When thinking of a ‘challenge’, for me, there’s only one thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t involve climbing a mountain, jumping out of a plane or even running over hot coals. It involves balancing two babies in your arms, changing more nappies than you can imagine and giving your love, time and energy into something much more meaningful.
Volunteering at Osu Children’s Home in Ghana’s bustling capital last year Accra was a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prepared myself for the conditions, the heat and the work. But nothing really can prepare you for the day-to-day ordeals that get thrown your way, the way the children will touch your heart and the satisfaction you will have after a long day’s work.
Before long you become immune to the fact that everyday you will probably be vomited and urinated on. I became used to the things that I would find completely unacceptable in Australia, such as the babies being fed mashed-yams (and only mashed-up yams) everyday and sharing cots with four or maybe five other babies. These things that in my ‘privileged’ eyes were unacceptable became normal.
There were however, things I did not get used to. The huge rats that infested the nursery , creeping around the corridors only metres from the babies. The lack of basic knowledge about looking after infants, and being laughed off when I tried to tell one aunty it’s not safe to carry a one-year-old baby by the arm. The lack of proper medical attention for the babies was also a big issue, the simplest infection, and ones that would be easily treatable would be ignored. The horror of when I found out the ‘antiseptic’ cream the auntie’s were putting on the babies ailments, tropical rashes and growths, was in fact cocoa butter.
Sometimes I felt more frustrated than I can even say, and being a volunteer opened my eyes to the general culture of aiding Africa. When a really kind lady from the United States came with a bunch of toys for the babies, only for the women working at the orphanage to divvy up the items and take home for themselves, I got pretty angry. That sort of blatant corruption seems to engulf Ghana at every level.
Sometimes things were just plain sad. When a lovely American lady tried to adopt one of the little boys, Davis, the Ghanaian officials refused her without reason. Knowing how close he was to having his life changed forever made all of the volunteers sad. But most sadly, was when one of the orphans, a little one with special needs, died suddenly in the night after an epileptic fit. Ula, one of the loveliest volunteers I’ve ever met, who spent endless hours looking after her, was deeply hurt when she was told they wouldn’t bother with a funeral, because she was “just an orphan.”
There were however, many wonderful moments of calm and joy. I am proud that I was able to entertain, feed, wash and clothe a nursery full of toddlers in 35 degree heat. The buzz I got walking into the nursery with 20 little babies all smiling at you screaming “ah-ya-yi” (their version of the Ghanaian word for white-person, “obruni”) was a great start to the day. And when everyone was fed, washed, clothed and ready for nap time the calm began.
So when I say that it was challenging, that’s certainly true. But when I think about my time at the orphanage I look back at it with a lot of happiness. Although some days I felt frustrated with the system I had a really wonderful time, and every challenge is a reward in itself. I’m realistic about the impact I had and you can only do so much in five weeks, but it’s nice to know that when I left, another volunteer, who will go through the same challenges I faced, took my place to continue the job.