Reflections on Global Impact Volunteering in Ghana

By Barron Heymann
University of Texas Medical School at Houston
Global Impact Fellow

I was a volunteer for Unite for Sight (UFS) based mainly out of Accra—the coastal capital of Ghana. What I expected of the volunteering experience with UFS is not what I got. I expected to work every day, uncomfortable, long and grueling hours, in the heat, with humorless, uber-serious, world-saver idealists and stuffy, overbearing clinical staff. True, we did work hard and long, and it was sometimes kind of hot (but not nearly as hot or humid as, for example, Houston, Texas) but I had no idea how much FUN I would have, how many fantastic and similarly tempered co-volunteers of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities and motivations I would meet, or how AWESOME the Ghanaian staff would be.

Jack is dulled by no play, as the saying suggests; but what happens when work and play are the same? How was I to know that in addition to the duties required by the clinic staff, part of my job was to play with kids all day? You would never know when a troop of uniform-clad school children will invade the clinic necessitating a pause to sing and dance Azonto; or it quickly became utterly natural for me—a 26 year old adult—to bounce up and down flapping my arms repetitively chanting “if you look at me, I will dance like a butterfly,” surrounded by twenty smiling, emulating tots. I might suggest to the UFS administrators that part of the global training regimen should include learning a slew of games to play with kids like Duck-Duck-Goose (or duck-duck-JUICE!! the kids would scream), Red-Rover, Red-Rover, and Sink the Bismarck!

Moreover, while it is certainly not AT ALL part of the purpose of the trip to “site see” and engage in tourism in Ghana, there are, if scheduling permits and clinical staff are around willing to participate (and they are!), opportunities to take day and even overnight trips to cool and interesting places. During my trip, I was able to visit Cape Coast and see the old fortresses where they imprisoned slaves in preparation for sale across the Atlantic – for me, a history major, this was an incredible experience. While in the Volta region, we journeyed to Wli falls, the highest waterfall in West Africa and swam under its torrential downpour as the sun set and thousands of bats flew out into the night from under towering cliffs. I spent the night in a treehouse in a national park after a guided night hike. In Accra, we went to the beach and hung out with the teeming masses of locals while they played soccer, rode horses, and swam in the ocean. Upon return to the US, I had accumulated over 15 original paintings, dozens of hand crafted and painted necklaces and bracelets, 8 or so hand-carved masks, 2 large bongo drums, 4 or 5 articles of custom made clothing, hand soaps, bowls—all to give to my generous donors.

Finally, the true gem of the whole experience is the Ghanaian people themselves. I have traveled now to 27 different countries, met all kinds of people, and I can verily attest that Ghanaians are among the warmest, most genuine peoples I have had the pleasure to come across.