I chose to go abroad to really push myself. I would describe myself as quite a shy person, so what better way to force myself out of my comfort zone than by going to a different country? I really wanted to immerse myself in a different culture, and hopefully help people at the same time.
Why did you choose United Planet?
I had my mind set on teaching in another country. After looking at many organisations, I found United Planet. United Planet had many options for teaching programmes in countries all over the world. I loved the fact that these programmes were so well thought out, so I knew I could have an impact on people's lives, but also flexible. With United Planet the onus is really on you: you get out what you put in. Once I had decided on United Planet, I had the more difficult task of deciding where to go. My family are from South Africa, but I have never had the chance to explore Africa. As a result I chose Ghana, a region with incredible natural beauty and a really interesting history, as well a reputation for being a friendly and peace loving nation.
What was your favorite part about Ghana?
I knew Ghanaian people had a reputation for being friendly, but I was really taken aback by how kind everyone was. To give you an idea of this, before I had even arrived in Ghana I had a long conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane. She even gave me her business card and told me not to hesitate to call her if I ever needed anything whilst in Ghana. This seemed to be the benchmark for the trip. Wherever I went people would always greet me and were always there to offer assistance if i needed it. I know this doesn't seem like very much, but coming from London where people don't bat an eyelash at you on the underground, let alone talk to you, It really went a long way with me.
What made your experience abroad unique?
I think the people in Ghana made it unique, especially at the school where I was volunteering. I was specifically inspired by one teacher who was passionate about the students. He would get to school very early each day and would be the last to leave. He invited me to his house to have dinner with him and his family, and really made me feel so welcome. The students at the school also made a lasting impression on me and would always talk with me. It was amazing to learn about what it is like growing up in another country. I gave them my phone number at the end of the trip and we still keep in contact!
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
The local staff were really amazing there. Yaw, the in country co-ordinator, would always call in the evening to check everything was ok. He was there 24/7 if I needed anything, and he would arrange or take us on different excursions during the weekends.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I just wish I would have stayed longer! Three weeks went by so quickly, and if you take out the weekends, I didn't have too much time to spend with the students.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
I would wake up at around six o'clock, get changed, and have breakfast. After breakfast I would walk five minutes to the road where I would hail a taxi. Taxis were always interesting since in Ghana people share them, so this would give me the opportunity to strike up a conversation with someone new each day. The taxi would drop me off at a station, where I would get another taxi to the school. I would arrive around 7:45 a.m. and would talk to the students and staff before their morning assembly. There would be a line of drummers and all the students would sing. It was quite amazing to watch. After assembly there were lessons. I would either take a lesson on a certain topic in maths, and set them a few problems so see if they had understood the concepts, or would assist one of the teachers in the running of the lesson. We would have a short break where I would talk to the students and teachers. There would be more lessons and then there would be a lunch break, where I would eat some lunch with the staff and students. I have to say I loved the food at the school, particularly the waakye (pronounced ‘wache’),which was rice and beans served with spaghetti and a spicy sauce. After having a quick lunch I would then have a game of football with the students outside. It always amazed me how much energy they had especially in the 25 degree heat! After football there were more classes. School would finish around 2 p.m., but there were after school classes for the students who wanted to stay. After these classes, I would take a taxi home to my accommodation. I was staying with a host family, so I would come back and talk to everyone about their days. Mercy, the lady looking after us, would make us dinner in the evening. After dinner we would play some charades with the host family and the other volunteers, and then have an early night around 10 p.m., ready for an early start the next day!
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
During the evenings, I really enjoyed chatting and playing games with the host family and other volunteers. I enjoyed having time to read and enjoy the beauty of the sunsets without the distraction of Facebook or the internet. I would go on walks with the other volunteers and explore the city. On the weekends I was lucky enough to climb a small mountain called Mount Gemi, which was beautiful. We also visited a beach and had some amazing food, fed monkeys at a sanctuary, and saw the largest waterfall in West Africa. All in only three weeks.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
My accommodation was great. As I mentioned before, I stayed with a host family. The woman looking after us, Mercy, was so kind and lovely, and the food she cooked was great! I shared a room with another volunteer but had a bunk bed to myself. We had our own bathroom, so we had everything we needed. I liked being around so many people. It was great to meet other volunteers, as well as talk to all the people in Mercy's house, and learn so much about the culture and the way of life there.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
I think the most important thing is you get out what you put in. United Planet has laid the foundations, but it is up to you to speak to people. Communicate with the school what you want to do in order to really make the most out of the trip.
Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?
I think the maths teacher really made an impact on my life. It was really amazing to see someone so dedicated and willing to help people, and he has really inspired me to be passionate about teaching others. I think also watching the students, and seeing how the school system is set up there, I could see how results driven everyone was. The students were more concerned with getting the right answer than the process of getting there. I think having been to Ghana, I can see how important it is the enjoy the process of learning and reading around subjects, rather than just worrying about getting high marks in exams.
Would you recommend United Planet to others? Why?
I would definitely recommend United Planet to others. United Planet were great with organizing the trip and had all the necessary steps I had to follow clearly laid out. They were always there if I needed anything, but also gave me a lot of freedom to really get the most out of my trip!
Alex is a second year student at the University of St Andrews, where he is studying economics and psychology. Alex takes part in a mentoring scheme at St Andrews for younger students, but his trip to Ghana was his first experience in teaching.