Ghana 2004. Volunteering with Sabre Trust
I was sixteen when I was told that in June of 2004 I would need to do a Work Experience placement for school. Like most of my friends, I was thinking I could arrange to work with my mum and ultimately have a week off school. However, I then had an idea that I could actually do something meaningful. Something that might benefit other people and not only myself. I turned to Google, as we so often do when we have these big life moments!
I managed to find a company called Sabre Trust. They are a non-profit organisation who specialise in education in Ghana. During the month of August, they were running a trip to help lay the foundations for a new school and to do some teaching in a local community. This summer, I was in luck because they were running an under eighteens trip- all of the other comapanies I had contacted were not able to offer anything which wasn't office work in their headquarters in London.
After a meeting with Aubrey- manager/founder/owner, a spot of fundraising, the papers were signed and my visa was ready, I was officially heading to Ghana.
When we arrived in Brenu, the tiny village outside of Elmina on the Cape Coast, the outpouring of excitement to see us was incredible. I had only been off the truck a matter of minutes when I had children clinging to me. The love that we were shown for all of the work we were soon to be carrying out was quite overwhelming. We were staying in a community called Brenu. Our first task was to pitch our tents on the beachfront and then go into the local village to introduce outselves to the town's elders.
The meeting involved passing some sort of alcoholic drink around the group and each taking a sip. I passed when it came to me!
That night we had a couple of drinks in the shack that operated as a bar and small restaurant. We were in Ghana and this was cause for celebration!
The next day we took a trip over to the school where we met the current teachers and students. It was incredible to see how desperate the students were to learn. Hundreds crammed into tiny rooms to try and receive some sort of education. There was no electricity and there were no books. We volunteers split into groups to work with different children. We were drawing numbers and letters in the sand to try and teach the children. We taught them to sing Ten Green Bottles and the Hokey Kokey. This is how we spent our days when we were with the children.
It was around the third day when I started to feel strange. I was freezing cold even though the temperatures were boiling hot. I went to the tent and missed dinner on account of feeling ill and wanting to sleep. That whole night I was in and out of my tent vomitting and shivering and sweating and generally feeling awful.
The next morning, we were due to drive back to Accra to collect a lady from the airport. Helen was Aubrey's female counterpart. They were in charge! On the way to pick Helen up, Aubrey dumped everyone in a Chinese restaurant for dinner whilst I was taken to the hospital. It turned out that they were unsure of my gender because I didn't have my ears pierced... an interesting way to determine the situation!
I was seen by a doctor almost immediately. It was a frightfully terrifying experience. I didn't like going to the doctors back home, let alone in a strange country. I was poked and proded and examined and given some magic pills. The doctor told me to take two, twice a day until they ran out. They should last me a few weeks. I was also to continue taking my malaria tablets. I chose to take Doxycycline as I needed over a month's supply and they were one of the cheapest options available. Possibly not the best way to make a decision!
Anyway, I was given some pills and off we went to the Chinese restaurant to collect Helen. I then fell asleep for an undetermined amount of time and woke up when we reached our hotel for the night. We were staying somehwere on the beach and it was like waking up in paradise, the view was great, the breakfast was amazing and I was feeling better already! Now it was time to head back to Accra.
After a few days it was offically the school holidays so we took the short walk from the current school building up to the new school. It was difficult to imagine what would be there as currently, there were large holes in the ground which we would lay with bricks to form the foundations. It was hot and hard work but our actions now benefit so many people. The next few days were spent going back and forth between each school. We would paint the inside of the current classrooms whilst there was daylight and we would work on the new school in the afternoons.
I spent most of my time in an empty room trying to organise a library. With us, we had brought toys and books, games and clothes and blankets. These were all to be donated to various places on our journey. We visited an orphanage where we chatted with the children and played for a few hours. We gave a football kit to the local Brenu team and even watched them play a match. We gave blankets to a medical centre and learnt about diabetes testing and how it was becomming a focus for the area.
I must have worked on the library for the best part of a week, stacking the books, organising them alphabetically and making the room look welcoming and presentable. Two of the other girls painted a mural on the outside of one of the buildings.
Half way through our trip, we headed north to Hohoe in the middle of Ghana. The drive took many hours across many dirt roads. We also picked up lots of hitch-hikers which added to the excitement of our journey. The countryside was green and bold and bright. So much colour and life! We took it in turns to ride upon the roof of the truck- not such a good idea for those of us using Doxycycline as it makes you sensitive to the sun! I hear sunburn...!
We arrived in a small town where we stopped at a hardware store to buy paint and brushes, thin wooden boards, nails and other handy materials. Later, we pulled over into a clearing and pitched our tents. That night we took a stroll to a waterfall and had a lovely swim in the refreshing cold water.
The next day we learnt that we were now beginning work on a conservation project. Our goal was to help promote Wli Waterfalls to visitors. We would try to identify the plantlife and trees surrounding the falls. We would also make a welcome board to give visitors information about the area. We set to work immediately, painting the wooden boards and trying to work out the most useful facts and information to use.
On the way home we stopped at Lake Volta - the largest manmade lake in the world - for a quick swim and some refreshing coconut water. I don't remember exactly what day of the trip this was, it must have been more than two thirds of the way through. Nonetheless, this was the day my magic tablets ran out...
As we were journeying around the country making stops at various locations, we also visited a monkey sanctuary. This involved a night sleeping in the jungle, hearing the locals playing bongo drums and dancing all night and the incident with the King Monkey! After our tents were pitched, we went off in search of monkeys. It was amazing to see them swinging around the trees, free. Although this was a sanctuary, it was open, there were no fences or cages. We were able to throw food to the monkeys in the hope that they would reach out and catch what we were offering. We had dinner with Big Mamma, she made us meat and vegetables and there was enough to feed a small army. We were invited into her home with open arms. It was a truly fantastic experience and almost the whole village had come out to greet us.
That night, after the singing and dancing, we were told not to go into the jungle but curiosity got the better of us. When we thought everyone had gone to sleep, we just thought we would go and have a peak to see if we could see anything. Wandering away from the camp, we started to scare ourselves and I don't really remember what happened but we started running and I tripped over a branch, a log, another person? It really hurt, I'm sure my toe was broken and with the noise, we heard this humongous roar. The next thing we know, the locals have come to take us back to the campsite to tell us we have awoken the King Monkey and that we must be punished at dawn.
Our punishment was attending a church service. The building was so quaint as if right out of a children's storybook. We sat down at the back and were moved to the front. Women dressed immaculately in white dresses with blue headscarves sang and waved their arms around. Nothing was being spoken or sung in English so we sat and listened as attentively as we could. After two hours, we started sneaking out one by one on Aubrey's command. It turns out these church services can last all day and we had to get on, work was waiting for us back down on the coast.
We were beginning to feel rather satisifed with all that we had accomplished over the last few weeks. I had seen more than most other seventeen year olds and I had done things I never would have imagined doing. I was keeping a diary of the trip, which Helen was reading as we went along. She questioned me on something I had recently written: "Aubrey has told us that he's not taking the flight home with us at the end of the week. Instead, he's going to drive the truck back to the UK. How cool would it be to drive back with him? No, I can't ask!"
She confronted me and said that I absolutely must ask. Reluctantly, I built up the courage and went to see Mr. Aubrey! "Can I drive back to England with you?" Waiting for what seemed like a lifetime and expecting a small chuckle and a simple "No", he looked at me and said, "I'll tell you tomorrow, let me have a think." I figured that was his way of buying time for a way to let me down gently and put the thought aside. Tomorrow was also A-Level / A/S Level results day for many of our party so that was where our focus lay tonight. My focus couldn't have been further away from A/S Levels. What did I need an A/S Level for when driving across the continent of Africa!
I had been sleeping under a mosquito net in the truck for the past few nights given that the mosquitos were having a field day eating away at me everytime the sun disappeared for the night. I was absolutely covered in bites, even my bites had bites. More about that later as I'm sure you're wondering what tomorrow's conversation with Aubrey would bring!
He said yes! He said yeeeeeees! I was going to go from Ghana back to England on a giant yellow truck. He said there were some things we needed to discuss, such as I would need to pay a little extra to cover the cost of my extended trip- no problem, a quick phone-call home would sort that; he would be flying out his pal Stan to help with the driving as they were on a tight schedule, Aubrey had to get back to celebrate his first wedding anniversary at the end of September; I would be missing up to a month of school. I had all the bases covered, I often went to school, got registered and returned home again so there was no difference with me being here or there. I was up for the adventure driving back across six countries and two continents with a chap I had known a month and a complete stranger. A simple call home and I'm sure my mum would loan me the funds!
Communication was very difficult, until 'Yes-Day', my only contact with home had been through vague and ireegular emails. I managed to borrow a phone off one of the people in the group. I think I was the only one not calling home about exam results! I told my mum that I wouldn't be at the airport at the end of the week as I wanted to drive home. She said, "OK." I said, "OK." She said, "Don't tell your grandmother." And with that, the deal was made.
I called back again later as I wasn't convinced that she believed me. This time, I confirmed the details: "I don't know where we're going, I don't know which countries we go through, I don't know if it's safe, I don't know one of the men I'm driving with, can I have £400 please?"
It was official. Everyone else was taking the flight and I was driving. This couldn't have been a better ending to an absolutely incredible and unforgettable month. Of all the places I've ever visited, of all the people I've ever met, I think it's the Ghanaians who take the trophy for most welcoming, most friendly and most humble. Across the country, wherever we travelled, people were grateful for our help and overwhelming with their kindness and hospitality. I travelled to Ghana with Sabre Trust. A non-profit organisation who seek to deliver education. I've seen where and how Sabre Trust spend their money and I know first-hand that everything they say they're going to do, they do. If you want to know a good, reputable company to volunteer abroad with, Sabre Trust is exactly that.
To find out how my adventure back to the UK went, look out for the Overland Expedition post.