Ghana: Pivotal Moments
In high school, I went on 2 service trips to a children’s home in Ghana, West Africa. The first trip was pivotal in my life and put me on track for the person who I am today, and the second one was because I fell in love with the country. Ghana is the reason why I knew that I wanted to pursue international development and why I am studying it at Cornell today.
It’s easy to hear facts and numbers about world hunger and poverty in developing countries and distant it from yourself. Of course, I knew that there was hunger and poverty and millions of people living in unimaginable situations but these were all just numbers and facts to me. But in Ghana, I made incredible bonds with the children and people at this children’s home and consider them to be like family. Seeing first hand, from people who I know and love face these immense challenges changed my whole perspective on the world and my personal priorities. Throughout my time in Ghana, there were countless moments of heartbreak from seeing poverty at work but a few experiences stand out to me.
1. My Favorite Photo
One day we were walking through the village and a group of school children were following us, enamored by our cameras, phones, and western gadgets. We ended up in the backyard of a local family who were cleaning, cooking, and doing daily tasks. There was a very elderly man sitting in a chair and I pulled out my polaroid camera and asked him if I could take his photo. He didn’t speak English, so one of the children translated for me and the man gathered with his family and grandchildren and I took their photo.
When it came out, I handed it to him but he was very confused because it was blank. After a few moments the photo began to develop, and to this day it is the most beautiful photo I have ever taken. His eyes began to fill with tears and I had one of the kids tell him that the photo was his to keep. The old man started to cry because he had never in his life had a photo taken of himself. This was the most rewarding gift I have ever given to someone.
2. Peanut butter
The kids who lived at the children’s home that we volunteered at were pretty well off compared to other kids in the village. They could pay their school fees, wore clean clothes, had three meals a day, and running water. There was one family who lived next to the home who were friends with a lot of the kids and spent most days with us. There were seven siblings from ages 7 to 15 and I formed a particularly strong bond with the youngest boy, Jessie. These kids were some of the skinniest malnourished people I had seen throughout my whole time traveling around the country. Their limbs were like toothpicks and their ribs protruded like I had never seen. Despite this, they were the most happy and humble children. Jessie was shy but had a beautiful smile that stretched across his whole face and shined through his eyes. One day, Jessie and his siblings walked us over to their home which was a one room structure with concrete floors and no furniture where all nine of them lived. We asked them where their parents were and they told us that their dad travels for work so is often away and their mom works until night time when they get their only meal of the day. This news broke my heart. At the end of our first trip, we had half a loaf of bread and some peanut butter left over that we decided to bring to Jessie’s house. We were pleasantly surprised when their dad was home who we talked to for a bit. He looked like he was only in his mid twenties and, like his kids, was so friendly and charismatic. He told us he had heard about us from the kids and couldn’t thank us enough for spending time with them. We gave him the bread and peanut butter and he was speechless. He looked like he was holding in tears and hugged us. He told us that the kids needed backpacks for school and asked if we could see if the children’s home had any extras. I admire Jessie’s father for asking us this as a grown man asking for help from two teenage girls. The next day we brought over backpacks and school supplies for the kids.
One summer, the home had received a huge donation right before we went so they had a celebratory event with the whole village. They set up tents and had speakers and catered food and there were local news people covering the event. Everyone was so happy and the founders were there and shared their story of starting the home. As we were finishing up our meals, I looked over and saw one of the local village girls, Rebecca, sitting with some stray dogs. Rebecca was only 4 years old and didn’t speak much English but her energy and laugh were contagious. I walked over to her to see that someone had given their scraps and old chicken bones to the dogs which Rebecca was eating. She looked so happy and when I took the old bones away from her she started to scream out and cry. I went and got her a huge plate of rice, beans, and chicken, that was bigger than her head and gave it to her. She lit up and dug into it.
These three moments are just some that stand out from my time in Ghana but the personal learning and growing from my experiences there are innumerable. Since then, I have been on several other important abroad trips but my time in Ghana will always stand out. Years later, I find myself thinking of Ghana almost daily and I hope to return soon. Sometimes, sitting in my room in New York, with central heating and air conditioning, a refrigerator stocked full with food, running hot water, and copious amounts of things and products, I picture what it would be like if Jessie were here with me. I see my friends and family take one bite of a meal and throw a whole plate of food out and I think of Rebecca. I see my friends browsing through hundreds of photos of themselves talking about which one to Instagram as if it was the biggest life decision, and I think of the old man from the village.
I understand that there is a bit of a stigma around privileged teens going on “service” trips to developing countries. I completely recognize that the people who I interacted with in Ghana gave me so much more than I will ever be able to give to them. And because of this, I am doing everything I can here with my privilege and opportunity for them. My interests have developed beyond just international development to focus on climate change and agriculture but will always be rooted in my time in Ghana and all of the people there.