Volunteering in Ghana: Hands-On Realities to Development

By Sueyan Alexis Yuen, Tufts University Student, Unite For Sight Volunteer in Accra Region, Ghana

Unite For Sight’s voluntary program is not one that glosses over the veracity and urgency of global health and gives volunteers a false idea of how working in developing countries is like. It is not a program for students who simply look to enjoy the company of cute little kids while earning an outstanding recommendation on their resume. Unite For Sight’s international voluntary program is one that allows passionate young adults to see the reality of international development, and to open their minds to the possibility of serving the underprivileged while providing them the opportunity to support quality eye care in areas that need their contributions.

As an International Relations and Fine Arts major at Tufts University, I volunteered as both a photojournalist and a medical volunteer at the end of my freshman year in the hope for realizing my dream to work for developing countries in the future. Carrying my Canon SLR, malaria pills, nutrition bars enough for a month and three suitcases of eight hundred pairs of glasses and sunglasses that I collected from my sponsors, I boarded the plane to Ghana. I was excited yet extremely nervous and I did not know what to expect. When I first stepped out of the Accra Airport at 10pm, the first thing I noticed was the broiling heat in the air. I took off my jacket and looked around Africa for the first time in my life. There were many short buildings and the roads were nicely paved and looked utterly clean under the starlight. I was soon picked up by the Unite For Sight van and that was when I first met the other volunteers. After introducing ourselves, we all fell asleep on the ride. The long journey definitely exhausted each of us.

An orientation session was conducted the next day and we were all given our working schedules. Everyone settled in quite quickly and started working comfortably in a new culture after a few days.

Our responsibilities basically included duties in: the Unite For Sight eye outreaches in Accra, monthly outreaches programs in different regions in Ghana, surgery observations, and education in schools and villages. My favorite duty was working in outreach programs. They give us opportunities to reach out to communities outside of Accra and to get to know people and villages in remote areas. We usually divide our team into different positions such as registration, vision acuity testing, medicine and glasses dispersal, and surgery referral with a local doctor. All outreaches were memorable to the each of us, but one especially changed our lives and will stay in our hearts and minds forever. I was chosen among a team of eight volunteers along with one local ophthalmic nurse, Robert, to go to the area of Kumasi for a fifteen days overnight outreach. It turned out to be the most amazing experience in my life.

Our mission in Kumasi was to start a new outreach program with local ophthalmologist Dr. Twumasi in the Juaso Hospital and in the city of Kumasi. Because no other ophthalmologists had worked in the area before, the reaction from locals was very different from that of Accra. When we first drove into the Juaso Hospital with the local ophthalmic staff, we could not believe what we saw. A huge crowd of at least five hundred was waiting outside the hospital and patients started yelling in different Ghanaian dialects when they saw our van approaching. We had to push through the crowd to get into the hospital. Dumbfounded by the enthusiastic reaction, we set up our stations as fast as we could and tried to appease the mass at our best. At the end of the first day at the Juaso Hospital, we saw about a hundred patients and many who had waited in line for a day were left unseen. We were not satisfied with our performance, so we called for a meeting that night to evaluate our course and make adjustments.

We came up with new ideas like rotating duties and giving out numbers in the morning. We were all very determined to improve our running and things got better and better every day. All our team members were flexible and persevering. Even though our working hours were extremely long that week, often from 8am to 9pm, we were willing to switch positions or to fill in for others. For several times, in order to see the patients who lined up for hours in the scorching heat, Dr.Twumasi, the local ophthalmologist in Kumasi, and some of us took our five minutes lunch break in the doctors’ room and rushed back to see the patients after barely filling our stomach. It was also hard to maintain the balance between respecting their traditions while keeping order in the room. Once, a man jumped the line of a hundred people and told me that the Elder of his village was here and that I had to let him see the doctor immediately. When I rejected his request, he started yelling at me for not understanding the Ghanaian culture of respecting Elders. I could have let him pass, but seeing the line of old and young in hundreds, I knew it was not fair to let him pass. So I took my own chair, walked up to the Elder who was almost double my size, and put it in front of him. I explained that I respected their culture but this was not the way we worked, so the best I could do was to offer my respect by giving him my chair while he waits in line. There was a moment of silence and I was dreading his reaction; but he finally shook my hand, smiled at me, took the seat and waited in line. I stood there looking at the crowd of patients, all nodding silently at what I just did; and the sense of surprise and delight overwhelmed me. I realized that it takes much more than compassion and medical knowledge to be a helpful volunteer. Working in a foreign culture, we are often faced with unexpected situations, and we need to think on the spot and handle them with wisdom and respect. My experience in Ghana inspired me to continue volunteering in challenging myself and serving the less privileged.

Compared to working in Accra, it was much harder to communicate with patients in Kumasi, where only a few locals can speak English and different Ghanaian dialects are spoken in the area. Due to the lack of translators, we had to use some help. We all learnt to speak some basic Twi from local nurses, and in times, we summoned local volunteers from the crowd of patients to translate for us. There were two little translators from Juaso that I found most impressive. Amanda and Florence were students at the Juaso Tech School. They volunteered to translate for us and stayed the whole afternoon in helping us to encourage older cataract patients to meet with the ophthalmologist instead of using their traditional medicine of urine to cure their eyes. Amanda and Florence both told me that they wanted to be nurses when they grew up and they would study very hard to achieve this dream. With the help of local volunteers and nurses, and the leadership of ophthalmic nurse Robert and Dr. Twumasi, we were able to see 330 patients in eleven hours on the last day at the Juaso Hospital and 1100 patients that week in the area of Juaso.

Because of the lack of doctors and basic health education among the people in Ghana, a lot of people seek unqualified doctors or what they call the ‘witch doctors’ for help. These doctors are often groundless and superstitious and patients’ situations often worsen after their cure. Once, a little girl walked in the clinic really slowly and had a mask on her eyes. Her dad told us that her eyes started itching a month ago and the ‘witch doctor’ did nothing that helped. After Dr. Twumasi examined her eyes, it turned out that her eyes were completely blind from a previous surgery where a needle was used to poke her lens to the back of her eye (a practice called "couching"). What she had that day was an allergy, which could easily be cured by eye drops; but because of the lack of eye care and basic eye education, a little girl lost her sight at the age of nine.

Before volunteering in Ghana, I had always doubted the importance of eye care in less developed countries. I thought that disease control and food was much more immediately needed than giving people eye care. But I was wrong. In the few weeks volunteering in Ghana, I realized the importance of eye care; and most of all, I witnessed the critical role that a volunteer plays. Even spending a short time there can meet a real need for a large number of people and turn their lives around. In the many other volunteer abroad programs that I have participated in, most volunteers just observe and get exposure, but my experience with Unite For Sight was a really hands-on one. Blindness may not affect one’s ability to breathe, but it does take away one’s ability to earn a living. And once a person’s livelihood is lost, he/ she may lose the ability to survive.