Reflections on Volunteering Abroad in Ghana

By Naima Ross
Yale University Student
Global Impact Fellow

My most precious belongings in my college dorm room are the two paintings of Ghanaian women that I bought in Accra. Each time I see these paintings, I am reminded of the incredibly rewarding and stimulating experience I had in Ghana last summer while volunteering with Unite For Sight as a Global Impact Fellow in Accra and Kumasi.

While in Accra, I worked with the Save the Nation Sight Clinic. Save the Nation was unique in that the outreach team was split into several groups that traveled to different villages. I was able to see the different regions of Ghana--from Cape Coast in the Central Region to Koforidua in the Eastern Region to Takoradi in the Western region. As a result, I had the fortune of learning about the different traditions and languages of each region while also interacting with the local people. During the outreaches, I took patient history, performed visual acuity tests, and distributed medication and glasses to patients. The ophthalmic nurses and local volunteers helped me with my Twi (a local language) in order to decrease the language barrier. The patients were always pleasantly surprised when they heard me say, “Maakye, wo ho te sen?” (Good morning, how are you?), and were subsequently more at ease during visual acuity tests. Although seeing an average of 100 patients a day was initially overwhelming, I became more comfortable and was eventually able to take on more responsibilities during the outreaches. In the afternoons, the other volunteers and I would watch Dr. Baah perform cataract surgeries and help the nurses bring the patients into the operating room. Dr. Baah was always eager to teach us about ophthalmology and his experiences providing eye care in remote areas and made every effort to ensure that we learned as much as possible.   

My experience in Kumasi was similar, although Dr. Kate Gaisie, an incredibly inspiring optometrist, led the outreach team. Dr. Gaisie’s limitless energy, enthusiasm, and compassion for the Ghanaian people were contagious. On one especially long day, our small team of 8 people saw 230 patients. Instead of feeling exhausted, I felt exhilarated and more inspired as I realized the impact of our work. The patients’ appreciation and gratitude were overwhelming: after receiving glasses, one woman danced around us and proudly showed off her glasses to the other volunteers; others vigorously shook our hands and smiled.

On slower days, there was more time for patient interaction and I was able to talk to Ghanaian students about their lives and beliefs and answer questions about life in the US. These times were especially memorable as we shared our common interests and bridged the cultural divide.

The lessons that I learned in Ghana both about the healthcare system and myself are invaluable. Viewing health care disparities up close was often difficult, yet it made me certain of my goal of improving global health and more aware of the importance of mutual cultural understanding.  I also became more aware of my own values and beliefs and the way in which I interact with others. The immense hospitality and warmth of the Ghanaian people truly shaped my life and will remain with me forever.