Alex Godfrey - 2013 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

A typical vague, diplomatic response to this question would be along the lines of: “to fulfill a sense of global responsibility by learning about and empowering communities to empower themselves.” The problem is, vague, diplomatic responses don’t help people, such as prospective interns make good life decisions. Like most things in life, the truth is more complex, and less cheesy, than the typical answer.

I didn’t know it then, but complex would become a word (and sometimes a euphemism) that I would frequently use to describe many different aspects of life in the techni-colour, ever-animated, and sometimes-exasperating West African nation of Ghana.

Healthcare volunteer in Ghana

Enjoying one of the few chairs available! Consulting in the doctor's office

International programs work because they are a mutually-beneficial transaction. The host organisation receives much-needed funds to carry out their valuable work, and the volunteer receives life experiences or vocational training in a context that would be impossible for them to access back home. That’s the deal. If everything goes well, the volunteer leaves exhausted, two kilograms lighter, and strangely proud, with a beaten and dusty rucksack stuffed full of stories that are testament to their enhanced global outlook. With luck, they might even have some precious insight into the strength of their own character that was waiting to be tested.

I applied for an international program because I needed demonstrated experience of my commitment to the medical profession and to improving the lives of others. In short, I needed the experience to strengthen a medical school application. This vaguely self-serving motive was a good call (my internship in Ghana would prove instrumental in my successful application to medical school in my home country of Australia). “Oh but that’s so selfish, and undermines the altruistic purpose of humanitarian work!”, I can hear you protest. Well, maybe it is a little. But the truth is, it’s symbiotic.

Sure, I benefited, but I can also tell you about how my financial contribution went on to pay the wages of the courageous, determined, and incredibly conscientious staff at OGVO. It becomes very obvious, very quickly, that a successful international program needs funds, not just good intentions. Accordingly, an international placement at OGVO will give the intern the experiences they desire, and put their money to honest, effective use for the local communities in and around Kumasi.

Why did you choose to volunteer abroad with Our Generation Voluntary Organization (OGVO) specifically?

I chose OGVO because it provided the best value for money (by a Ghanaian MILE), it had a history of happy volunteers, and it was flexible with program dates. Importantly, it was also the only organisation that would take me on as an intern with no former experience in the medical profession.

More broadly, I chose Ghana because as a child, my father used to regale me with vivid, swashbuckling tales of his own childhood in Ghana, a then-British colony. His stories were always deliriously evocative; I could see and smell the fruits, spices, and crafts of a cacophonous Kumasi marketplace. I could feel the elation as the dry season broke, and the people emerged from their swollen, humid dwellings to dance around in their underwear in the long-awaited first storm of the wet season. I remember being inordinately jealous of my father and his wild, untamed childhood. He even had a pet monkey. It was like something out of The Wild Thornberrys!

To me, it just seemed perfect, and my own childhood seemed so beige by comparison. What stories would I have to pass on, if I didn’t make them now? So, that was that. When I had the chance, I put a face to the name of these stories and travelled to Ghana to meet my childhood reveries in saturated colour, sound, and smell.

What was your favorite part about Ghana?

On the whole, probably the diverse, unpredictable, and totally addictive qualities of Ghana itself. A safari into the striking desert landscapes awaits you in the north. Dense, tropical jungle is a stage to the playful antics of monkeys and elephants throughout the country’s middle. And on the southern coast, you can surf and fish your free days away on gorgeous, uncrowded beach breaks, before watching the sun as it sets gracefully over the Atlantic. All with a tall bottle of Star beer and a flame-roasted lobster tail in hand.

In Kumasi specifically, the chance to learn so much from the forefront of real, hands-on primary care medicine in a developing country. You’re at the very interface of poverty and real life, and can make a real difference to the individual lives of your patients. Every morning on the way to the clinic, you see it. People are suffering; life is short and hard for many people, which can be upsetting. You question your own entitlement and privilege. You curse yourself for being so naive, and for thinking that you can make a meaningful impact in the long term, or even in the short term. Is there any point? Am I helping? You wonder how to translate good intentions into measurable improvements in quality of life. You feel hopeless and powerless in the face of such immense, systemic challenges. You get angry at “The System” that produced this hideous inequality. These sort of confronting, almost existential questions are difficult, but incredibly important.

You’ve just had a “wake-up call”, that first sobering glimpse through a global lens which will go on to change who you are and how you see the world and your role in it. That process of self-discovery was my favourite aspect of my time there.

Volunteer doing a presentation at a church in Ghana

Hijacking church on a Sunday morning to give public health presentations

What aspects of your program made it unique?

The unparalleled access to patients, procedures, and resources that eventually provides invaluable and competitive vocational experience. Simply put: there is no way you could have that sort of training, so early on, anywhere else. It really is that hands-on and intensive.

I began simply shadowing a consultant surgeon and general practitioner while he went about doing consultations. During this time, I learned about all the prevalent maladies affecting Kumasi's many residents: malaria, typhoid, and, you guessed it, more malaria. After some time just observing, the doctor got me consulting with patients and practicing my bedside manner, before I went into the lab to learn how to identify different pathogens under the microscope and make a proper diagnosis. I checked for malaria, sickle cell anemia, the list goes on. I also weighed and immunised infants, helped deliver two babies, and gave talks to antenatal women on how to stay healthy during pregnancy.

One of the best things about the internship is that you can focus your experience wherever you want to. Want to learn more about antenatal care? Great, jump on the ultrasound and make condition assessments. Have an interest in tropical disease? Head straight into the lab and start working with blood samples. Like to get your hands dirty and witness the miracle of evolution and life itself? Head into the delivery room.

The scope of learning opportunities is huge, and you’ll never be bored.

Public health was another area of my internship. This educational role saw me head out into (very) regional villages to dispense medication, and offer information in relation to teenage pregnancy. With my village chaperone, I jumped into a clapped-out old tro-tro with a terminally-ill gearbox and rumbled away. One afternoon and two breakdowns later, I had arrived in the village. No power, no water, but the best pineapples I’d ever bought. It was a fair trade.

While trying to organise a village seminar, I learned all about the complexity of “Ghanaian time”, a phenomenon that is described exceptionally well in the book The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. After an initial freak out and a lot of running around, I was able to do what I went there for, hand out the medication, educate, and inform. Given the spartan circumstances and logistic challenges, this role was challenging and even exasperating at times, if you didn’t learn to “go with the flow.”

But after the three days were up, and my thumb was out on the main road waiting to hail a ride, I opened my shirt, let the wind flow in, and reflected on how entirely awesome and empowering that experience had just been. That experience, from primary healthcare and laboratory work to public health initiatives, made my medical internship program with OGVO unique, and to my knowledge, unsurpassed by any other organisations.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

I’ll tell you the story of my very first evening in Ghana. Stepping out onto the tarmac for the very first time in Accra is, as author Tom Robbins puts it, like getting an obscene phone call from nature. The humidity is intense and nearly overwhelming. Sweating profusely, I collected my bags and pushed my way through the hordes of opportunistic taxi drivers, boisterously wrangling with each other for my fare. I was tired, a bit nervous, and didn’t want to shake the wandering hands of every would-be taxi driver attempting to “help” me with my bags. I guess that marked the start of the culture shock.

To be met so promptly by Frank, as arranged, right there at the entrance to airport, was a major relief. After an exchange of introductions, we headed by taxi to a modest, but comfortable hotel not too far from the airport. Frank had organised cold water, clean bed, fresh fruit, and, that godsend of all godsends, functional air conditioning for the room. He checked that everything was okay, and then said goodnight. When he was gone next door to sleep, I thought to myself while over-zealously applying insect repellent to every inch of my body, before passing out on the glorious fresh sheets.

The next morning, Frank woke me with a knock on the door. “How did you sleep?”, he asked politely.

“Great! No bugs, no sweat. All good.” I replied, “and what about you?”

“Oh, I haven’t slept yet. I will sleep on the bus.”

“Wait, you just lay there on the bed and didn’t sleep for eight hours?”

“No, no. I didn’t have a bed. I spent all night walking around the neighbourhood to stay awake. It is fine.” You see, beds in hotels cost money, money he felt could be better spent on one of OGVO’s many programs for the local communities of Kumasi.

“Mate, why didn’t you tell me! You could’ve slept in the same room!”, I exclaimed, feeling genuinely surprised and slightly bad that he had to wander the shadowy streets all night to save a buck while I reclined decadently in fruit salad and air conditioning.

“No way!” Frank replied, “you should be comfortable. You are my guest and it is my pleasure to look after you”. Such was the courtesy of Frank. He proved his attentiveness many other times during the course of my program with OGVO, too.

When I wanted more fresh meat in my meals, we went to the market to buy fresh beef. I wanted a fan for my bedroom; Frank brought one around as soon as he could. I accidentally overpaid my internship fee, Frank sorted out all the paperwork and returned me the cash. I wanted to join a gym, Frank took me around town to each gym to check out the best deal and signed me up. All of this on top of taking care of my internship induction, cultural introduction to Kumasi and Ashanti, and of course organising the homestay family and place of internship at the clinic.

Having someone as diligent and responsive as Frank made the whole experience far more comfortable, friendly, and rewarding than it would have been otherwise. Actually, I am still waiting to receive the same level of service back here in Australia!

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I made the most of my time in Ghana. I learned more than I ever could have hoped for. I traveled extensively around the country, meeting some great people and making some lifelong friends during my time there. But I could have done some things better, too: I should have made more effort to learn the local Akan dialect, Twi (you have to say it with a whistle in the middle!). It was hard, I was tired after the clinic, Ghanaians speak English, and I was lazy in the heat. But it is a sign of respect to learn at least the basics of the local vernacular. You’re not going to be fluent, but you could know how to make some basic small talk. You will make friends more easily, and earn a little respect yourself from the locals for giving it a go. Either way, you’re going to hear this one word a lot: Obruni! (white man!).

On the practical side of things, I shouldn’t have brought as much Malarone from Europe, where it was more expensive to purchase. It would have made more sense to purchase enough to cover my arrival, and then bought it from a local pharmacy in Kumasi, where it was significantly cheaper (Note: make sure it, or an equivalent medication, is for sale locally before you arrive! You seriously need to take your prophylactic meds, or you will get malaria, enough said).

Describe a day in the life of your program.

Wake up to the sound of my daily alarm and arch-nemesis: the urban rooster. Try to go back to sleep for an hour. Nope, impossible. He’s set off all the other roosters in some kind of horrendous rendition of avian Marco Polo. Okay rooster, you win again. I will find you, one day, but today is not that day. It’s 6:30 a.m., and I am already drenched in sweat. Into the shower. Come on water, please be on, please be on. Please, invigorating, hope-restoring water splashes down to my feet. Thank. God. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a cold shower more before this almost sacred moment. I don’t care that the neighbours can see in, or that I am pulling a stupid, ecstatic face that betrays my lack of experience in this environment. For in this moment, I am a frosty, silent iceberg.

Sccraaaaatch-scratch-scratch. I can hear the young women, the daughters of the family, sweeping the dirt in the front courtyard with their homemade brooms, while gossiping in hushed, secretive tones. It’s a morning ritual, and I am pretty sure I’ve heard my name once or twice. It doesn’t help that when I walk out, the conversation seems to stop. “Good morning, Mr. Alex!”, they cheerfully exclaim, a slight smirk still on their faces. “What do you want for breakfast?” I gulp down some egg on bread and an instant coffee, and make tracks for the clinic.

I’m outside in the unsealed street, deep in the dusty, rambunctious, and ramshackle neighbourhood of Oforikrom Newside. Walking down the road, I notice the gaggle of chicks pecking for food in the waste that’s blown into the gutter. Somebody has, inexplicably, dyed them pink and blue. They weren’t like that yesterday. Straight from the Cretaceous period, up ahead is the ever-present and fiercely-territorial turkey, eyeballing me from the shade of a banana tree as I lumber through its “hood” and over a small stream into an unregulated industrial precinct. First achievement unlocked.

An open sawmill screams to my left, as men expertly guide huge logs through the machines with bare hands, their exposed faces and arms covered in thick layers of sawdust. Next door, a team takes the timber and crafts wooden pallets used for transporting goods all over the country. To my right, bashed-out wrecks of cars have been stripped for parts. their skeletal remains left to rust on the side of the road by the auto-wreckers. And everything covered in dust. There’s a real Mad Max vibe going on here. “Hey! Obruni! Australia!” a man shouts abruptly, “ have a good day!” It’s my mate who yells to greet me every day, sometimes from two blocks away. I guess I stand out. “Thanks Obibini, uh...same to you”. I make a mental note to think of something wittier to say next time (I never do).

Volunteer in a remote village in Ghana

Touch down in a remote regional village

I make a bee-line through the dusty and dilapidated collection of makeshift houses, hairdressers, bars, mechanics, warehouses, and street vendors, until I reach the main drag. It’s 7:30 a.m., but the sun is beating down, and I’m sweating through my first shirt of the day.

The traffic is hectic already; I find a gap between a tro-tro and a trailer with an engine strapped on it, and gun it across the road. The pollution from the vehicles is acrid and inescapable. I look up at a new office building, still under construction. Fancy fenestration, ornate doorway, air conditioning, and private security. Next door, a legless man sits on a wheeled-board under a faded blue tarpaulin. He no longer has the energy to beg for change. I think about that word again, complexity. I nod to say hello. He looks at me, but he doesn’t nod back. I take a left at the next creek, and pick my route through a herd of scrappy goats that are doing their best at a roadblock interpretation. The male looks kind of angry and turns toward me. I hesitate momentarily. Do goats attack people? Am I letting a goat intimidate me? And so begins today’s series of goat-related questions.

Thirty minutes, one clean shirt, and many “Hey! Obruni”s later, I’ve arrived at the clinic, and it is game on. Our patients are piled into the tiny waiting room, lined out the door, across the putrid and overflowing gutter, and into the street. Next door to the clinic, somebody is burning their rubbish, oblivious as the toxic smokes wafts across the lines of prenatal women. Children are wailing, the flies are launching a blitzkrieg, and an ancient ceiling fan feebly battles the humidity from an exposed rafter. I could always tell the type of day ahead by the smell of the waiting room. When it smelled of sweat and sickness at 8 a.m., I knew that we were in for a hell of a day.

I check in with the triage staff, and find out I’m consulting in the doctor’s office, on ultrasound duty. Yes! It’s air-conditioned and has a chair. I take a seat and wait for Joseph, the consulting GP, to arrive. I flick through an organic chemistry textbook until I hear the door click open, and see the purple WORSHIP bracelet push open the door. “Eeeeeeey! aaa-LEX! My brother. How are you today?” Joseph asks, enthusiastic as ever.

“I’m good mate, yeah, good. Slightly worried about the line of people, but good.” I reply, with a slightly nervous smile.

“Eh don’t worry about them, we get to them when we get to them! Nobody is going to die. Last night, at the big hospital, I had to perform brain surgery on a set of twins. We lost one of them. It is was very,very sad. I haven’t slept, and my wife is angry that she never sees me. It is not a good time. But by the grace of God, we are alive, and we are here today, and so we must do our best.” Joseph never failed to silence me with his simple, yet charming authenticity. Though not a religious man myself, I respected the positive role that religious communities played in this part of the world.

By 2 p.m., I had lost count of the number of patients we had seen. Each one involved a series of questions, a basic health checkup, and a diagnostic ultrasound. More often than not, we were simply confirming pregnancy, and assessing the age and health of the fetus. It was a great experience, even if I had trouble at first determining anything on the ultrasound screen. Fortunately, there was always somebody else to offer a second opinion.

Given the scarce resources and high influx of patients, I was impressed with the kindness and professionalism of the staff at my clinic. They were calm in a crisis, and always had time to answer my questions about medical practice, patients, or life in Ghana in general. Joseph and I would finish up mid-afternoon, and step out once again into the dusty streetscape and scorching Kumasi sunlight. We would walk together, discussing life, God, and Ghana’s future, past the chorus of uplifting voices and trumpets blaring at evangelical gatherings, through narrow passageways with walls crowned in broken glass, back to the main road. Our polemical discussions would often end in humble disagreement, but we would shake hands anyway, and part ways until we did it all again the following morning.

Back again I trek, retracing my steps from the morning. The legless man is still there, unperturbed by the heat beating down on him. I snake my way through the maelstrom of informal land uses, the hustle and bustle, the voices, dirt and smoke, and take note of as much as I can. I bask in it. It’s confronting now, but one day, you will miss this. Instead of going home, I take a detour to the internet cafe, where I jump on Facebook and update friends and family. Share some photos. Skype. Go home. Eat. Go to the gym. Eat. Sleep.

What did you like to do on your free time?

Travel! Bundling into a rickety old bus with a dodgy wheel and a door that doesn’t close with some new friends you met at the bus stop, and venturing up to the rusty-red desert landscapes of Ghana’s north for a spontaneous wildlife safari. Covered in dust from head to toe, enjoying a cold beer by the swimming pool, your eyes cast out over a hazy Saharan infinity, while your hair is swept back by the great Harmattan winds on their annual journey into the Gulf of Guinea. You’re smiling, and without looking, you know your friends beside you are smiling too.

Or, it’s a crystal clear morning and you’re paddling out past a reef with a local named Kofi to hit up a point break called Black Mamba. The break isn’t just uncrowded, it’s yours alone. Only the towering Baobab trees on the headland are witness to your elation as the swell picks up and a perfect barrel takes you past the vibrant fishing boats, back toward your beach-side room.

Years later, these memories will become the time of your life, and it’s yours to share with the locals and your new friends from all over the world who help to define it. You’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to get out and explore the country, as an internship with OGVO is flexible. Just give your clinic and family a heads-up, and you can get busy creating your own lifelong memories.

Volunteer and locals with drums in Ghana

An afternoon well-spent - we made these drums so the local kids could perform and make some money.

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

I stayed in a cross-generational family home, in which I was given my own basic, private room. The social structure of the home was complex, and shifted from day-to-day. Sometimes cousins or children from neighbouring families would stay over, other times family visiting from other towns would be joining us. At any one time, there would be around 10 people making up the household and contributing to the dynamism of Ghanaian family life.

The indisputable heart of the home was the breezy front courtyard. It’s where the meals were made and shared, where relaxation and casual conversations lazily flowed from tired plastic chairs, and where I would drag out a mattress and sleep in the sweltering February evenings. It’s where neighbourhood children would pass by every morning, selling eggs and bananas from the great bowls balanced carefully on their heads.

My favourite aspect of the accommodation was the tight-knit family environment and social inclusivity. From the moment I arrived, I was considered an integral part of the family group. Admittedly, this made me a bit uncomfortable at first; I wasn’t used to that degree of familiarity straight off the bat. It took a week or so for me to relax, and to get used to this constant company and the constant socialising. Once I had been “broken in”, I looked forward to returning to the fold, updating the family about the trivial peculiarities of my day, and in turn listening to theirs. This informal socialisation across generations and families is a hugely important part of life for Ghanaians, and it’s something that I still miss from my social life back in Australia. We’re so insular by comparison.

Now that you're home, how has your time in Ghana impacted your life?

Life in Ghana is confronting at the time, but you will find yourself always wanting to go back. I can't wait to get back. Africa is addictive like that.

You will learn so much about yourself, and about the decency of humanity. You will meet some of the most genuine and friendly people in your life. You will find the courage and inner fortitude to do things you never thought you could.

You will also have a lot of fun there, get out on adventures, try the dancing, try the music, just dive into whatever cultural stuff you can. Be as open and loving as you can. You will have a veritable trove of travel stories to impress your friends with, when you eventually set foot back on that now strangely alien, kind-of-sterile airport environment of your home country.

Even though there were times that were tough, really tough, I still often catch myself lost in wistful nostalgia at some of the adventures, challenges, and good times we all shared together. I guarantee that you will return from your time there as a different, better person, with a renewed perspective on the world, and yourself. For me, it totally changed what I want out of life, and I am happier for it.