Ame Phitwong - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I wanted to check off two major things on my bucket list: participate in some type of volunteer mission abroad, and go on a solo adventure to a foreign country. I had just completed my first year of graduate school, so the timing was perfect. Furthermore, I was curious about healthcare services in a less developed country, and seeking the challenge of traveling alone to test my limits.

Lake Bosumtwi, Ghana
Lake Bosumtwi, the only natural lake in Ghana

Why did you choose OGVO?

First, I had to decide where I wanted to go. I initially looked into Ecuador. Because I wanted to do a medical based program, the program in Ecuador required a medical Spanish class. Although I knew some Spanish, I just couldn’t find the time to commit to another class since I was in graduate school and working full time. I know learning a new language is an enriching experience and the obvious way to immerse oneself in the culture, but being a health care provider, I wanted to feel confident and knowledgeable while providing care.

As such I wanted to go where English was common. I started researching English-speaking foreign countries, and came across Ghana. I researched and contacted many organizations for months. Initially, I thought I wanted to go with a large organization that was based in a more developed country, but really felt lost in the shuffle. I had emailed back and forth with some of those organizations and just wasn’t feeling the individualized attention I was seeking, nor was I getting a lot of my specific questions answered. To be honest, I may have been a lot needier than the usual applicant since this would be my first solo project, so I understand the irritation of having to work with me.

Then because of the frustrations with the larger organizations, I started looking into what programs were based locally. I came to the conclusion that I wanted my money to go to a local organization. I proceeded to contact a couple organizations and was immediately impressed by OGVO-Ghana. Frank Odoi, the director, really took the time to answer all of my questions and was very prompt with responses. Frank gave me the contact information of previous people who did the program, whom I exchanged emails and Facetimed with. They gave me both pros and cons, so I felt like I was really getting unbiased opinions of the program.

Other features of the program included Frank’s willingness to create a program that would meet my needs, and also the affordability. After a few weeks, I chose OGVO-Ghana and sent them my deposit.

Kakum National Forest in Ghana
Kakum National Forest

What was your favorite part about Ghana?

I requested to be placed in a rural area of Ghana, so I was sent to Onwe, a village located in the Ashanti region of Ghana. My favorite part of Ghana, which is also the driving reason for my future return, is the people. Almost every person I encountered was warm, friendly and very hospitable. Travelling alone and as a woman, I can honestly say I never felt unsafe or threatened. It was such a wonderful feeling to be put at ease while in some place new. I had learned some Twi (one of the many local languages spoken), so it was exciting to converse and engage with the locals.

Also, Ghanaians are very respectful and ALWAYS greet each other. This was initially hard to get accustomed to, being from Seattle where you don’t really do that (aka the Seattle Freeze), but it was a nice change of pace and really made me feel welcomed.

What made your experience abroad unique?

My experience was unique because I sought to experience the healthcare aspect of Ghana. Furthermore, I was in Ghana during an interesting time. My healthcare experience was challenging during my visit due to the government pharmacies being on strike. There were less people seeking healthcare because of it, so I didn’t get as much medical experience as I had hoped.

Secondly, Ghana is also in the midst of a presidential election, so this was often the major news buzz of conversation. I also participated in a “cultural immersion” component of the program, offered by OGVO. I am so glad I did this. I got to learn the local language with a private Twi tutor, visited local historical sites and participate in cultural activities like Kente cloth making and palm wine tapping. This program really got me out into the community where I met a lot of locals and tried things I never experienced.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

When I first arrived in Accra, Frank, the director, met me at the airport and accompanied me on the five-hour bus ride to my final destination. I was placed in Onwe, which is about 30 minutes from Kumasi, where OGVO is based. Frank said I could contact him at any time if needed. I would speak to Frank on the phone every few days. Locally, there was a program coordinator for my village, Isaac, who I saw almost every day, or at least every other day. I also lived in the same complex as my Twi tutor, in fact right next door, and I saw him every day. I was very pleased; this program went way beyond my expectations in terms of constant local support during my time in Ghana.

International intern and her hosts in Cape Coast, Ghana
Cape Coast with my Twi tutor Frank and OGVO program coordinator, Isaac

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

I wish I could have provided more medical care! Like I previously mentioned, I came at a weird time, so it was nothing that could have been prevented since I already had the entire trip planned. The hospital I was placed was certainly challenged, so it might have been interesting to be in a larger medical facility, but I really enjoyed the staff I worked with at the rural hospital.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

I would wake up at 6:00 a.m. This wasn’t by choice, the roosters started crowing ridiculously early so this was the point in time I finally felt defeated enough to get out of bed. I had all three meals made for me, so after doing my morning routine and getting ready, I would have breakfast a little after 7:00 a.m. The home I stayed at was directly across the street from the hospital, so I would leave right when my shift would start at 8:00 a.m.

Depending on the needs of the day, I rotated around the different wards. Some days I would be placed in consulting, or emergency, or maternity. My background is in dermatology, so I would get pulled for any dermatological cases. My shift was over at 2:00 p.m. I would walk back to my room and have lunch and then relax.

Around 4:00 p.m., the cultural component of my program would start, I would meet with my Twi tutor (also named Frank). For the first few days, I was getting lessons about Ghanaian history, customs and language. Class would be until about 6:00 p.m. Afterwards, Frank would take me around the village where I met other locals and he showed me his favorite haunts. He was very involved and interested in government and politics, so I met a lot of local assembly members and visited the municipal offices. We explored adjacent villages where I was shown local crops, tried new foods and participated in some local traditions.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Most of my free time was spent with Frank, my Twi tutor, and Isaac, the program coordinator. They kept me very busy which was great. There was always an ongoing open market in the villages so that was fun to see. I visited Lake Bosumtwi, the largest natural lake in Ghana. One weekend, I went to Kumasi where I visited a historical palace and shopped at the local markets there. The cultural immersion program sent me to a Kente cloth shop, a very special type of fabric and design that is culturally significant to Ghana and other African countries.

I also got to see palm wine tapping and see how foo-foo, a local meal, was made. When I wasn’t out and about, I was usually resting in my room. There isn’t very good internet access, it felt like dial-up at times, so I didn’t do much web surfing. I would text friends and family back home in the evenings. I wrote in my journal every night and would read before bed. OGVO also offered tours around Ghana, so one weekend, I got to explore the Cape Coast which was amazing. I visited Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle and the Kakum National Forest. During this weekend, I stayed at Han’s Cottage Botel, which was thrilling on its own.

International intern with hospital staff in Ghana
Staff I worked with at the hospital

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

The complex I was in had multiple families living there, probably around 20. There was a bathroom with two toilet stalls and a shower stall for the entire complex. There was no running water, so I always had to be prepared with a couple of buckets already filled with water. It kind of felt like a college dorm. There was a small kitchen available for use, but I was rarely there. I had a basic room with two windows. I had a bed, a chair, and a small table. I felt safe, my things were safe when I wasn’t there, and I enjoyed my privacy. The best thing was never having to worry about anything, except for mosquitoes and the occasional lizard getting in.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Ask lots of questions! OGVO is very willing to develop and customize the program to meet your individual needs. Know if you want to be in the city or a rural area, ask about the living situation, consider the cultural immersion program if you can afford it! I am so glad I added that element on. Explore other areas of the country if you can by doing a weekend tour!

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

Since being back, I am so grateful for the little things, like running water and burgers! This experience has made me look at how wasteful our society is and evaluate how I can really leave less of an impact on my environment, and just get rid of "stuff." There are a lot of needs in the area I was in, so I’ve been trying to figure out a way of how to provide assistance from the United States. I want to go back to Ghana and visit other countries abroad. 

My sense of exploration has skyrocketed as well as the confidence I gained from travelling own my own.

Would you recommend OGVO to others? Why?

I would definitely recommend this program. Albeit, I am biased and have no comparison to provide since this is the only program I’ve ever participated in, but would do it all over again with them if I could! This program was affordable and communication was open and effortless. Like I said, I appreciated the individual attention I received and really felt safe (my biggest concern) the entire time.