Friday, August 19, 2011

UCLA Volunteers Reflect On Their Time In Ghana

The day before the UCLA Global Health Elective Volunteer group left Ampenkrom, a small ceremony was held.  

The chief and the elders in the community held an appreciation ceremony for them after their time in Ampenkrom during which they presented Sarah Gustafson, Emily Huang, Nikki Ross, Christina Siliciano, and Shelley Han with traditional Kente Cloths.  It was a great honor and spoke volumes about the positive effect their visit had on the community that served as their home base for their time in Ghana.  For the volunteers, it was exciting to wrap up their projects, but it definitely was a bittersweet moment saying goodbye. 

It was one moving moment of many for the women.  Their month in Ghana had been remarkable, not just in terms of the distance traveled and sights seen, but also for the warmth of the Ghanaian people. 
GHEI executive director Diana Rickard did her best to orient them to life in Ghana, from California, somehow.  Still, no one was quiet ready just how welcoming people were.  “Diana told us everyone would be friendly but everyone is very friendly. I’m constantly surprised by how much children are fascinated by our presence, and how drawn to us they are.” said Sarah.  

“The way we’re treated is surprising.  I suspected it would happen, but it’s still just a really surprising thing.  Sometimes when we’re greeted, I think, Hm, this must be what it’s like to be Obama and have to wave to everyone…” said Nikki.  She doesn’t think he gets paid enough. 

Shelley remembered times that they would walk past a school in some of the smaller villages they visited.  “You could hear a slow building rumbling, the closer we got the louder it got, and then by the time we were close by, the school just emptied and they surrounded us.” 

“Not only have the community members been so caring and kind, but as we’ve been travelling to all these health care facilities, we’ve seen that the health care providers here are so admirable,” said Nikki.  “It’s taking it to another level to provide care in settings where there a lot of things working against you, but everyone we met is completely dedicated to the health of the community.”

“Everyone, I’ve asked, ‘Do you want these trainings?’, says yes, without fail,” said Christina about the Neo-Natal Resucitation trainings that she was gauging interest in. “And they’ll continue and say everyone else in the district needs it too. If a baby is dying, we need to learn this.  They really take it upon themselves to be the caretakers of their community and that’s been really inspiring.” 

Shelly went on about the people they’ve met in their travels. “You come here, and the staff at these clinics are resource poor, their seeing way too many patients and yet, still, they’re the kindest people.  They genuinely care about their patients and want to help them the best they can, no matter their limited resources.”

They also all had great things to say about their host and all around facilitator: Dickson Ackah Mensah.  “Dickson’s done everything.  He looked after our housing, our food, he’s made sure women are coming to the church [in Ampenkrom] to complete the surveys.  He helped introduce us to the community, but also, how to be in the community and interact appropriately.  And he’s just been there for anything we need,” said Emily.

The communities they were immersed in inspired, but the trip was also moving on many levels for all of them.  These sorts of experiences are hard to prepare for, and even harder to pin down afterwards, aside from a deep contentment for their work.
 “I’ve done some global outreach type of work, and this program as opposed to the other global research projects was more involved in the actual community,” said Nikki.  “I knew that I definitely wanted to be actively interacting with members of the community and if it could involve pediatrics, well, that’s basically all I could ask for from the summer!”

“We spent a lot of time planning these surveys and had hours of preparation during our spring semester,” said Christina. “And you plan as much as you can, but a lot of development work is very unpredictable and at times, you need to expect the unexpected and be flexible. That’s sort of the fun in it, and it’s what makes your victories feel like victories, but I also think it’s reinforced the overall satisfaction.” 

“While I did learn a lot about Ghana and health care in Africa, I think I learned even more about myself on this trip.  Living in rural Africa really tests your limits and boundaries and can be quite challenging psychologically,” said Shelley.  She was also struck by how limited resources are, even in a rapidly developing country like Ghana. “Evaluating the differences in services between the hospitals and clinics was pretty striking.  It’s pretty apparent that the further away you get from the main road the less service you have access to. And there’s only one ambulance for the whole district.”  Still, the smaller details stick out to Shelley. “I'll remember falling asleep to bleating sheep that sounds eerily like children outside our window and then being woken up at 4am to dueling roosters!”

“Personally, this has reminded me of the privileges and opportunities that I have been given and how interconnected we are with the well-being of others throughout the world. We are a globally connected people, and you can really see it here in Ghana,” said Sarah. “I have a chance to one day help the global community as well as my own, so this is me figuring out how.”  Figuring out how meant also appreciating the ways Diana Rickard has helped Humjibre’s community and her own.  “When we were visiting GHEI, we went into the Humjibre Community Library and I thought, wow, this all started with a conversation between Diana and Clement [Donkor, GHEI Country Director],” said Sarah.  “And now all this is here for everyone in the community.”

“I’ve always had an interest in global health, so it was surreal at times that I actually got a chance to not only be immersed in a new culture, but also help contribute to development work,” said Emily.  “What I learned and experienced I could not have obtained from reading or studying, and I cannot adequately capture it in words or even pictures.”
Christina, Sarah, Dickson, Shelley, Nikki, Emily and the elders of Ampenkrom
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