My Experiences as a Global Impact Fellow in Ghana

By Sophie Brigstocke
Williams College Student
Global Impact Fellow

The three weeks I spent volunteering with Unite For Sight as a Global Impact Fellow in Tamale, Ghana were some of the most interesting and rewarding of my life, combining the opportunity to learn about life in Ghana, a country new to me, experience the challenges of improving global health and do concrete, useful work to help others. In Tamale, seven other volunteers and I accompanied Regina, an ophthalmic nurse from the Eye Clinic of the Tamale Teaching Hospital and Ali, our enthusiastic and dedicated Ghanaian Unite For Sight coordinator on outreaches to impoverished villages and schools in the vicinity.  As a Global Impact Fellow, my duties included taking patient histories, performing visual acuity screenings, fitting people for reading glasses and distributing medication prescribed by the ophthalmic nurse. Being able to work in the field to directly help people in need was very rewarding.  I loved helping fit an elderly woman for reading glasses that would help her sew, guiding a blind man to see the nurse, or teaching children how to put in eye drops to treat their conjunctivitis.  Rather than simply raising money for a cause and then stepping back, I saw how the money I had raised was used. This made the experience all the more meaningful.

As well as working on outreaches, I also spent one day at the eye clinic where I observed Dr. Seth Wanye, the only ophthalmologist for the entire region of over two million people, perform fifteen surgeries in a row.  Learning about prevalent eye disease from Dr. Wanye as he worked was fascinating, as was observing the innovative ways he finds to operate in an OR less well equipped than ones I had seen at home.  I had the opportunity to interview Dr.Wanye for a profile for the Unite For Sight website. Hearing Dr. Wanye’s incredible story first hand and talking to him about his challenges and motivations was one of the most memorable and inspiring experiences I had.

During my time in Tamale, I not only learned about the realities of global health, but I also had the chance to learn about a culture that was previously unknown to me.  As somebody who loves traveling (and studies foreign languages), I was thrilled that we had some down time to explore Tamale and get to meet local people. Understanding the culture and customs of the region proved crucial to our efforts to help the patients effectively.  For example, we learned that the elderly often say they are much younger than they are because they are embarrassed by their age or do not know it.  Children often want to seem mature and therefore overstate their ages when asked how old they are.  Only by understanding these norms could we treat the patients appropriately.  One of the main obstacles to caring for patients that I faced on outreaches was a language barrier.  In Tamale and throughout the Northern Region, people speak Dagbani. I found it necessary, challenging and exhilarating to learn some basic phrases such as “cover one eye” and “good morning” in Dagbani.

Peers are an integral part of any experience, and my time in Tamale was especially meaningful to me because of my fellow volunteers.  We worked well as a team, and I learned a great deal from them.  We were able to accomplish a lot through dedication and genuine interest in our work.  I had such a positive experience with Unite For Sight this past summer and am thrilled to be working as a Williams College Campus Representative this school year.  I hope to be able to spread the word about the amazing work Unite For Sight does by telling people about my experience as a Global Impact Fellow in Tamale.