would hold for me in the near future. After acquiring a large amount of information and guidance about this honor from Ali and the other locals, I became very flattered and knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and something I had to do.
The people of the village were so excited when I told them that I would accept their offer. When I spoke to the chiefs, they said that I would now become one of their brothers and a leader among their people. I would have to keep in touch by phone or by email so that I could help in making decisions with them. They also said that if I had a son and wanted to make him a chief of the tribe, it was my right to do so! All of them were sincere and genuine and told me what I had to do to finish the process. First, I had to bring them Kola Nuts as a sign of gratitude and a way of accepting their offer. Second, a ceremony had to be thrown in which I officially received my title in front of the village.
I really can’t describe the ceremony accurately enough to do it justice, but I’ll try. All of the women began dancing to the music produced by the elder’s drumming. They must have danced for hours. The men were told that they could not dance until I received my title. At this point I was so humbled by what was happening that I sat on the provided wicker chair with my jaw hanging to the ground. The rest of the volunteers joined me soon after this and were completely in shock of the magnitude of the occasion. Eventually, I was led inside the palace to perform a ritual that involved me spitting water in different directions and having a ceremonial garb placed on me while I was seated on the floor. Then, I was introduced to the village women and made to dance in front of the village. It was singing, dancing, and one incredible experience.
I honestly feel that this honor should be a reflection on Unite For Sight, and not on me directly. I was volunteering in a country foreign to anything I could have imagined encountering this early in my life. The preparation we were given, and the guidance while abroad, led to our team successfully screening thousands of people and helping Dr. Wanye and the eye clinic. Once again, if you’re planning on working with Unite For Sight, be ready for a little bit of magic to happen. An open mind, some hard work, and the ability to be flexible really can enable you to help make a difference in the world, one set of eyes at a time.