Reflections on Volunteering Abroad in Ghana

By Kayla Dmytruk
Queens University Student
Global Impact Fellow

I traveled to Accra, Ghana for two weeks during the summer. Almost immediately after arriving, I knew that I had made the wrong decision in deciding to volunteer for only a short period of time. Having never traveled to another country entirely by myself before, I was nervous and uncertain of what to expect. From the moment that I stepped off the plane and met the other volunteers, the uneasiness was replaced by excitement and enthusiasm.

After arriving at the Telecentre, the other students and I were looking forward to starting our work with Unite For Sight. After everyone was unpacked, it was amazing to see the pile of approximately 4000 glasses and sunglasses that had traveled overseas that day. I was elated at the thought of distributing these glasses (after being prescribed by the local eye doctors) to people that truly required them

During the outreaches, we traveled to a new village everyday. Our journey started out in the city of Jasikan, which was a 5-hour drive from the city of Accra. The condition of the roads was unforgettable; I have never experienced so many potholes in my life!

Each day, I was amazed that even with the concept of elastic time, community members were always waiting for us to arrive. Throughout the villages, word travels very quickly by mouth, which is the best method for sharing information. When villagers heard about the clinic from family and friends, they were more likely to set aside their misconceptions in order to visit the outreach. We often heard that villagers were scared to be referred to surgery because they believed that the doctors would purposely make their eyesight worse than it already was.

When arriving at the outreach, it was necessary for a local volunteer to serve as a translator. Ghana has 79 different languages; every village we went to spoke a different language than the one before. The local volunteer would explain who we were, and why we had come. People would nod approvingly when they learned that we had brought medication and glasses with us. Everyone clapped after the local volunteer announced where each of us was from. People especially liked those of us from New York and Toronto.

After returning to Accra, a few of us were lucky enough to accompany Dr. Van Valkenburg, an American ophthalmologist, to Crystal Eye Clinic. Dr. Clarke, the local Ghanaian ophthalmologist at the clinic, greeted us with warmth. Three students were allowed to observe in the operating room at one time, so we took turns observing surgeries by Dr. Clarke. While in the operating room, I observed two pterygium surgeries and three cataract surgeries. The cataract operations were fascinating, as Dr. Clarke performed the eye incision manually with precision and ease. In North America, a technique called phacoemulsification is the primary means for removing cataracts, while Small Incision Cataract Surgery (SICS) is used in Ghana. After each patient undergoes surgery, we would record and verify their surgery for Unite For Sight’s records. The patients were given a place to sleep for the night, and were then returned to their village in the morning. Without the help of Unite For Sight, it would be virtually impossible for people from remote villages to receive these surgeries. With each surgery costing approximately $50.00, each volunteer can make 34 surgeries possible.  I definitely have more admiration for doctors in developing countries, as it is possible to provide high quality medical care without the most advanced technology.

Overall, Ghana certainly wasn’t what I expected, as it overcame my expectations for a developing country. Even with the elevated poverty rate in many areas of the country, Ghanaians’ are among the happiest and friendliest people I have ever experienced. The amount of gratification from the villagers was more than I could have ever expected, and it was sometimes difficult to not become emotional. I am confident that the 500 glasses I donated have been efficiently put to use by those that needed them the most. I will never forget the optimistic attitudes of the people in the villages, as they have inspired me to be more thankful for each day that passes. Although my time in Ghana was short, it was an absolutely unforgettable experience.