Friday, August 26, 2011

Summer Serve and Learn 2011: Krista's Memories

 Krista Nickerson volunteered with GHEI for the first two sessions of GHEI's Serve and Learn program ('Read and Play', and 'Girls' Empowerment').  During the week off in the middle she traveled around Ghana on her own.  To cap off this summer's volunteer programs, Krista shares her thoughts on volunteering with GHEI, life in Humjibre, and the unique challenges and rewards each session offered.

Working with GHEI for two sessions was a really fantastic glimpse of a couple different sides of development work that I was not familiar with. Mostly, I saw how development work can be done right – how small teams can make big changes, if they work with the local community on projects within a defined scope of high priority items that will have a significant positive impact. Being a part of both the broad community outreach work and the small-group camp sessions showed me how both of these approaches can make a real difference if done carefully and planned appropriately. My previous experience in development work was teaching English in South America, and I didn’t think that the sprawling government funded program I was operating under there was nearly as effective as it could have been. When we did our community outreach for Read and Play session, I have never before seen a new program be generated basically from scratch and be realized so successfully in such a short time. I was really impressed by how the GHEI values and structure clearly contributed to its effectiveness. The lack of bureaucracy was a refreshing change!

I was a little unsure about doing two sessions at first, but I also knew I had to follow both my passions - encouraging lifelong literacy and women's leadership and empowerment.  The sessions turned out to be two very different experiences that each taught me different lessons, both personally and career-wise. The Girls' Empowerment camp was more close-knit and intensely emotional among the volunteer team and the camp participants. Each of us was heavily invested in the success of the other as well as the impact on the participants. For the child literacy outreach, however, the volunteers' impact was more dispersed throughout the community and more dependent on communication and cooperation with local GHEI staff and volunteer teachers. 

During the Read and Play session, I feel like our service contributed positively to the role of GHEI in the community of Humjibre and in the surrounding areas that we visited. I think we helped to continue spread awareness of GHEI’s programs and purpose here. Our service helped to initiate a great new library lesson (taking care of books) that hopefully will continue and become a stable and expanding program over the years.  I also think that we made great connections among ourselves as a team (both the Ghanaian staff and the volunteers), and I think we will stay in touch long after this program ends. 

Working with the young women in Girls’ Empowerment, the contradictions stand out to me the most. Sometimes the girls seemed indifferent or resistant to our ideas and questions, and then other times they were talkative and silly with each other and totally engaged in whatever we were doing. Sometimes I thought something may be lost on them, but then they would come up with a brilliant response that proved that they’re ten steps ahead of me. 

When the girls are giggly and shy, it was easy to see them as children still. But as they became comfortable with us over the week, they also showed themselves to be already strong, sincere, bold, and highly capable women, seemingly undaunted by the vast future beyond Junior High School.  In the short time I had to get to know the girls, I was surprised by how quickly they bonded and opened up to us. They are stronger than first impressions show, and I also think that many of them know their own strength well, which I don’t think I did at their age. Maybe it’s because I have not done a lot of work with teenage girls, but I didn’t realize just how proud I would be of them, and how invested I would feel in their ability to achieve their future goals!

The most challenging aspect of both life and volunteering in Humjibre for me was finding my comfort zone with the teams with which we were working. We are all here to try to fulfill a wide variety of personal goals that somehow coincided to bring us together to work on these projects. Some of our backgrounds were similar, but some were very different, and we all had different communication styles among ourselves! Making the effort to build the connections to trust and be trusted by my teammates in such a short time was a leap of faith for me because I am usually slow to gain this confidence (in both myself and others). Overcoming this challenge became my most rewarding experience. In the GHEI community and the work they do, gaining a sense of personal accomplishment takes a back seat to achieving the shared goals of the team, since nothing really gets accomplished without the strength of the team to back you up. I’m not really used to seeing my own value in terms of my role within a team – what a switch from the “me-first” American system! – and developing this mindset while coming up with all our songs, skits, posters, and discussions, while seeing our ideas actually achieving results in such a short time was a complete joy! 

My most memorable experience in Humjibre was probably cooking and eating with the girls. It wasn’t until then that the huge amount of time and effort that really goes into feeding a family here, which the women usually bear the brunt of, actually hit home for me. Chopping what seemed like hundreds of vegetables, watching Charlotte grate heaps of cassava (and slicing my thumb when I attempted to help), seeing Rose use her whole body to stir the giant pot of thick corn mash for what seemed like hours while Jennifer tested the taste and consistency, and observing how all of us fifteen or so women all contributed to the final outcome in some way during the 3 ½  hours the meal took to make was really an eye-opening, and deeply enriching, experience.

I think that Girls’ Empowerment definitely needs to continue and build on itself every year for us to see the long term impacts we want, but honestly, I think that a great foundation has already been laid for lasting changes. I think that the girls will remember many of the things that we taught them about the topics we covered in the camp, but I think especially they’ll take with them the feeling of having a space and the right to freely express themselves. They hopefully will tell their friends about their experience and encourage more girls to attend next year’s camp! I think the GHEI Girls’ Empowerment camp will be seen as an important enhancement to the community’s goals to uplift its children’s education, and I hope that our work has helped the program to earn more support from the elders and other community leaders. 

Doing two sessions gave me a better perspective to assess how I felt about my own and GHEI's work and impact. By the third week (and after traveling by myself for a few days in between sessions), I realized that spending less energy figuring out how to function in a Ghanaian village opened up more time for introspection and observation. I deeply admire GHEI's flexibility and openness as well as its willingness to evolve and improve its own operation. I experienced more emotional highs and lows later in my stay that sparked some of my most intense memories. I definitely encourage anyone with the time and financial opportunity to do more than one session!

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